The Carafa Trial (1560-61)

Dizionario di eretici, dissidenti e inquisitori nel mondo mediterraneo
Edizioni CLORI | Firenze | ISBN 978-8894241600 | DOI 10.5281/zenodo.1309444


The trial of the Carafa (7 Jun 1560 – 3 Mar 1561), one of the most dramatic political crises to befall the early modern papacy, was an attempt by the new pope Pius IV to purge and intimidate his opponents in the Sacred College prior to the resumption of the Council of Trent.

Beginning with the arrests of cardinals Alfonso and Carlo Carafa, together with Carlo’s brother Giovanni and a number of their associates, by the time it had run its course it had involved around half the Sacred College either as judges, witnesses, or defendants.

The main charges against the family concerned their actions during the pontificate of their uncle, the previous pope Paul IV, and included (but were not limited to) treason, deception, embezzlement, extortion, fraud, and the judicial murder of Giovanni Carafa’s wife Violante and her lover Marcello Capece.

At the same time as he investigated the Carafa family, Pius also pursued other members of the Sacred College, including the wayward nephew of Julius III, Innocenzo del Monte and Paul IV protégé Scipione Rebiba (Rodolfo Pio da Carpi and Gian Bernardino Scotti were also harassed but never charged).

On 18 July, charges of heresy were added to the original indictments against Alfonso and Carlo Carafa, the former for being in possession of a number of prohibited books that Paul IV had placed on the Index and the latter for obscenities towards a procession of the Eucharistic host in Venice. As a result of these charges, the Inquisitor Michele Ghislieri (later Pius V) was added to the panel of cardinals deputised to supervise the case.

When the Carafa were first arrested it had appeared that Pius lacked the political support necessary to subject them to a severe sentence, but over the course of 1560 and 1561 he worked tirelessly to pressure the remaining cardinals and other interested parties into consenting to such a punishment.

Finally, in an eight-hour consistory on 3 March 1561, he presented the full case against Carlo and Giovanni Carafa to the College of Cardinals and secured their acquiescence to a guilty verdict. With a sentence of death pronounced, the brothers and their principal associates were executed at dawn the following day, Giovanni and the laymen by beheading and Carlo by strangulation.

Unable to undermine support for Alfonso Carafa, however, in April Pius was forced to release him on payment of a fine of 100,000 scudi and the loss of most of his offices and benefices. The following year Scipione Rebiba and Innocenzo del Monte were also released and, like Alfonso, lived out the rest of Pius’ pontificate at a distance from the papal court.


  • René Ancel, La disgrace et le procès des Carafa d’après des documents inèdits, 1559-1567, in "Revue Bénédictine", 22, 1905, pp. 525-35; 24, 1907, pp. 224-53, 479-509; 25, 1908, pp. 194-224; 26, 1909, pp. 52-80, 189-220, 301-24
  • Alberto Aubert, Paolo IV: Politica inquisizione e storiografia, 2nd edition (Rome: Le Lettere, 1999)
  • Miles Pattenden, Pius IV and the Fall of the Carafa: Nepotism and Papal Authority in Counter-Reformation Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Adriano Prosperi, Carafa, Carlo, in DBI, vol. 19 (1976)
  • Marina Raffaeli Cammarota, Carafa, Giovanni, in DBI, vol. 19 (1976)

Article written by Miles Pattenden | © 2013

et tamen e summo, quasi fulmen, deicit ictos
invidia inter dum contemptim in Tartara taetra
invidia quoniam ceu fulmine summa vaporant
plerumque et quae sunt aliis magis edita cumque

[Lucretius, "De rerum natura", lib. V]

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