Pope Nicholas III

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Pope Nicholas III (Rome, 1210/1220 – August 22, 1280), born Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, Pope from November 25, 1277 to his death in 1280, was a Roman nobleman who had served under eight Popes, been made cardinal-deacon of St. Nicola in carcere Tulliano by Pope Innocent IV (1243–54), protector of the Franciscans by Pope Alexander IV (1254–61), inquisitor-general by Pope Urban IV (1261–64), and succeeded Pope John XXI (1276–77), largely through family influence, after a six-month vacancy in the Holy See.



Nicholas' brief pontificate was marked by several important events. A born politician, he greatly strengthened the papal position in Italy. He concluded a concordat with Rudolph I of Habsburg (1273–91) in May 1278, by which the Romagna and the exarchate of Ravenna were guaranteed to the Pope. According to the chronist Bartholomew of Lucca he discussed with Rudolph, in general terms at least, splitting the German Empire into four separate kingdoms - Lombardy, Burgundy, Tuscia and Germany, where Rudolph's kingdom would be made hereditary in addition to himself becoming emperor. In July 1278 Nicholas III issued an epoch-making constitution for the government of Rome, which forbade foreigners taking civil office.

Ecclesiastical milestones

Nicholas' father had been a personal friend of Francis of Assisi, and he himself had to focus much of his attention on the Franciscan order. He issued the Papal bull Exiit qui seminat on August 14, 1279 to settle the strife within the order between the parties of strict and loose observance. He repaired the Lateran Palace and the Vatican at enormous cost, and erected a beautiful country house at Soriano near Viterbo, where he died of a cardiovascular event (the sources differ on whether it was a heart attack or a stroke).


Nicholas III, though a man of learning noted for his strength of character, was known for his excessive nepotism. He elevated three of his closest relatives to the cardinalate, and gave others important positions. This nepotism was lampooned both by Dante and in contemporary cartoon depicting the Pope in his fine robes and three "little bears" (orsatti) hanging on below, a pun on the family name. His alleged discussions with king Rudolph could be interpreted as an attempt to found principalities for his nephews and other relations.[citation needed]

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