The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
< Prev T of C
... XVth Century
... Next >
URBAN VIII (BARBERINI)
GREGORY XV's pontificate had been too short to allow of his creating a great number of cardinals.
Richelieu mentions in his memoirs that on his death-bed, as Ludovico was begging the Pope to strengthen
his party by a few more nominations, Gregory refused to do so, adding "that he would already have to
account to God for having made so many unworthy ones"—an unexpected pronouncement to find recorded
by a man who himself owed him the hat!
Ludovisi therefore entered the conclave on July 19th with a number of followers considerably inferior to
Borghese's, whose phalanx was still practically complete. But to counteract this deficiency he had the
tremendous advantage of a vastly superior intellect and unquestionable prestige. He had only just stepped
down from a position of the greatest importance which he had filled brilliantly, and was besides possessed of
a remarkably quick and resourceful mind; while Borghese was incapable, effeminate and unreliable. Two of
the most prominent members of the last few conclaves had now disappeared: Aldobrandini, whose nephew
had been given his uncle's hat, but was still without influence or experience; and Montalto, the erstwhile don
Juan, who had recently died. Ludovisi had no difficulty in annexing the few followers who had survived
their dead leaders, especially as Bandini, his official candidate, was a creature of Clement VIII's. As usual
there were many among the cardinals who openly or secretly coveted the papal tiara. Here are a few of them:
the Cardinal-Dean Sauli, the man Aldobrandini had so much feared—his eighty-five years were certainly a
point in his favour, but he was known to be completely under the influence of his valet and the man's wife;
Monti, the faithful henchman of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, the most charming cynic in the Sacred
College, but too whole-heartedly devoted to Florence; Ginnasio, an inveterate gambler, who had won
200,000 crowns in one night's play at the house of the Duchess of Uzeda when he was Nuncio in Madrid;
Araceoli, an [p. 156] austere, fearsome Dominican; Mellini, a double-faced, shifty creature, burdened with
numberless debts and nephews; Campori, Borghese's candidate in the last election, badly handicapped by
some former scandal of which Orsini held written proofs; Ascoli, a monk who thought uncleanliness a sign
of godliness and was generally shunned by his colleagues. There were others besides, too numerous and insignificant to be worth mentioning. The question of the Valteline had now reached a crucial stage, and Italy
was looking once more to France to defend her from the bullying of Spain and Austria.
Richelieu, seeing in the election of a Francophile pope an excellent opportunity for France to regain her
former influence in northern Italy, was more than willing to play a part in the proceedings, especially as
there happened to be present in the ranks of the Sacred College a man whom he knew personally to be
genuinely devoted to his interests. This prelate, called Barberini, belonged to a Florentine family which had
made a large fortune in trade. Being an orphan, Maffeo Barberini had been sent to Rome as an infant to be
brought up by an uncle who was a member of the curia. When the child developed into a most promising
young man, the ecclesiastical career naturally suggested itself to the Barberini as the most auspicious field
for Maffeo's talents. It was soon apparent that fortune favoured him very especially. He obtained the
coveted post of nuncio to the French court and shortly after he was made a cardinal.
From a print in the British Museum
This last stroke of luck was due to the fact that Mellini, the Nuncio to Spain, having received the hat, France
had immediately requested as a matter of etiquette that a like honour should be conferred on Barberini. Paul
V had had to comply with the demand but resented it, and always treated Barberini with great coldness.
Borghese had also adopted an attitude of unfriendliness towards him, so although he actually belonged to
that leader's faction he was not bound to him by any feelings of gratitude or loyalty. Richelieu, well aware
of this state of things, made secret arrangements with Ludovisi and the Grand Duke of Tuscany to support
Barberini when their official candidates had failed, which they were bound to do. He also won over d'Este
and several Roman prelates; but even then Borghese's forces could hold their adversaries in check and
would have to be undermined by some means or other. The means were soon discovered. [p. 157]
In the Spanish faction siding with Borghese was Cardinal Borgia, a clever, crafty diplomat who was
thoroughly discontented with his own King for having given the leadership of the party to Zapata instead of
to himself, and with Borghese to whom he owed a personal grudge, as Paul V had ordered him to demolish
the towers built by Alexander VI to protect the entrance to his Roman palace; and Borgia knew Borghese to
have been the instigator of a measure which he considered tyrannical and vexatious. He therefore lent a
ready ear to France's blandishments, especially as the secret agreement he drew up with Barberini fully
satisfied his thirst for revenge.
Borghese's candidate, Mellini, had been a personal enemy of Gregory XV, and such a choice was equivalent
to a declaration of war to Ludovisi, who would oppose his election with the utmost energy. The situation
therefore was as follows: Borghese, proposing Mellini but not quite strong enough to secure his election
without some outside assistance; the Florentines proposing Monti; and Ludovisi proposing Bandini, both
meaning eventually to elect Barberini; the French intending to join their confederates when the time came
and lying low meanwhile; the Spanish party siding with Borghese officially, but Borgia at any rate meaning
to play him false.
The scrutinies began with a monotonous swing of the pendulum between Mellini and Bandini. As Ludovisi's
nominee had been persecuted by Paul V, his situation was identical to that of Mellini. There was not the
slightest chance of his being elected, as he was a Florentine hated by the Medici, and had eighty-three
nephews to provide for, which was scarcely likely to endear him to his colleagues. Several days went by and
from the electoral point of view matters were at a standstill; but the enmity between the two leaders made
steady progress. Their attitude towards each other became so hostile and discourteous as to cause
embarrassment to their followers, who at last prevailed on them with great difficulty to patch up a
reconciliation. They were induced to shake hands and exchange a few civil words, but the good
understanding went no further.
The heat was becoming terribly oppressive and the cardinals were appalled at the idea of a long conclave
under such exceptionally unhygenic conditions; for not only were many prelates confined to their beds with
the ague, but twenty-five conclavists were also laid up and incapable of attending to their duties. The
cubicles and the [p. 158] passages were in a condition of nauseating neglect: "the atmosphere being laden
with putrid miasmas and sickening smells of decaying victuals that the potent perfumes of the young
cardinals could not manage to disguise". To add to the general discomfort, fleas, always plentiful in Rome,
appeared in such hordes that the tastiest among their victims were literally being devoured alive.
On August 2nd Borghese had a sharp attack of fever and Borgia decided that time had come for action. After
consulting with Ludovisi, Medici and Aldobrandini he approached Farnese, who was also on the sick-list
and who was fretting to get back to his palace in Parma. He agreed readily enough to their plan, welcoming
any means of escaping from such a gehenna. But even with all these recruits, the coalition was not
sufficiently strong to carry an election without Borghese's assent. Barberini undertook to canvass among his
own party, and as he was intimately acquainted with his colleagues' foibles and secret ambitions, his offers
and promises ranging from matrimonial contracts to archbishoprics were very favourably received. Still as
long as Borghese stood out it would have been too hazardous to risk the attempt, and Borghese stubbornly
refused to support Barberini, fearing that as Pope he would pay him out for his incivilities. It was a well-known fact to his colleagues that Borghese would never vote for any man younger than himself so the
coalition, pretending to drop Barberini, offered to support any one of three creatures of Borghese whom they
named, all of whom were younger than their leader. When Borghese rejected this suggestion the deputation
threw up their hands in mock despair. What more could they do? Borghese was so unreasonable that, having
sworn to elect none but a creature of his uncle's, he yet refused all those suggested to him!
On August 5th Borghese had another and more severe attack of fever and wrote to the Dean in a panic for
permission to leave the conclave. Borgia and Ludovisi, immediately apprised of the fact, called a meeting of
the Sacred College to protest against the permit being granted, under pretext that the leader's absence would
create a deadlock and that the entire assembly would have to expose their health and lives for the
convenience of one man. The prospect of an indefinitely protracted conclave resulted in a unanimous
decision against the granting of the exeat. [p. 159]
The Cardinal Prince of Savoya was entrusted with the mission of informing Borghese that the Dean was
regretfully obliged to withhold the permit he had applied for. When the invalid had sufficiently recovered
from the fit of rage induced by this announcement, it was suggested to him that Barberini's election would
be the simplest and quickest way of solving the difficulty. There was nothing Spartan about the fat, self-indulgent, pleasure-loving Borghese, and his opponents knew that now they had him at their mercy. Sooner
than face the risk entailed by remaining any longer in the insalubrious atmosphere of the conclave he gave
his grudging consent. Immediately Ludovisi ordered the chapel bell to be rung. Borghese himself wrapped in
blankets was carried there and Barberini's election took place at once, the new Pontiff assuming the name of
Urban VIII. Borghese recovered; but several other cardinals died from the effects of that poisonous
claustration, Urban himself being so ill that his enthronement had to be postponed for a couple of months.
Barberini's election was a signal triumph for French diplomacy. Those years of his nunciature at the French
Court when he had been young and fêted and enjoyed life to the full had left an indelible impression on his
tastes and political outlook. For him France never lost her glamour; he was always to be in sympathy with
her aims and antagonistic to her enemies.
Physically, morally and mentally what manner of man was this enthusiastic Gallomaniac that Richelieu had
raised to the Apostolic See?
Zeno, the Venetian envoy, writes the following description of him to the Senate:
The new Pontiff is 56 years old. He came out of the conclave in bad health owing to the pestilential
atmosphere and the bodily disorders caused by the vehemence of the passions that affect cardinals in
those assemblies, disabling some and killing others. His Holiness is tall, dark, with regular features
and black hair turning grey. He is exceptionally elegant and refined in all details of his dress; has a
graceful and aristocratic bearing and exquisite taste. He is an excellent speaker and debater, writes
verses and patronises poets and men of letters.
Urban VIII's chief characteristic was undoubtedly conceit—a selfinflation so colossal as to be positively
impressive. So immeasurably superior to ordinary mortals did he consider himself that his exalted [p. 160]
sacerdotal dignity scarcely added lustre, in his estimation, to his own personal effulgence. Divine
intervention would have been superfluous to bring his merits to the notice of his colleagues, for they were
too transcendental to be missed. His candour on the subject of his inherent greatness was almost disarming.
Precedents, regulations, age-old institutions, nothing was ever allowed to interfere with his whims and
fancies. He wished to have his statue placed in the Capitol; but there was a law in force that no living pope
should have one erected, as scandalous scenes of outrages and mutilation of statues had followed the death
of unpopular pontiffs. Urban revoked the decree, countering any objection that might be raised by remarking
complacently: "Such a law could not apply to a Pope such as I!" One of his favourite arguments when
breaking regulations was: "The decision of a living Pope is worth more than those of all the dead Popes put
together". He discarded the ecclesiastical trammels of papacy and adopted the free and martial demeanour of
a purely temporal sovereign. He spent his time either studying plans of fortifications and reading theories on
strategy, or alternately declaiming the poems of Petronius, or writing verses himself, the nature of which
would certainly have startled the Psalmist.
Urban expended vast sums on building the fortress of Castel Franco, or Fort Urbano, near Bologna, the
strategic value of which was apparent to no one but himself. He added a defensive wall to S. Angelo and
made the passage from the Vatican to the fortress safer and more convenient; he opened a factory for arms at
Tivoli and turned the vaults of the Vatican library into an arsenal. He ruthlessly destroyed the antique
monuments in the Colonna gardens which stood in his way when he decided to erect a parapet round his
residence of Monte Cavallo, and he would have demolished the tomb of Cecilia Metella to make use of the
Travertine stones with which it was constructed had not the Roman people risen in revolt and opposed such
a menacing resistance that the projected act of vandalism had to be abandoned.
The spirit of contradiction was so highly developed in Urban VIII that he would not fail to run counter to his
own opinions if expressed by anybody else. The Venetian envoy turned this characteristic to good account
and managed to obtain the most unhoped-for concessions from the Pontiff merely by pleading the opposite
of what [p. 161] he wanted. Urban treated the Sacred College with the most withering contempt, never
called consistories and completely ignored the consulta. His disregard for all accepted forms and traditions
was such that his nephew Francesco Barberini, fearful of what the future might hold for him, cautiously
refused to take any responsibility concerning the measures adopted by his uncle.
As to the ambassadors, he made it impossible for them ever to introduce a subject however important. He
continued with one the conversation begun with another, held forth continually and admitted of no
The wealth acquired by the Barberini family was fabulous, probably exceeding that amassed by any other
pontifical house excepting the Farnese. The regal palace of the Quattro Fontane stands to this day as a
witness of the style in which they lived. It was stacked with the finest works of art money could buy, the
furniture was sumptuous and all the household utensils of solid gold or silver. The jewels of the Barberini
were famous all over Italy and came near eclipsing those of the Medici. It was the invariable custom for the
family of the new pontiff to elbow out that of his predecessor, a process which naturally resulted in violent
animosities and led to the feuds we have witnessed in the conclaves. But besides falling out with the
Ludovisi the Barberini quarrelled with all the other great papal houses as well. Not only would they admit of
no superior magnificence but brooked no equality. The Farnese, however, they could not eclipse, and when
Duke Odoardo, who had precisely the same notions about his own importance, visited Rome to pay his
respects to the Pope, a lively hatred sprang up between the two clans. It resulted later in the seizure of
Castro, a Farnese possession, by the papal troops and the excommunication of the Duke. The other Italian
States sided with Farnese, as the Pope had already annexed Urbino and they did not intend to let him get
hold of Parma and Piacenza as well. Venice also joined the league, and thus assured of the support of his
neighbours, Farnese started off on a campaign of his own without artillery or provisions, yet sweeping all
The famous Fort Urbano did not impede his progress, the papal mercenaries offering no resistance, and he
marched right up to the gates of Rome, which he might have sacked with the greatest ease had he chosen to
do so. But for some unknown reason there he paused; giving [p. 162] Urban time to enrol a new army which
fell on the badly equipped Farnese troops, dispersing them without difficulty and driving the Duke out of the
Papal States. There followed a stage of desultory and aimless warfare between the forces of the league and
those of the Holy See, the net result of which was to exhaust the resources of all the combatants. The
pontifical supplies having been the first to give out, Urban had to turn to France for assistance. Richelieu
offered to mediate, and a peace treaty was drawn up which was certainly not an advantageous one for Urban.
He undertook to restore Castro to Duke Odoardo and to lift the ban of excommunication he had laid on him.
Several concessions were granted to the other members of the league, and altogether the conditions he had to
accept proved so galling to the Pope's pride that he actually swooned with mortification after signing the
His foreign policy was unswervingly Francophile. He treated the Emperor with persistent churlishness,
never lost an opportunity of slighting him and refused all his requests on principle, however reasonable they
might be. Urban's hostility to Austria led him to withhold from Ferdinand not only those supplies in men
and money which he naturally expected from Rome, but even the customary indulgences, which was indeed
mean! The Emperor therefore had to carry on, single-handed and unblessed, the campaign he had started so
enthusiastically with the help and encouragement of Gregory XV. Urban not only abandoned his
predecessor's ally but even went so far, at Richelieu's instigation, as to favour Gustavus Adolphus' invasion
of Germany. He appears to have been a party to the intrigues which, by bringing about the disgrace of
Wallenstein, deprived the Empire of the services of the only man capable of defending her.
The King of Spain, incensed at the Pope's behaviour towards the Emperor, commanded Borgia to offer a
protest to His Holiness, which the Spaniard did with great spirit and determination. Such audacity had a
galvanic effect on the Pontiff. He sprang from his seat, burst forth into a torrent of insults and abuse, and as
Borgia seemed prepared to stand his ground and defy Urban's wrath, Cardinal Barberini, who was young
and of powerful build, threw himself on the Spanish prelate, pinioned him and dragged him from the room.
This incident almost brought about an open rupture between [p. 163] Philip IV and the Pope, but as just then
the King of Sweden's repeated victories in Germany were making him dangerously powerful, Urban
suddenly adopted a more conciliatory attitude towards the Spanish-Austrian Powers and the storm blew
The Pope's treatment of Borgia caused the greatest indignation among his colleagues, and Ludovisi even
spoke of summoning a council to pass judgment on Urban for his manifest indifference to religious matters
and his hostility towards the sovereigns who were fighting for the Roman faith. These accusations were
certainly well founded, for he had consistently subordinated religion to politics, and by hindering the
champions of Catholicism had destroyed most of the advantages obtained by his predecessor, and to him can
be assigned a fair share of responsibility in the Thirty Years' War. Ludovisi's motion came to nothing,
however, as shortly after returning to his archbishopric of Bologna he died, and no other member of the
College of Cardinals had the standing or personality to carry out such a design.
Much no doubt would have been forgiven to Urban VIII had he not gone down to posterity as the Pope who
handed Galileo over to the Inquisition. By destroying his writings and condemning the aged scientist to
perpetual confinement and supervision, the Holy Office delayed the world's enlightenment, and by
approving the sentence the Pontiff assumed responsibility for it. Urban VIII will always be associated with
the picture of the cowed and broken genius, brought to his knees to retract publicly and in terms of abject
submission the great discovery his contemporaries were not ready to grasp.
Petrucelli says that it was not till 1820 that the Church of Rome allowed Catholics to refer to the rotary
movement of the earth.
Urban, though not impressed by Galileo's Dialogues, was considered a man of culture and literary tastes. He
had a magnificent edition of the Roman Breviary printed, as well as a collection of his own poems. Like
most Roman pontiffs he wished to leave his mark on the Eternal City, and commissioned Bernini to execute,
besides the building of the Barberini Palace, numerous works of art in St. Peter's and elsewhere. But as the
artist had a long career of practically uninterrupted favour and success under eight pontificates, Bernini's [p.
164] artistic innovations and achievements have remained entirely his own. The coats of arms of the
successive Popes profusely distributed over all his buildings bear testimony to the patronage which enabled
him to transform the Rome of the Renaissance and of the counter Reformation into the Rome we see to-day.
But to Urban VIII Bernini was not only the greatest artist of his times, he was also his chosen friend and
companion. They both loved theatrical entertainments and the artist wrote witty satirical plays and sketches
which were enacted for the Pontiff's amusement. It is difficult to understand how Bernini found leisure to
attend simultaneously to the building of palaces, the embellishments in St. Peter's, the chiselling of statuary
and the painting of the scenery for his plays, while in constant attendance on Urban. Yet he accomplished
this difficult feat, never failing to fulfil any contract he undertook. In addition to the statue which Urban
insisted on placing in the Capitol, he also executed numerous busts of the Pontiff, to His Holiness' great
It was Urban VIII who gave the cardinals the title of "Eminence", "most illustrious and most reverend"
having been the mode of address in use up to that time. "Eminence" had the great advantage of being both
shorter and more adaptable to all languages. The Pope died on July 29th, 1644, calling down all the
maledictions of heaven upon his enemies, and accusing them of having robbed him of many years of life
through the vexations they had caused him.
< Prev T of C
... XVth Century
... Next >