5

Medieval Rome and Avignon

Roman Christianity began (largely) as an imperial project. That is to say, it came up from below but was consolidated on high. The first Christian churches in Rome, such as the first Saint Peter’s, were paid for by the emperors, notably by Constantine. This was bound to change as the Church accumulated power, prestige, and money—as the political concept we think of as the Papal States replaced the older forms of the Roman Empire, as the Papacy took over from the Imperium. The building that most vividly marks this transition is Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the city’s earliest pilgrimage churches, atop the Esquiline Hill. In this undertaking, for the first time, the onus of church building shifted from the emperor to the pope.

Santa Maria Maggiore has been so much restored and rebuilt that almost nothing visible in it today, except for its mosaics, dates from before the Renaissance. The original foundation of the church, however, was made by Pope Liberius in 352–56. It was financed by a childless rich Roman patrician couple, who wished to make a spectacular offering to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Near the site of this church had been a Roman temple dedicated to a goddess of childbirth, Juno Lucina, much frequented by women in late pregnancy; the raising of a basilica to the Christian birth goddess, Mary, in such a spot is one of the direct transferences of pagan into Christian cult in which the early history of Christian Rome abounds. It is also called the Church of Our Lady of the Snow, because of a miraculous snowfall that supposedly took place outside it in August, at the height of the Roman summer, perhaps in 358. In memory of this supposed event, every year a bagful of white petals is shaken free high up inside the nave and allowed to drift to the floor.

The outstanding works of art in Santa Maria Maggiore are the apse mosaics, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, by the thirteenth-century painter Jacopo Torriti, who had worked on frescoes for the Upper Church of San Francesco in Assisi and came to Rome to work for the Franciscan Pope Nicholas IV in the 1280s. In them, the figure of the Virgin has equal importance and size with that of her Son, Jesus—an iconographic invention which would soon become commonplace, but was not at the time. The chronicler Gregorovius described how the apse mosaic “fills the building with a solemn golden splendour that is more than earthly. When illumined by the sunlight falling through the purple curtains, it reminds us of that glowing heaven, bathed in whose glories Dante saw SS. Bernard, Francis, Dominic, and Bonaventura. Then the spell of the work seizes us with its radiance like the music of some majestic anthem.”

This is one of the few mosaic works in Rome that one may compare, in grandeur and intensity, to the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. Another is to be found in one of the ancient Roman churches, that of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Its history is actually much older than Christianity, since it was built, in the early sixth century C.E., into and on top of two Roman structures whose remains stood in the Forum of Vespasian. One of these was the Temple of Romulus—not Romulus the legendary cofounder of the city, but oneValerius Romulus, son of the Emperor Maxentius, who died in 309 and was designated a Roman god, with a Roman basilica raised in his honor. The other, adjacent to it, was the Biblioteca Pacis or Library of Peace. Both these sites were given by Theodoric the Great, the Christian king of the Ostrogoths, and his daughter Amalasuntha, to Pope Felix IV (reigned 526–30).

The pope had the idea of uniting the two buildings with a new structure over them, which was dedicated to a pair of Arab Christian doctors, Cosmas and Damian, brothers martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian. The pope seems to have meant it to be a Christian version of, or answer to, the cult of the pagan twins Castor and Pollux, to whom a nearby temple had been dedicated. Fortunately, this radical change did not end in the destruction of the old temple fabric; in fact, the Temple of Romulus, which now serves as a vestibule to the church, compares to the Pantheon as the best-preserved ancient temple in Rome.

The finest thing about the church, however, is the sixth-century mosaic in its apse, depicting the parousia or Second Coming of Christ.

In its center, his right arm extended in a gesture of recognition and blessing of the faithful, is Jesus Christ, robed in gold and descending a heavenly stair of many-colored clouds, in whose strata pink and crimson predominate, fading out to silvery gray as the eye moves higher.

It is, almost literally, a stairway to Paradise.

On the right of Jesus is Saint Peter, and on the left Saint Paul, both in white Roman togas; they are ushering the martyrs Cosmas and Damian into his divine presence. The new saints carry martyr’s crowns. On the far left is Pope Felix, holding a model of his new church; a figure of Saint Theodore, or more likely the Emperor Theodoric, the donor of the site, appears on the far right. Below this zone, which fills the curving wall of the apse, is a band of mosaic sheep, those ancient symbols of obedience—the flock of the faithful. There are twelve of them, symbolizing the twelve apostles.

Rome has seven chief pilgrimage churches, the greatest of which is the Basilica of Saint Peter, where the apostle and first pope was allegedly buried after his martyrdom. The others are the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, San Giovanni in Laterano (the actual cathedral of Rome), Saint Sebastian Outside the Walls, Santa Maria Maggiore (the greatest church dedicated specifically to the cult of Jesus’ mother, Mary), Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls. The “walls” in each case are the Aurelian wall, erected around 271–75 C.E. to girdle the city. Only one of them, Saint Sebastian Outside the Walls, has no works of art of special interest; its attraction—now much diminished, because of the general loss of interest in the cult of relics as distinct from the drawing-power of famous works of art—lay in its relics, among which is a stone carrying the footprints of Jesus, an arrow which once pierced the body of that popular third-century martyr Saint Sebastian, and a fragment of the column to which he was tied while his fellow soldiers, having learned of his Christian conversion, shot at him. Of course, other pilgrimage churches do contain artworks, some of them fine; but the emphasis had always been more on their saintly associations than on their quality, sometimes very slight, as aesthetic objects.

The Church of Saint Lawrence was dedicated to San Lorenzo, the deacon martyred by the Emperor Valerian in the year 258.

Pious legend (no more than that) has it that the Holy Grail, the cup, dish, or chalice from which Christ and his apostles drank at the Last Supper, which had contained the wine converted into his holy blood, passed into Saint Peter’s hands and thence to Saint Lawrence’s safekeeping, and that he hid it: in Huesca, Spain, during the third century, according to one version, or in the sanctuary of Montserrat in Catalunya, by another. Yet another version of Grail fantasy has the precious chalice entrusted to the protection of the Knights Templar. A fourth places it in the hands of a noble Irish family, the Dwyers; a fifth holds (insecurely) that it was brought to Lake Memphremagog in Canada a century before Columbus sailed the Atlantic. There are many versions of the post-crucifixion wanderings of the Grail, some pseudo-historical, others openly fictional, all of them absurd.1 Several Roman churches are dedicated to Saint Lawrence. The place of his burning is marked by the minor Church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna. His supposed burial spot is commemorated by the pilgrimage Church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. The two chief relics of his martyrdom are a gridiron on which he was supposedly roasted (in another Roman church, San Lorenzo in Lucina) and his burned head, kept in a reliquary in the Vatican but not, it seems, regularly shown to the faithful. Considering what this gruesome souvenir might look like after the ravages of fire and time, that may be just as well.

The Roman Church has always had a tendresse for early-Christian virgin martyrs, the prettier the better. One of the earliest of them, the most honored, and the only one to have a pilgrimage church dedicated to her, was the fourth-century Saint Agnes, whose faith remained steadfast through trials (inflicted, according to one version, during the persecution by Diocletian, whereas others claim it was that by Decius) that would have sunk any ordinary virgin. She was twelve or thirteen. No sooner had the imperial edict for Christianity been published than she publicly declared that she was a Christian. First the enraged pagans tried to burn her to death, and as a prelude stripped her naked; but she was able to cover her body and hide it from the onlookers with her flowing hair, which miraculously grew to an immense length before the very eyes of witnesses. Then a pagan judge threatened to consign her to a brothel—but when a young man cast lascivious looks on her, God struck him blind. Finally, she was dispatched with a sword. A shrine was built on the place of her martyrdom, on the edge of what is now Piazza Navona. Gradually Sant’Agnese in Agone (as it came to be known) was added to by the faithful, and then by architects working for those papal sponsors the Pamphili family, the greatest of whom was Francesco Borromini.

Of Rome’s seven major pilgrimage churches, the “old” Basilica of Saint Peter was by far the most important. First, and most obviously, it was believed to be the shrine of the Apostle Peter, whom Christ had entrusted with the task of maintaining his Church. Here, from Charlemagne in 800 C.E. onward, emperors were crowned; they were not recognized as emperors throughout Europe unless they had undergone the papal rituals of Saint Peter’s. Here, important treaties were signed, sealed, and deposited on the apostle’s tomb. Here, Romans and all foreigners went to pray for intercession.

This first Saint Peter’s—destined to be torn down in the sixteenth century, and then gradually replaced by the enormous basilica which occupies its site today—was largely built of the pieces of demolished ancient Roman buildings. These recycled fragments were known as spoglie, “spoils” or “leftovers,” and from the fourth century until the thirteenth, this process of gradually building a new Rome from the recovered, refurbished, and recycled fragments of antique buildings was the biggest single industry the city had. Medieval Rome did not merely rise on the site of ancient Rome; it was, quite literally, made from its remains. The first Saint Peter’s was the most important example of this process, but medieval Rome had more than twenty major churches—Santa Maria in Trastevere and Saints Cosmas and Damian being only two of these—built around salvaged Roman colonnades. The two most important of them were Constantine’s: the cathedral, San Giovanni in Laterano, and the first Saint Peter’s. The Lateran had two sets of recycled columns: some forty big granite ones, each thirty feet tall, in the nave, and forty-two much shorter ones of verde antico marble from Thessaly dividing the aisles. Though all vestiges of the first Saint Peter’s were lost in the demolition of the church, the architects’ records show that its forty-four main columns were recycled shafts of gray and red granite, cipollino, and other marbles.

Ancient Roman builders had been fond of using highly colored marbles for their shafts, terminating in white Composite capitals. Color was a sign of preciousness, particularly since colored stone had to be brought a long way; there was none in the environs of Rome. The stone came from all over the Empire: red porphyry from Egypt, green serpentine from Sparta, giallo antico from Tunisia, pavonazzetto from Turkey. These imports were ostentatiously expensive in ancient Roman times, and hardly any cheaper in medieval Christian times—but the skilled labor force needed to shape them, which no longer existed, was not needed for these ready-mades. In any case, with the weakening of the Empire and its navy, blocks of exotic stone could no longer be brought to Rome from the outer parts of the Empire, and medieval builders could not have used them. So “found” column shafts had to be employed. Some were exported from Rome to distant parts of Europe. When the Emperor Charlemagne was creating his Palatine Chapel at Aachen in the late 780s, his builders brought luxurious ancient marbles, and in particular whole columns, from Rome and Ravenna. And sometimes, in an effort to assert a more metaphorical connection between the ancient Romans and Charlemagne, they faked it: some of the “Roman” capitals in the chapel at Aachen are actually Carolingian imitations of spoglia, made on the spot.

There is no doubt that, for the early-medieval faithful, the presence of ancient Roman columns supporting God’s “modern” Roman house signified continuity—the passage of Rome’s lost authority to Christianity. It must have contributed powerfully to the sense that the first Saint Peter’s was the true center of the true faith.

As a result, a kind of “third Rome”—which to the pious soon became the first Rome—grew up around the pilgrimage church of Saint Peter’s. Known as the Borgo, it centered on the Castel Sant’Angelo, that huge, drumlike fortification built around the original tomb of Hadrian. It was defined by the “Leonine walls,” a line of enclosure dating from the time of Pope Leo IV (reigned 847–55), which ran from the Castel Sant’Angelo up to a point behind Saint Peter’s, turned, and descended to the bank of the Tiber. These defined and sheltered the Città Leonina, or Borgo, consisting of the basilica, the smaller churches, papal apartments, monasteries, living quarters for the clergy, and hostels for pilgrims: a clutter of buildings which, because of their papal associations, enjoyed an ill-defined juridical independence from the rest of Rome which continued until the late seventeenth century. This independence was an origin of what became, by law, the separation of Vatican City (which corresponded, more or less, to the Borgo) as the last vestige of the Papal States.

As early as the ninth century, the Borgo had five hostels for pilgrims, six monasteries to serve these hostels and the basilica, and temporary cells, a warren of them, attached to the basilica for hermits and the poor. But by the thirteenth century, the Borgo had swollen to become the undisputed tourist center of the city—“the Via Veneto of ancient Rome,” in Richard Krautheimer’s words. It had so many rival inns that their owners competed to steal one another’s guests by force, which must have led to some picturesque and noisy squabbles on the piazzas.

Beyond the Borgo were the sectors of Rome known as the abitato and the disabitato. The abitato was where people lived, worked, and worshipped. The disabitato was a kind of suburban desert, where nobody wanted to be and invaders came to grief. A chronicler in 1155 recorded how, on the edges of the disabitato, half the army of Barbarossa had been killed by “green snakes, black toads and winged dragons … whose breath poisoned the air as did the stench of rotting dead bodies.”

But the abitato was busy, mostly with Christian expansion. By the fourth century, Church revenues from its holdings in North Africa, Greece, Egypt, and Syria amounted to 3,700 gold solidi, roughly $25 million in modern money, every year, and much of this was funneled directly to Rome for its building plans. Thirty-three churches in the abitato are mentioned prior to 1050, of which twelve still exist today. Many more would come later.

One of the chief parts of the abitato, in the abutment between the Vatican, the Borgo, the Tiber, and the Janiculan Hill, came to be known as Trastevere—the name a compression of trans Tiberim, “across the Tiber.” By the end of the thirteenth century, it had become the only rione (regione or district; it was number XIII) on the far side of the river, and it was united to the Borgo in 1585—an administrative gesture which was supposed to reduce, but in fact did not, the Trasteverini’s persistent habit of seeing and speaking of themselves as the only true and authentic Romans, and of all other Romans as foreigners. This is embedded in the name of Trastevere’s main annual festival, the Festa di Noantri, the “Festival of Us Others.” Local pride has always been a big matter in Trastevere, whose inhabitants traditionally resent any effort to horn in on it. A famous example, undocumented but almost certainly true, is said to have been an attempt by Mussolini to intrude upon the procession that accompanied this festa. Part of its festivity was a row of pasteboard arches spanning the Via di Lungara, which led to the area’s main church, Santa Maria in Trastevere. Advised by his sometimes maladroit propaganda chief, Starace, the Duce was gratified to see that these arches bore patriotic mottoes—“Trastevere, Trastevere, now you shine with a new light/You have the Madonna and Il Duce, watching over you!” But, alas for the dignity of the occasion and its propaganda, some Trasteverino got to the arches the night before with a ladder and a paint pot and scrawled on the back of them another message. “Stanchi di tanta luce…,” it ran: “Sick and tired of all this light, we want to stay in darkness: tell them all to take it up the ass, the Duce, the Madonna, and the King.”

The emblematic figure for Trasteveran dissent and bloody-mindedness was, without rival, the Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791–1863). A life-sized stone portrait of him in frock coat and top hat presides over a square in the popular quarter. It was paid for by public subscription—a rare, perhaps unique, indication of a Roman poet’s popularity. His following in Trastevere can perhaps be gauged by the fact that the public kept filching the wooden walking stick with which the sculptor had endowed his effigy. (Eventually it was replaced by an iron one, which looked like ebony but was too heavy to steal and brandish.)

Nobody could question Belli’s supremacy as the dialect bard of the Roman people. Partly because he wrote only in romanesco, the Roman language—a parallel tongue to Italian, but difficult for non-Romans to grasp—he has always been the favorite literary son of the city. (Dante may belong to all Italians, but nobody but a Roman owns Belli.) “Infected with clap? Me?” begins one sonnet of 1832, “The Honest Whore,”

      But you amaze me—

      I am as clean as an ermine,

      Look here, how this linen blouse

      Would put a lily to shame with its whiteness!

He wrote with an undeceived pessimism, interlaid with raucous humor, which rose from the lower levels of Roman life. “Faith and hope are beautiful,” says a sonnet on the Carnival of 1834, “but in this wide world there are only two sure things: death and taxes.” But there is another reason for his popularity, too. Belli’s black humor, his spasms of obscenity, his blithely cutting disregard for the proprieties of papal and clerical Rome, all reverberate with the spirit of popular Roman dissent—a spirit in which he alone seemed able to publish. He wrote entirely in terms of Petrarchan fourteen-line sonnets, and produced more than 2,200 of them, which add up collectively to an anti-image of papal Rome—its excesses of wealth and poverty, the decadence of its ecclesiastical rule, its pantomimes of sanctity, the gross superstitions of its faithful. And he came up with burning denunciations of hypocrisy:

      Truth is like the shits—

      When it gets out of control and it runs

      You waste your time, my daughter, clenching your ass,

      Twisting and trembling, to hold it in.

      In the same way, if the mouth isn’t stopped,

      Holy Truth sputters out,

      It comes out of your guts,

      Even if you vowed silence, like a Trappist monk.

As sometimes happens with those who were radical in their youth, Belli turned conservative later. This master of insult to authority joined the papal government and served it as a political and artistic censor, repressing work by such supposed enemies of religious order as Shakespeare, Verdi, and Rossini. (The official prejudice against Verdi stemmed from the offense taken by some Italian conservatives at the very initials of his name: VERDI could be read, and was, as a disguised form of propaganda for Italian unity under the king rather than the pope—“Vittorio Emmanuele Re d’Italia.”)

In the middle of the river, linked to its Trastevere bank by the Ponte Cestio, and to the other side by an ancient (62 B.C.E.) footbridge, the Ponte Fabricio, is the Tiber Island.

Legend (for which there is no historical basis) claims the island began with the Tarquins’ grain stores, which, around 510 B.C.E., an indignant Roman citizenry dumped in the river; mud and silt accumulated on these, and presently an island formed. A temple to Aesculapius, god of healing, was built on it at the end of the third century B.C.E. But soon Rome was stricken by a plague against which its medical resources were powerless.

The Sibylline Books were consulted. They directed that the fourth-century effigy of Aesculapius should be removed from its cult center at Epidaurus and brought by ship to the Tiber. The boat grounded on the island, and a giant snake, the incarnation of the god himself, was seen to slither overboard and take up a position on dry land. The plague receded. From then on, the Tiber Island was associated with healing, and hospitals for the sick were built there.

However, if there was any single factor in changing the map and layout of ancient Rome, producing a new, medieval shape for the city, it was the combination of Saint Peter’s supposed grave and the Borgo. And added to that were the relics, prime target of faith tourism, which connected to the institution of periodic Jubilees.

The word “jubilee” derives from the Hebrew yobhel, meaning a year of special significance in which the shofar or ram’s-horn trumpet was blown to announce a period of peace and social equality. The Old Testament laid down that Jubilees were to be commemorated every fifty years, but this was not insisted on by the New Testament. Originally, there was a connection between Jubilees (also known as Holy Years) and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, but after the seventh century the Muslim conquest of Palestine made this all but impossible for Christians. So the idea of the Jubilee became focused on Rome, and the first was announced in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII (reigned 1294–1303). Boniface had meant there to be a Jubilee every hundred years. But in 1350, Pope Clement VI (reigned 1342–52), exiled in Avignon, shortened the gap to fifty years; and in 1390, Boniface IX (reigned 1389–1404) shortened it once more, to thirty-three years, the length of Christ’s life on earth. The humanist Pope Nicholas V brought the interval down again, to twenty-five years. The last Jubilee year celebrated by the Church was 2000. Then there were “extraordinary” Jubilees, outside the normal liturgical calendar. Relics played an important part in all of these, stimulating devotion and strengthening religious fervor.

It is difficult to believe, but hardly possible to exaggerate, what the cult of relics meant for medieval Rome. In Krautheimer’s words, it was the relics “that made Rome the glowing center of the 13th-century world, that with the [papal] court made Rome rich by drawing pilgrims to it.” Today, millions of people flock to Rome to see—or at least be exposed to—famous works of art. Their fourteenth-century counterparts did not care so much about the art, which in itself was not considered a reason to travel. But as Gregorovius pointed out, in that Jubilee year of 1300, “immense profits accrued to the Romans, who have always lived solely on the money of foreigners.” In that holy and hysterical year, at the great pilgrimage Church of San Paolo fuori le Mura, two clerks could be seen standing all day and all night with huge rakes, raking in the coins left by pilgrims. The Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani thought that 200,000 pilgrims were in Rome at any given moment in 1300, not even counting people who were there on other business or just passing through without religious motives—“and all was well ordered, without tumult or strife, and I can bear witness to this for I was present and saw it.” If true, and it probably was, this was an enormous figure. No tourism industry, except in the crudest and least organized form, existed then. There was no system of mass travel. No jumbo jets or hotel chains existed, and there were, of course, no American or Japanese tourists. The population of Europe was far smaller than it is today. Tourism, to borrow the unpleasant term of today’s jargon, was solely “faith-based” and undertaken in the hope of benefits in the afterlife. This was the attraction of the “Holy Year” of 1300. Villani’s account makes it clear that large, indeed extravagant, spiritual rewards were promised by the pope. “Within the whole course of this said year to whatever Roman should visit continuously for thirty days the churches of the blessed apostles St. Peter and St. Paul and to all other [non-Romans] who should do likewise for fifteen days, there should be granted full and entire remission of all their sins, both the guilt and the punishment thereof”—after full confession, of course.

These were definitely major benefits, affecting the whole afterlife of the soul.

The relics these pilgrims hoped to see and venerate differed in importance. The main stem of the cult of relics was the remains of early Christian martyrs, whose burial places could be found—or at least were alleged to exist—beyond the walls of ancient Roman cities, and Rome itself in particular. Many of them were exhumed from the catacombs, those underground tunnels full of burial niches in which early Christians interred their dead. (The word comes from the Latin catacumbae, meaning “recesses” or simply “holes.”)

The persistent myth that these were hiding places for the faithful in times of persecution is picturesque but completely untrue, especially since the pagan authorities would have known where all the tunnels were: nobody could have hidden down there. Even if a person had been executed for treason, it was quite licit for his relatives and friends to bury him—but that burial, like all others, had to be done outside the city walls. Hence, for instance, the burial under Roman law of the dead Christ after his crucifixion in a sepulchre “where none had ever been laid.”

Naples, Malta, and parts of North Africa all had Christian catacombs, but the greatest concentration of them was naturally outside the city walls around Rome. Their exploration began with an antiquarian named Antonio Bosio (1576–1629), who nearly got lost forever in the Catacomb of Domitilla, but found his way out and lived to write Roma sotterranea (Underground Rome, 1634). There may be sixty to ninety miles of these passages, originally containing up to three-quarters of a million bodies, all housed incubicula,or chambers, containing loculi, or niches, whose entrances would then be closed by a tegula, a stone slab sealed with cement to prevent the stink of putrefaction from getting out.

Occasionally, a Mass or some family ritual would be celebrated in such chambers. A few are sparsely decorated with painted images of a patron saint or a biblical scene. There are, however, no masterpieces in catacombs. It is thought that many of these passages have not been discovered or excavated, but in fact there would not be much point in doing so, since their contents tend to be insignificant: Christians did not believe in burying goods for the afterlife with their dead. Once a passage was filled with tombs, thefossoresor gravediggers might dig down and open another, lower level; some Roman catacombs have four, five, or even seven such levels, like inertly stacked cities of the dead.

But they were never inhabited, except briefly and for ceremonial purposes, by the living. Strong taboos existed against the pollution of the enclosed area of cities by corpses, but as Christianity took hold there was a stronger and growing demand for martyrs to be shifted into the city, where their remains could be reburied beneath the altars or in the crypts of new (or newly consecrated) churches devoted to their cult. When the Pantheon was rededicated as a Christian church, at the behest of Pope Boniface IV in 609, under the name of Sancta Maria ad Martyres, fully twenty-eight wagonloads of supposed martyrs’ bones were reverently dumped beneath its main altar.

Reliquaries became cult centers, and quite rapidly assumed importance in the new configuration of cities as pagan religion was displaced by Christian cult. The old monumental centers—in Rome, for instance, the Capitol—which were heavy with pagan association, were displaced by new basilicas, which turned into episcopal churches, whose special claim to religious importance varied with the relics they contained. And so the significance of the churches was bound to narratives of sacred history, which, in turn, could be read from the importance of the martyrs’ relics they housed. The holy martyr had become, as it were, portable, and a part of the body could signify the entire saint. Reliquaria replaced actual burial spots, which meant that a saint could be efficaciously prayed to wherever his remains could be put.

The first man to become the subject of an extensive relic cult was the first Christian deacon and the first Christian martyr: Saint Stephen. Having incurred the wrath of established Judaism, he had been brought before the court of the high priest and elders in Jerusalem, sentenced, and stoned to death. One of the witnesses to his lapidation was Saul, the future Apostle Paul, whose acute feelings of guilt at assenting to it is said to have helped in his later adherence to Christ.

Bits and pieces of Stephen would be revered in churches all around the Mediterranean, but the major ones were concentrated in Constantinople and later migrated to Rome, where they share a tomb with the remains of Saint Lawrence in the pilgrimage Church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.

The church in Rome which actually bears his name, Santo Stefano Rotondo, may or may not contain a major relic of him. Built during the pontificate of Pope Simplicius (reigned 468–83), it is one of the few commemorative buildings in Rome (others being thePantheon and the tombs of the Emperors Augustus and Hadrian, the latter now the core of the Castel Sant’Angelo) with a circular plan. Some antiquarians have argued that this plan was copied from that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but it seems uncertain.

What is quite certain, however, is that Santo Stefano carries, on its walls, the most complete frescoed anthology of scenes of Christian martyrdom ever painted in Italy. The work was done at the behest of Pope Gregory XIII (reigned 1572–85), and it survives as an almost hysterically extreme statement of the values of the Counter-Reformation: by commissioning these encyclopedic scenes of torment and sacrifice, the pope wished, by implication, to draw a parallel between the hostility of Protestantism to the true faith and the heroic resistance of Catholic believers. No work of art in Rome more vividly embodies the didactic style recommended by the Council of Trent, which had been summoned by the Church to define what was, and what was not, tolerable to Catholic orthodoxy.

In its posturing figures, all contortion and clumsy maniera, it is a kind of Sistine Chapel for sentimental sadists. Its creator, a Mannerist artist from Volterra named Niccolò Circignani (c. 1530–92), better known as Pomarancio, produced it in the early 1580s—a Herculean labor, twenty-four large panels complete with explanatory inscriptions, including the names of the emperors who ordered the martyrs’ torments. It starts, at the entrance, with the crucifixion of Christ and the stoning of Stephen. One then proceeds to every sort of piercing, burning, flogging, skinning, bashing, strangling, drowning, and even cooking in boiling oil, like a Trastevere artichoke. Here is Saint Thecla torn apart by a pair of bulls. Here is Saint Ignatius (an earlier one, not the founder of the Jesuit order) thrown, most satisfyingly, to the lions in the Colosseum. Saints Gervase and Protase are nailed to trees in parody of the crucified God. Saint Eustachius is roasted alive inside a bronze bull. One martyr is crushed under a slab of stone, another is chopped up by heartless axmen. It may be that these scenes of suffering had some real didactic value, for the church was placed under the charge of the Hungarian Jesuits at the end of the sixteenth century, and many a Jesuit was subjected to frightful torments when on missionary duty; perhaps Pomarancio’s frescoes prepared them for what was coming. Certainly they are much more vivid than any dry-as-dust relic of the holy Stephen could ever be. However, time and fading have deprived them of much of their original vividness, which must have been quite lurid; and, given the number of more important works of art in Rome which stand in equal or worse need of restoration, and the very limited money available for this endless task, they are not likely to be restored in the imaginable future.

In a culture which drew no very distinct line between the natural and the supernatural, relics were a powerful instrument of social control, striking awe into the skeptical and the impious. The holiest and rarest relics of all were, of course, those of Jesus Christ himself. The most significant was in Rome: the imprint of Jesus’ own face, miraculously preserved on the veil with which Saint Veronica had wiped away his sweat on the way to Calvary. Before this wonderful image preserved by the woman Dante called “la Veronica nostra,” faithful pilgrims would throng in obeisance; during the Holy Year of 1300, it was shown to the public every Friday and on all solemn feast days in Saint Peter’s, and on one occasion the crush of the faithful crowd was so great that an English Benedictine monk, William of Derby, was trampled to death.

That such a thing could happen today is, to put it mildly, unlikely. Veronica’s Veil is still preserved in a reliquary above Bernini’s statue of Veronica herself in one of the mighty piers that carry the dome of Saint Peter’s, but it is seldom shown, and kept so far from the congregation that no one could tell if the faint marks on it constitute the image of a face. It is said to be even less legible than the now generally discredited “Holy Shroud” of Turin, which bears the supposed imprint of Jesus’ body but is probably a fourteenth-century fake. There are a multitude of fabric remnants. At the height of the relic mania, the custom arose of lowering long strips of cloth into a saintly grave; if a piece touched the remains, it became a relic in itself, by holy contagion.

Relics associated with Jesus Christ were, naturally, valued above those of his saints, even if—like the Veil—they were not parts of his body but merely things associated with his suffering and death. The most unwieldy relic may be the one in the Rome’s Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. It is one of many brought back from the Holy Land by Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, who built a basilica to house them. Its floor was packed with earth that the empress had carted back from the hill of Golgotha, site of Christ’s crucifixion. How much earth was involved is not known. A steady trickle of visitors still arrives to view, or at least stand on the presence of, Saint Helena’s earth relic.

Her other large souvenir of the Holy Land was brought back in pieces and reconstructed in Rome—the flight of twenty-eight marble steps from the residence of Pontius Pilate, in Jerusalem. Jesus Christ was believed to have walked up these steps on the way to trial and judgment by the Roman procurator, and the Scala Santa or Holy Staircase, as it is known, was reconstructed in Rome in the former papal residence, the Lateran Palace.

How Helena got this enormous cult object from the Middle East to Rome is not recorded, but of course the task, though daunting, would not compare to the logistics of transporting whole granite obelisks from Egypt to Rome in pagan times. The marble steps are now encased in wood, since it would not be right for ordinary human feet to tread on the stones which Jesus’ own footprints had sanctified. Glazed peepholes have been cut so that pilgrims can venerate the stains in the marble, left by the blood of Jesus (who had just been scourged at the pillar, and so was leaving spots and smears everywhere).

Large indulgences go to those pilgrims who climb the whole continuous flight of the Holy Staircase on their knees. The future heresiarch Martin Luther is said to have tried, but failed, to do this when he was a young monk, getting only halfway to the top. But in the nineteenth century, when Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele II was about to invade Rome (and thereby begin the process which led to the confiscation of the Papal States), the vehemently conservative seventy-eight-year-old Pope Pius IX managed the climb on his knees—not that it did him or his political future any good. Interestingly, the stairs are still crowded with modern pilgrims, although handrails have been installed on either side for their convenience.

Since Christ ascended into Heaven body and soul, he left behind on earth only one bodily relic, which was surgically removed from him by the high priest of the Temple in Jerusalem when he was an infant. Theoretically, the Holy Foreskin, enshrined in a provincial church not far from Bomarzo, in Latium, ought to be the least contested of all relics, but its unique claim to that title has unfortunately been challenged by another Foreskin, housed in a rival church in the Abruzzi.2

But there were, and are, innumerable smaller relics of saints, so many thousands throughout the churches of Rome (and Italy, and the rest of the world) that no effort has ever been made to count them. The most esteemed were bone relics, such as the head (or heads) of Saint Paul. Of course, they are all beyond verification. How does one “authenticate” the holy phial of the blood of San Gennaro, patron of Naples, which is kept in the church named after him and is expected to liquefy each year on the saint’s festal day, to the edification of crowds of prayerful worshippers?

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme itself has a whole chapel devoted to relics of Christ’s passion. It possesses not one but two thorns from the Crown of Thorns. It has splinters from the True Cross, a piece of the Good Thief’s cross, and one of the three iron spikes with which Christ was nailed to his cross. (It is said to be fairly intact, despite the medieval habit of scraping filings from the Holy Nails and incorporating them in minor relics, in order, so to speak, to soup them up, like adding pepper to a cutlet.)

It also has the column at which Christ was scourged, although it might be safer to say one of the columns: a thirteenth-century crusader, Robert de Clari, who took part in the sack of Constantinople, mentions being shown Christ’s whipping post there in 1204, so either it was in two places at once or there were two columns; perhaps he received a hundred lashes at one and the rest at the other. Santa Croce in Gerusalemme also has the crib in which Christ’s mother laid him in the stable at Bethlehem, and (in some ways most wondrous of all) the mummified index finger which Doubting Thomas skeptically poked into the wound left by Longinus’ spear in Christ’s side.

Among the oddest of these relics is a part of the titulus crucis, the label that was affixed to the cross, bearing the legend, in Latin, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” in red paint on a worm-eaten wooden plaque. Supposedly, it was purchased by Helena and, after vicissitudes—brought to Rome, hidden from the invading Visigoths, forgotten until the fifteenth century, found in a sealed lead box—became part of the Passion reliquarium. In the cloisters of San Giovanni in Laterano, that ancient pilgrimage church which is the first cathedral of Rome, there is even kept the stone on which the Roman soldiers attending the crucifixion cast dice for his garments.

Ever since Luther, the matter of relics has been thorny for the Catholic Church. The cult seems so blatantly superstitious, so comical. Yet, within living memory, you could hardly enter an Italian church of any age without encountering scores of reliquaries that contained a profusion of bones, snippets of cloth, vials of dried blood, and other curiosities. Relics were in immense demand in early Christian times, but in a more skeptical age their cult has been greatly reduced. It would probably be fair to say that most people who visit these collections are more interested in their reliquaries, those rhetorically magnificent examples of the metalsmith’s art, than in their contents.

There are, of course, numerous competing heads, hands, and legs of the same saint—an apostle, a virgin martyr—but these are the merest fraction of the number of holy relics that used to be displayed in Catholic churches a century or two ago.

We laugh. How superstitious, how easily fooled through an excess of naïve faith, our medieval ancestors and some of their more pious descendants were! But we—or at least some of us—are no better. At the end of the twentieth century, bidders were competing to buy, on eBay, a miraculous (though by then rather stale) piece of bread that some American householder had popped in the toaster and seen come out with the Virgin Mary’s face burned on it. On November 22, 2004, an Internet casino calledGoldenPalace.compaid $28,000 for this relic—the most expensive slice of toast in history. Miraculous statues of Jesus or Mary, which weep tears or exude blood (but turn out to have cunningly concealed tubes, sacks of red dye, and other handy miracle-aids), periodically turn up in faith-sodden America. No moment in history is free from superstition; and as for the hysteria of relic hunting, what but a sordid and comical piety could have driven wealthy Americans at a Sotheby’s auction of Jackie Kennedy’s effects to bid for one of her late husband’s golf clubs, and for a worn tray on which the drinks of America’s Holy Family might have been served at Hyannisport?

The cult of relics gave rise to much swindling and fakery, but holy mementos were not the only things being faked. Forgeries of documents have played important parts in history, and none more so than an imaginative one of uncertain date (probably somewhere between 750 and 850) known as the Donation of Constantine.

What this document, which has been recognized as a forgery since the sixteenth century, attempted to prove and forever ensure was the pre-eminence of religious over secular power. The claim was that it had been written by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in the fourth century. It was “discovered”—that is, written—in the eighth century, but it supposedly describes relations between Constantine and Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314–35). Its subject is the extent of papal power over the secular world, which it makes out to be all but limitless. The will of the pope supersedes that of any emperor, writes “Constantine.” He can create emperors, and depose them. He has this right because the chief concern of human life is eternal salvation, beside which such matters as the accumulation of wealth and the exercise of worldly power are (relatively) trivial.

Constantine’s address, then, is divided into two parts.

In the first, the confessio, he recounts how his pagan life ended when he was instructed and baptized in the Christian faith by Pope Sylvester, and how this miraculously cured him of “a horrible and filthy leprosy.” Doctors had been summoned but could do nothing. After them came the pagan priests of the Capitol, who recommended a grotesque replay of the Massacre of the Innocents: Constantine must set up a font on the Capitol “and fill it with the blood of innocent children and by bathing in it while it was warm I could be healed.” Numerous children were duly rounded up, but when “our serenity perceived the tears of their mothers,” Constantine was filled with abhorrence and canceled the project. Now Christ sent Saints Peter and Paul to speak to the still-leprous emperor. They instructed him to seek out Pope Sylvester, who, with his clergy, was hiding from Constantine’s persecutors in the caverns of Mount Serapte. “When thou hast called him to thee, he will show thee the pool of piety.” Three times immersed in it, Constantine would be cured. And so he was. Constantine was so grateful for this miraculous baptism that he called together all his governors, senators, and officials and ordered, “The sacred see of Peter shall be gloriously exalted above our empire and earthly throne.”

How would that be done? As boldly as possible, by the means set forth in the second part of the forgery, the donatio. Constantine, instructed by God, confers on the pope as successor to Saint Peter the primacy over the world’s four patriarchs, those of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople. The chief Roman ecclesiastics must have the same honors and rights as the senators, and the pope must have all the same rights as the emperor, including the right to wear a golden imperial crown. But, the forger goes on to recount, Pope Sylvester refused to wear such a crown. The emperor instead bestowed on him a phrygium, a tall white cap of authority—ancestor of the papal miter. He also gave the pope all his Western lands, cities, and possessions, including Rome and its Lateran Palace, as a present (donatio), making them “a permanent possession to the holy Roman Church.” As a last formality, he officially removed the seat of imperial government to the East, to the capital of Constantinople, since “it was not right that an earthly emperor should have authority [in Rome], where the rule of the priests and the head of the Christian religion have been established by the Emperor of Heaven.”

Such are the main clauses of the fictitious “Donation,” the most outrageously self-serving secular deception ever foisted on its believers by a Western religion.

It would, however, become the basis for an aggressively expansionist Papacy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Whoever the forger was, he wrote a free ticket to the popes to embark on world dictatorship. The meaning of the Donation is spelled out in a remarkable cycle of frescoes in the small Chapel of Saint Sylvester, part of the larger fortified basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati, on the heights of the Caelian Hill, not far from the Lateran Palace. Much ancient, medieval, and Renaissance art is political on some level, intent on the promotion and praise of some powerful men and ideologies, while attacking and downgrading others. But few early frescoes are as bluntly, explicitly political as these.

Santi Quattro Coronati, the church of the “Four Crowned Saints,” originally celebrated the acts of faith of four Roman soldiers named Severus, Severinus, Carpophorus, and Victorinus, martyred in one of the persecutions by Diocletian for refusing to sacrifice to the god Aesculapius, the Roman name for the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. (If it seems a little excessive, even self-contradictory, to kill men for displaying insufficient reverence for the founder of the art of medicine, then welcome to the oddities of pagan cult.)

These Christian soldiers are not the only ones honored in the basilica, which was built between the ninth and twelfth centuries. It also contains, in a ninth-century crypt under the altar floor, the remains of five Christian-convert sculptors from Pannonia (now mostly in Hungary) named Castor, Claudius, Nicostratus, Sempronianus, and Simplicius, who were put to death for refusing to make a statue of the same god. For many years, the commercial stone-carvers of Rome, especially the ones dealing in recycled ancient marble from demolished buildings, preferred to have their shops near the church of these sculptor-martyrs.

But the art content of Santi Quattro Coronati is chiefly remarkable for its thirteenth-century frescoes by an unnamed hand, illustrating the Donation of Constantine. We see Constantine recovering from leprosy; Constantine baptized by Pope Sylvester; and, most significant of all, Constantine offering the pope his white phrygium of authority and leading the papal horse by its bridle, thus assuming the subordinate posture of a strator, a groom. There could be no clearer statement of the Church’s belief in the Donation forgery. The emperor must bend the knee—both knees, in fact—to the pope. Religious authority is, and always must be, above the claims of temporal power, which it need not ask for legitimacy.

The pope whose policies and actions were most opportunistically and flagrantly based on this belief was Innocent III (1160–1216). He did more than any other pontiff to shape the politics of Italy, internal but especially external, in the early Middle Ages. He came to the papacy young; with few exceptions, popes tended to be older men, but Lotario de’ Conti, son of Count Trasimund of Segni, was voted into the papacy at the age of only thirty-seven, a man brimful of energy, highly intelligent, and completely dedicated to his own conception of the Church Militant.

Such a man was not likely to be content until he had put his own stamp on the mania which seized pious Europeans in the twelfth century, and became the chief voice of that expression of mingled religious zeal and territorial frenzy: the Crusades.

It seems extraordinary, looking back on the Crusades from nearly a thousand years later, that they could ever have been conceived as anything but a mirage, a long bout of collective religious delusion. What good could it do to “free” a portion of the Middle East from its inhabitation by Muslims, for no better reason than that a Jewish prophet had once lived, preached, and died there? But territoriality, especially when conceived in religious terms, heightened by the hope of eternal life and sharpened by xenophobia, is a murderous and intractable passion, and many Christians in the Middle Ages felt it intensely. Crusades were the ultimate form of that fear and hatred of the Other which underlies the sense of racial and religious selfhood, and a man conscious of his honor would have needed an almost superhuman detachment to resist their impulse, once it was roused by preacher and pope.

All over Europe, and not least in Italy, men were seized by a common delusion: that, as Christians, they collectively owned a tract of territory on which none of them had ever lived, that they had an unquestionable right to it because their Saviour had once walked and prayed and died on it; and that the most meritorious of acts imaginable would be to wrest control of it from nonbelievers, the sons of the Prophet, the Arabs, whose mere presence in the Holy City of Jerusalem defiled that Saviour’s memory—despite the fact that the “Holy City” had been in Muslim hands since the seventh century. The Holy Land was defined by certain emblematic sites, closely associated with Jesus. They included, apart from Jerusalem as a whole, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives, Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims had been visiting these since the third century.

So the crusaders engaged in what their enemies would call a jihad, a holy war, having trudged, ridden, and sailed thousands of miles under the most adverse conditions to do so. They were fighting not forest dwellers but highly trained, well-armed, and often strategically brilliant armies. Crusaders were both warriors and pilgrims. That double determination was the peculiar strength of their enterprise. Fortified by a sense of their own holiness, bound to one another by the red crosses reverently sewn to their tunics, the Christian soldiers or crocesignati talked obsessively about the “recovery” of the Holy Land—in total disregard of the fact that it was never lost, because they had never possessed it, except in collective fantasy. Such was the impetus for the start of the First Crusade (1096–99).

A spontaneous and disorganized parallel campaign in 1096, known as the Peasants’ Crusade, miserably failed. But the “professionals” were victorious, taking Jerusalem in 1099.

Encouraged, the papacy gave permission for the Second Crusade (1145–49). It was only a partial success, directed in part against the Muslims who commanded the Iberian Peninsula. These crusaders, led by Alfonso I of Portugal, managed to dislodge them from Lisbon, but the Muslims remained firmly in command of Spain, and in 1187, led by the great general Salah el-Din (Saladin), they recaptured Jerusalem from the Knights Templar.

The Third Crusade (1189–92) was famous mainly for the participation of England’s mighty Moor-killer, King Richard I, “the Lionheart,” who strove but failed to recapture Jerusalem. Then came the great betrayal of the Fourth Crusade (1202–4), one of the two worst fiascoes of Innocent III’s papacy and perhaps of the Catholic Church’s entire history.

Innocent never played down his desire to “recover” the Holy Land. Muslim “occupation” of the Holy Places was an unceasing annoyance to him. It provoked him to make the mistake of authorizing a full crusade, the Fourth.

Unfortunately, Italy was neither well placed nor properly equipped to ship the necessary troops and their supplies across the Mediterranean for such a campaign.

Italy had one Christian naval power, Venice, “Queen of the Adriatic.” Approached by the pope, the Venetians agreed to transport the entire army of invasion to the Holy Land, with supplies for nine months, for eighty-five thousand marks. The crusaders—a ragtag assembly of knights and peasants, mainly French, and led by Baldwin of Flanders, Boniface of Montferrat, and Geoffroy de Villehardouin—could not raise this, so another deal was struck. Its essence was that Venice would use the assembled crusading forces to besiege and take Rome’s only great rival in the Mediterranean, Constantinople, on their way to the Holy Land. In this way they would finance the whole crusade. Venice would pay for the entire expedition if the crusaders would briefly divert the attack on its way to Jerusalem and conquer the city of Zara, in Dalmatia, on Venice’s behalf. They would then go on to take Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelus to the throne from which he had been deposed. The man who delivered this proposal, Isaac’s son Alexius, undertook to add more men and supplies to the crusading army, bringing its strength to some eleven thousand men, heading for Constantinople in a huge fleet (by medieval standards) of two hundred ships. They were accompanied and directed by the formidable old Doge Enrico Dandolo.

Zara fell easily, and by July 1203, this force was besieging the land walls of Constantinople. Its citizens, all Greeks and Christians, were taken utterly by surprise: it had never been imagined that a huge Christian force, sworn to eject the Muslims from Palestine, would stop off on the way to attack a Christian city—let alone the greatest of all Christian cities after Rome itself.

The outcome was inevitable: by April 1204, the defenses of Constantinople were breached in a climactic attack, and the crusaders surged in, despoiling the churches and palaces, killing the priests, and raping the women. It was the most merciless sack ever inflicted on a Christian city. Baldwin of Flanders was proclaimed emperor, and the Greek Orthodox Church, which had no say in the matter, was finally united with the Roman, under the authority of the pope.

It may be said to Innocent III’s (rather limited) credit that he did not authorize, still less organize, this atrocity. He protested against it and even excommunicated those Venetians who had facilitated it. On the other hand, he was not reluctant to see his church benefit from it. He did nothing to force the Venetians to restore their loot to the prostrate city. The matchless Greek bronze horses from Constantinople were installed on the façade of Saint Mark’s, never to return. Hundredweights of precious stones were lost to the Venetians; many of them may still, a thousand years later, be seen set in the Pala d’Oro, behind the high altar of Saint Mark’s. Gold, silver, and bejeweled reliquaries, monstrances, ciboriums, pyxes, patens, and chalices by the ton were distributed to church treasuries all over Europe but especially in Italy. The very icons were torn from the churches and broken up in thousands, burned to extract the precious metal from their gold-leaf backgrounds, which ran down into glittering puddles amid the ash. And nobody knows (though it is not hard to guess) what happened to such things as the high altar of Hagia Sophia, which beggared the descriptive powers of such crusaders as Robert de Clari, an unlettered knight dictating a memoir of the sack years after his return to France:

The master altar of the church was so rich that it was beyond price … made of gold and precious stones broken up and crushed all together, which a rich emperor had made. This table was fully fourteen feet long. Around the altar were columns of silver supporting a canopy over the altar which was made just like a church spire and it was all of solid silver and was so rich that no one could tell the money it was worth.

“Now about the size of the city,” recalled de Clari,

about the palaces and the other marvels that are there, we shall leave off telling you. For no man on earth, however long he might have lived in the city, could number them or recount them to you. And if anyone should recount to you the hundredth part of the richness and the beauty and the nobility that was found in the abbeys and the churches and in the palaces and in the city, it would seem like a lie and you would not believe it.

Neither richness, nor beauty, nor nobility could do anything to deflect the horde of ravening Frankish thugs who stripped Constantinople in the name of Jesus. The city was replete with other wonders, not of an artistic kind. It had a magical tube the size of a shepherd’s pipe hanging by the silver portal of Hagia Sophia, “of what material no man knew”; if a sick man put one end in his mouth, “it sucked out all the sickness and it made the poison run out of his mouth and it held him so fast that it made his eyes roll and turn in his head, and he could not get away until the tube had sucked all the sickness out of him.” And of course there were relics in profusion: wonder-working icons, pieces of the True Cross, the iron of the lance that pierced Jesus’ side on Calvary, the robe of our Lady, the head of John the Baptist, “and so many other rich relics that I could not recount them to you or tell you the whole truth.”

So much has been said about the importance of the Crusades as the collision of two utterly incompatible worldviews that their significance is habitually overblown. In the end, they did not make much difference to either Islam or Christianity, except as largely symbolic events.

The eleventh-to-thirteenth-century assaults of Christian forces were a peripheral affair in the Muslim world, and the Muslim counterattacks hardly menaced the stability of the Christian empire. (The later Ottoman surge against Europe, in the sixteenth century, so memorably beaten back from the walls of Vienna and repulsed by the galleys of Don John of Austria at the Battle of Lepanto, was of course quite a different matter.) Nevertheless, their memory retained enormous rhetorical power, casting the Arabs in European eyes as cruel, barbarous infidels, and the Christians in Muslim eyes as culturally bestial thugs. That is why the Islamic media, to this day, continue to refer to the American armies in Iraq as “crusaders”—not by any means the compliment that the stupider voices of American faith fancy it to be. What gets ignored in this clang and rattle of poisoned stereotypes is the immense cultural heritage shared between Islam and Christianity—though not the Christianity of the ranting American fundamentalist bigots, or the Islam of the murderous lowbrow ayatollahs. As Christians once built Chartres and Saint Peter’s, Muslims once built the Blue Mosque of Istanbul and the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the courts and gardens of the Alhambra. Their librarians preserved all that we have of classical drama and philosophy. They created in al-Andalus, the Arab name for Moorish Spain, one of the supreme cultures in world history—supreme, not least, in its tolerance for other faiths and creeds, a tolerance not shared by the anti-Semitic Catholic brutes who did the dirty work of the Reconquista for Ferdinand and Isabella.

Today, Islam’s fundamentalist descendants can invent nothing, preserve nothing, create nothing. Comparing them with the remarkable figures of their own history is like comparing some illiterate IRA kneecapper to Seamus Heaney or William Butler Yeats. And it is the same on our side, where the Christian fundamentalists have no sacred art to show, no writing of aesthetic significance, and little architecture beyond drive-in megachurches.

Next only to the Fourth Crusade, the worst of all exercises in medieval crusading took place inside Europe and was also launched by Pope Innocent III. It was directed, not against the Byzantine Church, not against Saracens and other “infidels,” but against Europeans: a heretical religious movement of the French, the Cathars, whom Innocent III and his hierarchy were determined to wipe out by all possible means, by proscription, fire, and the sword.

“Catharism” comes from the Greek root katharos, meaning pure—and the Cathars saw purification as their appointed mission in a spiritually fallen world. It was strongest in France, where the tragic and bloody dénouement of its growth and repression took place in the early thirteenth century; but at its height, Catharist “cells” grew up all over Europe, including Italy, where they survived until the early 1300s and were experienced, by Rome, as a powerful threat to Christianity itself—as cancerous, potentially, as Stalinist cells in Western democracies were seen to be by the Catholic Church and the U.S. government in the postwar years of Pius XII’s papacy.

The first reports of Catharist belief communities actually came from Cologne, in 1143. But France was the stronghold of the cult, and in particular the Languedoc, in the Midi region of southern France, with its strong sense of exception, its remoteness from the great power-center of Paris, its separate language (Provençal, close to Catalan), and its traditions of vehement pietism.

Where did the Catharist faith come from? Because nearly all its “scriptures” and holy books were destroyed, burned along with the Cathars themselves,3 it is difficult to be certain about this, but most scholars seem to agree that it was an Eastern import whose roots lay in the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire. It was related to the beliefs of the Bogomils, or “Friends of God,” who, being particularly strong in Bulgaria, were also known as the Bougres—whence our durable term of extreme disparagement “buggers.”

What did the Cathars believe? This can no more be summed up in a few sentences, or even a single book, than the theology of medieval Catholicism can. Besides, the Catholic effort to extirpate it was all too successful. After the texts were burned, only the merest traces and outlines of their content have remained.

Fundamentally, they thought in terms of a dualist universe ruled by two creative principles, one good, the other evil. The good was entirely spiritual. The evil was material, created by a demiurge whom the Cathars identified with Satan and referred to as the “King of the World,” Rex Mundi.

The world we inhabit, including our own bodies, was his product. Sexual procreation, in the Cathar view, was an act of unsurpassed cruelty, since it brought down a helpless and undeveloped soul into a world of utter imperfection.

The great object of mankind’s spiritual quest, therefore, was to escape from a hopelessly debased world of substance and material desires ruled by the Devil and his minions, and to enter a world of pure articulate Spirit, beyond desire.

This difficult evolution could hardly be achieved in a flash of insight, or even in a lifetime, although some exceptionally illuminated souls were believed to manage the latter. Generally, it required reincarnation: a second life, and perhaps a third and even a fourth, to achieve the journey toward perfection. Those who did so were known as Perfecti, and were a revered minority within the Cathar cult; they corresponded to the hierarchy of Catholicism (though the Cathars absolutely rejected the idea of priesthood), and were marked by their extreme asceticism. The majority, the rest of the Cathars, the credentes or simply “believers,” led relatively normal lives in a normal world, farming and trading, but abstaining from meat, milk, cheese, and other animal products, not swearing oaths or engaging in acts of violence.

One might have thought that such mild people presented about as much threat to society as a gaggle of vegans—whose spiritual ancestors, in a sense, they were. But that was not how Rome saw the matter.

The pope and clergy perceived the Catharist doctrine of resurrection as the rankest heresy.

Because the Cathars saw the material world as intrinsically evil, they regarded as a fraud Jesus’ coming to earth as the incarnate Son of God. If he was made flesh, he became evil; he became, or was allied with, the creator of material existence, Rex Mundi, and could not be worshipped as the God of love and peace. To the Catholic argument that he had died to redeem material creation, their response was that, by dying to redeem an evil thing, he was himself evil. (As with many structures of religious “reasoning,” once you granted the initial premises the rest made logical sense. That is why Catholic theologians came up with that very useful phrase “a mystery of faith.”)

The Catharist doctrine was the polar opposite of what Catholicism taught about Jesus’ nature and the supreme value of his sacrifice on the cross. When a Catholic learned that a Cathar despised Christ and held the crucifixion to be of no spiritual value, or that Catharism rejected all belief in Hell and Purgatory, the sacrament of the Eucharist, or the doctrine of the Trinity, he would be horrified. He would think of such ideas as literally diabolic, coming from the Devil. And Catharism’s other doctrines aroused an equal hostility. “Resurrection,” for instance, meant different things to Cathars and Catholics. To a Cathar, “resurrection” was the means whereby a soul passed from one incarnation to another, in its progress toward perfection. It was essentially the same as the Pythagorean belief in metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. Whereas to a Catholic it had the narrower meaning of the physical resumption of life after death, emergence from the grave, like that of Jesus or Lazarus.

There were other features of Cathar belief that Roman Catholicism found equally repugnant. In the Middle Ages, before general literacy, and hence before a widespread reliance on written contracts, the swearing of oaths was of paramount importance. But the Cathars regarded oath taking as wrong—the practice came from Rex Mundi, the Devil. They were pacifists and did not believe in war, capital punishment (a most radical departure from medieval norms), or marriage vows. Nor were they at all keen on propagating children; the enormous value placed on sacred copulation and childbirth by the Catholics was not shared by them. And they loathed Roman Catholicism, believing it to be the creation of the Rex Mundi, utterly unworthy of veneration. The cult of relics—old bits of bone, splinters of wood, and scraps of cloth with deluded pilgrims bowing before them—they rightly held to be a sham, merely another form of matter worship. The Cathars had to renounce all aspects of Rome: utterly renounce them, not merely criticize them. Rome was Babylon—hugely rich, corrupt beyond redemption. In fact, the Cathars were so different from Roman Catholics that they positively begged to be stamped out, as in Hilaire Belloc’s disillusioned little distich:

      Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,

      But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.

Roaring Bill, in this context, was none other than Pope Innocent III. With the Fourth Crusade of 1204 over, and the treasure houses and reliquaries of Venice crammed with the loot of Constantinople, Christ’s vicar on earth now turned his attention to the hapless and heretical Cathars. So determined was the Cathar resistance, spiritual rather than military, that it took the pope’s formal crusade, misnamed the Albigensian Crusade though it was not born in and did not attack Albi, twenty years to extinguish it. Yet in the end the job was done; Innocent III’s Final Solution to this particular heresy was at last achieved.

But how to raise the necessary papal armies? The Cathars may not have had the riches of Venice. Indeed, most of them had no riches at all, in terms of jewels, gold, or other palpable treasures. But they and their sympathizers in the Languedoc, including many rich nobles, did have land. Innocent III therefore let it be known, and had his preachers declare, that whoever successfully brought a Cathar to trial and thence to death would receive his lands in reward. It was a most effective strategy, because it attracted predatory, land-hungry nobles from the north. Besides, one did not need a huge army to launch an internal crusade. Medieval armies were tiny by modern standards. The pitched battles that determined the fate of whole regimes involved forces that would hardly have made dents in either side today. Ten thousand soldiers, twenty at the most, would more than do.

But the Cathars also had their share of loyal supporters. Weary of the money-grubbing and sexually debauched behavior that they saw everywhere in the upper hierarchy of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Church, many Catholics stood with the Cathars in a bond of moral superiority. The reputation of the medieval Church in Provence was low, and getting lower all the time.

The Church in the twelfth-century Midi was not entirely discredited by the behavior of its clergy, their love of luxury, their usurious money-grubbing and sexual debauchery. There were always some humble priests, honest bishops, and congregations who valued them. But the moral superiority of the Cathars to the general run of Catholic prelates was no empty claim, and knowledge of it won many converts and tolerant allies for Catharism, doing limitless damage to the Church. Innocent III heard about these doings in Languedoc, of course.

At first, the Church in Rome tried to deal with the Cathars by peaceful persuasion. In the last half of the twelfth century, various missions were dispatched to the Languedoc; all failed. The resolutions of Catholic Church councils—Tours in 1163, the Third Lateran Council in 1179—had negligible effect. The nobly born Domingo de Guzmán, the future Saint Dominic and founder of the religious order that bears his name, began a conversion drive in the Midi, declaring, “Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth.” It had little success, although it was attended by at least one spectacular miracle, sometimes represented in art: locked in a debate between Cathars and orthodox Catholics, the two sides flung their books on a fire; the book of the Albigensians was burned, but Dominic’s collection of his writings was spared and floated up above the flames. The mendicant Dominicans whose passion against heresy earned them the name “Domini canes,”“hounds of the Lord” (their emblem was a black-and-white dog, duplicating the black-and-white habit of the order, and holding a flaming torch in its jaws), were frustrated by the Cathars’ stubborn adherence to their own faith. “In my country,” Dominic declared, “we have a saying, ‘Where words fail, blows will avail.’ ”

The blows soon came raining down. In 1208, Innocent III’s legate Pierre de Castelnau was sent to meet, and threaten, the most powerful ruler in the Midi, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. Believing (probably correctly) that the count was soft on Cathars and had been known to shelter them, Castelnau excommunicated him. Vengeance immediately followed: Castelnau was murdered on his way back to Rome, by one of Count Raymond’s knights. This left Innocent III no choice, or none that he could see. Exasperated, he called for a full crusade against the Cathars, and land-greedy northern-French noblemen donned their chain mail, saddled their horses, and, brandishing the red insignia of the cross so hated by Arabs and Cathars alike, flocked to the papal banner.

Thus began the Albigensian Crusade, French against French, instigated by an Italian pontiff. Of course, it was not Innocent III’s only piece of international meddling: he had received the feudal allegiances of Aragon, Bohemia, León, and Portugal, tampered with the politics of succession in Sardinia, and intervened relentlessly in English affairs, even declaring the Magna Carta invalid. Nevertheless, the crusade against the Cathars joined the Fourth Crusade as the apogee of Innocent’s political adventurism, not because he organized it—he did not—but because he gave permission for it.

The pope placed the vanquished territory under the command of a Cistercian abbot, his papal legate, Arnaud-Amaury. He began his crusade in the summer of 1209 by besieging what was supposed to be a Cathar stronghold, the town of Béziers. Béziers also had a Catholic population, who were given the option of leaving the town unharmed. Significantly, few of them did, many preferring to stay and fight alongside the Cathars. One of Arnaud’s fellow Cistercians asked his commander how he would tell a Cathar from a Catholic, and the reply became legendary: “Caedite eos, novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius:” “Kill them all, the Lord will recognize his own.” When the crusaders entered Béziers, where many had taken refuge, they killed some seven thousand people right away, and thousands more later. They were blinded, maimed, impaled, strung up as targets for archers, and dragged behind horses. The town was then gutted by fire. “Today, Your Holiness,” the Abbot Arnaud reported with obsequious satisfaction to Innocent III, “twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.”

This initial slaughter was followed in 1229 by the establishment of the Inquisition throughout southern France. Overzealous thugs interrogated thousands of suspected Cathars, and those who seemed guilty were hanged or publicly burned at the stake. For almost a year, the last redoubt of the Cathars, the almost inaccessible fortress of Montségur (the name means “Safe Mountain”) was besieged by troops of the archbishop of Narbonne. It fell in March 1244, and a large massacre followed, in which more than two hundred Perfecti were incinerated on a killing field below the castle, the Prat des Cremats or “Field of the Burned.” Though this did not eliminate all the Cathar faithful, it scattered them and broke the back of resistance. The last Cathar leaders, Pierre and Jacques Autier, were executed in 1310.

So the Papacy was well able to repress the challenges of heresy, but for a long period it was obliged to move out of Rome altogether. The “Avignon Papacy,” which lasted from 1305 to 1376, began as a temporary exile of papal authority to France, but for a time looked like its complete removal to what some people called a “Babylonian captivity” of the Church.

Its origins lay in an irreconcilable conflict between the French monarchy and Rome’s papal authority, whose ultimate source was that hobgoblin of medieval power politics, the spurious Donation of Constantine.

The papal authority involved, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, was the implacably arrogant Benedetto Caetani, who belonged to one of the more powerful clans of medieval Rome and was elected pope as Boniface VIII in 1294. Boniface believed absolutely in the Donation’s dictum that the Papacy ruled over all Christendom, taking precedence over any secular authority, including the king of France. He soon locked horns with that king, Philippe IV, over the issue of tax.

The French state derived no small amount of income from the taxes French feudal lords levied on their clergy. Boniface vehemently opposed this, and in his bull Clericis Laicos (1296)4 he decreed that no taxation on the Church, its clergy, or its by now immense properties could be levied by any secular authority. (The next year, he wavered a little, granting Philippe IV the right to impose taxes on the clergy in certain emergencies. But this was soon rescinded in the wake of the triumphant Jubilee year of 1300.) Obviously, an expanding church needed every penny of its own money.

Boniface’s confidence in defying King Philippe was inflated by the mighty success of the Holy Year he had proclaimed for 1300, in which a total of two million pilgrims inundated Rome; after such a display of faith, it made no sense to ask, “How many battalions has the pope?” Boniface issued two further bulls: Salvator Mundi, canceling all privileges issued to French kings by earlier popes, and Ausculta Fili, ordering Philippe IV to present himself forthwith to appear before a papal council. Philippe would have none of that: “Your Venerable Stupidity,” he wrote back, “must know that we are nobody’s vassal in temporal matters.” He then issued accusations of simony, sorcery, heresy, and even sodomy against the pope.

This was hardball, and, not to be outdone, Boniface in 1302 issued the bull Unam Sanctam, which laid it down as “necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Impossible to be more categorical than that, and Philippe’s response was in deeds, not words: he dispatched a delegation, which was really a military squad, with orders to bring the pope from Rome to Paris, to answer the king’s charges before a French council. He even arranged for the cardinals of that exceedingly powerful Roman clan the Colonnas, who hated the Caetani, to humiliate Boniface. Philippe’s men seized Boniface in his residence at Anagni, outside Rome. He died of illness brought on by his apoplectic outrage some weeks later, aged sixty-seven.

His successor, 1303–4, was another Italian pope, Benedict XI. He was not as tough as Boniface and could not so readily defy the French king. His timidity made him impotent in the face of big Roman clans like the Colonnas. Unsurprisingly, he was poisoned, and in 1305 a new pope had to be chosen. This time it was a French cardinal who took the name of Clement V (reigned 1305–14). This was a political triumph for Philippe and the other French cardinals in the Curia, and Clement found the very idea of moving to Rome repugnant.

For, quite apart from the clan hostilities within the Roman elite, Italy itself was close to civil war. It was being shredded by the deadly struggles between Guelph and Ghibelline. Its greatest writer, Dante Alighieri, called it “the abode of sorrow” and “a place of prostitution.”

A country so riven by vicious political factionalism was clearly no safe place for a foreign pope, and no Frenchman could forget the attack on Boniface VIII at Anagni—an act of lèse-majesté that could only have happened with the connivance of the Roman nobles.

So it was quite understandable that the French popes of the fourteenth century refused to hold their court in Rome, and set up their own papacy at Avignon. Avignon was not Italian. But neither was it French. It was an enclave within France, independently papal, like the Vatican today, only much larger.

It ruled the territory known as the Comtat Venaissin. A French cardinal could feel much safer there than in Rome, but still be on papal ground.

It is often imagined that to have a pope living outside Rome was an unusual violation of Church custom. This was not true at all. There were lots of precedents for it.

In the century between 1099 and 1198, the pontiffs spent a total of fifty-five years away from Rome, eight of them in France.

In the two centuries from 1100 to 1304, the popes spent an aggregate of 122 years out of Rome, sometimes remaining in Italy, sometimes not.

Gregory IX (reigned 1227–41) passed more than eight years of his fourteen-year papacy away from Rome. Celestine V never saw Rome at all—elected in 1294, he lasted only five months, then resigned, defeated by the intrigues that swirled around him, thus making “il gran rifiuto,” “the great refusal,” the abandonment of the papacy, for which Dante placed him in the Inferno.

Innocent IV (reigned 1243–54) was elected and consecrated in Anagni but spent no more than a single year in Rome; Boniface VIII spent far more time in Velletri, Orvieto, or Anagni than in the Lateran Palace.

In sum, the only precedent-breaking aspect of the Avignon Papacy was its length—about seven decades. This filled some observers with alarm and foreboding. Papal withdrawal, said one, could be more economically and spiritually disastrous for Rome than even the barbarian invasions. Ferdinand Gregorovius called the Avignon popes “slaves” of the king of France, and this was not an uncommon view among writers and intellectuals at the time. And yet it would be difficult to maintain realistically that the removal of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon was inherently bad for the Church. In some ways, it even meant its improvement: the Church turned out to be more readily centralized, with a more efficient administration, from Avignon. But the ostentation of papal life there certainly grated on those who did not benefit by it. The poet Petrarch, who lived in Avignon, was horrified. “Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee,” he wrote to a friend in 1353.

They have strangely forgotten their origin. I am astounded … to see these men loaded with gold and clad in purple, boasting of the spoils of princes and nations.… Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages, preternatural and foul sloth.… In short, we seem to be among the kings of the Persians or Parthians, before whom we must fall down and worship.…

Though one might take this for the rhetoric of a disgruntled poet, it was close to literal truth. The papal court at Avignon eclipsed most others in Europe by its sheer extravagance. In the Palace of the Popes, a far more imposing building than the old Lateran Palace in Rome, the floors were covered with splendid Flemish and Spanish carpets, and the walls with silk hangings. The popes and their swarms of courtiers ate from gold plate and trays, lidded goblets, ewers, sauce boats, and flagons, using gold cutlery with handles of jasper or ivory. Pope Clement V’s stock of plate weighed seven hundred marks or 159 kilos; that of Clement VI, in 1348, weighed almost two hundred kilos. Their clothes were tailored from the richest materials: silk from Tuscany, gold Venetian brocade, white woolen cloth from Carcassonne, linen from Rheims and Paris trimmed with ermine or sable. Fur was used with abandon: Pope Clement VI had 7,080 ermine pelts in a new wardrobe that included several capes and no fewer than nine birettas (fur-trimmed hats).

Nor did the Avignon popes keep frugal tables. Their feasts were catered on a royal scale which, if anything, surpassed the extravagance of the Burgundian courts. In November 1324, Pope John XXII gave a wedding feast for the marriage of his grandniece, Jeanne de Trian, to the young nobleman Guichard de Poitiers. It is uncertain how many guests were invited, but they were served 4,012 loaves, 9 oxen, 55 sheep, 8 pigs, 4 wild boars, 200 capons, 690 chickens, 580 partridges, 270 rabbits, 40 plovers, 37 ducks, 50 pigeons, 292 “small birds,” 4 cranes, and, rather anticlimactically, only 2 pheasants. They also dealt with 3,000 eggs, 2,000 apples and pears, and 340 pounds of cheese, washed down with 11 barrels of wine.

When the guest of honor was a pope, however, these relative austerities were abandoned. The Italian Cardinal Annibale di Ceccano threw a reception in Avignon for Pope Clement VI in 1343. “The meal,” he reported,

consisted of nine courses, each having three dishes. We saw brought in … a sort of castle containing a huge stag, a boar, kids, hares and rabbits. At the end of the fourth course the cardinal presented the Pope with a white charger worth 400 florins, and two rings, one set with an enormous sapphire and the other with an equally enormous topaz. Each of the sixteen cardinals received a ring set with fine stones, as did the prelates and the noble laymen.

After the seventh course, a jousting tournament, lances and horses, was held in the dining hall, and dessert followed:

Two trees were brought in; one seemed made of silver, and bore apples, pears, peaches and grapes of gold. The other was as green as laurel, and was decorated with crystallized fruits of many colors.

The climax of all this jollity took place outside, where the guests were shown a wooden bridge over the nearby river Sorgues. This dummy structure seemed to lead to the scene of further festivities, but once it was thickly crowded with monks, nobles, and other guests, it collapsed and “the artless sightseers all tumbled into the water”—one of those coarse practical jokes of which medieval humor was so fond, like the giochi d’acqua (water games) which were among the hazards of Renaissance gardens.

While such things were going on in Avignon, the very opposite was happening in Rome. There, the continued absence of the popes, the Curia, and the general life of the Catholic Church had impoverished the city to wretchedness. Suddenly its main business was withdrawn; or, if not withdrawn, then brought to a near-standstill. The contrast between the misery of the Eternal City and the luxuries of Avignon only got worse as time went by. The withdrawal of the papacy effectively deprived Rome of its chief occupation—the effect was comparable to what might happen to modern Los Angeles if the whole entertainment industry, the production and promotion of movies, TV, pop music, were suddenly wiped out. The economy stagnated, and the population plunged. Grass grew in the streets. No pilgrim was safe. License and disorder reigned. The rivalries fought out between the powerful clans of the city, the lawless aristocrats named Colonna, Savelli, Orsini, Caetani, multiplied in number and violence. Bandits who enjoyed the cynical protection of these big shots could not be controlled; no lawful traveler or trader was safe on a Roman street. It seemed that Rome was going bankrupt and careening into anarchy. Then, as sometimes happens, the fermentation of chaos and greed threw up what appeared to be its own antidote—from below.

His name was Nicola Gabrini, and his origins could scarcely have been humbler. His parents were both Romans: mother a washerwoman, father a small-time tavern keeper, Lorenzo Gabrini. In the usual Italian way, his first name was shortened and attached to his father’s, so that he became known as Cola di Lorenzo—Lorenzo’s boy Nicola. There was nothing in his background to suggest the powerful and idealizing effect he was destined to have on Rome, and on Italy in general. But Cola di Rienzo had a vision of Rome, of what it had once been and might become again. He yearned for Rome to rise from the squalor to which the disappearance of the popes to Avignon had condemned it, and become once more the caput mundi, the capital city of the world.

Cola was born in Rome around 1313, and spent his early years in Asnani. He advanced rapidly, becoming a promising notary, and although he had not traveled, he had read widely in the classics, particularly Livy, Seneca, and Cicero; he studied the inspiring monuments, those traces of Rome’s vanished greatness. Enthusiasm is the best teacher, and Cola was filled with it. He had found his life’s mission early.

He also had a religious vision, not merely an antiquarian one. He was inspired by religious men he came to know, the fraticelli or spiritual brothers who were given to proclaim that the age of the official Church had come to its necessary end, and that a new age, presided over by the Holy Ghost, was dawning. No doubt this belief was reinforced, for Cola, by a mission on which he had been sent in 1343 to Pope Clement VI in Avignon. There he was able to witness very clearly and with his own eyes the corrupt extravagance of the Avignon Papacy, and contrast it with the brutal and impoverished state of Rome, so weak and so exploited by its own aristocracy.

He returned to Rome in about 1344 and soon gathered around him a group of young, like-minded men, all determined to work for public honesty and social justice. He hated the Roman aristocracy (on principle, but also because one of its members had murdered his brother) and was resolved to lead a revolt against them. The stage was now set for the emergence of the first popular leader the city had had since antiquity.

In May 1347, on Whitsunday, the coup was detonated. Promising a general assembly of citizens on the Capitol, Cola di Rienzo appeared before the crowd, magnificent in full armor, and led a huge procession to the ancient focus of Roman power and Roman rights. He harangued the people—his people, it was at once clear—“with fascinating eloquence,” on the glorious past, present servitude, and future deliverance of their Rome. He unrolled a series of new and more just laws for the governance of the city. The crowd of Romans acclaimed him as its tribune—“Nicholaus, severus et clemens, libertatis, pacis, iustitiaeque tribunus, et sacrae Romanae reipublicae liberator” “Nicola, strict and merciful, tribune of freedom, peace, and justice, and liberator of the sacred Roman Republic.” The corrupt nobles simply melted away in fear, leaving the young hero in command of the city and its people.

A honeymoon period followed, but it did not last very long. In July, Cola proclaimed the sovereignty of the Roman people over the rest of Italy and sent letters to all its chief cities, demanding that they send legates to what was meant to be a general congress in Rome, to ratify what he conceived as his dictatorship over the whole peninsula. This was a fantasy. Cola’s assumption of national power was taken seriously in some places, such as the Kingdom of Naples. In others it was not: what kingdom with its own traditions was going to bow the neck to Rome on the say-so of one Roman tribune? Nevertheless, later in 1347, the delegates of twenty-five cities did converge on Rome, and stood in homage before Cola. A magnificent procession to the cathedral, San Giovanni in Laterano, was formed, and Cola bathed in the enormous font in which Constantine had been baptized a Christian—a ceremony gravid with the deepest meaning, signifying, in effect, that Cola had assumed the powers not only of a tribune but those of an emperor. This, he announced, symbolized the “rebirth of Italy,” and he audaciously told the papal representative that in future he, Cola di Rienzo, could govern Rome without help (or, as he saw it, interference) from the pope.

No such announcement had ever been made before, and its hubris marked the turning point in Cola’s fortunes. The noble families of Rome, which hated him, now had papal approval to stir up trouble afresh. In November, having gathered an army, Cola went to battle with the nobles’ forces outside the Porta Tiburtina, and succeeded in killing their ringleader, Stefano Colonna. But he had underestimated Pope Clement, who issued a bull of deposition calling him a heretic and a criminal, even a pagan. On December 15, 1347, the bells on the Campidoglio began discordantly to chime and a crowd assembled, shouting, “Popolo! Popolo! Down with the tribune!”

Cola lost his nerve. Fearing a revolt, he fled to Castel Sant’Angelo, shed his insignia, and, in plain clothes, ran for refuge in Civitavecchia, the port on the Tyrrhenian forty miles north. From there, after some delays and confusion, he abdicated his tribuneship, retreated into deeper exile—first to Naples, then in among the fraticelli of the Apennines. Among these monastic followers of the pious, radical mystic Joachim di Fiore, he waited out a manhunt by papal troops for two years.

By then he was even more strongly convinced that he had been chosen, not only by the Romans but by the Holy Ghost, to lead Italy back to virtue and toward the unity it had never had. He wrote a plan full of apocalyptic visions for the reform of the Church and the regeneration of the world, and in 1350 presented it to the Emperor Charles IV in Prague, urging him to invade Italy and make Cola the imperial vicar of Rome. Unimpressed, the emperor clapped him in jail, kept him there for a year, and then handed him over to the tender mercies of Pope Clement, who was delighted to have this unstable populist rebel in his clutches at last.

Cola was surrendered to the papal authorities in Avignon in August 1352, tried before a trio of cardinals, and sentenced to death. But he was not executed; he was kept in prison (despite eloquent but vain pleas from Petrarch for his release), and, in another of the dizzying turns of fortune’s wheel, he was saved by the sudden death of Pope Clement at the end of 1352. The succeeding pontiff, Innocent VI, who detested the Roman nobles, pardoned Cola, released him, and appointed him senator.

Cola went money-raising in Perugia, one of the cities which had supported his quest for Rome’s imperium over Italy. He raised enough cash to hire a force of five hundred mercenaries, and in 1354 he led them in a march on Rome.

At first the populace greeted him as a liberator, but this illusion soon dissolved. Cola’s apocalyptic fantasies, nourished in hiding among the monks of the Apennines, had taken him over. His tribune’s rule showed signs of increasing tyranny, with arbitrary arrests, executions, and bombastic pronouncements. At last the people who had once adored him had had enough. A mob besieged Cola’s palace on the Campidoglio and set it on fire. In disguise, Cola escaped—but he was recognized almost at once, near the top of the great flight of 124 steps that he himself had built up the flank of the Capitoline Hill, leading to Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The mob butchered him with its daggers. It must have been a scene worthy of Sergei Eisenstein. In fact, in his short life and violent death, Cola di Rienzo provided more material for fiction, verse, and drama than any Roman since Julius Caesar. Petrarch addressed one of his most beautiful odes, “Spirito gentil,” to his memory. In the nineteenth century he fueled the dreams of republicans and became a Romantic hero, the quintessence of the leader raised from humble origins by a grand fate. To Byron he was heroism incarnate, and he was the hero as well of a novel, no longer read but popular in its day, Rienzi: Last of the Tribunes by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Richard Wagner wrote an opera about him, Rienzi (1840). Indeed, one might almost say that he was commemorated not only in art but in real life. The twentieth century would produce in Rome the man who seemed, in so many ways, the only successor to Cola di Rienzo: Benito Mussolini, another “vertical invader” from the lower classes, who would convulse all Italy with his apocalyptic dreams of a historical revival centered on Rome.


1 Of these the most popular was The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, a wretchedly ill-written but hugely successful tale in which the holy relic is secreted in a Scottish chapel and under the floor of the Louvre.

2 However, the Chapelle du Saint-Sang (Chapel of the Holy Blood) in Bruges claims to possess a phial containing drops of Jesus’s blood, collected by Joseph of Arimathea, which had been given to Thierry, count of Flanders, by the patriarch of Jerusalem in 1149. Other claimants to possession of specimens of this precious fluid are Weingarten Abbey in Germany and the cathedral of Menton in France. One of the rival Crowns of Thorns, acquired by Saint Louis, king of France, and kept in the Sainte-Chapelle, disappeared during the French Revolution and is unlikely to resurface except, perhaps, as a fake of a fake.

3 Among the survivors, which give at least a partial and fragmentary idea of Catharist belief and were preserved by the Catholics as examples of heresy, were The Book of Two Principles (an exposition of the Catharist doctrine that the world had two gods, one evil and one good), the Rituel cathare de Lyon, and the Nouveau Testament en provençal.

4 A papal bull, meaning an official declaration of policy from the pope, was so called because of the bulla or seal affixed to such documents, affirming their papal origin.

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