1570: Aonio Paleario, Italian religious reformer

July 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date, Antonio della Pagliara was hanged across the Tiber from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome for heresy.

The present-day view from the square where Paleario is thought to have been put to death, over the Ponte Sant’Angelo’s span across the Tiber to the Vatican’s imposing citadel.

Better known as Aonio Paleario (English Wikipedia entry | the considerably deeper Italian), the humanist scholar grew into his intellectual career just as Martin Luther’s doctrine was shaking Christendom.

Paleario’s positions were dangerously — and at length, fatally — close to Protestantism. He counted himself a humanist, a great admirer of Erasmus, who from the Low Countries managed to hold his critical positions without running afoul of the Catholic Church.

This would prove an increasingly difficult trick as the century unfolded … especially in the pope’s back yard.

Paleario’s most particular offenses were to take what amounts to the Lutheran side on the primacy of scriptural text over ecclesiastical tradition, and of salvation through Christ alone without the Church’s intermediation. (He also denied Purgatory.)

Since the Italian academic also cottoned to the Protestant-humanist critique of clerical corruption, he pitched Martin Luther and John Calvin on the notion of convening a Christendom-wide ecclesiastical council to reconcile competing sects. He seems to have wanted to reconcile the reformist current of humanism still within the Catholic tradition, and that of those critics who had broken, perhaps not yet irrevocably, with Rome.

The effort ultimately foundered. Instead, the curia-approved Council of Trent formulated a Roman Catholic doctrine that insured the permanent schism with Protestantism.

The Counter-Reformation was on. Still, with contending theologies — and contending polities — afoot in the Italian quiltwork plus his own towering reputation as the greatest orator in Italy, Paleario was able to find protectors and carry on. He taught in Siena, Lucca and Milan for more than three decades, surviving two bouts with the Inquisition before a Rome in crackdown mode finally pinned a heresy rap on him.

By that time, the septuagenarian didn’t much bother to fight it.

If your Eminences have so many credible witnesses against me, there is no need to give yourselves or me any further trouble … Judge, therefore, and condemn Aonio; satisfy my adversaries, and fulfil your office.

The office was fulfilled consuming the old man in flames, but they did extend the favor of hanging him (and apparently exposing the corpse for several days) first.

A book uncertainly attributed to Paleario, Beneficio di Criso (The Benefit of Christ’s Death) is available free at Google Books.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1302: Dante Alighieri condemned

5 comments March 10th, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On this day in 1302, the governing commune of the city of Florence condemned to death Dante Alighieri, statesman, philosopher, and above all, poet. Arguably the greatest mind of his generation, Dante is most famous for his authorship of the Divine Comedy, relating his journeys through, successively, hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Born in 1265 to a noble family of Florence that, while not the city’s most prominent family, had already seen several of his ancestors banished as a result of political turmoil, Dante could hardly have avoided becoming embroiled in public life had he even wanted to. In brief, a long-running struggle between pro-imperial (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) and pro-papal factions was finally won by the pro-papal forces, known as the Guelphs. Two decisive battles in 1289 established both Florence’s independence (particularly from their old nemesis, Pisa) and the rule of the Guelphs, Dante’s own party.

Dante is likely to have taken part in those battles and was active in city politics in the following decade, culminating in a turn in 1300 as prior (one of six key counsellors to the city, serving a two-month term). Florence prided itself on a tradition of democratic rule going back to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1250.

Persona Non Grata

Giotto painted Dante prior to his exile — the oldest portrait of Dante known.

Unfortunately, by the time Dante took on the priorate, the old rivalries had reshaped themselves into new factions eerily parallel to their predecessors: the so-called “Black” Guelphs, who aligned themselves with the Pope (as of 1294, Boniface VIII), and “White” Guelphs, who took a more moderate political stance and saw themselves as defending an independent Florence from the Pope and his allies (namely, the Blacks).

Things got so bad that, at the time of Dante’s priorate, the city’s ruling body banished leaders of both sides in an effort to stabilize the city. The pope took the opportunity to send emissaries to Florence on the pretext of negotiating a peace. After more than a year of this maneuvering, the commune sent Dante and two others to have words with Boniface in Rome in 1301.

The Pope “invited” Dante to stay in Rome while his companions returned to Florence to try to bring the commune around. In the meantime, the Pope’s key man had got himself into Florence and helped the Blacks take power, whereupon they confiscated properties and levied fines.

Dante was ordered to appear before a tribunal to answer for his alleged crimes. When he did not show up, he was banished to two years of exile, permanently banned from holding city office, and ordered to pay a further fine of some five thousand florins–a staggering sum–within three days. When that did not happen, either (Dante was apparently in Siena, a short ways from Florence, when he heard this news), the commune confiscated all of his goods and condemned him to death by burning should he ever return.

Fortunately, there were others in Italy at the time who had more sense, but Dante spent the rest of his life–almost another twenty years–wandering from city to city with his sons. He was excluded from an amnesty in 1311, and when he refused the terms of another in 1315, his death sentence was not only reaffirmed, but extended to include his sons. Despite all this, he still held out hope of returning to Florence to be crowned as poet, declining to be so crowned in Bologna as little as a year or two before he died.

Art in Exile

It was over the course of that time in exile that Dante composed his political and philosophical works, together with what must be considered his single greatest contribution to letters, the three-volume Divina Commedia.

There is no way to do justice to any of these works, much less all of them, but in the present context it is worth noting that in three key works — the Commedia (Dante’s title is this simple), Il Convivio (or The Banquet), and De Monarchia (On Monarchy) — Dante develops a serious, even strikingly modern, religious political philosophy.

In contrast to many of his religious contemporaries, taking issue with the great St. Augustine even as he espouses positions derived from Thomas Aquinas, Dante argues in favor of a strong central secular authority, specifically an emperor, and even more particularly, that this authority should be understood by Christians as co-equal with, not subordinate to, the spiritual authority of the Church: “two suns,” he says, rather than the sun and the moon (which merely reflects the light of the sun).

Indeed, he held out an almost messianic hope for the return of an emperor who would restore peace and order. He even wrote public letters to the Emperor Henry VII requesting that he restore justice in Florence (and this is surely a factor in the commune’s treatment of him with respect to amnesty). When Henry died before accomplishing these things, much of Dante’s hope for imperial cohesion died along with him.

(Consider this Open Yale Courses podcast series for more Dante appreciation.)

He Knew Beatrice All Along

It would be nothing short of travesty to write anything of this length about Dante and not mention Beatrice, the love of his life from the age of nine, when he first laid eyes on her, to the day he died in exile. Beatrice, who only spoke to Dante once and who died an early death, directly inspired his poetic-explicatory work, the Vita Nuova (New Life), an exemplar of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”) movement in poetry. As a character in the Commedia, Beatrice sends Virgil to rescue Dante from a dark forest in the Inferno, and guides him through the spheres of Heaven in Paradiso.

“Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini and the Sphere of Flame”, one of William Blake‘s (uncompleted) series of watercolors illustrating Dante’s magnum opus.

Despite two decades of exile, Dante never gave up hope of returning to Florence in his lifetime, and clearly hoped (perhaps “expected” is more accurate) to be united with his other true love in the next. His body remains in Ravenna, where he died and was buried in 1321.

Florentines wish they could have him back.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Famous,Florence,Guest Writers,Intellectuals,Italy,Nobility,Not Executed,Other Voices,Papal States,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,The Worm Turns

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1649: Charles I

34 comments January 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1649, the struggle between parliament and crown cost the Stuart monarch Charles I his head.

Charles‘ political clumsiness and unreconstructed authoritarianism had seen the realm whose unitary sovereignty he insisted upon blunder from disaster to disaster: into bankruptcy, military defeat, religious conflict and the English Civil War.

The assignation of cause and consequence in that war’s genesis has much exercised historians.

What is beyond dispute is that the confrontation between monarch and subject, pitting against each other political and economic epochs, theories of state and power, rates as one of history’s most captivating courtroom dramas.

Charles refused to answer the court’s charge of treason, occasioned most particularly by the king’s fomenting the Second Civil War while already a defeated prisoner of parliament following the first Civil War. He rested firmly on royal prerogatives against what some interlocutors take to be an almost desperate plea by his judges for some hint of acknowledgment that could open the door to compromise:

[A] King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here.

It must be borne in mind that the trial of a king was a completely unprecedented event. Charles might be forgiven his attitude, even if it smacked of the impolitic high-handedness that had forced this deadly test of powers.

Parliament’s position — here in the words of its President — is distinctly in the stream of political discourse (if not always actual practice) ascendant in the West to this day.

Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England.

And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — “when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater.”

The modern and the medieval, facing each other at the bar.


A fragment from a World War II bomb-damaged and only-recently-rediscovered Hippolyte Delaroche painting situating Charles in the Christlike pose of enduring the mockery of his captors.

Charles played his lordly disdain to the end, refusing to admit parliament’s jurisdiction by making any sort of plea.

The line between heroic defiance and pig-headed obstinacy being very much in the eye of the beholder, the confrontation is typically played straight-up for its arresting clash of principles — as in the 1970 biopic Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as the monarch:Probably more troubling for the parliamentary party than the regicide taboo was consideration that the execution would transfer royalist loyalties from a man safely imprisoned to an heir beyond their power, who could be expected to (as in fact he did) resume the civil war.

Competing philosophies expounded for the competing interests; the dispute involved the era’s intellectual titans, in conflict over the most fundamental concepts of the state. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus The Leviathan as a royalist exile in Paris, and its abhorrence for rebellion and divided sovereignty unmistakably reflects the English Civil War experience. John Milton earned his bread as a republican polemicist; his poetic celebration of Satan’s failed rebellion in Paradise Lost, written after the Stuart restoration, can be read as a political critique.

Separated at the block? Charles I and Hobbes’ Leviathan

It’s conventionally thought that the beheading was conducted by a radical minority, though that supposition is debatable, colored as it is by the ultimate restoration of the crown. But although England would have a king again, the weight of political authority would steadily, permanently, gravitate towards parliament, organ of the merchant classes who would steer England henceforward.

Did it have the right? Two implacable powers each claimed an indivisible object; “between equal rights, force decides.” So on this cold winter’s afternoon — Charles wore thick undergarments, so he would not shiver with the appearance of fright — the deposed king was marched to a scaffold erected at Whitehall. He gave a short final address, with the famous words for his principle of martyrdom — “a sovereign and a subject are clean different things” — then laid his head on a low block, where a masked executioner (never definitively identified) cleanly chopped it off.

After the monarchy’s restoration, Charles was canonized as a saint by the Church of England: he’s still the last person so venerated, an odd salute to a mortal career of unalloyed arrogance and incompetence. Observance of the cult was toned down in the 19th century, although a Society of King Charles the Martyr dedicated to its preservation still exists; monarchists of a more secular inclination also continue to mark his martyrdom on this anniversary.

Less reverent by far was Monty Python’s homage:

“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it.”

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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