Avignon vs. Rome: Dante, Petrarch, Catherine of Siena

Rome in 1500

Rome in 1500Avignon vs. Rome: Dante, Petrarch, Catherine of Siena

Thomas Renna

Expositions: 4.1&2 (2010) 47-62


In the fourteenth century the image of ancient Rome as Babylon was transformed into the positive idea of Rome as both a Christian and a classical ideal. Whereas Dante disassociated Augustine‟s Babylon from imperial Rome, Petrarch turned Avignon into Babylon, a symbol of an avaricious papacy. For Catherine of Siena Avignon was not evil, but a distraction which prevented the pope from reforming the Italian clergy, bringing peace to Italy, and launching the crusade.

“There is only one hope of salvation in this place! Here, Christ is sold for gold!”


And so Francesco Petrarch denounced the Avignon of the popes as the most evil place on earth since the days of ancient Babylon. This view of the Holy See should have disappeared when the papacy returned to Rome in 1377, but it did not. On the contrary, the castigation of the sins of pontiffs intensified, as subsequent ages used this profile to vilify the papacy, the clergy, the French monarchy, and the French nation. Not to be outdone, some French historians in the twentieth century sought to correct this received tradition by examining the popes‟ worthy qualities. It is curious that this depiction of Avignon as the Babylon Captivity has enjoyed such longevity, even in college textbooks.

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