Pope Boniface VIII (1235?–1303), Benedetto Caetani – pope from the eighth circle of hell

Sarcophagus of Pope Boniface VIII, Vatican Grottoes, Arnolfo di Cambio, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano

Sarcophagus of Pope Boniface VIII, Vatican Grottoes, Arnolfo di Cambio, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano

In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri placed Boniface VIII (and not only him) in the eighth circle of hell. This controversial figure for centuries set on fire the minds of many researchers, who generally gave him an unflattering report card. Today historians judge his pontificate in a more balanced way, and do not take away his political wisdom and strength of character, at the same time not forgetting about avarice, uncompromising attitude and impulsiveness, which he often displayed.  It must also be admitted that the political situation during Boniface’s pontificate did not contribute to the strengthening of the Church, which could become the political powerhouse, of which the pope dreamed.

Sarcophagus of Pope Boniface VIII, Vatican Grottoes, Arnolfo di Cambio, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano
Boniface VIII, statue of the pope in his hometown of Anagni, source: Wikipedia, author: Livioandronico2013e
Boniface VIII inaugurating the Jubilee Year, Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano
Altar with a fresco depicting Boniface VIII inaugurating the Jubilee Year, Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano
Sarcophagus of Pope Boniface VIII, fragment, Arnolfo di Cambio, Vatican Grottoes

In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri placed Boniface VIII (and not only him) in the eighth circle of hell. This controversial figure for centuries set on fire the minds of many researchers, who generally gave him an unflattering report card. Today historians judge his pontificate in a more balanced way, and do not take away his political wisdom and strength of character, at the same time not forgetting about avarice, uncompromising attitude and impulsiveness, which he often displayed.  It must also be admitted that the political situation during Boniface’s pontificate did not contribute to the strengthening of the Church, which could become the political powerhouse, of which the pope dreamed.

Benedetto came from the well-known Caetani family, which had already produced another pope (Alexander IV) and other high-ranking church officials, which to a great extent helped him in receiving a position in the Roman Curia at the young age of 25. He proved himself there as a skilled lawyer, whose abilities were noticed by successive popes – Martin IV, appointed him cardinal and Nicholas V the papal legate in France.

   

When after the death of Nicholas V (1292), for two years two of the most important Roman families (Orsini and Colonna) pretended to the papal throne and were entrenched in a quarrel, Cardinal Caetani seemed to be the ideal candidate because he was acceptable to both. However, he was not the chosen one.  This honor fell, completely unexpectedly to the modest, widely respected, living in a hermitage, eighty-year old Peter of Morrone. Although he agreed to accept the papal tiara as Celestine V, it hurt him so much that after five months he decided to relinquish it and it is said that Caetani significantly contributed to his abdication. Until recently Celestine was the only pope in the history of the Church who voluntarily resigned, while the abdication itself was from a legal standpoint prepared once again by Benedetto Caetani.  Then, after only one day he was unanimously elected as pope and took on the name of Boniface VIII.

One of his first steps was imprisoning the old pope and annulling most of his modest decrees. The former pope died shortly afterwards and the suspicion of murdering Celestine V, was a strong weapon in the arsenal of the enemies of Boniface.  And he had many of them. The main ones were the wealthy Colonnas, with whom the pope had ongoing quarrels over land and money, which discredited his office. When the Colonnas accused him of despotism and simony, as revenge Boniface took away their mantles of cardinals and excommunicated the whole family going back four generations.  He declared an all-out war against them and in an uncompromising way, moved to undermine their power, while displaying greediness in multiplying the wealth of his own family.  In their search for allies, the Colonnas went to a ruler unfavorably disposed towards the pope – the French king Phillip IV the Fair, who was at that time struggling with financial problems and in order to alleviate them decided to tax the French clergy. In response the pope ordered the tithe imposed by Phillip not to be paid. Phillip repaid the pope by forbidding the export of gold and silver which meant halting Peter’s Pence. The following years brought about a growth in feuds and conflicts between Rome and Paris.

A great propagandist and financial success of the pope was the first-ever in the history of the Church announcement of the so-called Year of the Jubilee (Holy Year) in the year 1300, relating to the anniversary of the birth of Christ. Crowds of pilgrims flocked to Rome, tempted by the promise of plenary indulgence (up to now available only for those who participated in the Crusades), in exchange for a two-week stay in the Eternal City (for Italians it was a 30-day stay). The money obtained from the pilgrims quickly filled the papal treasury. The Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani in a vivid and probably exaggerated way claimed, as an eyewitness to those events, that about two million people came to the city at that time, and that donations on behalf of the church were so great, that two seminarians (reportedly) continuously swept the money with a rake.

     

The pope felt the power of his office and seeing the throngs of pilgrims, decided to reflect on his leading role, reminding all secular rulers about his spiritual and political leadership. In 1302 he issued the bulla Unam Santcum laying out his view of the future of the Church and the papacy. He demanded absolute obedience and subordination of all secular authority to the pope, threatening those who would object with exclusion from the Church and eternal damnation. It is the pope, who as a successor of Christ, has the right to appoint rulers and judge them, those were the words of Boniface.

This declaration of the papal primacy in the world aroused the anger of the authoritarian Phillip the Fair, who saw his own authority in a very different way.  He started a propagandist campaign with the aim of discrediting the pope in which he was willingly aided by the Colonnas. Boniface was accused of blasphemy, heresy, simony, breach of fasting, including the very catchy accusations of sodomy, bisexualism and dealings with the devil.  In response the pope warned the king that he could have him removed from the throne as if he were a stable boy, which he did, also excommunicating him in the process.  This led to a further escalation of the conflict which resulted in a violent attack on the pope in his family residence in Anagni near Rome in 1303. Taken into custody, asked to abdicate, insulted and humiliated, he finally returned to Rome where he died a month later. He was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano) and his tomb was sculpted by the prestigious at that time master of the sculpting arts – Arnolfo Di Cambio. Today it is located in the Vatican Grottoes.

What did the pope do for Rome? It seems, quite a lot. His idea to proclaim the Year of the Jubilee turned out to be very beneficial to the papacy from the propagandist and financial point of view. Initially it was to be celebrated every 100 years, but successive popes lowered this number, all the way to 25 years.  Besides that, Boniface established the Sapienza University which still operates today. He did not forget about the arts either, although, he seemed to value them more as a tool of propaganda.  In many Italian and foreign cities, he ordered, in a truly imperial manner, to put up his images in bronze and marble, which was until then a custom not practiced by the popes.  He also allowed himself to be portrayed by Giotto.  The fresco which is currently located in the Basilica of St. John in the Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), previously in the Apostolic Palace of the Lateran, depicts him at the moment of opening the Year of the Jubilee in the loggia of this very church. The only architectural undertaking of Boniface in Rome was the reconstruction of the aforementioned loggia directed towards the San Giovanni in Laterano square, where the faithful gathered in order to see the pope.

Boniface VIII dreamed of secular and spiritual supremacy, yet after his death this ambition led to just the opposite – an utter and long-lasting crisis of the papacy which resulted in the relocation of the papal residency from the Roman Lateran to Avignon (Avignon Papacy) and the dependency of the head of the Church on France.