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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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ALEXANDER VII (CHIGI)

1655—1667

 

ENGLAND
Oliver
Cromwell

1660
Charles II

FRANCE
Louis XIV

GERMANY
Ferdinand III
1657
Leopold I

SPAIN
Philip IV
1665
Charles II

DONNA OLYMPIA was sufficiently bold and powerful to disregard most precedents; but one thing even she could not attempt, and that was to enter the conclave at the head of the late Pope's creatures. The leaderless group therefore, modestly calling themselves "God's Faction", remained to all appearances independent; but in reality took their orders from the masterful woman ensconced in her palace of the Piazza Navona. The rest of the cardinals formed numerous small cliques, many of them with no definite policy but their own private ambitions and animosities. The Barberini brothers were again to the fore, Antonio siding with the French and Francis with the Spanish as they had done at the previous conclave. They were now on excellent terms with Donna Olympia and their position quite secure. In opposition to "God's Faction", composed mostly of very young prelates, there stood the "Zelanti", an association of the older cardinals. Rarely had a conclave been so multipartite and never had there been one more numerously attended. Sixty-nine cardinals mustered in the Vatican on January 18th, thirty-two of whom were avowed candidates. The Romans of course made tremendous fun of this spate of would-be popes and the daily pasquinades delighted the populace and penetrated even into remote villages. At a hamlet called Arquato, near Ascoli, the yokels dressed themselves up as cardinals and, mimicking the formal ceremonial of the conclave, solemnly elected a shepherd as Pope, crowning him with a cardboard tiara. He published a bull abolishing all millers' fees and salt taxes and was carried in triumph by the villagers. This disrespectful though harmless prank had a tragic sequel, for the culprits were handed over to the Inquisition and in three days' time the unfortunate mock-pontiff was dead.

Pope Alexander VII
ALEXANDER VII
From a print in the British Museum
   
But to return to the Vatican, the excessive number of candidates was causing serious trouble as it subdivided the already too numerous factions and was bound to result in an unduly protracted conclave. [p. 172] In effect a fortnight elapsed without any attempt being made at an election. France was again supporting Sacchetti and Spain proposing Castagna—but only half-heartedly, being more occupied with defeating Mazarin's protégé than with forwarding the cause of her own. Tuscany's candidate was Chigi. "God's Faction" with no declared preferences seemed ready to coquet with all parties in truly feminine fashion. Large sums of money were arriving from France, and Terranova, the Viceroy's agent, received 20,000 doubloons from Naples for distribution among the electors. He was accused later by Guarini, the Florentine agent, of having spent only 3000 ducats on bribes and of having kept the remainder for himself! Cardinal de Medici was well provided with funds and valuable gifts, and living up to the family reputation for lavishness and magnificence. As to Donna Olympia, who had an unsurmountable reluctance to putting her hand in her pocket, she was full of testamentary promises bestowing the most munificent legacies, but parting with nothing meanwhile. Her creatures therefore had little influence and, not being bound by any common interest, soon began to drift in different directions, two or three of the most prominent going over to Spain for 1000 doubloons down and a pension of 3000 crowns apiece. Never was simony practised more blatantly than at this conclave. Albizzi, for instance, made no mystery whatever of the fact that he had received 3000 doubloons and a magnificent pair of horses from Falconieri. Antonio Barberini was buying votes quite openly with French gold and French benefices, and offering one of Mazarin's richly dowered nieces as wife to the Duke of Modena. His bribes were so varied and so tempting that when, on February 4th, the first scrutiny took place Sacchetti appeared to have a very good chance of success. Spain continued very lukewarm about Castagna and the number of the lesser aspirants was rapidly dwindling, the general tendency being negative and apathetic.

Nothing is so crushing to a papal candidate as an atmosphere of neutrality, and Sacchetti, with no serious opponent to hamper him, only got thirty-three votes; nor did his following increase by a single unit during the ensuing fortnight though his name was proposed daily and no more suitable alternative was brought forward. The Sacred College then devoted several days to a renewal of active intriguing and bribery. A veritable river of gold was flowing into [p. 173] the Vatican. Conclavists had never had a busier time; they were nightly on the prowl wearing grotesque disguises, their features buried in the luxuriant growth of false beards. Discipline had gone by the board; there was no respect for regulations and members of "God's Faction" scarcely troubled even to feign illness when they left the Vatican to obey Donna Olympia's summons. The Cardinal Landgrave of Hesse, refusing to wear the customary robes and rochet, strode about the conclave in civilian garb and top-boots. When the Dean remonstrated with him he replied arrogantly that he always dressed so to go hunting in swamps. Another cardinal, Carpegna, whose hobby was snaring birds with lime, wandered about the passages imitating the cuckoo's call, which was the usual method of attracting the feathered victims. Being reprimanded for this unseemly disturbance, he gave as an explanation that he was calling the Holy Ghost!

The first days of March brought the distant sounds of the carnival revelries wafting into the depressing precincts of the conclave and the young cardinals almost went mad with the boredom of their seclusion. Their only recreation was gambling. When they had lost all their money they staked their votes or played for forfeits, this last system leading to most unseemly incidents of which the following is an example. The young scamps had discovered that the aged Cardinal Caraffa had contrived a secret passage from his cell to recess behind the Spanish leader's cubicle, which enabled his conclavists to eavesdrop in all security. The young cardinals thought they would turn their knowledge to account by giving a good fright to the aged prelate whom they much disliked. So one night Maidalchini, who had incurred a forfeit, was wrapped up in a sheet and despatched through the secret passage with instructions to act the spook to the best of his ability. But Caraffa was a bad sleeper and had heard some suspicious sounds, besides which he did not believe in ghosts; he therefore lay quite still when the shrouded form glided in and allowed it to come right up to his bedside, when, with one well-aimed blow of the crutch which he always kept concealed under his bedclothes, he sent the apparition staggering back. Thoroughly disgusted with a part that entailed such painful risks for the actor, Maidalchini fled the way he had come, neglecting in his precipitation to close the door behind him. As Caraffa could not get out of bed [p. 174] unaided, and as he did not wish to expose his methods of obtaining private information by calling for help, he lay all night in an icy draught from which he contracted such a severe chill that he never really recovered.

As had happened in previous conclaves, the juvenile element was up to all sorts of boyish pranks. The youths glued the leaves of the altar missal together, but the prelate who was officiating continued his Mass quite unperturbed. Undaunted by this failure they then sprinkled the leaves with sneezing powder, and scored a complete success, as Cardinal Filomarini had to abandon the service and was assisted out of the chapel in sternutatory convulsions. Other practical jokes consisted in stuffing fishes with tow and introducing laxative powders into custard pies which the conspirators' servants managed to have served up to the bedridden cardinals; but even these pleasant diversions palled after a time and the days seemed interminable.

Suddenly a rumour, starting no one knew how or whence, spread through the conclave. Carpegna was to be Pope! Had he then managed to decoy the Dove after all? Excitement was great at the next scrutiny but only twenty-eight votes bore his name. Still it might be a beginning; in the rudderless condition of most of the factions anything might be possible. The news soon reached Donna Olympia and spurred her into immediate action. She hated Carpegna, whose sister-in-law was one of her most dangerous social rivals, and her orders to "God's Faction" were to prevent his election at all costs and by any means. But his sudden notoriety had been but an air-bubble which subsided of itself. At the next scrutiny, Carpegna's candidature fell ignominiously under a shower of "Nemini".

Meanwhile Chigi, the Florentine nominee, had been gaining ground. Retz, although a Frenchman, had been busily intriguing in his favour. This he did to be revenged on Mazarin, who had banished him from France, and to whom Chigi's elevation could scarcely be pleasing, for when the French Minister had fled before the menace of the "Fronde" and taken refuge in Cologne, Chigi, who was residing there as Papal Legate, had withheld all assistance from the fugitive and had in fact adopted a decidedly hostile attitude towards him. The election of a man he considered as his personal enemy would be a stinging rebuff for Mazarin, whose renewed failure to secure [p. 175] Sacchetti's election would thus be made doubly mortifying. Sacchetti himself, seeing that Antonio Barberini was deserting his cause, had by now given up all hopes of his own success and modestly faded into the background. He even went so far as to use his influence with the French Ambassador to persuade him into giving his support to his rival. As the Spanish faction was well disposed towards Chigi there now remained only Donna Olympia to win over. She was trapped by a complicated network of falsehoods into withdrawing her opposition and so on April 7th, after a conclave which had lasted for eighty days, Chigi became Pope Alexander VII.

Cardinal de Retz, whose conceit led him to believe that his own zeal and influence were principally responsible for Chigi's elevation, was pained and surprised at Alexander's lack of gratitude and judges him in his memoirs with acrimonious severity. He accuses him of being a hypocrite of the deepest dye and ridicules the rather excessive manifestations of humility displayed by the Pontiff directly after his election; such as refusing to sit in the middle of the altar to receive the cardinals' final obedience, but perching himself instead on the extreme end of it; also by referring perpetually to his unworthiness. His conduct concerning his family is difficult to defend. He refused at first to allow his nephews to come to Rome, but as he was careful not to appoint anyone to occupy State offices and as he himself could never be prevailed upon to attend to business, things soon came to such a pass that the cardinals, the foreign envoys and the courtiers all joined in begging him to conform to precedent and entrust his relations with the management of affairs. He submitted to their entreaties with well-feigned reluctance; but no sooner were his brother and nephews installed in the Vatican than he invested them with all the power, wealth and benefits at his command. Not only did Alexander bestow the most splendid properties, palaces and gifts on his immediate family but even his most distant relations had their share of the spoils, so that in a very short time the Chigi, who had belonged to the modest class of provincial Tuscan nobility, found themselves, through the Pope's favour and the brilliant marriages they contracted, raised to equality with the most ancient and powerful houses in Italy. That Alexander VII should have staged the farce of having his kinsmen imposed on him makes his unscrupulous nepotism far more odious than that of other less pharisaical popes. [p. 176]

After that initial attempt to create a good impression he made no further effort at dissimulation, and once his family was firmly established at the head of the Government he completely threw off the burden of his office. Quirini, who knew him well, says that attainment to the supreme dignity seemed to rob him of all the qualities he had displayed as a cardinal. He lost all power of discrimination, all mental alertness, and the quickness and facility of expression which had formerly distinguished him. His life, both at Castel Gandolfo and at Rome, was one of uninterrupted self-indulgence. He was, says Quirini, sposò con le delizie and Pontiff only in name.

His animosity against France occasionally roused him from his lethargy. From the moment of his accession there had been constant friction between Paris and Rome; it culminated in a dispute relating to diplomatic privileges and the Pope was misguided enough to allow his Gallophobia to become so notorious that his Corsican guards, sure of impunity, publicly insulted the French Ambassador's retainers. The Frenchmen drew their swords, the Papal Guards fell upon them, and the Duchesse de Créqui, the Ambassador's wife, only just managed to reach the Embassy in safety, her page being killed on the step of her coach.

The news of the affray caused an immense sensation in Paris, and Louis XIV swore that he would obtain full satisfaction from the Holy See or destroy the temporal power. As Alexander ignored the King's demands for atonement Louis XIV recalled Créqui, turned the Nuncio out of Paris, invested Avignon and ordered his army to be in readiness to march into Italy. Alexander had not expected such prompt and determined action; he took fright, hanged a couple of Corsican guards and dismissed Cardinal Imperiali, the governor of Rome. But these anodyne measures were not sufficient to placate the French monarch.

The Pope could not have chosen a worse moment to defy Louis XIV, as he could hope for no assistance from Spain, which was at war with Portugal, or from the Empire, engaged just then in fighting the Turks; so he had perforce to bow unconditionally to all the terms dictated by France, and bitterly humiliating most of them were. Besides returning Parma and Castro to the Farnese, he was to erect a monument in Rome itself bearing an inscription recalling the outrage, and followed by a record of the Pope's apology expressed in [p. 177] the most abject and obsequious terms. Considering the weakness evinced by most Roman pontiffs, including Alexander himself, for engraving their names and arms on every available stone in Rome, there is a quality of sardonic humour about this stipulation which one cannot but appreciate. This expiatory trophy was duly erected in the form of an obelisk; Alexander, however, did not think it necessary to commission Bernini to execute it. The storm abated; but except for an occasional lull during a couple of short and more friendly pontificates, it raged on and off for the best part of Louis XIV's long reign and resulted at one time in the virtual emancipation of the French Catholic Church from the jurisdiction of Rome.

Alexander VII died on May 22nd, 1667.

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