2017 08 Doc Mese

Minute details, echoes of a great history

The Document of the Month, August 2017

In chapter IV of the Veneranda Fabbrica's historic archives, entitled Privileges and Exemptions, two documents with Pope Urban VI's seal are preserved, dating from 3 February and 4 July 1389 respectively.

In both of these documents the pope addresses the archbishop of Milan, confirming all of the freedoms and exemptions granted to him and to the Milanese church by previous popes. Setting aside for now a discussion as to why two nearly identical acts were issued just several months apart, it is interesting to examine one particular detail of these documents: the seal.

It is a lead disc, with a diameter of 35 mm and a thickness of 4 mm, still anchored to the parchment by a cord that passes through two holes in the lower portion of the document, specifically folded to increase its strength (plica). In this case the cord is made of two silk strings, yellow and red, which indicate the permissive nature of the act: conversely, in the case of judicial orders and directives the string would have been made from hemp.

The seal has two faces. On the front, in keeping with the iconography that all of the popes from Paschal II (1099-1118)  to Pius II (1458-1464) used, are the two faces of the apostles Peter and Paul separated by a central cross with their respective abbreviated names below: S(anctus) PA(ulus) -  S(anctus) PE(trus). The entire seal and the two faces of the apostles are surrounded by a dotted edge.

The back of the seal reveals an extraordinarily interesting detail. Like his predecessors, Urban VII affixed his own name to this side: URB/ANUS/PP/VI.

However, between one word and the next is something which at first glance could look like simple dots. But continuing to the bottom of the document one realizes that they are actually more than that. In fact, concluding the seal are two small eagles with open wings or, as they say in heraldry, abaisé ("lowered"). And that which seem to be small dots between the words are actually minuscule eagle heads. In the history of papal seals, Urbano VII's is the first in which heraldic symbols appear.

The pontiff, at the time Bartolomeo Prignano, was from a noble Pisan family which then moved to Naples at the start of the 14h century. The Prignano family crest depicted an eagle abaisé and the pope, perhaps to further confirm his own political stance during the dramatic moment of the Western Schism, chose to insert a reference to this in his papal seal.

Once again, preserved within the Archives of the Veneranda Fabbrica, we find a document whose significance extends beyond its specific content and reverberates within a universal history. The  Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, aware of the responsibility that comes with its long-standing history, perseveres in its commitment to preserve and enhance its archival patrimony.