Pope Nicholas III

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"Nicholas III" redirects here. See also Patriarch Nicholas III of Constantinople.
Nicholas III
Papacy began 25 November 1277
Papacy ended 22 August 1280
Predecessor John XXI
Successor Martin IV
Created Cardinal 28 May 1244
Personal details
Birth name Giovanni Gaetano Orsini
Born c. 1225
Rome, Papal States
Died 22 August 1280(1280-08-22)
Viterbo, Papal States
Previous post
Coat of arms
Other popes named Nicholas
Papal styles of
Pope Nicholas III
Reference style His Holiness
Spoken style Your Holiness
Religious style Holy Father
Posthumous style None

Pope Nicholas III (Latin: Nicolaus III; c. 1225 – 22 August 1280), born Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, was Pope from 25 November 1277 to his death in 1280.

He 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) after a six-month vacancy in the Holy See resolved in the papal election of 1277, largely through family influence.


Nicholas was born into the prominent Orsini family of Italy, the eldest son of Roman nobleman Matteo Rosso Orsini by his first wife, Perna Caetani.

Political activities

Nicholas' brief pontificate was marked by several important events. He greatly strengthened the papal position in Italy. He concluded a concordat with Rudolph I of Habsburg in May 1278, by which the Romagna and the exarchate of Ravenna were guaranteed to the papacy. According to the chronist Bartholomew of Lucca, he discussed with Rudolph, in general terms at least, of 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 Holy Roman Emperor.

In July 1278, Nicholas III issued an epoch-making constitution for the government of Rome that forbade foreigners from 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 14 August 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 nel Cimino near Viterbo, where he died of a cardiovascular event (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 cartoons, depicting him in his fine robes with three "little bears" (orsatti, a pun on the family name) hanging on below.

After his death, his namesake Giovanni Gaetano Orsini was appointed a cardinal by Pope John XXII.

Portrayal in The Inferno

Dante, in The Inferno (of the Divine Comedy), talks briefly to Nicholas III, who was condemned to spend eternity in the Third Bolgia of the Eighth Circle of Hell, reserved for those who committed simony, the ecclesiastical crime of paying for offices or positions in the hierarchy of a church.

In Dante's story, the Simoniacs are placed head-first in holes, flames burning on the soles of their feet (Canto XIX). Nicholas was the chief sinner in these pits, which is demonstrated by the height of the flames on his feet. At first he mistakes Dante for Pope Boniface VIII. When the confusion is cleared up, Nicholas informs Dante that he foresees the damnation (for simony) not only of Boniface VIII, but also Clement V, an even more corrupt pope.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • "ORSINI DEL BALZO E ORSINI DI PITIGLIANO". Enciclopedia genealogica del Mediterraneo (in Italian). Italian Genealogical Society. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  1. George L. Williams, Papal Genealogy: The Families and Descendants of the Popes, (McFarland & Company Inc., 1998), 36.
  2. "Exiit qui seminat". The Franciscan Archive. 21 January 1997. Retrieved 24 January 2013. 
  3. "Exiit qui seminat". Papal Encyclicals Online. Papal Encyclicals Online webmaster. Retrieved 24 January 2013. 
  4. "Exiit qui seminat". Document Library. EWTN. Retrieved 24 January 2013. 

External links

  • New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia: Pope Nicholas III
  • Papal Encyclicals Online: Pope Nicholas III 1277-1280 (list of his encyclicals)
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
John XXI
November 25, 1277 – August 22, 1280
Succeeded by
Martin IV

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