A dream’s armorial: The heraldic paintings of the Galleria dei Papi in Oriolo Romano (Viterbo, Italy)

Palazzo Altieri in Oriolo Romano

In central Italy, between Rome and Viterbo, a land of forests frequented and feared for millennia[1] includes a town of dreams. This is Oriolo Romano, built in 1562 by the roman nobleman Giorgio Santacroce who gave stable accommodation to the seasonal huts of lumberjacks by a new town in line with Renaissance ideals. Three parallel streets converge on the square of the princely building in a trident structure similar to the ones that were the urban dreams of those decades[2]. Its focus was the Santacroce palace, first built in 1578[3] and enlarged less a century after by the new owners Altieri.

Heraldic paintings

The Galleria dei Papi of Oriolo Romano – 1

They placed in the facade their coat-of-arms[4] and added a new west section of about 70 metres in lenght. This was immediately used to contain the second dream materialized in Oriolo Romano: a unique and magnificent collection as only the Baroque genius could conceive, a combination between a magnificent impulse of Renaissance munificence and taste for a scholar accumulating that anticipates the Encyclopedism: the picture gallery of all the popes up to Clemente X.

Made at first by 243 canvas, subsequent additions have given life to the Galleria dei Papi now containing 268 elements, 70 x 120 centimeters size, aligned in chronological order. Each painting includes a portrait, biographical notes and coat-of-arms of a Pope, from Saint Peter to John Paul II[5]. For nearly two hundred of them, who lived in the pre-heraldic era[6], coats-of-arms (and often portraits and notes) are a result of imagination: and some fanciful or, rather, some inexperience in heraldic art is present in the coats-of-arms of most recent popes[7]. But this doesn’t affect the value of this dream come true; the Galleria of Oriolo Romano is a unique collection in the world for antiquities and completeness[8], and in 1828 it was taken as basis for rebuilding the papal portraits destroyed in the burning of the roman basilica of Saint Paul fuori le Mura[9].

The Galleria dei Papi of Oriolo Romano – 2

A unique gallery

The uniqueness of the Galleria dei Papi is particularly important for heraldists, because it is the only heraldic gallery in the world of all the popes. Today we don’t know of any other sources, primary or published, with all papal emblems[10], enriched by polychromy and accompanied by coats-of-arms attributed to each predecessor of Boniface VIII. This is a cultured curial example of a comprehensive catalog of “retrospective” heraldry, subset of the science of heraldry already known in Middle Ages[11] that, despite representing a secondary branch of heraldry, is still thriving[12] and in full rediscovery[13].



The Palazzo Altieri will also be the venue of the 1st International Congress on Heraldry. The main topic of this conference is: Religious heraldry in the Galleria dei Papi of palazzo Altieri and in art of every time and country. The conference will take place on 13 and 14 May 2017. For more details, see the Call for Papers: https://heraldica.hypotheses.org/5415


  • B. Platina, De vitis pontificum romanorum (Le vite de’ pontefici), Colonia, M. Gotfridi 1540
  • O. Panvinio, Epitome Pontificum romanorum a S. Petro usque ad Paulum IIII, Venezia, G. Strada 1557
  • F. Ughelli, Italia sacra sive de episcopis Italiæ, et insularum adjacentum, rebusque ab iis præclare gestis, deducta serie ad nostram usque ætatem (nove volumi), Roma, editori diversi 1644-1662
  • Effigies Pontificum Romanorum a Petro usque ad Gregorium XIII (1572-1585), Roma, metà XVII secolo, Monaco, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. icon. 375
  • F. X. Barbier de Montault, Oeuvres completes, tome troisième – le pape, Parigi, H. Walter 1890
  • F. Pasini Frassoni, Essai d’armorial des papes d’après les manuscrits du Vatican et les monuments publics, Roma, Collegio Araldico 1906
  • M. C. A. Gorra, L’Arma di Pietro. Ipotesi per un blasonario dei pontefici anteriori a Bonifacio VIII, in “Nobiltà”, 39, 11/2000, p. 557 (next in second enlarged edition)
  • E. de la Villestreux, Grand armorial des papes, Parigi, Bertauts, s.d.
  • B. Külhen, Album pontificale, Münchengladbach, a cura dell’autore s.d.


[1] Known as Selva Manziana, south-western part of the Selva Cimina identified by Livio and Diodoro Siculo in the terrifying forest bravely crossed by Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus in 310 BC when entered victorious in Etruscan territory.

[2] As those made in Rome by papa Sisto V, like the piazza del Popolo.

[3] A. Bruschi, Oltre il Rinascimento. Architettura, città, territorio nel secondo Cinquecento, Milano, Jaca Book 1999, pp. 209÷211.

[4] An unusual partito Altieri-Altieri, with a chief of gonfalonierato della chiesa which assigns it to Gaspare Paluzzi Albertoni Altieri.

[5] It is being designed a public competition for missing paintings of Benedict XVI and Francis.

[6] “Pre-heraldic popes” surely are almost the first 150 from Peter until Sylvester II (if not more), with some doubts for those lived between XI and XIII century. A useful distinction comes from the contemporary evidence of use: if valid, this criterion would see Boniface VIII as the first heraldic pope, attribution long considered safe (see expecially D. L. Galbreath, Papal Heraldry, London, Heraldry today 1972 [2ª edition, revised by G. Briggs]). But this is open to criticism, because not all his immediate successors left heraldic testimonies, despite being “heraldic popes”. Popes lived in those three centuries could be called “crypto-heraldic” because, although coats-of-arms were in use, they normally refused to exibite theirs.

[7] V. Pierotti, La ”Galleria Altieri” di Oriolo. Raccolta completa di quadri raffiguranti i Papi della storia da S. Pietro a Giovanni XXIII, Roma, Edizioni Tevere s d. (post 1964), pp. 21÷23 says that Clemente X gave support to his adopted nephew Paluzzo Paluzzi Albertoni Altieri, that in 1667 would made 241 paintings up to Alexander VII.

[8] First pontifical galleries, only with portraits, go back to Niccolò III and Leone I when were made in Roma in Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint John in Laterano (G. Bordi, I dipinti della navata. 2. La serie dei ritratti papali [San Paolo fuori le mura, Atlante I, 8], in a cura di M. Andaloro, “L’orizzonte tardoantico e le nuove immagini 312-468”, vol. I, Milano, Jaca Book 2006, pp. 381-382). Later other else were made, but only that of Oriolo reaches global completeness by portraits, coats-of-arms and notes: for example, the collection of the Superga Basilica in Turin has portraits combined with a few coats of arms and almost no notes.

[9] M. C. A. Gorra, Ad plurimas easque gravissimas, ovvero: le sette vite dei simboli. Roma, basilica di San Paolo fuori le mura (third edition revised, 2016, licence Creative Commons 4.0 international – https://goo.gl/ngwSDK).

[10] Lot of books between XVI and XIX centuries about popes have more or less extensive gaps in the arms of the ones before Boniface VIII.

[11] As coats-of-arms of heroes of courtly romances, and those of Nove Prodi and Nove Eroine.

[12] As those given to James Bond and to the Hogwarts School of Harry Potter.

[13] M. Pastoureau, Armorial des chevaliers de la table rond. Etude sur l’héraldique imaginaire à la fin du moyen-âge, Parigi, Le Leopard d’or 2006 (2nd edition); A. Jochim, Les armoiries imaginaires dans l’espace germanophone et francophone, XIIIe-XVIe siècles, https://heraldica.hypotheses.org/5058; A. Ailes, The attributed arms of Charlemagne: une analyse des manières dont les français ont mis l’accent sur les fleurs de lys françaises au détriment de l’aigle allemand, and J. De Chastenet, Les armoiries imaginaires chez Barbey d’Aurevilly et Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, papers in the XIX Meeting of Académie internationale d’héraldique. At last, in the 1° convegno internazionale sull’araldica of Oriolo Romano (Viterbo), the next May 13, 2017, the paper by M. Popoff “Les armoiries attribuées aux papes et cardinaux avant l’apparition de l’héraldique”.

Cite this blog post
Maurizio Carlo Alberto Gorra (2017, April 12). A dream’s armorial: The heraldic paintings of the Galleria dei Papi in Oriolo Romano (Viterbo, Italy). Heraldica Nova. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pi0o

Maurizio Carlo Alberto Gorra

Mi interesso da sempre di storia e d'arte, con particolare attenzione ai risvolti iconografici ed emblematici di entrambe le discipline; studio araldica in maniera autodidatta dal 1979. Collaboro con docenti e istituti universitari, e con Enti pubblici; partecipo a forum di discussione su internet, italiani e stranieri, anche come moderatore della sezione araldica; scrivo su periodici e riviste. Effettuo conferenze e visite guidate, e partecipo a convegni storico-scientifici. Ho all’attivo diverse pubblicazioni, e sono membro associato dell'Académie internationale d’héraldique, ricercatore del Centro di Studi Araldici e del Centro Italiano di Studi Compostellani, nonchè socio e consulente di altre associazioni culturali. mauriziogorra@gmail.com

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