The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
< Prev T of C
... XVIIth Century
GREGORY XVI (CAPPELLARI)
AUSTRIA'S suzerainty over Italy, though gratifying to her national pride, had not proved an unmixed
blessing, and the Papal States in particular caused Metternich endless anxiety. At each new conclave a
hostile or unreliable pontiff might be elected who would refuse to consider, or fail to grasp, the vital
importance of solidarity between the Papal States and the Lombardo-Venetian realm.
So far Metternich had kept the situation well in hand, neither Consalvi nor Leo XII's Government being
in a position to defy him, and Albani acting for Pius VIII having proved absolutely dependable. But in
the restive and unsettled condition of the Italian Peninsula, where revolutionary ideas were daily gaining
ground, the new pontiff's personality might either precipitate a catastrophe or help to maintain the status
quo. Austria seemed to have little interference to anticipate from the other Catholic Powers at this
juncture, as they did not appear to be taking any active interest in the coming election. In his allocution
to the Sacred College, the Marquis de Latour-Maubourg, representing the democratic Louis Philippe,
informed their Eminences that France did not intend to make use of her right of veto in this circumstance
and politely expressed the conviction that only a wise and virtuous pontiff could be elected by such a
wise and virtuous assembly.
During the novemdiale, Albani, having singled out a Camaldulian monk called Cappellari as the best
qualified candidate to fulfil Austria's purpose, had convened him to a secret interview at the Villa Albani
to discuss the conditions of his elevation to the Holy See. Cappellari was an Austrian subject, had always
shown great deference to Albani, and there was every reason to think he would be amenable to Austrian
influence. The monk was not quite as simple, though, as Albani imagined, and having supporters in other
parties was determined not to bind himself to any definite undertaking with the late and would-be future
Secretary of State. He agreed verbally to all [p. 318] Albani's stipulations but stubbornly refused to
commit himself to anything in writing. This self-assertive attitude struck Albani as suspicious and he
broke off negotiations, immediately casting about him for a more tractable candidate.
From a print in the British Museum after a drawing by Delaroche
During his twenty months of power, Albani had made himself generally unpopular and lost ground
considerably with his followers. His Italian colleagues resented his unblushing servility towards Austria,
and all the Bourbons had been outraged at the precipitancy with which he had recognised Louis Philippe
as King of the French after the fall of Charles X. He had certainly served Metternich with exemplary
fidelity, but was hated by the Austrian cardinals—as Gaisrück, their dean, bitterly resented the fact that
Metternich had entrusted Albani instead of himself with the leadership of his party in the conclave, a
resentment which was shared by all his compatriots. Furthermore he bad quarrelled with Lützow, the
Austrian Ambassador, so that outside as well as within the conclave he would find latent enmity and ill-will.
Forty-five members of the Sacred College entered the Quirinal on December 10th, forming two opposing
factions, one led by Albani, the other by Bernetti, both antagonists aiming at the secretaryship of state as
personal objective. Bernetti was younger than his rival, and having been in office under Leo XII had
therefore had his share of political experience. He foresaw the coming death struggle between democracy
and absolutism and had even been known to speak of the fall of the temporal power in a more or less
distant future as practically inevitable. His was certainly the stronger party of the two, especially as it
stood for a change of régime always so welcome to the suffragists.
Albani had now decided on a prelate called Giustiniani to take the place of the disappointing Cappellari,
and he sent one of his conclavists in the dead of night to inform his followers of the fact and give them
orders for the next morning's scrutiny. So as to ensure his passing unnoticed Albani had forbidden the
messenger to carry a light, with the result that he crept by mistake into the cubicle of one of the Spanish
cardinals, who, having realised the portent of the whispered message, rushed to his leader with the news.
No candidate of Albani's could be welcome to Spain, and the Spanish veto having been cautiously left in
blank to be made use of at the leader's [p. 319] discretion, he hastily filled in Giustiniani's name and
presented it to the Dean of the Sacred College just before the morning scrutiny. The routed candidate
made an impassioned protest against the arbitrary interference of the Powers and, refusing to be pacified,
insisted on leaving the Quirinal.
Albani had rashly discounted the danger of any veto being produced in this conclave, but Spain did not
intend to let her prerogative lapse, and used it much in the same spirit as a right-of-way is closed to
traffic once a year to assert its legal ownership.
Meanwhile the weeks were slipping by and the Court of Vienna, which was waiting for a dispensation to
proceed with the marriage preliminaries pending between one of the Archdukes and a Princess of Naples,
remonstrated with the Sacred College on their procrastination. The Roman people also showed signs of
impatience, which they expressed by perpetually exploding squibs round the Quirinal, which frightened
the old cardinals out of their wits, much to the amusement of their younger colleagues. The dénouement,
however, notwithstanding all obstacles, was not far distant, as Cappellari had by now managed to enlist
Bernetti's support, and his election was only a matter of days. But Albani did not consider himself beaten
yet, and when a thieving conclavist sold him a letter written by Bernetti to Cappellari giving him last-moment instructions and thus exposing their plans, he made a supreme effort to defeat them. Seeing no
other means of averting the danger he decided that the only solution consisted in becoming Pope himself.
He therefore called on all his adherents to attend a secret meeting which would enable him to ascertain
what his chances of success really were.
The Quirinal being riddled with spies, Lützow, as might be expected, was informed within a few hours of
Albani's new scheme. Now not only was the Austrian Ambassador a personal enemy of Albani's, but he
also knew that Metternich, much as he valued the late Secretary of State's services and much as he
desired him to retain the post under the future Pontiff, would certainly disapprove of his own elevation to
the Apostolic See. Metternich had no illusions as to Albani's reliability where his own interests were not
concerned, and as Sovereign Pontiff he might adopt quite a different policy. Lützow therefore took it
upon himself to write a note to Albani threatening him with Austria's disavowal if he persisted in his
project. Albani was [p. 320] not powerful enough to take such a risk and fell back on the candidature of
Pacca, a prelate as old and decrepit as Pius VIII had been, and the battle now entered on its last and
decisive phase. The victory would be not so much with the candidate who carried off the papal crown as
with the one who secured the secretaryship of state.
There was, as we have seen, no loyalty to Albani in the Austrian faction and from that quarter came the
blow which finally destroyed him. Gaisrück and Lützow between them, unaware that Cappellari was
Bernetti's nominee and that they had been prompted to do so by one of his confederates, persuaded
Metternich to give the wily monk his covert support. Betrayed by his own followers, Albani naturally
failed to secure the necessary majority for Pacca, and on February 1st, 1831, Cappellari was elected
Pope, choosing the name of Gregory XVI.
The new Pontiff was tall and lusty, with a coarse rubicund countenance; the typical gormandising,
bibulous, hoydenish monk of the irreverent French novelist come to life in the XIXth century. He lacked
both poise and dignity, and his favourite recreation consisted in playing blind-man's-buff with the least
aged of the cardinals. So roughly did he treat his unfortunate playfellows that in his exuberance he
knocked down Cardinal Soglia one fine day, the shock being so violent that the victim almost died of it.
In another mood he would order all the palace servants to be assembled in the courtyard and from a
window would throw down handfuls of money to them, laughing till his sides ached to watch the ensuing
scrum. The only person he showed any affection for was his barber Morrone, who was his most trusted
adviser and confidant. This man and his wife lived in the Quirinal, where the couple occupied a
luxurious apartment, and the christenings of their numerous progeny were made occasions of important
Court functions to which the Sacred College and the diplomatic corps were solemnly bidden. The
Romans of course made the Pope's predilection for his barber's offspring the subject of endless jokes and
pasquinades of the usual disrespectful nature.
Bernetti did not remain long in office—Austria disapproved of his liberal tendencies and Gregory,
having neither the strength of mind nor the loyalty to resist the pressure put upon him by Metternich,
asked Bernetti to resign his post. The indignant Secretary of State flatly refused to comply with this
demand, which he denounced [p. 321] as violating a contract to which, in honour, the ungrateful Pontiff
stood committed. Gregory said no more, as indeed there was nothing much he could say, but as soon as
Bernetti had left the presence His Holiness wrote him a letter officially accepting his resignation. This he
sent by the Dean of the Sacred College, who was also entrusted with another to Cardinal Lambruschini
notifying him of his appointment to the secretaryship of state. Bernetti had perforce to accept his
dismissal, his resentment at such a flagrant breach of faith being perhaps tempered by the knowledge that
Gregory had given himself the most rigid and tyrannical of monitors.
Lambruschini's appearance was in perfect conformity with his disposition. His tall gaunt frame never
relaxed, his haughtiness never unbent. He was gifted with a clear perceptive intellect and his nature was
determined and steely. His diplomatic calling had taken him to many Courts, he knew the world and
despised it. His policy was ultra-conservative with an avowed hatred for France, whence had come the
epidemic of sedition, and his attitude was that of an inexorable disciplinarian.
No doubt Austria had imposed him on Gregory, for it seems incredible that the Pope should himself have
selected this prelate whose aims, tastes and character were so diametrically opposed to his own, as the
holder of an office which brought them into perpetual contact. On the other hand Gregory may have been
personally impressed by those very characteristics which he himself lacked so utterly and have acted on
an impulse of genuine esteem and admiration. Whatever the reasons which had prompted his nomination,
Lambruschini soon gained complete ascendancy over his incompetent Sovereign, who was so overawed
by his formidable Minister that he agreed to all his suggestions before the words were well out of his
mouth, and hastened to sign all documents put before him, scarcely daring to read them. If he had had
too much to drink, which was not a rare occurrence, the mere sight of Lambruschini's red robe would
sober him in an instant.
And yet Gregory XVI was not unprincipled nor was he a nonentity. He had the reputation of being an
able theologian and had written several scholarly works on the subject; but he had no talent for statecraft
and not a trace of political acumen. He was feckless, too easily influenced by his familiar and vulgar
associates, [p. 322] and more than willing to let another shoulder the responsibilities and cares of
government. So Lambruschini ruled and time hung heavily on the Pontiff's hands.
Morrone, the barber, searching for some means of amusing and occupying his master, now had an
inspiration. Why should not the Holy Father take a trip through the Papal States? He could worship at
miraculous shrines, visit many places of interest under pleasant and favourable circumstances, and his
travels would bring him into direct contact with his people. The Pope was so delighted with the notion
that he actually defied Lambruschini, who disapproved of the plan, and triumphantly asserted his
determination to please himself in the matter. The Secretary of State of course had to remain at his post,
and the Pontiff, like a truant schoolboy, freed from censorious and oppressive supervision, enjoyed
himself whole-heartedly. His peregrinations lasted six weeks and cost the Treasury 400,000 crowns,
which fact did not deter him from renewing the experience in 1843 with equal satisfaction and at no less
He welcomed every opportunity of getting away from Rome and would prolong his residence at Castel
Gandolfo far beyond the customary limits. He grew yearly less in touch with State matters and more
absorbed by the material satisfactions in which circumstances allowed him to indulge. Epicurean
gratifications assumed tremendous importance in his life, and he would travel miles to taste a celebrated
local dish or to enjoy one of the famous maigre dinners cooked by Capuchin monks, especially by those
of the Genzano monastery. All his princely neighbours in the country, such as the Torlonia, Barberini
and Orsini, were expected to provide at least one banquet a season for him, and as the expense of
entertaining His Holiness and his entire retinue was stupendous, the Sovereign's condescension in
gracing their boards was, one presumes, only moderately prized by his subjects.
Meanwhile Lambruschini governed with an iron hand, and conspiracies, risings and general discontent
were the result. The insurrections at Viterbo in 1836, in various parts of the Legations in 1840, at
Ravenna in 1843 and Rimini in 1845, were followed by wholesale executions and severe sentences to the
hulks, hard labour or exile, but still the country seethed with unrest.
On June 1st, 1846, Gregory died after a very short illness. His [p. 323] end was peaceful and edifying.
Under different circumstances he might have been a good Pontiff but the times in which he was called to
his high dignity were times of transition and ferment that he had not the breadth of mind or ability to
cope with. Nothing in his upbringing or past experience had fitted him to assume the crushing
responsibilities, or to face the problems, which beset the papal government at such a crucial period of
Italian history. He did not attempt a task of which he knew himself incapable, and, thus reduced to the
status of a figurehead, with a figurehead's empty hours of leisure, and encouraged thereunto by his
vulgar and sycophantic entourage, he allowed his coarser instincts free play. But it must be borne in
mind that the conventual code of propriety, in his days, dealt very indulgently with gastronomical
excesses and looked upon such transgressions as mere peccadilloes, the penalty for which rested more
appropriately with outraged Nature than with a higher tribunal.
< Prev T of C
... XVIIth Century