History of a family: the Marsi Counts

Among the main feudal lords of Abruzzo, one family of Frankish origin needs a special mention: they settled in our land between the end of the 9th century and the early 10th and embrace in their own history the history of the whole region. They were called the Great Counts of the Marsi and ruled over the territory of lake Fucino as far as the Peligni, with Celano as their main center.
They maintained they were descended from Bernard I, king of Italy, grandson to Charlemagne. What is historically established is that they descended from one Berardo who was called "Francesco" because he came from France, and who came to Italy with Hugo, king of Italy and Atto of Burgundy, his maternal uncle, who also said they were descended from that Bernard I, king of Italy, dethroned and blinded by his uncle, Emperor Ludwig, in 818.

The names of the counts of the Marsi - Bernardo, Oderigi, Teodino, Rinaldo, Trasmondo - can be encountered in many documents of the 11th and 12th century. Their coat of arms was six green mountains against a gold background". Heraldry distinguishes this descendancy as "Comites Marsorum, or ex Comites Marsorum" as a "Berardinga" descendancy.

Successor of Berardo "Franciscus" was Berardo II; then in 970 Albericus bishop of Marsi was the son of one Berardo III. Berardo III (abt 950 AD) had five sons and they then formed separate hereditary countdoms: Rainaldo and Berardo, Alberico who became a bishop of the Marsi, Gualtiero, Bishop of Forcona, Oderisio and Teodino. In a notary act of August 981, kept in Montecassino, Teodino and his brothers Rainaldo and Oderisio appear as counts of Marsia, or de' Marsi; then they divided the large countdom: Todino became count in Amiterno and Rieti, Rainaldo was Count of Marsia and Oderisio Count of Valva.

From Oderisius three large branches originated: one branch settled in the Sangro area with the Borrello line, the larger one spread all over central Abruzzo and gave rise to the separate lines of the Gentile in Prezza and Raiano, a second branch moved to what is today the province of Teramo and was known as the Counts of Palearia, and had among its members Berardo, bishop of Teramo, and Oderisio of Palearia, who was appointed by the king as "Giustiziere d'Abruzzo" in the mid 13th century, and the third branch stayed in Valva (near Sulmona) and ruled over Pettorano, Pacentro, Palena, Rivisondoli.

In the 11th century the territory under the jurisdiction of the "Gran Conti dei Marsi" went from from the Sangro river to the Sabini, comprising half of the Duchy of Spoleto. These counts were in line of principle subject to the Duke of Spoleto, and they led their armies to wars inside and outside their own territories.

It is thanks to this family that, also after Roman times, the warlike Marsian people kept their fame and name, and their territory remained as a feudal organism and an important diocesis, so much so that even in the 15th century when two Roman families, the Orsini and the Colonna, fought for supremacy in Abruzzo, they usurped to themselves the title of Counts of the Marsi. It is also thanks to the military strength of this family if the Saracens did not include Abruzzo in their empire.

The territory of the Marsi would have remained a large independent state in central Italy if, at the decline of the Duchy of Spoleto, when the Marsian counts should have been more united, they instead started to fight one another, which made very easy for the Norman invaders of Italy to weaken them and defeat one after the other.

They were deprived of most of their territories, obliged to give away further lands to satisfy the burdensome tributes of the new lords, and compelled to accept as all the other lesser nobility the supremacy of the new Norman Lords of Southern Italy, to which Abruzzo was tied from that time afterwards.

The Marsian counts did not survive that disaster. The main branch was extinguished, and on their remains secondary branches rose, such as the Counts of Celano and of Alba. But these too soon disappeared. And the few others who remained were soon deprived of their titles by the Normans; the peoples of Amiterno and Forcona rose agains them, killed part of their Marsian lords, obliged the few left to take refuge in Aquila.

Those few descendants of the Marsi, though they had started to obtain favors with the Swabian kings, the new rulers of Italy after 1250, had to accept the disruption of their feudal power. So the Ocre family saw their ancient castle destroyed, as it had already happened for the Barili, and these two branches of the family had settled in Aquila in the early 14th century. Of the other branches, the Sangro and Borrello took refuge in Sicily and obtained high offices, others retired to Rieti and Rome where the line became extinguished.

Trasmondo, bishop of Valva and Abbot of powerful San Clemente a Casauria was the son of Oderisio count of the Marsi and brother to Oderisio abbot of Montecassino and to Attone bishop of Chieti. Isola del Gran Sasso d'Italia in 1173 was under the Conti di Pagliara with Oderisio di Pagliara, better known as Oderisio from Collepetrano. These counts kept it until 1340, when Maria, daughter of Tommasa, last of her family, married Napoleone Orsini of the noble Orsini di Roma, bringing to them title and possessions. The history of the Abbey of San Giovanni in Venere mentions two great abbots of the name Oderisius, one of them buried behind a great stone in the facade.

Though the main lines of the Counts of Marsi were extinguished or deprived of their power, they had become deeply rooted in the territory and their blood passed to a great part of the lesser nobility of Abruzzo and Molise, giving origin to many surnames, directly or indirectly connected to them, in the places where they ruled: Bernardo, Berardo and its variations, Gualtieri and Rainaldi, Gentile and Oddi/Oddone, Maniero, Odorisio and Risio.