Dante’s Plea to return the Papacy to Rome

The Papal Palace in Avignon. Photo: Jean-Marc Rosier. 

As we saw in an earlier post about Dante Alighieri’s letter to the Italian Cardinals in 1314, where he defended himself against the charge that he was metaphorically touching the Holy Ark with his criticisms of the Church, the main thrust of his Epistle XI is however directed more towards high-level politics, and an effort to encourage the Italian Cardinals to elect an Italian Pope and start the process of returning the Papacy back to its original place, to remove it from Avignon in France, and back to its home place in Rome.

Dante is calling Rome “widowed and abandoned”1, and makes the charge that “It is is precisely you who are the primary leaders of the Church [..], neglecting to hold up the chariot of the Church, not unlike the false charioteer Phaeton have gone astray; and you who should have shed light on the trusting flock through the pastures of this pilgrimage, have led it along with you to the precipice.” Dante is here comparing the Church with Phaethon who loses control over Apollo’s Chariot, thus burning down the world.

The letter was written in 1314, right after the death of Pope Clement V who presided over the moving of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1309, and about a year after the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, who invaded Italy in 1310 and was a “shining light” and hope for Dante – that his Tuscany would one day be liberated from what he saw as the interference and occupation by the Papal States.

In the Epistle XI Dante also accuses the Cardinals of being “you who were then the cause of an extraordinary eclipse of what is called its Sun”, where the Sun is a common metaphor for the Church in Rome, while the Emperor is the Moon, an imagery which Dante himself had redefined in Purgatory and “De Monarchia” as Rome having “Two Suns”2.

The letter closes with an appeal: “for the Bride of Christ (The Church), for the See of the Bride which is Rome, for our Italy, and, to say the least, for the whole of mankind wandering on earth, you will fight virulently so that [..] offering yourselves with glory you may hear: ‘Glory in the highest,’ and so that the obnoxiousness of the Gascones who, burning with such ruthless lust, attempt to usurp the glory of the Latins, may be an example to posterity for all future centuries.”3


  1. Dante’s Epistle XI to the Italian Cardinals, part 3 

  2. Purgatory Canto 16, verse 106-108 

  3. Dante’s Epistle XI to the Italian Cardinals, part 26 

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