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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Henry IV

Rudolph II

Philip II

THE Medicis continue to play such an important part in the history of the conclaves at the end of the XVIth century, that it will not seem out of place to give a few details concerning the events taking place at the court of Florence which have a direct bearing on our subject.

Cardinal Ferdinand, though no doubt unpleasantly surprised at the transformation undergone by his cringing monk when once he had become Sixtus V, never showed the slightest fear, however, of his former protégé. He not only stood his ground with him consistently, but on occasion went as far as to defy the formidable Pontiff. There is a story of Medici having had all the clocks in the Vatican tampered with on a day fixed for the execution of a youth whose life he wished to save. The chronicler relates that the Cardinal presented himself at the Vatican and requested from Sixtus a free pardon for his friend. Hearing the clock strike the hour at which the condemned man should have died, and certain that his orders would be punctually carried out, the Pontiff graciously granted the reprieve, which he signed and gave to Medici with a sardonic smile. When Sixtus realised the trick that had been played on him, he was overcome with rage and ordered the immediate arrest of the culprit. Medici, however, was already approaching the palace surrounded by an armed bodyguard, which accompanied him to the very door of the audience chamber. The prelate faced the Pope with fearless self-assurance, his loosely fastened robes allowing a glimpse of the armour he was wearing beneath. "Is this a cardinal's attire?" spluttered the angry Pontiff.

"This is", answered Medici, showing his silken gown. "But this", he added, tapping his cuirass, "is the accoutrement of an Italian prince."

"If you are not careful, Cardinal, we will deprive you of your hat", pursued Sixtus. [p. 117]

"Then I shall resume my steel helmet, Holiness", replied Medici, quite unmoved; and taking his leave he departed for Florence, where he had important business to attend to.

His brother, the Grand Duke Francis, had, a few years previously, married his beautiful mistress, Bianca Capello, the "Daughter of the Venetian Republic". She hated Ferdinand for having opposed the marriage and relations between them were decidedly strained. The Grand Duke, however, was on very friendly terms with his brother and since the death of his only son, naturally acknowledged and treated him as his heir. The Cardinal was entertaining the ducal couple one day to an al fresco meal in the grounds of his country villa, when one of those accidents occurred, so frequently met with in those times, which always looked so bad for those who benefited by them. Both Francis and Bianca were suddenly taken ill and died in a few hours; the Cardinal being naturally accused of having poisoned them. These generally accredited rumours, however, in no way interfered with his accession to power; those were family matters which did not concern outsiders.

His apologists have averred that far from being the murderer, Ferdinand was in point of fact the intended victim. According to their version of the incident Bianca had herself prepared a fruit tart for which she knew the Cardinal had a special liking, and had had it placed on the table among the other delicacies, by a confederate. Francis, who had not been let into the secret of his wife's delicate attention for their host, upset all her plans with marital perversity, by helping himself to a substantial portion of the pastry. Being powerless to prevent the impending catastrophe, and determined at all costs not to be left defenceless at Ferdinand's mercy, the Duchess stoically ate the remainder. Both versions are equally possible and equally uncertain; but the net result of the tragedy was that Cardinal Ferdinand became Grand Duke of Tuscany, and that the Pope who had threatened to deprive him of his dignity, was now requested to allow him to discard it, as it was imperative that Ferdinand should marry and beget heirs for the house of Medici, a favour which Sixtus V was graciously pleased to grant.

It is this Prince, now the head of an important Italian State and familiar with every ruse and intrigue resorted to in papal elections, who is going to be the deus ex machina of the coming conclave. [p. 119]

Concentrating all her energies on internal warfare, France, whose heretical King was not even recognised as her Sovereign in Rome, took no part whatever in the proceedings. But Philip II, with his eye on the golden treasure in S. Angelo, was making a great effort to secure as pontiff an ally who would assist him to pursue his Holy Wars with something more substantial than blessings. As Ferdinand was secretly inimical to Spain he would certainly oppose Philip's candidate whoever he might be. There remained a third party consisting of the creatures of Sixtus V led by his nephew Montalto. This young cardinal, barely twenty-two years of age, had been a mere child when his uncle conferred the hat on him and was still very inexperienced and flighty. He had a pleasant manner, was lavish in his mode of life and extremely susceptible to feminine charms. He was consequently the idol of Roman ladies. His aunts, Donna Camilla and the Signora Felice, had a great ascendancy over him, and urged him to support Colonna's candidature, which he agreed to do much against his inclinations, being very friendly with the Orsini. The entreaties of the favourite sultana of his harem, who also used her influence in Colonna's favour, probably helped considerably to overcome his reluctance. Through Montalto, their willing slave, the women hoped to secure the elevation of Colonna, who was their ideal of the grand-seigneur and whose inordinate vanity made him as putty in their hands. He had a regular brood of illegitimate children, all actively intriguing to secure the papal crown for their father, and in themselves a guarantee against any danger of austerity or even of restraint.

The position in the conclave was therefore a clearly defined one. There were three parties, and three candidates officially declared: Como, supported by the Spanish faction, a cantankerous old man so generally unpopular in the Sacred College as to be negligible as an opponent; Castagna, the Grand Duke's choice; and the aforementioned Colonna. Castagna was a Genoese who seemed genuinely kind and unassuming, and whose moderation and rectitude had been proved beyond question.

Medici, ignoring the Spanish party, focussed his attack exclusively on Montalto. He was well aware of that young man's devotion to the fair sex, of his extravagance and his expensive tastes, and naturally concluded that since his uncle's death he must be in need of funds. [p. 120] So without more ado he instructed his agent to offer Montalto a large sum of money, the fief of Celano, which he knew had taken his fancy, a wealthy marriage for anyone of his relations he pleased to name, and for himself the favours of two ladies, both famous for their beauty, who were willing to sacrifice what remained of their virtue in so good a cause. Montalto was sorely tempted and could not conceal the fact from Colonna, who, preferring an honourable retreat to a mortifying failure, decided to withdraw his candidature. Montalto thus freed from any obligation accepted Medici's offer, and Castagna was elected Pope on September 15th, taking the name of Urban VII.

He was beloved by the Romans for the tolerance and equity he had always shown in his dealings with them. Exceedingly charitable, learned and wise, he believed in attaining his ends through kindness and persuasion instead of the usually adopted methods of craftiness and cruelty. He immediately declared his intention of restricting the activities of certain religious orders, especially the political intrigues of the Jesuits, and it was said that he had thereby signed his death warrant. He certainly fell ill and died within ten days of his elevation; but as he was seventy years of age and of a weak and ailing disposition, the fatigue and excitement of the conclave, which had already proved fatal to others, may well account for his sudden collapse. Mention must, however, be made of a strange incident which happened some years later and might be, according to some writers, connected with this Pope's death.

Under the pontificate of Clement VIII, a man confessed voluntarily to the Grand Penitentiary that he had poisoned two Popes. Considering the gravity of the case, the priest withheld absolution until he had consulted Clement. The Pontiff saw no reason why the sinner should not be shriven, but showed a not unnatural anxiety as to the sincerity of his contrition. To put him out of the way of further temptation he was handed over to the Inquisition, an institution where repentance was allowed to suffer no relapse.

Urban VII lived just long enough to relieve some of the distress among his poorer subjects by a generous distribution of alms, and to grant donations to a few really deserving and needy cardinals. He died before the ceremony of his enthronement could take place, a sad loss for Christendom and the Papal States.

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