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Pope Boniface VIII : biography

1235 - 11 October 1303

Pope Boniface VIII ( ; c. 1235 – 11 October 1303), born Benedetto Caetani, or Gaetani, was the head of the Catholic Church from 24 December 1294 to his death in 1303. Today, he is probably best remembered for his feuds with Dante, who placed him in the Eighth Circle of Hell in his Divine Comedy, among the simoniacs.


  • In his Inferno, Dante portrayed Boniface VIII as destined for hell, where simony is punished, although Boniface was still alive at the fictional date of the poem's story. Boniface's eventual destiny is revealed to Dante by Pope Nicholas III, whom he meets. A bit later in the Inferno, we are reminded of the pontiff's feud with the Colonna family, which led him to demolish the city of Palestrina, killing 6,000 citizens and destroying both the home of Julius Caesar and a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Boniface's ultimate fate is confirmed by Beatrice when Dante visits Heaven. It is notable that he does not adopt Guillaume de Nogaret's aspersion that Boniface VIII was a 'sodomite', however, and does not assign him to that circle of hell (albeit that Simony was placed in the eighth circle of Fraud below Sodomy in the seventh circle of Violence, designating it as a worse offense and taking precedence above activities of sodomy).
  • He is also referenced in François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. In the chapter where Epistemon is listing the inhabitants of hell and their occupations, he says that Boniface was (in one translation) "skimming the scum off soup pots".
  • Mathematician and astronomer Giovanni Campano served as personal physician to Pope Boniface VIII.Robin Healey, Italian Literature Before 1900 In English Translation: An Annotated Bibliography 1929–2008, page 390 (University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2011). ISBN 978-1-4426-4269-0
  • In Boccaccio's Decameron, Boniface VIII is satirically depicted granting a highwayman (Ghino di Tacco) a priorate (Day 10, second tale). Earlier (I.i), Boniface VIII is also mentioned for his role in sending Charles of Valois to Florence in 1300 to end the feud between the Black and White Guelphs.
  • The Tale of Pope Boniface is told in Book 2 of John Gower's Confessio Amantis as an exemplum of the sin of fraudulently supplanting others. Gower claims that Boniface tricked Pope Celestine V into abdicating by having a young cleric, pretending to be the voice of God, speak to him while he was sleeping and convince him to abdicate (ll. 2861-2900). Gower also repeats the rumour that Boniface died by gnawing off his own hands, but attributes this to hunger rather than a deliberate suicide attempt (ll. 3027-28).
  • Boniface was a patron of Giotto di Bondone.
  • Boniface had the churches of Rome restored for the Great Jubilee of 1300, particularly St. Peter's Basilica, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and the Saint Mary Major Basilica.


Benedetto was born in 1235 in Anagni, c. 50 kilometres southeast of Rome. He was the younger son of a minor noble family, the Caetani, or Gaetani. He took his first steps in the religious life when he was sent to the monastery of the Friars Minor in Velletri, where he was put under the care of his uncle Fra Leonardo Patrasso.Tosti, p. 37, citing Teuli, History of Velletri, Book 2, chapter 5. He became a canon of the cathedral in Anagni in his teens. In 1252, when his uncle Pietro Caetani became Bishop of Todi, in Umbria, Benedetto went with him and began his legal studies there. Benedetto never forgot his roots in Todi, later describing the city as "the dwelling place of his early youth," the city which "nourished him while still of tender years," and as a place where he "held lasting memories." In 1260, Benedetto acquired a canonry in Todi, as well as the small nearby castle of Sismano. Later in life he repeatedly expressed his gratitude to Anagni, Todi, and his family.

In 1264, Benedetto became part of the Roman Curia, where he served as secretary to Cardinal Simon de Brion, the future Pope Martin IV, on a mission to France. Similarly, he accompanied Cardinal Ottobuono Fieschi, the future Pope Adrian V, to England in 1265–1268 to suppress a rebellion by a group of barons against King Henry III of England. Upon Benedetto's return from England, there is an eight-year period in which nothing is known about his life, after which Benedetto was sent to France to supervise the collection of a tithe in 1276 and then became a papal notary in the late 1270s. During this time, Benedetto accumulated seventeen benefices that he was permitted to keep when he was promoted, first to cardinal deacon in 1281 and then ten years later to cardinal-priest. As cardinal, he often served as papal legate in diplomatic negotiations to France, Naples, Sicily, and Aragon.

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