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The Fideicommissum
The name is from Latin and indicates the juridical means through which noble families in Ancient Rome bound and safeguarded their wealth and property to avoid it being divided up as it was handed down from father to son. The fideicommissum was a codicil attached to the will that imposed legal inalienability and indivisibility on the part of the estate comprising the most prestigious works in the art collection and property holdings. The document contained a list of the “fideicommissum properties” and the family member designated to inherit them who was obligated to maintain that part of the estate intact and pass it on—still integral—to his heir. And so on, from generation to generation. The property bound by the fideicommissum not only represented an inalienable patrimony, a family heirloom to be preserved and passed on, but reflected, above all, their generous patronage and love of the arts. Starting in 1631, with the Papal Bull “Romanum decet pontificem” [trans.: It befits the Roman Pontiff] issued by Pope Urban VIII, all fideicommissums had to be registered with the “Archivio Urbano” created in 1625 by his nephew Francesco Barberini.


On August 4, 1789, during the French Revolution, feudalism was abolished. With the signing of the Treaty of Tolentino in 1797, Napoleon forced the exodus of hundreds of works of art from Italy and this process was intensified in 1804 with the Napoleonic Code which abolished the fideicommissum, thus facilitating the compulsory expropriation of patrimony. The fideicommissum was accepted once again with the Restoration in 1815 and reinstated by Pope Pius VII in “Motu Proprio" issued July 6, 1816. The Italian Civil Code of 1865 definitively forbade fideicommissum inheritance, except for some especially prestigious collections of art which were legally defined as “fideicommissary galleries”. This exception, contained in Art. 4 of Italian Law no. 286 of June 28, 1871, actually prevented the breaking up of these collections which have generally remained intact to this day.

Introductory Bibliography

La famiglia nell’economia europea secc. XIII-XVIII/The Economic Role of the Family in the European Economy from the 13th to the 18th Centuries, Atti della Quarantesima settimana di Studi, 6-10 aprile 2008, a cura di S. Cavaciocchi, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2009