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Bees And History - Part 1: The Barberini Family

Throughout history the bee as a symbol was used to garner power and draw noble connections. Bees have been a popular motif in decorative arts for thousands of years and remains an enduring symbol today.

If you have been to Rome, you have probably noted that bees are carved into marble and woods there. They are woven into curtains and are dominating almost every square in Rome. The bee is the crest of a very famous Barberini family.                           

The Barberini Family was an aristocratic Roman family, originally of Barberino in the Else valley. They later settled first in Florence and then in Rome, where they became wealthy and powerful.

The family had a coat of arms that included three bees on a blue background next to a papal tiara and to the keys of St. Peter. But how did the bees appear on this beautiful coat of arms?

Bees symbolize the love of the members of this powerful clan for work and family, as well as glorifying the talent and selflessness.

The appearance of bees on the coat of arms of the Barberini family  is associated with an ancient legend. The family was known in Florence since the 11th century as wealthy and close to the royal family.

The legend says that one day their heir fell seriously ill. All the famous doctors were trying to help him, but they were unsuccessful. A poor man who was collecting honey from wild bees found out about this and healed the young man using bee venom and honey. As soon as he got better, the honey collector disappeared without giving his name or demanding any reward. As a token of gratitude, it was decided from that moment going forward to place a bee on the coat of arms of the family - a symbol of labor and healing. 

According to other sources the Barberini clan was originally known by the name of Tafani—meaning horsefly—but realized that the bee, with its associations to Christ’s attributes, would better suit their magnificence and divine right to papacy. Thus, the Barberini bee came into being.

Bees also symbolized moral virtue. They appeared to work extremely hard and produced honey- something very desirable in early Christian Europe. They were glorified in the Bible, where their honey was compared to the Word of God. Bees also produced wax for candles, and thus were protected by the Church.

The Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees, 1644) was created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-44), a member of the Barberini family. This pope was a great patron of the family and during his pontificate art was the means used to express and manifest the noble rank of the papal family.  You can find the incredible Fountain of the Bees on the corner of Piazza Barberini in Rome.

In 1634, bees found their way to the Vatican, onto Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous Baldacchino for Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. This a true masterpiece of Baroque sculpture. A 66 feet massive baldacchino in the center of the Basilica, siting  above Saint Peter’s tomb, is an impressive bronze architectural canopy supported by twisting marble columns. Each plinth bears a coat of arms with the three bees of the Barberini family—representing the ancestry of Pope Urban VIII, who commissioned the work.

Honeybees have always been referenced in both scripture and architecture. Today, the bee is still a symbol of regal aspirations. It's presence in the Bible remains to this day, and it is still used in symbology by the popes. 


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