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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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CLEMENT XII (CORSINI)

1730—1740

 

ENGLAND
George II

FRANCE
Louis XV

GERMANY
Charles VI

SPAIN
Philip V

THE conclave which followed the death of Benedict XIII assembled on March 3rd and lasted four months. Except indirectly, by mowing down with systematic consistency the daily crop of candidates, the activities and intrigues of the Sacred College had little bearing on the ultimate issue.

The Dean, Cardinal Pignatelli, fell ill almost at once and there was no other prelate with sufficient influence over his colleagues to maintain or enforce the necessary discipline during his absence. The weather being oppressively hot, the younger cardinals discarded most of their clothing piecemeal, till the precincts of the conclave must have presented the shocking spectacle of a nudist colony! The windows were opened and free communication established with the outer world; the Marquis de Monteleone, the Spanish Ambassador, was smuggled in through an aperture and spent a whole night in the conclave, a most serious infraction of the regulations. Voting became a mere exchange of civilities, the most surprising names appearing on the forms. Cienfugos, the uncompromising leader of the imperialists, was outraged at such levity: "We might be at the dinner-table paying compliments to the ladies instead of at a conclave to elect a Pope!" he exclaimed, his protest being received with supercilious smiles. But when Coscia's name was read out at the scrutiny, then even the least squeamish waxed indignant, and someone proposed that the slip should be preserved and given to the new pope so that he should deal with the culprit. As, however, there was little likelihood of the humourist having signed his own name to such a compromising document it was eventually burnt with the rest. Coscia was present at this scene, as he had managed to sneak into the Vatican by a side entrance and join his colleagues undetected. His reception had been distinctly chilly and the storm which that unfortunate vote had let loose was an ominous forecast of what the future might have in store for him. He almost fainted with fright and [p. 246] had to be supported out of the chapel, and having been put to bed, thought it wise to remain there for the time being.

The sultry atmosphere was no less damping to the spirits than to the flesh, and the only joke on record turned out to be anything but a merry jest. The victim, an aged prelate called Conti who was monstrously fat and crippled with gout, happened, as he was dragging himself along a passage one morning, to come face to face with Albani. Acting on a mischievous impulse, Albani stopped him, and with exaggerated gestures of precaution whispered in his ear that everything was settled and that he was to be elected Pope that very evening. The poor old simpleton in a frenzy of excitement hastened with frantic efforts to reach his cell; he burst in on his astonished conclavist who was stirring his patron's chocolate, and having managed to stammer out the great news, reeled forward and fell dead of an apoplectic fit.

But the disposing of candidates either by manslaughter or more conventional methods did not bring the Sacred College any nearer to giving St. Peter a successor, and seeing that the electors proved incapable of selecting a pope themselves, it was only to be expected that their duties should be undertaken for them by more enterprising outsiders. The question which was engaging the general attention just then was the Medici succession, as the ex-Cardinal Grand Duke was childless, and Austria, France, Spain and Sardinia were no less anxious to provide an heir for him than they had been in the case of Charles II of Spain. A congress had been held in Seville to examine the various claims, and it had found in favour of Don Carlos, second son of Philip V. The indignant Grand Duke had appealed to the Emperor against this arbitrary decision, which denied to the hereditary Sovereign of Tuscany any say whatever in a matter which he might after all be permitted to consider as of some concern to himself.

The Tuscans naturally resented the idea of being ruled by a foreigner of any nationality, and were strongly in favour of some autonomous form of government on the model of that of Venice or Genoa.

Among the most prominent Florentines both from the point of view of position and of wealth was the Marchese Neri Corsini. He had held diplomatic posts at most of the great European Courts, where he had made many friends; and having lately retired into [p. 247] private life, had settled in Rome to be near his uncle Cardinal Corsini. What more fitting conclusion to a distinguished career could be devised than to become Cardinal-Nephew and finish one's days as an influential member of the Sacred College, or even—perhaps—as Pope!

The circumstances indeed were most favourable; there was little to fear from exclusions and no dangerous rival to defeat; Neri Corsini had powerful connections, much worldly experience, money and feminine support. The Cardinal's personality would also help to further his cause, for among his colleagues he did not appear to have a single enemy. He belonged to the Zelanti faction, but had none of their bigotry and aggressiveness. Without being clever he had a certain political acumen and was recognised as the prototype of the Florentine grand seigneur. He had the reputation of being both resolute and broad-minded, was credited with generosity, moderation and good sense, and last but not least, he was seventy-eight years of age.

The centre of electoral activities now shifted from the Vatican to the palace of the Marchesa Acciaioli, the most noted Roman hostess and a close friend of Neri's. She was an invaluable ally with far-reaching influence abroad, and mainly to her efforts was due the Emperor's patronage of Corsini's candidature. Her word of course was law to all the young Roman cardinals, and Prince Albani could refuse her nothing. Neri himself purchased Coscia's vote for 25,000 crowns and sent expensive presents to several of the foreign cardinals. He had always kept in close touch with Florence and had no difficulty in persuading the Grand Duke of the advantage there would be for him in the elevation to the Holy See of one of his own subjects. The Grand Duke himself warmly recommended Corsini to the French, Spanish and Sardinian Monarchs, each one interpreting this proceeding as a sign of special goodwill towards himself. The sympathies of a Florentine pope, the Powers considered, might bear great weight with his compatriots when the time came for a change of dynasty, and Neri Corsini in the post of Cardinal-Nephew would be an invaluable ally. The great thing was to be the first in the field, so as to have the strongest claim on Corsini's gratitude. And so from various points of the compass, messengers bearing the despatches which settled the problem of the pontifical election thundered along the highways, all converging towards the Vatican where the suffragists [p. 248] continued every morning to call perfunctorily on the Paraclete for divine inspiration.

One by one, in the order in which their instructions reached them, the Cardinal-Padrones crept into Corsini's cubicle bringing with them ready-drawn-up agreements across which the old man, who was practically blind, scrawled his illegible signature; Albani under pressure from his brother, followed his colleagues' example; and so on July 12th, 1730, Corsini became Pope Clement XII.

Walton, who does not appear to have taken any active part in this election, was delighted at Corsini's victory. "Under the reign of this Pope", he writes, "the Pretender will enjoy no favour. Clement will govern with caution and sound good sense. He will restore the pomp and splendour which Benedict XIII abolished, for his tastes are very magnificent. He will also encourage literature, having one of the finest and best selected libraries in Europe."

As regards the Pope's behaviour towards the Pretender, Walton was doomed to disappointment, for James managed in time to win Clement's good graces. The Pontiff's caution, or perhaps the lassitude of age, caused him at first to adopt an attitude of neutrality. He evinced little interest in the fate of Tuscany and strove to remain aloof while the Powers flew at one another's throats. But as in the general scuffle several of the papal fiefs were snapped up by one or other of the belligerents, he had perforce to raise his voice in protest, though with little result.

During the ten years of his pontificate many changes took place in Italy, territories continually changing hands either in consequence of treaties or of the fortunes of war. The Papal States were for ever being overrun and plundered by advancing or retreating armies, and finding that expostulations were apt to lead to worse trouble, Clement accepted the inevitable with silent resignation, remaining a passive and impotent spectator of the bartering of papal fiefs between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs. Thus the Emperor exchanged the Two Sicilies with the King of Spain against Parma and Piacenza without even troubling to notify the Holy See of the transaction.

Clement, notwithstanding these slights, made friendly advances to Philip V, bestowing on his third son Don Luis, aged barely eight years old, the cardinal's hat together with the archbishoprics of Seville and Toledo; but he received scant thanks for his affability, the [p. 249] Queen, Elizabeth Farnese, reproaching him acrimoniously for not doing a great deal more.

He left the administration of the State to his nephew, but insisted on a special commission being appointed to examine and judge Coscia. Benedict XIII's favourite was condemned to ten years detention in the fortress of S. Angelo and to the loss of all his possessions. He was also excommunicated and deprived of his vote at future conclaves. Just before Clement died, however, his nephews, who felt uncertain as to what might fall to their lot under the next pontiff if such a precedent was allowed, prevailed on the Pope to quash the verdict and sign a decree of rehabilitation which gave Coscia his freedom. His ill-gotten goods were restored to him, at least what could be recovered of them from the safe keeping of his friends.

Heresy was now an accepted calamity. It was confined within certain areas, and although the Church of Rome no doubt deplored the existence of these plague-spots, it no longer felt threatened in its stability. But during Clement's pontificate a new menace known as Freemasonry made its appearance; it caused the Pontiff and his successors acute anxiety, and has not ceased to this day from sapping the foundations of the Catholic Church. This institution had been imported to the Continent from England, the first lodge being opened in Paris in 1725. In the Catholic countries of Southern Europe it spread like wildfire, the aims and spirit of the association developing, however, on totally different lines from those advocated by Christopher Wren and George Payne, and obtaining in the British Isles. Only Anglo-Saxons could accept such a quaint notion as to forward schemes of mutual assistance by adopting mysterious rites and cabalistic signs. Such a thing is incompatible with the Latin temperament. To this race a brotherhood bound by oaths of secrecy whose members were admitted with so much solemnity to the various degrees of initiation, could only have conspiracy as an object and become a destructive instead of a constructive organisation. The English Freemason might be content with symbolic aprons, benevolence, secret signs of fraternity and gargantuan banquets; but the foreigner certainly was not. He eagerly adopted the outward form and structure of the institution with the letter of its regulations; but to expect him to be satisfied with such an anodyne purpose was as [p. 250] preposterous a notion as it would be with us to ask the members of a hunt to come to the meet with their pockets full of carrots and, having fed one another's horses, patted the hounds, sung John Peel and given the Master the Fascist salute, expect them to jog home contentedly as though they had enjoyed a good day's sport! No. The Continental Freemason, like the English hunting man, expects a run for his money and hopes for a kill.

All those who had a grievance against the existing order of things, all those who from envy, spite, conviction or altruism were inimical to the Church of Rome, flocked to join an association in the bosom of which they could air their views freely, with absolute impunity. They tasted for the first time the sweets of declamation for which they have such a remarkable aptitude, and from the Masonic Lodges no doubt sprang the famous revolutionary clubs of Paris. Although their bond of union was hatred of "tyranny" in all its forms, their password was certainly anti-clericalism.

Clement battled energetically against this alarming conflagration by taking the most rigorous measures against the firebrands. To be affiliated or to cause anyone to be affiliated to the brotherhood was punished by excommunication and death. To aid, protect or shelter a Freemason was scarcely less dangerous, and the Pope's subjects were obliged under threats of severe corporal punishment to denounce any member of the society, be he father, brother, husband or son. But no penalties, however drastic, could stem the movement, which received stimulus and encouragement from the tone of atheistic liberalism which pervaded the writings of the most outstanding intellectuals of the times both in France and in Italy. And so the peril grew ever more deadly.

Towards the end of his life, however, the unconcerned detachment of senility saved Clement any further apprehensions, and he died peacefully on February 7th, 1740.

 Clement XI  Innocent XIII  Benedict XIII  Clement XII  Benedict XIV  Clement XIII  Clement XIV  Pius VI

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