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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Charles II

Louis XIV

Leopold I

Charles II

LOUIS XIV had determined to give Alexander VII a successor well disposed towards France, and without awaiting the reigning Pontiff's death had commissioned Count de Lyonne, who was well acquainted with Rome and the Sacred College, to find among its members the man most likely to fulfil his purpose. Lyonne had no difficulty in making his choice, for no other prelate could fit in with the King's views more admirably than Cardinal Rospigliosi, whom he had known intimately for several years. Lyonne's selection met with the King's approval and a line of action adopted forthwith. The first move consisted in Lyonne and Rospigliosi affecting a marked coolness in their social relations, soon to grow into a notorious estrangement—while they remained in close touch underhand. No illicit love affair could have been conducted with more precaution or enveloped in more mystery. The success of this amazing piece of bluff was so complete that later on, during the conclave, several of the cardinals actually hesitated to give their votes to Rospigliosi for fear of offending France! The secret had been so well guarded that not one of the Italian cardinals in France's pay knew whom they were to vote for, but had sworn to obey orders blindly at each scrutiny.

Pope Clement IX
From the painting by Carlo Maratti in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg
There was a dispute between the old and the young cardinals during the novemdiale as to where the assembly should be held. The younger element was anxious for the conclave to take place in the Quirinal, the Vatican being considered very unhealthy, more so than ever since Alexander VII had built a playhouse there, the foundations of which were supposed to have displaced and disseminated poisonous miasmas which would be lurking in the long-uninhabited quarters in which the Sacred College would be immured. Certainly the Quirinal was less dismal though scarcely better adapted to the purpose; the building had, however, several advantages which later induced the Sacred College to transfer their sittings there. But in 1667 the older cardinals tended to oppose on principle any motion [p. 180] brought forward by their juniors and, having survived so many conclaves, probably considered themselves immune from infection. Whatever their reasons, they resisted the innovation so strenuously that their opinion prevailed and the conclave assembled as usual in the Vatican on June 2nd.

It was again sectioned into several small groups, and the candidates though less numerous were still plentiful. Francis Barberini himself was now on the ranks; but Spain, to whose party he had always adhered, had placed her interests in the hands of her Ambassador, the Marquis d'Astorga, a brainless old libertine who cared not a fig who became pope and would be of no assistance whatever to Francis. The Barberini anyhow were so unpopular with their colleagues that, whatever promises they may have received, Francis could not count with absolute certainty on any vote but his brother's.

Unlike Spain, France had sent out a clever and active representative in the person of the Duc de Chaulnes, who, besides being supplied with bribes and money galore, had been well primed by Lyonne regarding the intricacies and pitfalls of electoral diplomacy. Mazarin being now dead and Retz in favour once more, that scheming prelate, thoroughly in his element, was let into the secret of Louis XIV's designs and proved a valuable co-operator.

Chigi, the late Cardinal-Nephew, though leader of thirty-four cardinals, had so little personal hold over his creatures that only twenty-four of them really obeyed his orders. As candidate he had chosen d'Elci, a gentle, featureless nonentity who would have needed a far more powerful patron than Chigi to stand any chance of success. Spain it is true had secretly promised him her support, but Astorga was no more interested in d'Elci than he was in Barberini and left his party to follow their own devices.

In addition to Retz two Italian prelates, d'Este and Grimaldi, were working in conjunction with the French, and one of them it was who suggested Rospigliosi to the Spaniards. The proposal was well received by them, as Rospigliosi had made many friends in Madrid during his nunciature and was believed to be on bad terms with France. Chigi was furious at Spain's defection. He accused Harach, her Cardinal Patron, of treachery, and when that prelate replied coldly, "I obey my Sovereign's orders", Chigi, alluding to [p. 181] Charles II's extreme youth, retorted: "A feeding-bottle, not a Pope, is what your King must have ordered"; but he was not in a position to hold out very long and soon capitulated to Azzolini's blandishments. As a matter of fact Chigi's defeat turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him. He gained far more by Rospigliosi's elevation than he would have done in all probability by d'Elci's, for not only was the very advantageous agreement which he signed so bristling with figures that it looked at first sight as though it were written in numerical cypher, but Rospigliosi, once Pope, treated him with unprecedented generosity and favour.

This conclave, like many others, had an outstanding figure; but one who owed nothing to wealth, influence or party spirit—a man whose original personality, freedom of speech and quick-witted sallies captured the attention of the cardinals and kept them enthralled. His name was Albizzi, and we have seen him in the previous conclave openly boast of the bribes he had received from a colleague. In Lord Arlington's correspondence there are several despatches both from John Finch and from Azzolini (who wrote under the pseudonym of Bayllardy) which are just as concerned with Albizzi's bons mots as with the main object of the conclave. This eccentric prelate seems to have been gifted with a ready tongue and a fearless one. Frankly cynical, he treated the most serious subjects with levity, but levity of such a startling cogency that his listeners did not know if they were more aghast at his daring or more exhilarated by the lash of his satirical humour. Both jovial and morose, amiable and waspish, he was the most disconcerting and irresistible jester imaginable. Thanks to him, the inmates of the Vatican never knew a dull moment. Gone were the boredom, the gloom, the petty spitefulness of other conclaves. Laughter echoed through the dim passages, spread from cell to cell; to the noisy hilarity of the younger prelates, their elders responded indulgently with chuckles so protracted that their venerable ribs ached. Spying and horse-play were at a discount.

In the Hall of the Belvedere where Albizzi held his court, cardinals of all parties and all ages congregated in amity clustering round him like a swarm of bees. They hung on his every word, provoking him by a question or well-timed contradiction to ever bolder epigrams or quips. Scarcely could they tear themselves away from the charmed circle to attend the ritual ceremonies or retire to rest. No doubt the [p. 182] fact that Albizzi spared no one added the zest of personal risk to these séances. One's own foibles might at any moment become the subject of some corrosive joke, for he was merciless in exposing his colleagues' most secret defects both moral and physical, not excepting certain ailments of a private nature of which as churchmen they should have had no experience.

Francis Barberini, who in his incurable self-sufficiency thought he had made a friend of Albizzi by tossing him a few patronising compliments, was rash enough to ask him publicly whom he would like to see elected. "Your Eminence", answered Albizzi, "if you were gifted with a little more heart, a great deal more brains, less hypocrisy and a great deal less meanness!" Such brutal candour actually nonplussed Barberini, who beat a hasty retreat and was perhaps better prepared than he would otherwise have been for the crushing defeat he suffered at the next scrutiny.

In his private life Albizzi had never given the slightest cause for scandal, so his position was impregnable and he took a cruel advantage of it. When just before the last scrutiny which was to raise Rospigliosi to the papal throne he was asked what he thought of him he answered: "Urban turned the Holy See into a bank; Innocent into a brothel; Alexander into a tavern; this one will make a playhouse of it". And alluding to Rospigliosi's well-known love of music he added: "He will emasculate the Sacred College by giving the hat to all the castrated singers in Europe!" Many such sayings are on record, and though they are certainly pithy they are painfully crude. Smartness without subtlety scarcely seems wit to our more exacting taste, but no doubt it suited the mentality of the age, for if Lord Arlington's Roman correspondents considered Albizzi's sallies worth consigning in extenso in their despatches they must have been confident of their appeal.

Though Albizzi seemed to entertain a scant regard for Rospigliosi, he was not deterred thereby from giving him his suffrage—as he would no doubt have had far harder things to say about all the other papabili of the Sacred College. Except for Corsini, the incorruptible, who stood out to the last saying that Rospigliosi was better fitted for making ariettas than bulls, the election was unanimous, and Rospigliosi took the name of Clement IX.

This is how Azzolini describes the new Pontiff in a letter to Lord [p. 183] Arlington: "Clement IX is 67 years old, he is all charm and kindness; his judgment is experienced and sound. He is an accomplished musician and an enlightened patron of poetry and art. He is subject to heart attacks. The French handled his election with consummate skill outwitting us all; but it is surprising that they did not choose a younger and more vigorous man who would have afforded their King a firmer and lengthier hold over the Holy See."

The Venetian envoy's report contains such a formidable list of diseases with which he says the Pope was afflicted that it seems amazing he should have survived for even two years. He judges Clement without indulgence, accusing him of being verbose and tedious and of deputising his court musicians to transact business with the diplomatic envoys. "The Pope", he continues, "takes a childish delight in giving and receiving presents, and one constantly meets menials in the papal livery walking through the streets of the city carrying trays laden with fruit, flowers and delicacies to the palaces of His Holiness' favoured friends. In fact," adds the Venetian, who had probably not been honoured by any of these fragrant or edible tokens of pontifical regard, "His Holiness is finding his way to the hearts of his subjects through the channel of their stomachs!"

Clement IX may not have been a very great Pope; but he was a gentle and kindly ruler—never committing harsh or unjust actions. He was tactful, generous and moderate in all ways. He invested his nephew with the traditional office but tolerated no abuses of power. If the Rospigliosi rose to prominence and wealth it was due to the prestige which inevitably attended the position they occupied and to the advantageous matrimonial alliances which they contracted, but not to spoliations or the misappropriation of State funds. The Cardinal-Nephew kept his hands scrupulously clean and could not even be accused of the offence known in the French law courts as "traffic in influence".

Music was Clement's passion—he found in its soothing influence a solace to his physical sufferings; but it did not make him neglect the duties of his office. He gave his audiences regularly and visited the hospitals and churches with edifying punctuality. He was the first Pope to show consideration and friendliness to his predecessor's family, allowing Chigi to retain much of his influence, and often consulting him on matters of State. His nephew shared his affable [p. 184] disposition and Clement's pontificate was one of general concord and goodwill. Always on the best of terms with France, he stood sponsor to the Dauphin and his attitude towards Louis XIV was one of gratitude without servility. He gave his whole-hearted support to the Venetians in the war which the Republic was waging against the Turks, and the fall of Candia after a heroic resistance affected him so deeply that it is said to have caused his death, which occurred on December 10th, 1669. Bichi, the Florentine agent in Rome, writing to the Grand Duke a few days later, accuses Clement of having concealed the fact that he was epileptic, which would have debarred him by canon law from exercising ecclesiastical functions; but even if the indictment was correct, which is not proved, it seems a minor transgression easily outweighed by his undeniable qualities.

 Leo XI  Paul V  Gregory XV  Urban VIII  Innocent X  Alexander VII  Clement IX  Clement X  Innocent XI  Alexander VIII  Innocent XII

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