The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
PIUS VI (BRASCHI)
In France Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had just come to the throne, and the Queen, who was the real ruler, was too intoxicated with her first taste of unrestricted freedom, and too engrossed in devising new amusements, masquerades, fêtes champêtres and theatricals, to take much interest in the remote intrigues of musty old cardinals. As to Joseph II, he had very determined views on religious and ecclesiastical matters and acted on his own initiative without any reference to the Holy See, whose approval or disapproval affected him not in the least. In fact, shocking the Ultramontanes seemed to be developing into his favourite sport.
Charles III of Spain was a monarch of the old school; an enlightened and respected ruler, whose word was law to the Bourbons of Italy. In a letter to his son, King Ferdinand of Naples, he writes:
As for me I have no other interest where the new Pope is concerned than that which is common to all Catholic monarchs—to wit: that we should be given a Pope both wise, and circumspect, who can distinguish what is due to God from what is due to Kings and who will not destroy his predecessors' good work.
There was no ambiguity about the situation, but unfortunately Bernis was now besotted with Princess Santa Croce and incapable of concentrating on anything but her charms. The first thing that claimed his attention after his entrance into the conclave was the devising of means for escaping from it. This problem was soon solved by knocking a hole in the wall of his cubicle, which was most fortunately situated at the end of a passage; the aperture being made sufficiently large to allow the prelate to crawl through it, provided a safe exit which could easily be concealed behind a hanging tapestry. Bernis made immediate and frequent use of this back-door to paradise, his escapades of course being no mystery to anybody; but as he was complete master of the situation and the acknowledged Pope-maker, he met with no open criticism.
In spite of the fact that the proceedings irked him almost beyond endurance, the French leader seemed quite incapable of taking any measures to bring matters to a conclusion by selecting and proposing an acceptable candidate. He simply could not spare the time to examine the qualifications of the thirty papabili who for four months attempted to court his notice. Try as they would, they could scarcely ever get a glimpse of him, as he was always either just adorning himself preparatory to bolting through his hole or had just crawled back to recuperate.
The Sacred College, left to its own devices, amused itself as best it could. It was flooded with scurrilous pamphlets and caricatures throwing a lurid light on the questionable incidents in the past and present lives of most of the prelates. Even the memory of the late Pope was not respected and the tedium of their existence was such that they gloated over the most nauseating calumnies with prurient gratification.
Few of them escaped the attentions of the satirists; Braschi, the future Pope, was accused of sharing in the debauches of his valet and the man's mistress; Cornaro, who was supposed to be dominated by a woman called Anna Ciccaporci, was always alluded to as "Abbate Anna". Zelanda's name was inseparable from that of Princess Giustiniani, and as to Borghese the anecdotes about his hairdressers, page-boys, and the trick played upon him by a handsome young [p. 279] Englishman called Banks, kept the cardinals in perfect convulsions of hilarity. But when Giraud and Zelanda were depicted in a cartoon as a couple of soubrettes, the one assisting Bernis to apply his cosmetics while the other tidied his underclothes, the measure overflowed. An order was issued for the burning of the picture by the public executioner and a reward of 500 crowns offered to whoever discovered the author. The Apostolic Chamber would not ratify this undertaking, declaring that it was not rich enough to pay such a sum, so Bernis and Giraud guaranteed the money between them. The culprit was found to be a Florentine called Setor, but as he had taken sanctuary in a monastery not much satisfaction was obtained by the French prelates for their outlay.
The ex-Jesuits, as we have seen, still had a group of partisans in the Sacred College, and Colonna, the leader of their party, moved heaven and earth to have Ricci set at liberty. The ex-General of the Society of Jesus had been incarcerated in S. Angelo for refusing to accept the late Pope's decree and thus challenging his authority. Most of the Roman prelates had kept in touch with the prisoner, as had also Rezzonico and the Cardinal of York; but too many members of the Sacred College had openly declared their animosity against the Jesuits to approve of a measure fraught with so much danger to themselves, and Ricci therefore remained in custody.
Reports of Bernis' scandalous neglect of his duties had not failed to reach Versailles, for it was now the end of December and the cardinals were losing patience. The elder Albani was even reported to have had words with the French leader on the subject of this inordinate delay. There seemed no reason why the conclave should not last as long as the Frenchman's infatuation. No doubt Bernis had many sympathisers at the gay Court of Versailles, but some move had to be made in the matter, and the Duc de Luynes was sent from Paris to reason with the lovelorn prelate and bring him to his senses. The news of the Duke's departure considerably affected Bernis' prestige, and Albani acting boldly on his own initiative started an energetic campaign on Braschi's behalf. When Luynes reached his destination he found Rome seething with excitement as the leading hairdresser in the city had just disclosed the fact that Braschi had sent him a lock of his hair and ordered a toupee to disguise his baldness. This was taken as proof positive that the candidate expected to wear [p. 280] the papal tiara! Luynes was not unfavourably impressed with Braschi's qualifications, and having been instructed to speed up the proceedings, was tempted to adopt the easiest means of doing so. But the Portuguese Minister, who hated Braschi, loudly proclaimed his belief in the accuracy of all the accusations of immorality brought against the candidate, adding that he was pompous, vulgar and had insufferable manners—that his grandfather had been condemned to the galleys for murder—that Braschi himself had a pecuniary interest in the money-lending business of a Jew called Ambram, and lastly that his relations were ambitious, grasping and unscrupulous.
This virulent attack caused Albani's protégé a momentary setback; but Luynes, after trying for a few weeks to discover a more suitable candidate, gave up the task as impossible and declared himself in favour of Braschi. A timely distribution of 12,000 crowns made among his most needy colleagues in Braschi's name also strengthened his following considerably. The sudden illness of Princess Santa Croce now clinched the matter. Bernis, who since his semi-disgrace had received many anonymous threats of exposure and no longer dared to make use of his emergency exit, had worked himself into a perfect frenzy of claustrophobia. On hearing of his lady-love's indisposition he decided to obtain his freedom at any cost. Braschi, he supposed, was as likely as any other of the papabili to make a satisfactory pontiff, and as Luynes seemed to think well of him the sooner the matter was settled the better it would be for all concerned. So Bernis made up his mind to interview the Pope-elect at once. Braschi accepted the condition imposed by the allies regarding the ratification of Clement XIV's bull suppressing the Society of Jesus, promised his friendship to the Bourbons and to the Habsburgs, and agreed to be guided by the allies in the distribution of State offices. The affair being concluded, Bernis on taking leave of his colleague kissed his hand, a sign of deference which a cardinal only gives to a pope. On February 15th Braschi was raised to the Holy See, and having hesitated a while between the names of Clement and Benedict, suddenly decided to call himself Pius, as there were fewer pontiffs bearing that name.
The Roman populace, who had at first shown some dismay at the announcement of Braschi's election, when once they had gazed on the handsome countenance, engaging smile and majestic figure [p. 281] of the new Pontiff towering above them in the sedia gestatoria, declared themselves delighted with their new Sovereign and applauded him enthusiastically. But alas! there was little besides his prepossessing appearance to recommend Pius VI to the love of his subjects. He was vain, weak, touchy and callous and he lacked judgment and mental stability. No coquette could have attached more importance than he did to the adornment of his person and the enhancing of his good looks. He spent an inordinate time at his dressing-table, which was covered with an amazing paraphernalia of unguents. lotions and perfumes. No affairs of State could have dragged him away from his mirror till he was made up to his entire satisfaction; he studied all his gestures with the application of an actor, and his poses while officiating at the altar were positively histrionic.
At the time of his accession Pius VI was fifty-eight years of age and his excellent constitution gave promise of a long pontificate. He belonged to a noble but impoverished family of Cesena and, being very proud of his birth, was much perturbed by the fact that his only sister had married a man of plebeian origin called Onesti. Such a mésalliance was bad enough in itself but as Pius intended to raise his nephews to the highest rank and position he could dispose of, the absence of quarterings on the paternal side was a mortifying accident. He therefore commissioned a genealogist to make researches extending back to the dark ages if necessary, so as to discover in the Onesti pedigree some trace, however remote, of nobility or distinction. The task was a hard one; the Onesti's lineage seemed untraceable, and abandoning all attempts at grafting this unclassified cutting on to any aristocratic tree, the genealogist fell back on the notabilities of another and higher sphere, and trumped up a collateral relationship between the Onesti and St. Romualdo!
As no temporal privileges can be claimed through kinship with the canonised, the result of the investigation was considered very disappointing. The Pope solaced the wounded feelings of his family by creating his eldest nephew Duke of Braschi-Onesti, while the younger one was given the cardinal's hat. There followed a return to all the abuses of nepotism—but as it was no longer possible for the Sovereign Pontiff to dispose of land and property belonging to the Holy See for the endowment of his nephews, Pius undertook the draining of the Pontine marshes; inasmuch as land reclaimed became [p. 282] the property of the reclaimer, and so an apanage was formed for the new papal house.
Pius VI's popularity was short-lived; even had the people not seen through his affectations, the unblushing rapacity of his family would have earned for him a full measure of resentment. The Romans had nicknamed him the "Seccatore"—a name suggested by his desiccation of the Pontine marshes and the imposition of taxes which squeezed his subjects dry.
All the valuables and property confiscated from the Jesuits Pius bestowed on his relations. Yet these gifts did not satisfy them. A few former members of the Order had retained possession of a beautiful estate at Frascati, and as the newly married Duke Braschi-Onesti coveted this domain, the ex-Jesuits were lured out of it by a mean trick and it was handed over to him. But the Jesuits had proved themselves powerful and dangerous enemies, and fearful of the consequences incurred by his unscrupulous spoliation, the Pope sought some means of placating his victims. Providentially at this juncture the Empress of Russia approached the Holy See with a plea that the Society of Jesus should be allowed recognition in Russia. Catherine wished to have a few of its members as a rarity, saying that "she would preserve these exotic plants in her botanical gardens so as to supply seeds to those who applied for them!" Pius gave his gracious consent and trusted it would balance his account. But a margin on the credit side being always desirable, he openly affected great reluctance to canonise the famous Bishop of Palafox. Charles III, however, was not the monarch to stand any shilly-shallying, and Count Florida Blanca adopted such a threatening attitude that the Pope thought it wiser to give in at once.
Nor was there any friendliness or respect in the Grand Duke of Tuscany's attitude towards the Pontiff and it was soon evident that he was taking his cue from the Emperor. Pius wrote numerous letters to the latter complaining not only of his brother Leopold's behaviour, but hazarding fatherly rebukes to Joseph himself. The Emperor returned the Pope's letters with an annotation to the effect that they were improperly expressed, whereupon Pius rewrote them omitting all the censorious phraseology, for which he substituted terms of amity and deference. This effort at conciliation having failed to elicit any response, Pius, confident in the appeal of his [p. 283] prepossessing countenance, concluded that a personal interview could not fail to solve all difficulties and decided to visit the Emperor in Vienna.
Mindful of upholding the dignity of the Holy See, his journey was planned on the lines of a triumphal progress. He was accompanied by an innumerable retinue of officials and attendants; he took with him his most gorgeous robes and vestments, the richest of the triple crowns, ceremonial croziers studded with diamonds and the finest of the papal jewels. All the towns he stayed in vied with one another to entertain him with the greatest magnificence; but at Cesena, his native city, he himself acted as host to all his relations, giving a regal banquet in their honour. By short stages the Pontiff reached Göritz, where Cobentzel the Vice-Chancellor greeted him in Joseph's name. A squadron of the Emperor's Guards acted as escort, and all along his route to Vienna Pius was enthusiastically acclaimed by the population of the towns, villages and countryside. He reached the outskirts of the capital in a most elated and optimistic frame of mind, and here Joseph himself and his brother Maximilian were awaiting him. The Pontiff and the Emperor made a solemn State entry, driving slowly through the streets of the city while the guns boomed, the bells pealed and the crowd, shouting itself hoarse, fell reverently on its knees.
Pius was so moved by the ovation he received that he kept rising in the carriage to allow the faithful a better view of his person as he lifted his arms to bless them. Joseph sat silent and detached, a faintly contemptuous smile playing about his lips. He resented the presence of his self-invited guest, and the servile stupidity of his subjects irritated him considerably. During the entire month that the Pope remained in Vienna, the delirious fervour of the masses never abated. The Danube was so obstructed with the countless ships bringing pilgrims who wished to prostrate themselves before the Sovereign Pontiff that traffic came practically to a standstill. The streets all around the palace in which he resided were blocked by a compact mass of humanity clamouring for a glimpse of the Holy Father. Regularly five times a day Pius appeared on the balcony to bless the throng. Such streams of people begged for admittance to kiss his feet that, unable to cope with such a demand in person, the Pope had his slipper placed on a velvet cushion and exposed to the daily veneration of the [p. 284] multitude. Privileged devotees obtained the loan of such another hallowed object for a few hours in their own houses where they and their friends could give full rein to their devotion without being hurried and elbowed by the more plebeian element.
Joseph and his Chancellor Kaunitz watched these proceedings with sardonic amusement; the famous Braschi pulchritude had completely failed to propitiate them, and they made the fact abundantly clear to the surprised Pontiff. Pius soon discovered that he would need all the self-assurance and savoir faire he could muster to preserve appearances. He schooled himself to ignore the supercilious discourtesy of the Emperor, who never allowed him to broach any of the subjects he had travelled all the way from Rome to discuss. Joseph had not wanted to see him, was annoyed and bored by his visit, and made no mystery of the fact. As to Kaunitz, he had omitted to request an audience of the Sovereign Pontiff, which was an incredible breach of etiquette in itself. But when Pius, acting on his regal prerogatives, misguidedly insisted on an interview, the Chancellor's attitude became nothing short of insulting. Without even a pretence of ill-health he received the Pope wrapped in a dressing-gown, and when his august visitor offered him his hand to kiss, Kaunitz shook it with vigorous familiarity. He affected not to hear when Pius attempted to introduce political topics of conversation, and dragged him unceremoniously round his palace, forcing him to examine his collections, to handle his curios, talking incessantly meanwhile and never permitting the Pontiff a moment's rest or respite, till, baffled and almost hysterical with rage and mortification, he gave up the struggle and took his departure.
The time had now come to return to Italy and the sum-total of advantages gained for the Holy See by the ruinous and ill-advised journey Pius had undertaken consisted in a pectoral cross which Joseph had presented to his guest on taking leave of him, and in a patent of nobility for the Pope's nephew conferring on him the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. With these somewhat tinselly tokens of regard Pius had perforce to be content. If inwardly he felt at all crestfallen, he certainly remained blissfully unaware of the fact that the Emperor had taken a violent personal dislike to him and was therefore more disposed than ever to thwart and defy the authority of the Holy See. Indeed, no sooner was Pius out of sight [p. 285] than Joseph with renewed zest entered upon his system of ecclesiastical reforms which culminated in a scheme whereby the Pope would be reduced to the mere status of Bishop of Rome. Bernis and Azara managed to prevail on Joseph to abandon this plan, but only after Pius himself, now thoroughly alarmed, had proposed certain conditions which the Emperor considered sufficiently acceptable to form the basis of a concordat, which was eventually signed by both parties.
Pius VI has been accused of having led a futile and immoral life, of having neglected his duties and of having been bad-tempered and even brutal with his attendants. Allowance of course must be made for enmity and exaggeration, but there can be no doubt that the Pope resorted to low and crooked means of obtaining money, both to meet the demands of his insatiable family and the cost of his own extravagance. As a monarch he was isolated and ignored. When the French Revolution broke out, the population of Avignon and of the Comtat Venaissin turned out the papal officials and declared themselves French citizens. News of this event was received in Paris with a great show of rejoicing and the Pope's effigy was publicly burned in the gardens of the Palais Royal to the accompaniment of ribald jokes and songs.
Pius immediately mustered a rabble army and sent it to reconquer his lost territories. He then turned his attention to internal affairs and ordered the arrest of all foreigners especially of French nationality suspected of sympathising with the revolutionary movement. Italians who showed any symptoms of liberal tendencies were not dealt with more leniently, and as to freemasons they carried their lives in their hands. Cagliostro, the famous necromancer, who had fled from France after the scandalous affair of the Queen's necklace and taken refuge in Rome, was convicted of affiliation to the dreaded brotherhood and condemned to death. This sentence was commuted by Pius into one of life imprisonment; and so having escaped the Bastille, from which he would have been liberated within a few weeks, Cagliostro fell into the dungeons of S. Angelo, where he remained till he died. For a clairvoyant of his repute such a shattering failure to foresee where danger really lay must have added considerable bitterness to his miserable fate.
The pontifical troops were easily routed by the French forces, and [p. 286] having no money with which to engage reliable mercenaries, Pius was now left with no weapons but anathemas. With these he bombarded the French Government, from which they elicited the following note:
On reading this message, so redolent of Roman scholasticism, Pius was amazed, outraged and infuriated; but his ministers having given his choler time to subside made it quite clear to him that the consequences of a hasty and comminatory retort would certainly prove disastrous, and he managed to control himself sufficiently to agree to the drafting of a peaceable reply. But he was not to be shaken in his resolve to order a general levy. The excited masses responded so heartily to his call that they set on the French residents then and there, murdering Basseville, a secretary of the French Embassy, and severely wounding several others.
France made immediate preparations to invade Italy, and now the frightened and demoralised Romans, making Pius responsible for their dangerous plight, attacked his nephew's residence, vociferous and threatening. Braschi, who apparently knew how to treat his uncle's subjects, had the doors of his palace thrown wide open and appeared on the threshold with a dog-whip in either hand. Lackeys carrying baskets full of gold now stepped forward, throwing handfuls of the coins to the snarling canaille. While they scrambled for the money the Prince-Duke strode through the grovellers, lashing at them right and left. He then returned to his palace and the doors were closed. The riot was over.
But the Holy See was not to escape retribution so cheaply. The Directoire, which had succeeded the Convention, entrusted Bonaparte with the mission of chastising the culprits, and at the head of his ragged, unshod army the young General swept all before him. Moving with deadly speed he defeated the Austrians and the Piedmontese, and the rapidity of his victorious onslaught found the [p. 287] Pontiff quite unprepared for resistance. There was nothing for it but to sue for an armistice, thus paving the way for peace. Pius sent Azara to offer Bonaparte as reparation the legations of Bologna, Ferrara and the Romagna, besides a large sum of money and numerous works of art. These terms were accepted by the Directoire and a commission was sent to Rome to receive the Pope's pledges. Its members had orders to obtain from the Holy See a full retraction of his edicts against the assermenté clergy in France and to press in the name of humanity for the total abolition in Italy both of the Inquisition and of the degrading custom of castration. As fervent exponents of the "droits de l'homme" indeed they could do no less! Pius declared that he would have to call a consistory to examine these new conditions and so obtained a delay.
On hearing that Austria was preparing to take the offensive against France he immediately directed that an armed resistance should be organised in his dominions having the character of a crusade and entitling the combatants to the same spiritual benefits. Colonna enrolled most of the Roman aristocracy under the pontifical banners and the banker Torlonia supplied the sinews of war. This Torlonia, who was gifted with the most remarkable business acumen, had lately risen from the humblest origin to occupy a most important financial position in Rome, and by his timely offer of subsidies to the Holy See laid the foundations of yet another princely Roman house. The martial ardour of the lower classes equalled that of the nobility but with less restraint and a great deal more inclination to violence. The mob actually attempted to seize the French emissaries and would perhaps have succeeded in doing so had not the invaluable Azara given them protection in the Spanish Embassy.
Meanwhile a letter written by Pius to the Emperor Francis II was intercepted by Bonaparte's spies and forwarded to the General. It contained a detailed description of the means employed by the Pontiff to delay matters until such time as the Austrians should have routed the French, or his own troops be ready to take the field. Bonaparte, who was in Northern Italy, immediately swooped down on the Papal States without a word of warning. The training and preparations of Colonna's crusaders were far from complete, alas! and the defenceless Pope was constrained to accept the terms of the treaty dictated by Bonaparte and signed at Tolentino (1797). By this [p. 288] treaty Avignon, Bologna, Ravenna and Ferrara were handed over to France, who was also entitled to garrison Ancona. Amongst other clauses the Holy See was to pay an enormous war indemnity and deliver up many valuable works of art selected by French experts.
All these excitements so affected Pius VI that he fell seriously ill, and his court and family, thinking he was going to die, made the most of their opportunities, with the result that the large sums of money which had already been collected to meet the fine entirely vanished. The general belief was that the Braschi had appropriated them, and the fact that Pius, having recovered his health, did not take any steps to trace the delinquents certainly lent colour to the accusation. Means had to be found somehow of covering the deficit. The nobility had already been squeezed dry, the people had literally nothing to part with, the Jews had been bled so mercilessly that all those who had a shekel left had fled the country. There remained only the clergy from whom any contribution could possibly be obtained, but the clergy showed a decided disinclination to shoulder the burden. To add to the general state of tension Joseph Bonaparte now appeared accompanied by General Duphot to see that the conditions of the Treaty of Tolentino were rigorously observed. The Envoys had been instructed, in view of gaining popularity with the Pope's subjects, to press for the liberation of all Italian political prisoners, as well as for the abolition of the Inquisition.
No sooner were these proofs of Gallic fraternity made known than the wildest enthusiasm for all things French prevailed among the Roman citizens. The Envoys were now the heroes of the hour, revolutionary riots broke out in the Transtevere quarter and the French tricolour flag was carried in triumph through the streets. The Pontiff ordered his guards to fire on the insurgents, and Joseph Bonaparte and General Duphot, who had, it was later asserted, only just appeared to try and quell the disturbance, were caught in the mêlée, Duphot being killed outright. Azara again managed to dominate the situation and restore some sort of order. He urged the Pope to offer full apologies to Joseph Bonaparte, but failed to persuade him to do so.
Rome was a decidedly unhealthy resort for representatives of the French government, and Joseph Bonaparte went north; but the Pope's subjects, either because they feared reprisals or because they [p. 289] genuinely believed in "becoming a free People", offered no resistance whatever to the armies of the Republic when they marched through the Papal States under the command of Berthier, who had been sent to avenge the death of his comrade Duphot. The gates of Rome were thrown open, the mob acclaimed their "liberators" and a classical scene in the grand manner was enacted at the Capitol.
Pius VI, who had taken refuge in the Vatican, sent a delegation to treat with Berthier, but the French Commanding Officer refused to see them. The Roman citizens had already formed a provisional government which immediately decreed the deposition of the Pontiff and arraigned the Braschi-Onesti and several cardinals before a civil tribunal to answer charges of misappropriation of funds. These members of the Sacred College were imprisoned forthwith while others were banished, all their possessions and those of the Pope's nephews being confiscated. As to Pius himself he was unceremoniously bundled off to Tuscany accompanied by his doctor, his secretary and a few attendants. He first stayed in a convent at Siena, where he seemed resigned, almost content; he had only been there a few months, however, when a violent earthquake destroyed part of the town, and although the convent itself scarcely suffered, the shock so affected the Pontiff's nerves that it was deemed advisable to remove him to Florence; and for close on a year he lived in the Carthusian monastery so beautifully situated on the outskirts of the Tuscan city.
The fickle Romans having tired of their French liberators, now rose and clamoured for the Pope to be restored to his throne. With England's assistance the King of Sicily was making things very uncomfortable for the French in Southern Italy, and Pius not unnaturally did his best to aid and abet his former subjects in overthrowing the Power which had despoiled him. The French Government, alarmed at the precarious position of their Italian garrisons, decided to transfer the Pope to a safer distance from the field of activities and bring him to France where a keen watch could be kept on his movements and correspondence.
Pius was now an aged and very sick man, racked with pain and practically crippled. With needless cruelty the invalid was rushed over the Alps in the bitter cold weather and reached Valence, the place chosen for his detention, in a state of collapse. Adversity seems to have brought out all that was best in the Pontiff's nature. His [p. 290] fortitude was admirable. He grew kinder and more considerate towards those who served him. With how much more grandeur is the lonely, suffering figure invested when jolting and lurching along the broken roads in a battered conveyance on his way to exile, than is that of the resplendent, handsome and fêted Pontiff who a few years earlier had undertaken another journey made smooth and easy and accompanied by all the pomp and magnificence of regal state?
The tragedy of Pius VI's hapless end has earned for him the indulgence of posterity. He drained the cup of expiation. Neglected by his ungrateful relations, broken-hearted, suffering, isolated and homesick, the unfortunate Pontiff surrendered to his destiny and died on August 29th, 1799. So passed away for ever the old order of things pontifical: scandalous squandering of money, malversations, immorality, nepotism; these cankers disappeared with the XVIIIth century. In the new era which was just dawning ancient kingly prerogatives would serve unexpected purposes; for with subversive benefaction the rough hand of democracy was to cauterise the Pope's evil.