On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.
In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.
Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.
Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.
He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.
Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.
But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.
Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.
Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.
This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.
Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.
On this date in 1565, four men who schemed to assassinate Pope Pius IV were put to public death at the Capitol.
Detail (click for the full painting) of Parnassus by Raphael, the Vatican’s “Raphael Rooms”. According to Jonathan Unglaub,* this figure is the then-acclaimed, today-obscure poetBernardo Accolti, our failed assassin’s great-uncle.
Pius was a pope of the counter-reformation; it was he who brought the Council of Trent to its conclusion.
And though generally noted for his moderation (and his enthusiasm for building), he was not above striking heads from shoulders. Upon his ascension a few years prior he had dealt harshly with the nephews of his predecessor.
Young Benedetto, clearly, could scheme a little himself, since he roped several buddies (Italian link) into a plot to murder the pontiff. In December 1564, they presented themselves at a papal audience, but apparently got cold feet. One of their number, a Cavalier Pelliccione, ratted the lot of them out before they could muster their nerve a second time: the good cavalier might have been motivated by having possession of treasonably pre-written letters to be sent to various dignitaries upon the pope’s violent deposition.
Pelliccione accordingly skated with a pardon, but two co-conspirators were sent to the galleys for life.
Benedetto Accolti, Antonio Canossa, and Taddeo Manfredi were dragged to the Capitol on January 27 and put to the gruesome public butchery — “like cows” — of the mazzolatura.
There are several resources that claim the plot was among Catholic ultras who found Pius a little on the heretical side. This Italian encyclopedia entry attributes to the astrologically-inclined Accolti a more nutty-prophetic ambition of a “papa angelico” who would unify Christendom.
Maybe he should have just exercised a little patience. Pius IV died in December 1565.
* Jonathan Unglaub, “Bernardo Accolti, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’ and a New Portrait by Andrea del Sarto,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 149, No. 1246, Art in Italy (Jan., 2007).
Alchemist, prophet, and dashing Italian rogue, the Jesuit-educated Giuseppe Francesco Borri (English | Italian) was burned on this date in 1661.
Luckily, he was hundreds of kilometers away.
A Milanese noble by birth, Borri was studying in Rome when he experienced a vision and started expounding a mystical theology decidedly not acceptable to Catholic orthodoxy.
That Mary’s mother was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the Madonna was a goddess. That, with the limitless proceeds of the philosopher’s stone, he’d bankroll a spiritual army under the wings of the archangel St. Michael.
The charismatic young prophet began attracting quite a following — including the eccentric Swedish Queen Christina, then hanging around Rome after her abdication and indulging her own taste for alchemy — and was soon obliged to flee Rome for Milan, and then Milan for Switzerland, with the Inquisition at his heels. (He’s supposed to have left behind the occult markings that adorn the Porta Alchemica.)
to be punished as a heretic for his errors, that he had incurred both the ‘general’ and ‘particular’ censures, that he was deprived of all honour and prerogative in the Church, of whose mercy he had proved himself unworthy, that he was expelled from her communion, and that his effigy should be handed over to the Cardinal Legate for the execution of the punishment he had deserved.
Nothing daunted, the “executed” Borri set up as a doctor, scientist, astrologer, and alchemist in northern Europe — Strasbourg, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Throughout the 1660s his alchemical arts attracted the patronage of royalty as well as an endless stream of ailing patients and curious hangers-on. Borri even claimed to have accomplished the feat of transmuting a base metal into gold, which magical product can still be seen at a Danish museum.
Unfortunately his Danish patron died in 1670, and while en route to his next gig in Turkey he was arrested in Hapsburg territory and handed over the papacy. Borri was not put to death bodily, but spent the remainder of his life imprisoned in Rome, finally dying in the Castel Sant’Angelo in 1695.
On this date in 1868, Italian revolutionaries Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti were guillotined in Rome.
Theirs was a passion of the Risorgimento, the 19th century drive to unify as a single nation the peninsula’s quiltwork of minor kingdoms, duchies, and city-states.
Following the Third Italian War of Independence, this had largely been accomplished … with the notable exception of the Papal States surrounding Rome. You can hardly have Italy without the Eternal City.
Inside Rome, Monti and Tognetti prepared a little morte of their own. Intending to mount a fifth-column uprising to coincide with the arrival of Garibaldi’s army, the two detonated a couple barrels of gunpowder under the Serristori barracks, killing 23 French zouaves and four Roman civilians. (All links in this paragraph are Italian.)
Unfortunately for the bombers, no general rising ensued, and the Papal and French armies subsequently repulsed Garibaldi at the Battle of Mentana on Nov. 3, 1867 — extending the papal enclave’s lease on life only slightly, but just enough to deal with Monti and Tognetti.
Their fate at the hands of the civil and religious authorities (one and the same, at this time), is dramatized in the 1977 Italian film In Nome Del Pap Re. (This Google books freebie purports to relate their final days.)
On the Sunday night, 15th September, 1489, Signor Domenico Gentile of Viterbo, apostolic writer, Francesco Maldente, canon of Forli and Conrado, also Battista of Spell, notary of the Apostolic Camera, Lorenzo Signoretto, writer in the Register of Bulls, and Bartolommeo Budello, procurator of the Penitentiary, were successively taken and detained in the Castle of San Angelo on a charge of forging apostolic letters.
The Lord Domenico aforesaid confessed that he had forged about fifty apostolic letters or bulls, containing various matters, in the following way: The Lord Francesco would discover matters to be despatched and agree with the parties upon the sum which they were to pay after the despatch of letters. When the agreement had been made and a bank named by the party for paying the sum agreed upon to be paid when the letters were presented to the bank, then he would despatch one that was expected, or some matter that would pass easily through all the offices by the royal way.
When this was done, the Lord Domenico aforementioned washed out all the writing of the bull, or that part which he did not want, with a certain fluid, restored the paper with flour and stiffened it again. Afterward he wrote on it the matter concerning which Francesco had agreed with the party, leaving in the bull the names of the rescribendary, computators, and other officials.
More often he changed the stamp, and put on another, according to the nature of the matter. He also used different inks. That with which he wrote the first matter to be despatched in the proper way was made of gum or some other material, but was certainly indelible. But the other, which he used to write over the bull that had been erased, was ordinary ink. In this way they gave forged bulls to the parties.
Within about two years they had despatched divers matters, for example, dispensations to one or two benefices for Friars of the Orders of Mendicants, unions of many benefices to the incomes of certain abbots with permission to rule these in an order changeable at pleasure, a dispensation for a certain priest of the Diocese of Rouen, who had married a wife, to the effect that he might lawfully keep her and many others for which they had received sometimes a hundred, two hundred, two hundred and fifty, and two thousand ducats, as is related in the process instituted against them.
The said Francesco also made confession, and on Sunday, the 18th of October, at about nine in the evening, they both were led from the castle aforementioned to the Castle of Soldano, and before they reached that place they believed they were condemned to death. For the auditor of the Camera, the Bishop of Cesena, and the Lord Bartolommeo Deolpito, first apostolic notary and governor of the city, who in their official capacity had prosecuted them, told the said Francesco that if he named his fellow accomplices our Most Holy Lord would be pleased to bestow the office of abbreviator upon him and set him at liberty, and he believing that he would do this accused the above named and several others.
On behalf of the Lord Domenico, his father who had attended our Most Holy Lord in the first illness of his pontificate, and his two brothers interceded most earnestly with the cardinals and other influential men in the city for his life. But no one could prevail upon our Most Holy Lord. So, after they had been established in the said castle, they were told that they were to die on the morrow; and therefore were bidden to take heed to the salvation of their souls, and priests were sent to them to hear their confession and strengthen them in the faith.
On Monday, the 19th of October, 1489, there was a consistory and the auditor of the Camera aforesaid with the governor came to the Castle of Soldano where they passed definite sentence against the said Domenico and Francesco, degraded them, deprived them of office and emoluments, and handed them over to the secular court.
Then mass was celebrated in the said castle, at which the said Domenico and Francesco were present, and at the close they received the holy communion from the hands of the celebrant; after this they were led to the Piazza di San Pietro, where a platform had been erected in a space not far from the lowest step, four rods long, three wide, and one high, or thereabouts.
There the said Francesco who was a priest was robed in full vestments in the usual way. Then the summary of the case was read by the notary, Antonio of Paimpol. After the reading of it, Francesco was degraded and given over to the secular court into the hands of Ambrosino, the apparitor.
After he had been given over, Domenico who had only the first tonsure was robed in a surplice and degraded from that rank by the Father Pietro Paolo, Lord Bishop of Santa Agata, who vested himself in stole and cope upon the platform, and put on in front a plain alb over the rochet. After his degradation Domenico was given over to the court and the said apparitor.
Their heads were not shaved otherwise than they had been before, nor were they stripped of the clothes in which they came from the castle, because of their office and because such was the pleasure of the Bishop of Cesena, the auditor.
After this the aforesaid having been degraded were placed upon a chariot which stood ready there, Domenico on the right and Francesco on the left.
In front of them were seated a friar of the Order of Minors, their confessor, in accordance with the observance in parts of France, and another of the society of the Misericordia who held a crucifix and was robed in the garb of that society with his face covered. Behind the degraded ones were erected two rods, and to the top of them cords were fastened, on which were hung four of the bulls despatched and forged by them.
In this way they were conducted by the Bridge of San Angelo past the Castle of Soldano and hard by the house of the Cardinal of Ascanio, past the Hospital of the Germans, close to the house of the Lord Falco by the Pario straight to another street, thence by the bridge to the Campo dei Fiori, where near the corner by the steps and the Taberna Vacca, so-called, the place of execution had been prepared in the form of a hut, having a wooden pillar erected in the center, and surrounded by piled-up faggots. To the upper part of the column had been fixed two ropes. Below the ropes two stools were placed upon the ground for the accused and another on the other side of the column for the lictor, and around the shed outside many piles of logs.
When the aforementioned degraded persons reached the said place of execution, they got down from the cart, and entered the hut, where in the guise and clothes in which they were brought there, they ascended the two stools prepared for them.
The lictor put ropes upon their neck of which they were scarcely conscious, for the confessor and the other friar who bore the crucifix were continually strengthening them in Christ. When the ropes had been placed in position, the lictor’s assistants drew away the stools from beneath their feet and thus they were hanged and gave up the ghost.
After they were dead they were taken down from the pillar, stripped to their shirts and placed in a sitting position upon the said stools, propped against the pillar, and bound to the column with the chain beneath their arms. Then the fire was kindled and their bodies burned. The lictor heaped up the logs many times until after the hour of vespers, that the bodies might be entirely consumed, and thus the fire lasted until the following morning.
On the following day, about the hour of vespers, ashes, in which many of the bones were still found, were collected by certain of the society of Misericordia with a broom, placed in a sack in a new chest, and with the cross and the usual procession was borne by the said society to the church appointed for the purpose and buried.
As shockingly impious as the forgery of papal bulls sounds (and was), this sort of fraud was very much a thing. Papal bulls were never confined to only grand matters, but issued for all sorts of everyday reasons. In a world where nobody could shoot an email to the Holy See to confirm this or that declaration, a document blazoned with the papal keys which asserted some local monastic prerogative or personal perquisite could be law for a good long time.
Innocent VIII, born Giovanni Battista Cibo, is scarcely the most egregiously disreputable cleric* of the age — the guy after him was a Borgia, after all — and as may be seen from today’s entry had a care for at least the public relations debacle of particularly flagrant abuses.
But as a Renaissance pontiff, Innocent had a brood of illegitimate children and a view of St. Peter’s Throne as a seat for nakedly worldly ambition — marrying, for instance, one son to the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici in a deal that also obtained a cardinal’s hat for a Medici relation who in time would become Pope Leo X. Wholesale ecclesiastical corruption, including the market in bulls-to-order, was simply part of this world; Domenico and Francesco notwithstanding, Innocent did little to tame it.
The Florentine priest Savonarola first rose to prominence thundering against (and supposedly predicting the death of) this guilty Innocent. But that later Medici pope Leo X would in a few decades’ time meet the more serious challenge to ecclesiastical corruption. When that day came, Martin Luther initially suspected that the papal bull Leo X issued denouncing Luther’s theses might be … a forgery. (The reformer even published a short 1520 manifesto to that effect, “Against the New Bull forged by Eck“.)
* Innocent may be best known as the guy who fired up the coming age of wholesale witch persecutions.
presented the sad image of depopulation and decay: her slavery was a habit, her liberty an accident; the effect of superstition, and the object of her own amazement and terror. The last vestige of the substance, or even the forms, of the constitution, was obliterated from the practice and memory of the Romans; and they were devoid of knowledge, or virtue, again to build the fabric of a commonwealth. Their scanty remnant, the offspring of slaves and strangers, was despicable in the eyes of the victorious Barbarians. As often as the Franks or Lombards expressed their most bitter contempt of a foe, they called him a Roman;
“and in this name,” says the bishop Liutprand, “we include whatever is base, whatever is cowardly, whatever is perfidious, the extremes of avarice and luxury, and every vice that can prostitute the dignity of human nature.”
While the popes of the 10th century would really set that prostituted standard with the period known as the “pornocracy”, Stephen VI(I) makes everybody’s bad popeslists with one of the papacy’s all-time embarrassing events: the Cadaver Synod.
The pontiff at this point is no global media celebrity but an ensemble character captive to the the disreputable politics of a shrunken, malarial town. Stephen’s predecessor Formosus had been one of the city’s “Carolingian” faction backing the withering remains of Charlemagne’s once-great line.
At loggerheads with the Italian Spoleto family claiming the Holy Roman Emperor title for the anti-Carolingians, Formosus had invited an illegitimate Frankish scion to roll down the Italian peninsula and take it from them — which is exactly what happened.
Two months after Formosus crowned this Carolingian, Arnulf by name, as “Augustus” in Rome, Formosus died while Arnulf was on his way back to Bavaria … putting the Spoletos back in charge. After a brief interregnum papacy, the Spoleto-backed anti-Carolingian prelate Stephen ascended St. Peter‘s throne.
The factional conflict was approaching civil war. Stephen’s Cadaver Synod (or in the equally evocative Latin, Synod horrenda) was a singular show of power against the Carolingians.
About January of 897, the pope had Formosus’s corpse exhumed and creepily propped up in its vestments on a throne at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There, before a reluctant clerical conclave, the rotting remains of Formosus** were subjected to a kangaroo prosecution personally conducted by Pope Stephen. As Robert Browning described it in a digressive passage of The Ring and the Book,
And at the word the great door of the church
Flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,
The body of him, dead, even as embalmed
And buried duly in the Vatican
Eight months before, exhumed thus for the nonce.
They set it, that dead body of a Pope,
Clothed in pontific vesture now again,
Upright on Peter’s chair as if alive.
For frightful was the corpse-face to behold,—
How nowise lacked there precedent for this.
Pope Formosus and Stephen VII (aka Stephen VI), by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870
After the possibly-nuts Stephen had his fill of ranting at the mortal remains, he declared his foe “convicted” and condemned the body to the dissevering of its three right-hand blessing-fingers — symbolic of the damnatio memoriae the synod would pass upon the ex-pope, revoking the decrees and undoing the ordinations that hand had wrought in life. Formosus in his various parts was tossed into the Tiber.
While this macabre spectacle lives forever in the papal annals, Stephen didn’t live out the year: his enemies overthrew him that summer and had him summarily put to death, declaring the Synod horrenda‘s judgment reversed in the process.
In the event, the matter would be settled the old-fashioned Roman way: in the streets.
Despite the loss of their leader, [Stephen's] party remained active and elected a certain Cardinal Sergius as pope, simultaneously with the election of a candidate by the opposite faction.
But, in a sudden burst of violence, Sergius and most of his followers were chased out of the city … Over the next twelve months, four more popes scrambled onto the bloodstained throne, maintained themselves precariously for a few weeks — or even days — before being hurled themselves into their graves.
Further to that body’s sanguinary campaign against papal political domination, they authored an attempted kidnapping and/or assassination of the Vatican’s Romagna enforcer, Cardinal Rivarola. Rivarola had recently issued mass condemnations against carbonari.
Which is very nice. But they didn’t get the Cardinal.
Ubiquitous 19th century papal executioner Mastro Titta conducted the executions — the 266th through 269th of his career (he’d also done Gaetano Montanari’s better-known brother Leonida three years before) — and devoted a chapter of his memoirs to the occasion. You can call the carbonari terrorists if you wish, but the Ravenna populace’s fearsomely cinematic display of solidarity with the doomed makes eloquent historical testimony on their behalf.
The execution took place on May 13 on a large square in Ravenna, occupied by the military so that nobody could not approach the gallows other than the executioners, the soldiers, and the prisoners. The windows and doors of the city and the shops were all closed and many were hung with black. Not a person was seen on the streets. Ravenna seemed transformed into a necropolis. All attempts to convert them were vigorously rejected by the prisoners, who did not want confession nor religious comforters, and protested against the accompaniment of two friars ordered by the Cardinal.** The wagon crossed streets deserted and silent, all surrounded by soldiers on foot and horseback riding at a brisk trot. Arrived at the foot of the gallows, the condemned went down with a firm step, and one by one they boldly climbed the stairs of the gallows, and before the gallows clutching their necks shouted in a voice strong and fearless:
- Viva Italia! Down with the papacy!
The execution was conducted rapidly. I departed with my aide that night under guard, because it was rumored that the conspirators wanted to skin us.
* It appears to me — although it’s not completely clear from what I’ve seen — that a fifth man, a Jewish poisoner named Abramo Isacco Forti (aka “Machino”), was also executed in this group, for collaborating with the carbonari on a different murder. He’s listed on Titta’s roster of victims without date or explanation, but specifically named in, e.g., this Italian book’s roster of death sentences handed out by that same court.
The worldly wealth of the Church, as Eco’s narrator explains it,
generated movements of men bent on a poorer life, in protest against the corrupt priests … [the Fraticelli] claimed that Christ and the apostles had owned no property, individually or in common; and the Pope condemned this idea as heretical. An amazing position, because there is no evident reason why a pope should consider perverse the notion that Christ was poor.
Distinct from Dolcino et al (who were outside any official institutional order) but mutually sympathetic with their like, the Fraticelli were “Spiritual” Franciscans who rejected the more worldly accoutrement that even their humble order had taken on.
“Hardly a handful [of Franciscans] can be found who will abstain from luxuries, wearing cheap, patched tunics, and going without shoes, like the first brethren and the blessed Francis,” complained the ascetic Ubertino of Casale in 1311. “It seems as if all the spiritual offices of the order were rated at a price.”
“Great is poverty,” said the papal bull ordering an end to the disputation. (Quoted here.) “But greater is blamelessness, and perfect obedience is the greatest good.”
And you have to enforce perfect blamelessness.
It began in the Avignon papacy’s Provencal back yard: southern France, which had felt the papal whip before, had proven very fertile soil for the Fraticelli, with its own similar Beguin movements among the laity.
Soon after Pope John ascended the seat of St. Peter, 25 obdurate Spiritual Franciscans were summoned to Avignon to answer to the Inquisition; 21 of them succumbed to the menacing proceedings and produced their “obedient” recantations, leaving the four stern enough to persevere unto the stake.
Many more, too many to track from the era’s sketchy documentation, followed them in the ensuing years.
The fires kindled at Marseilles were a signal for the extermination of the Spiritualists throughout Provence. We hear of burnings at Narbonne, Montpelier, Toulouse, Lunel, Lodvfere, Carcassonne, Cabestaing, Beziers, Montreal. Mosheim tells us of a band of a hundred and thirteen Spirituals sacrificed at Carcassonne from 1318 to 1350. Wadding tells us that the Franciscan inquisitors alone burned one hundred and fourteen of the zealots in a single year (1323). And Angelo compares the indiscriminate frenzy of the persecutors to the fierceness of rabid dogs and wolves. The works of Olivi were condemned at the Pentecostal chapter of 1319 at Marseilles, and even the bones of many saints who had died uncondemned (though suspected), were cast out of their tombs. The result of the fierce persecutions was to stamp out the Spirituals in Provence.
John XXII reaped the hatred of the put-upon Franciscans. According to Bernard McGinn’s study of reputed “papal antichrists”† John was “the pope who bears the distinction of being the most popular candidate for the role of Papal Antichrist in medieval history.”
Image of Pope John XXII as the Antichrist. 15th century image from the Vaticinia de Summis Pontificibus, adapted from a c. 1340 illustration of the apocalyptic pro-Spiritual text as described in The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages.
* Theologically, it was a dispute over whether Christ and the Apostles owned anything, singly or jointly. Politically, it pitted the Holy See against the Holy Roman Emperor, the classic Guelph-Ghibelline contest. (A few years on, there would be a Spiritual Franciscan appointed as antipope by the emperor.)
** William of Ockham — the Occam’s Razor guy — had to flee to imperial protection because, although not a radical Fraticello, he merely considered well-founded the doctrine that Christ and company didn’t own anything.
† In “Angel Pope and Papal Antichrist”, Church History (Jun., 1978)
On this date* in 1561, the once-powerful Cardinal Carlo Carafa was put to death by strangulation in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo — victim of deadly Vatican politics.
Fruit of a powerful Neapolitan noble house — it was a Carafa who stuck fig leafs on Michelangelo nudes — Carlo Carafa went out on campaign in the dynastic wars chewing up the peninsula in the 16th century. In some outlandish vindictive pique, he elevated an offense from a Spaniard into not only a reason to switch sides to the French, but a reason to do stuff like massacre Spaniards in a captured hospital. Class act all the way.
In this capacity, he had the whip hand in Vatican foreign policy in the late 1550′s … until the growing reports of his reprobate lifestyle led Paul IV to demote him. Virulently anti-Protestant, the obnoxiously upright Paul had been preoccupied intensifying the Inquisition. He took personal umbrage once convinced of his relative’s unworthiness: “He had planned to make his reign the period of great reforms,” writes Kenneth Meyer Setton. “The corruption of Cardinal Carlo Carafa had made a travesty of his efforts.”
now you should mourn
handsome Ascanio himself, Ascanio, O pity!
Ascanio, whom Carafa loved more than his own eyes:
Ascanio, whose face was handsomer
than that of the Trojan cupbearer, who pours for the gods
(Carafa had a plentiful menu of heterosexual scandals attributed, too. And other good stuff like starting an idiotic war of choice — with Spain, of course — that despoiled Church coffers and reversed the Vatican’s strategic interests.)
In such a state of disgrace — and more importantly, having been stymied in their anti-Spanish foreign policy — the Carafa house and faction was in line for something more serious than public humiliation when the disappointed octogenarian pontiff passed away later in 1559.
Upon the succession of a rival Medici pope, Pius IV, Carlo Carafa was hailed before a kangaroo court with his brother and partner-in-dissipation Giovanni on a rap sheet with every real and imagined indiscretion of their wild years.† Carlo was strangled and Giovanni Carafa beheaded.
Despite the nephews’ undoubted viciousness, their executions were basically about power and policy.
And though they had also screwed up policy, the next pope decided to look forward-backward, not backward-backward. In 1567, Pius V posthumously rehabilitated the naughty dead Carlo; today, you’ll find his now-vindicated remains interred at the family chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva cathedral.
“The people wish to be deceived; let them be deceived.”
On this date in 1354, Cola di Rienzi (or Rienzo) was slain by a miserly Roman mob — rather a lynching than an execution, but by any name the tragic end to one of history’s most amazing political careers.*
“Almost the only man,” in the estimation of his admiring biographer Edward Bulwer-Lytton,** “who ever rose from the rank of a citizen to a power equal to that of monarchs without a single act of violence or treachery.”
So magnetic was that era’s revival of classical learning that young Rienzi’s plebeian parents found a way on an innkeeper’s wages to immerse the boy in Cicero, Seneca, and the rest. As Gibbon put it, “the gift of a liberal education, which they painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end.” (Surely this is an object lesson for present-day families contemplating the daunting cost of university education.)
And the oratorical gifts he thereby developed found ready exercise lamenting Rome’s medieval degradation.
This View of the Campo Vaccino actually dates to 1636, but you get the idea. “Campo Vaccino”: that’s “cow pasture,” also known (to you, me, and Julius Caesar) as the Roman Forum.
Rome had bled away the grandeur of its imperial past without recovering the liberty of its populace. A haughty and dissolute aristocracy tyrannized the brackish city: a brawl between rival factions took Rienzi’s own brother’s life, with no prospect of justice.
Added to this civic humiliation (though only fortuitous for Rienzi’s political opportunity), the papacy itself had decamped for its captivity in Avignon.
What to do?
How about — overthrow the bastards?
Astonishingly, for Rienzi, to dare was to do: on Pentecost in 1347, he rallied a Roman mob and proclaimed the Republic re-established — taking for himself the ancient honorific of Tribune and the real power of an autocrat. The nobility routed in disarray, or else submitted to the sudden new authority.
For the balance of the year, Rienzi’s word was law in Rome, and as a messianic, popular dictator he cleared woods of bandits, imposed the death penalty for (all) murderers, and beat the aristocracy’s re-invasion with a citizen militia. He audaciously began to resume the primacy of the caput mundi: as “Tribune”, Rienzi summoned delegations from the other Italian cities, and presumed to arbitrate the disputes of neighboring kingdoms. Audacity veered into delirium as he pressed demands on the likes of the Holy Roman Emperor. He acquired a taste for fine wine and good clothes.
“Never perhaps has the energy and effect of a single mind been more remarkably felt than in the sudden, though transient, reformation of Rome by the tribune Rienzi,” Gibbon marveled. “A den of robbers was converted to the discipline of a camp or convent: patient to hear, swift to redress, inexorable to punish, his tribunal was always accessible to the poor and stranger; nor could birth, or dignity, or the immunities of the church, protect the offender or his accomplices.”
After a long spell in exile, he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor and transferred to the papacy, where he remained comfortably imprisoned for a couple of years. When the pontiff’s hat changed heads to Innocent VI, the latter freed the illustrious ex-Tribune and dispatched him back to Rome under the title of Senator — intending him a catspaw to re-assert the supremacy the papacy had abandoned by moving away.
Within weeks of arrival in 1354, Rienzi again made himself master of the city.
And within months thereafter, he had fallen again — to his death.
He is charged in this last term with severity (the execution of a high-born freebooter, Fra Monreale, in particular), with avarice and abuse of power and once more with political incompetence.
Gibbon claims that Rienzi “contracted the habits of intemperance and cruelty: adversity had chilled his enthusiasm, without fortifying his reason or virtue; and that youthful hope, that lively assurance, which is the pledge of success, was now succeeded by the cold impotence of distrust and despair.” We incline to prefer Bulwer-Lytton’s more generous estimation of a man who with no resource save his own brilliance twice recovered to his low-born person the tattered remnants of the purple and dared against a thousand mighty antagonists to lift it on the standard of the Gracchi. Flaws, and they fatal, he possessed in abundance: but greatness even more.
At any rate, all the scolds upon Rienzi’s imperfections were so much froth in 1354. He certainly did not succumb to the greater virtue of the polis, but merely to its shortsighted refusal to bear a levy:
it was from a gabelle on wine and salt that he fell. To preserve Rome from the tyrants it was necessary to maintain an armed force; to pay the force a tax was necessary; the tax was imposed — and the multitude joined with the tyrants, and their cry was, “Perish the traitor who has made the gabelle!” This was their only charge — this the only crime that their passions and their fury could cite against him.
Rienzi’s eloquence, so often his decisive weapon, failed to move the shortsighted mob that besieged him, and he was hauled to a platform in the Capitol where public executions had been performed at his behest. “A whole hour, without voice or motion, he stood amidst the multitude half naked and half dead: their rage was hushed into curiosity and wonder: the last feelings of reverence and compassion yet struggled in his favour; and they might have prevailed, if a bold assassin had not plunged a dagger in his breast.” (Gibbon)
If this amazing character’s contradictions seem difficult to reconcile and his actions sometimes perplexing, Bulwer-Lytton argues in Rienzi’s defense that we must view him as a complex man ultimately fired not by political ambition but by religious zealotry. One thinks of Savonarola, the prim monk who mastered Florence and perished in flames, save for the essential detail: Rienzi’s loss “was bitterly regretted … for centuries afterwards, whenever that wretched and degenerate populace dreamed of glory or sighed for justice, they recalled the bright vision of their own victim, and deplored the fate of Cola di Rienzi.”
Statue of Rienzi in Rome. (cc) image from ZeroOne.
* And surely in keeping with the time-honored way for Roman chiefs to fall.
** We’ve encountered Bulwer-Lytton glancingly in these pages; his novel Zanoni climaxes with the beheading of its fictional title character in one of the last carts of the French Revolution’s Terror, and he wrote a novel (savaged by Thackeray) about executed intellectual Eugene Aram. The “biography” in question for this piece is actually a work of historical fiction, Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes; the quoted sections are from Bulwer-Lytton’s (non-fiction) afterword.