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27.7.07

Dantes's Malignant Beauty

Just a quick footnote to Dante's view of the papacy of his day, which is a major subject in the poem, to which I will probably return. The article by Thomas Oestereich in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) on Boniface VIII does its best to show Boniface VIII in a way truer to the view of the papacy. After presenting the details of the pope's life in a sympathetic light, the author provides the following hilarious summation of Dante's attacks in the Commedia:

The memory of Boniface, curiously enough, has suffered most from two great poets, mouthpieces of an ultra-spiritual and impossible Catholicism, Fra Jacopone da Todi and Dante. The former was the "sublime fool" of spiritual love, author of the "Stabat Mater", and chief singer of the "Spirituals", or extreme Franciscans, kept in prison by Boniface, whom he therefore satirized in the popular and musical vernacular of the peninsula. The latter [Dante] was a Ghibelline, i.e., a political antagonist of the Guelph pope, to whom, moreover, he attributed all his personal misfortunes, and whom he therefore pilloried before the bar of his own justice, but in quivering lines of immortal invective whose malignant beauty will always trouble the reader's judgment [emphasis mine].
First of all, Dante was a Guelph, a member of the White Guelphs driven out of Florence partially thanks to the wiles of Boniface VIII. The author of the article points to one contemporary account of Boniface VIII that he deems the most balanced, which while praising some of the pope's personal qualities does admit that he was guilty of "explosive violence and offensive phraseology [in] some of his public documents" and "the occasional imprudence of his political measures." The same source says that Boniface VIII was a "lover of magnificence, but also arrogant, proud, and stern in manner, more feared than loved, too worldly-minded for his high office and too fond of money both for the Church and for his family. His nepotism was open." In spite of the author's attempts to castigate Dante, these accusations match very closely to the qualities that Dante criticizes most emphatically. Dante is also quick to condemn Philip IV's abusive treatment of the Pope, the attack at Anagni that certainly hastened Boniface VIII's death. While Dante despised Boniface VIII's political and self-serving abuse of the office of the pope, Dante always maintained his respect for that office, even when it was held by Boniface VIII.

Images of Boniface VIII, including the sculpted portrait placed on the façade of Florence Cathedral (above) and the damaged fresco by Giotto, inaugurating the Jubilee Year of 1300 (the year in which the Commedia is supposed to take place), now in the Lateran Basilica. See also the beautiful tomb of Boniface VIII, sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio, now in the Musei Vaticani. More about Arnolfo di Cambio to come.

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