The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
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CLEMENT VIII (ALDOBRANDINI)
MONTALTO on leaving the Vatican made several unpleasant discoveries. The new Pope's election had not
brought him in a single ducat; his debts totalled four times the amount of his revenues; and he could not
obtain credit anywhere in Rome. From the ladies he got no sympathy whatever; their pretty teasing had
turned to scornful sarcasm and society cold-shouldered him unmistakably. This succession of shocks
completely sobered the young man, who realised he must make a supreme effort or lose everything that
made life worth living. The interdependence of his social and his electoral successes made it imperative for
him to regain his former power in the conclaves, and the Pope being a dying man, not a moment was to be
lost in setting to work. Montalto had always been on very friendly terms with the Duke of Sessa, Philip's
Ambassador in Rome; they had been boon companions in many a revel, and as the Spaniard was easy-going
and good-natured, he would not refuse to give him a helping hand. Montalto therefore offered him his
services in the coming conclave. He would expect a very large sum of money in exchange; as not only
would he have to keep himself afloat, but only by lavish generosity could he regain his hold on his
followers. He was quite confident that this could be done if Spain did not count the cost. Sessa submitted the
proposal to Philip, who accepted the offer, such an understanding between his party and Montalto's insuring
the election of any candidate they jointly supported.
Oddly enough both Philip and the Grand Duke had selected Cardinal Santa Severina. He had promised
Ferdinand his assistance for the conquest of Naples, and Philip approved of him as being a rabid Inquisitor.
When the conclave assembled on January 10th, 1592, Santa Severina's elevation to the Holy See seemed a
certainty. Officially Montalto and his followers adhered to him as being Philip's candidate; but the terrifying
Dominican was the last man Montalto wished [p. 128] to give himself as sovereign master. He was therefore
much relieved to find that out of the fifty-two cardinals forming the Sacred College there was quite a
numerous group led by Altemps, Sforza and old Colonna who vehemently opposed S. Severina's elevation,
and were in sufficient force to make an immediate election doubtful.
Gesualdo, the Dean, had the greatest difficulty in inducing the Ambassadors to take their departure. Vinta,
the Florentine envoy, was still busily pottering in and out of the cubicles, and Sessa, Philip's Ambassador
and a grandee, was not to be hurried. He had not yet given Maddruzzo, reinstated as leader of the Spanish
party, the King's list of candidates, and was having a last talk with Montalto. It was getting late; Montalto
asked to be shown Philip's instructions, which the Spaniard handed to him. There were five names
mentioned, headed by S. Severina's, and all equally unwelcome to Montalto. With feigned indifference he
returned the document to Sessa and bade him good-night, then as an afterthought added: "Will you do me a
favour? I had half promised my friend Aldobrandini to propose him; the King could have no objection to
him and it would make things pleasanter for me if his name could be added to the list. S. Severina's election
is an absolute certainty; by this time to-morrow he will be Pope and Aldobrandini will never even be
mentioned; but I would have the satisfaction of being able to tell him that I had not neglected his interests."
Sessa good-naturedly complied with such a harmless request, and being now respectfully but firmly pressed
to leave by Gesualdo, hurriedly handed the paper to Maddruzzo without making any reference to the matter,
and took his departure.
As soon as the doors were closed Montalto and his followers joined the Spanish contingent to ascertain the
number of their adherents. Forty voices answered the roll-call, five more than was necessary to obtain the
majority. Elation probably kept S. Severina awake and anxiety must have had the same effect on Montalto.
The conspirators had decided to proceed to the adoration at daybreak, and at four o'clock several cardinals
had already assembled in S. Severina's cubicle, where that prelate in a state of great excitement was
embracing his friends, forgiving his enemies, distributing grants and making preparations against the looting
of his cell. By six o'clock the whole force was massed in the passage and a start was made for the Pauline
chapel where the ceremony was to take place. Unfortunately [p. 129] for S. Severina, his quarters happened
to be situated in the Borgia and to reach its destination the column had to ascend a very dark and narrow
stairway, and walk through the entire length of the state apartments. Each cardinal carried a taper, but they
cast a very feeble and flickering light on the gloom of vaulted recesses. The procession lost a great deal of its
compactness on the way and seemed thinned and straggly when it reached the great audience chamber.
There the advancing phalanx encountered Gesualdo, who was not affiliated to any party, and an attempt was
made to abduct him forcibly. He offered a strenuous resistance, protesting loudly against the outrage. Some
conclavists attracted by the noise came to his rescue, and Gesualdo escaped in a dishevelled and battered
condition to give the alarm.
In the throne room the posse found Altemps leaning against the doorpost, and thinking that he had come to
join them S. Severina rushed towards him with open arms: "Stand back, Pope of the devil!" roared the old
man, shaking his crutch at the would-be pontiff. This apostrophe sent a wave of dismay through the ranks, as
it was unbelievable that any man should take such a risk, even with an acknowledged enemy, if his election
was a foregone conclusion. Altemps must have some information that had been kept from them. They
looked doubtfully at one another and their pace slackened. At the entrance to the Pauline chapel, astride a
chair sat Colonna the elder, and his sneering comments as they filed past him made many feel sheepish and
On entering the chapel Maddruzzo, still leading the way with his candidate, was much concerned to note that
the place was practically dark. A few lights burned on the altar, but the rest of the oratory was completely
obscure. No candles could be found anywhere; they appeared to have been spirited away. The confusion
seemed inextricable; Maddruzzo attempted several times to make a tally, but the cardinals, like a lot of
troublesome schoolboys, would not keep their places, and several conclavists were elbowing their way
through the shadowy assembly ostensibly bent on searching for their patrons, but suspiciously prone to the
accidental extinguishing of a taper here and there. Maddruzzo, however, was of the race of the
Conquistadors and showed such indomitable perseverance that he managed at last to attain his ends, making
certain of a total of thirty-four supporters. [p. 130] One more was necessary, and a couple of cardinals
dashed out to fetch Della Rovere, who, being an invalid and thinking himself quite safe in his bed, had
promised his adhesion both to Maddruzzo and Altemps. They bundled the tremulous prelate into some
clothes and carried him along between them. As, bearing their unwilling burden, they brushed past Altemps
still on guard at the doorway, the old man's fury at recognising Della Rovere erupted as lava from a volcano.
Had he not been himself a cripple, he would certainly have followed them and assaulted the renegade. As it
was he cursed and reviled him with such nerve-shattering venom that Della Rovere sobbed with sheer fright,
and died four days later, never having recovered from the shock.
Contrary to all mathematical axioms, the arrival of an extra unit did not bring up the total number of voters
from thirty-four to thirty-five. So many lights had now failed that the body of the chapel was practically in
darkness and the hubbub seemed to increase every minute. The open suffrage only yielded thirty-four votes.
Maddruzzo was nonplussed, but after an intensive search Cardinal Cusano was discovered absorbed in pious
meditation behind the altar.
Santa Severina, not unnaturally, was feeling the strain. With hysterical insistence he requested the cardinals
to dress him in the pontifical robes, assuring them that his election was perfectly canonical—but none came
forward to do his bidding.
Meanwhile the opposing forces had mustered in the Sixtine chapel, and just as Maddruzzo was calling for
another ballot, a messenger appeared bearing a secret communication for Ascanio Colonna from his uncle.
Its effect was immediate.
"God will not have this Pope, nor will Ascanio Colonna" the young cardinal exclaimed loudly, and he burst
out of the chapel, falling headlong into a group of conclavists eavesdropping at the door. Someone got hold
of him but he managed to free himself and joined the elder Colonna in the Sixtine chapel, where his arrival
was hailed with thunderous applause.
Maddruzzo, fearing that such a dramatic defection might be an incitement to others, cautiously turned the
key in the lock, pocketed it, and prepared to say Mass. A deputation from the Sixtine, however, were soon
banging on the door expostulating against the pressure brought to bear on the suffragists and threatening to
declare any [p. 131] election void. The menace was a serious one and Maddruzzo decided to unlock the door
and proceed with the service previous to the scrutiny. The dissidents, not to be outdone, also fulfilled the
prescribed rites, so that two simultaneous ceremonies took place in the Pauline and the Sixtine chapels,
an event never before recorded in the history of conclaves.
It was now almost daylight, and while the cardinals in the Pauline settled down for the scrutiny S. Severina,
almost distraught with excitement, bustled round with promises and encouragements to the staunch, and
assurances of goodwill to the wavering. Nobody, he declared, need fear his vengeance, and as an earnest of
his benevolent intentions he announced his decision of taking the name of Clement. But alas! the scrutiny
only yielded twenty-eight votes in his favour; and his cause was irretrievably lost, for no papal candidate is
ever refloated after so crushing a defeat. The man who had felt so certain of his triumph staggered back to
his dismantled cell. He has himself confessed in his autobiography that his grief and anguish were such that,
"incredible as it may seem, I actually broke into a bloody sweat!"
The entire Sacred College then retired to bed and slept the sleep of exhaustion for many hours. When
business was resumed Philip's other candidates were found generally unacceptable. The Grand Duke had
felt so confident of S. Severina's election that he had neglected to give his party any further instructions and
they were uncertain of his wishes. Now was the time for Montalto to bring forward his candidate. He had no
difficulty in recruiting adherents for Aldobrandini among the dissidents who had no official nominee, and
Maddruzzo, believing in all good faith that he was obeying the King's orders, gave him the support of the
On January 30th, therefore, Aldobrandini became Pope under the name of Clement VIII.
It had been generally felt that the election of a pontiff likely to occupy the Apostolic See during a certain
number of years was highly desirable. In consequence the announcement of Clement's accession was hailed
with enthusiasm. He was then sixty-three years old, but having a superstitious dread of the climacteric year,
he gave his age as sixty-two. His constitution was healthy and robust. He was scholarly and reserved; tall
and inclined to stoutness. His morals were exemplary. Aldobrandini's family was one of moderately high [p.
132] standing; he had several distinguished brothers, and his own successful career was due in a great
measure to his ability and merits. In disposition he was peaceable and cautious. Having been entrusted with
several missions to foreign courts, his experience of diplomacy had developed the latter characteristic to
excess. He weighed his decisions with the utmost prudence, consulting every authority he thought competent
to advise him, with the result that business moved slowly under his pontificate. He was no friend to Philip.
Since Francis I, to regain his freedom, had transferred to Charles V whatever claims he may have had to the
duchy of Milan and the kingdom of Sicily, the French had completely evacuated the Peninsula and Spanish
influence had increased in consequence. The refusal of the Holy See to recognise Henry IV's sovereignty
over France had deprived Italy of the only ally she could oppose to the crushing might of Spain. Clement
realised that unless the balance of power was readjusted Italy would practically become a Spanish colony.
He therefore, after subjecting Henry IV's envoys to various rebuffs and humiliations, lifted the ban of
excommunication and received the erring monarch back into the fold.
As to Ferdinand, although S. Severina's defeat had been distinctly galling to his pride, Aldobrandini's
election was to prove of great benefit to him in the end; for the Pope saw eye to eye with the Grand Duke,
and all through Clement's pontificate they collaborated closely and continuously in an effective anti-Spanish
Clement VIII had never been of a very sociable disposition, but after his accession he became noticeably
more aloof and retiring. The Duke of Ferrara's envoy to the Vatican, in a letter to his master, throws some
interesting light on the case:
His Holiness [he writes] lives in perpetual dread of poison. His cook has received the most stringent
orders never to allow a stranger into the papal kitchens. His Holiness even had his slipper burnt after
the Duke of Sessa had kissed it!
The Pontiff's partiality for seclusion, however, did not extend to feeding in private. On the contrary, he
would never sit down to a solitary meal, beggars being often brought in to grace the pontifical board. It is
permissible to surmise that, combining caution with benevolence, Clement will have seen to it that all his
guests had their [p. 133] share of the victuals before the dishes reached him.
The gout from which he had occasionally suffered grew worse with advancing years and seems to have
affected his temper, which became uncertain and even violent. He trusted no one except his nephew
Aldobrandini to whom he gave his whole confidence. As time wore on he relied on him more and more, and
in the end the entire responsibility of government rested on his shoulders. Although his power was absolute,
Aldobrandini does not seem to have abused it to the same extent as many of his predecessors, and showed
distinct foresight and political ability.
Clement VIII died after a very short illness in 1605. The description of the remedies applied to him at the
last are strongly reminiscent of those used by witch doctors in darkest Africa, and are too hauntingly
sickening to be inflicted on the reader. In the realms of science, art and literature Italy had so long shone
with the brightest lights in Europe that it comes as a shock to find her physicians so far behind the teachings
of Ambroise Paré, and having recourse in the XVIIth century to methods so barbarous and revolting as those
employed at the deathbed of Clement VIII.
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