Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome | Annotated Tale

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Sciarra Colonna


THERE were two of the Colonna. One was Sciarra; I don't know the name of the other. They were always fighting against the pope of their time. [1] At last they took him and shut him up in a tower in the Campagna, and kept him there till they had starved him to death; and when the people found him afterwards, what do you think?--in his extremity he had gnawed off all the tips of his fingers.

               When these two Colonna found they had actually killed a Pope, they got so frightened that they ran away to hide themselves. They ran away to France, to Paris, and at last, when all the money they were able to carry with them was spent, they were obliged to take a place as stablemen in the king's palace, and they washed the carriages and cleaned down the horses like common men. But they couldn't hide that they were great lords; the people saw there was something different from themselves about them, and they watched them, and saw that they waited on each other alternately every day at table, and you could see what great ceremony they were used to. Then other things were seen, I forget what now, but little by little, and by one thing and another, people suspected at last who they really were.

               Then some one went and told the king of France, and he had them called up before him.

               They came just as they were, in their stable clothes, wooden shoes [2] and all.

               The king sat to receive them in a raised seat hung all round with cloth of gold, and he said:

               'Now, I know one thing. You two are hiding from justice. Who you are I don't know exactly for certain. I believe you are the Colonna. If you confess you are the Colonna, I will make the affair straight for you; but, if you will not say, then I will have you shut up in prison till I find out who you are, and what you have done.'

               Then they owned that they were the Colonna, [3] and the king sent an ambassador to the Pope that then was, and the thing was arranged, and after a time they came back to Rome.



[1] Litta, 'Storia delle Famiglie italiane,' traces that from the beginning the Colonna family was always Ghibeline. The present representatives of the house, however, are reckoned Papalini.

[2] 'Zoccolo,' a wooden sandal kept on the foot by a leather strap over the instep. It is worn by certain 'scalsi' or 'barefooted' friars, hence called by the people 'zoccolanti.' The street near Ponte Sisto in Rome, called Via delle Zoccolette, received its name from a convent of nuns there who also wore 'zoccoli.'

[3] That Sciarra Colonna headed a band of 'spadassini' against Boniface VIII., and made himself the tool of Philippe le Bel, is of course true to history, as also that he held him imprisoned for a time at Anagni. The Pontiff's biographer, Tosti, mentions however only to refute them, 'le favole Ferretiane,' to which Sismondi, 'Storia delle Republiche italiane,' gives currency, and which embody the floating tradition in the text. 'Ferreto da Vicenza,' writes Tosti, 'narrates that a kind of poison was administered to this great Pontiff, which put him in a state of phrenzy; the servant who waited on him, also, was sent away, and being left alone in the room he is supposed to have gnawed at a stick (in another allusion to the same fable--at page 293--he says, 'his fingers' as in the text), and struck his head against the wall so desperately that his white hairs were all stained with blood; finally, that he suffocated himself under the counterpane invoking Beelzebub. But when we think how Boniface arrived at extreme old age, enfeebled with reverses; how, shut up in a room alone, there was no one to be witness to the alleged gnawing and knocking and Satanic invocations, and how that the manner of his death was quite differently related by eye-witnesses, I do not know for whom Sismondi could have thought he was writing when he marred his history by inserting such a fable. What certainly happened, and it is certified by Cardinal Stefaneschi, who was present, and by the Report afterwards drawn up of the acts of Boniface--was, that 'he was lodged in the Vatican at the time of his death, and breathed his last tranquilly. The bed of the dying Pontiff was surrounded by eight cardinals and by other distinguished persons (Process. Bonif. p. 37, p. 15), to whom, according to the custom of his predecessors, he made confession of faith, affirming, however enfeebled his voice, that he had lived in that faith, and wished to die in it, a Catholic. Consoled with the Viaticum of the Sacraments he gave up his soul to God, weary with the prolonged struggle he had sustained for the rights of the Church, ... thirty-five days after his imprisonment at Anagni' (vol. ii. p. 286-7). Platina goes into less detail, but also records that he died in Rome (Le vite de' Pontefici, Venice, 1674, p. 344). The magnanimous stedfastness evinced by Boniface when attacked by Colonna and Nogaret, all abandoned as he was by human aid (detailed by Tosti, p. 2, et seq.), could not but have been succeeded by a grander closing scene than that imagined by Ferreto. Maroni (vi. 17-18) not only narrates that he survived the Anagni affair to return to Rome, but that with great Christian charity he ordered Nogaret, who had been taken prisoner by the Romans in the meantime, to be released from confinement; and [xiv. 283] that he could have had no poison administered to him at Anagni, for all the time he was imprisoned he would eat nothing but eggs on purpose to be proof against it. The best disproof of the story, however, is that given by Tosti (p. 296-7). In the clearing for the rebuilding of the nave of St. Peter's, 302 years after the death of Boniface, his sepulchre was opened and the grave then revealed the truth. It so happened that his body had scarcely undergone any change, and those who stood by could hence depose that both his head and his hands were quite perfect; there were no marks or blows on the former, and so far from his finger-tips being gnawed, they noticed that the nails even were particularly long. The face also wore a peculiarly placid expression.

               Several contemporary writers cited by Tosti tell, however, that Benedict XI., Boniface's successor, died of poison believed to have been administered by Sciarra Colonna at the instigation of Philippe le Bel. But unfortunately for the tradition in the text Moroni [xiv. 283], who also mentions this, adds that Sciarra Colonna died in exile as he deserved. The two Cardinals Colonna, however, who had been exiled with the rest of the family, were reinstated by Benedict XI., and Clement V. in 1305 restored the other members of it to their possessions in the Roman States, where they made themselves obnoxious enough during the Papal residence at Avignon, and were as hostile to Rienzi as they had ever been to the Popes.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Sciarra Colonna
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

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