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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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




Charles II

Louis XIV

Leopold I

Charles II

AS so frequently happened after a very short pontificate, the Great Powers, drained as their exchequers were by continual warfare, showed no inclination to squander vast sums of money again so soon for so uncertain a return. The Count of Peñaranda, who had been sent from Madrid to attend to the business which Astorga continued to neglect, suggested with great good sense that as the cardinals were so treacherous and unreliable, it might be more practical to save up the money, keep aloof from the conclave, and, once the pope had been elected, buy the new cardinal-nephew's goodwill with the totality of the funds. But his idea, breaking as it did with all time-honoured precedents, was rejected by the court of Madrid.

The Italian princes also found the heavy calls made on their budgets by these repeated conclaves too onerous, and economically threw in their lots with either France or Spain, d'Este joining the former and Medici the latter Power.

Beside these two traditional opponents a new party now appeared known as the "Flying Squadron" and acknowledging Queen Christina of Sweden as its guiding star. The circumstances were very favourable for her debut as a leader, for had bribery been playing the principal part in this conclave she could not have entered into competition with her rivals. It was in fact her own pressing need of funds which prompted her to take such an active interest in the proceedings; since if the new pope failed to continue the allowance which his two predecessors had granted to the royal and spectacular convert to Roman Catholicism, she would find herself in a very precarious position. Christina was heavily in debt and her Swedish pension, insufficient in itself to meet her expenditure, was paid very irregularly when paid at all. She had set her heart on the election of Vidoni, a pleasure-loving, easy-going cardinal who had obtained the hat through the patronage of the Polish Sovereigns. He was a born courtier and had been an assiduous sycophant of Christina's for many [p. 186] years. He could be relied on, she thought, not only to treat her with generosity, but also to give her favourite, the Marquis del Monte, the captaincy of the Guards and to fall in with her whims generally. The ideal pontiff from her point of view would have been Azzolini, who was her closest friend and had been, so the gossips said, on even more intimate terms with her in the past, but he was only forty-seven years of age so would not be papabile for a long time. As her chief of staff, however, Azzolini was invaluable. He was by far the best strategist in the Sacred College, and although he only disposed of six followers, to his skill at sowing dissension within the heart of the contending parties, and to his artful dodges and devices, was certainly due the four months' procrastination which delayed the election.

France had selected Altieri, an old man of eighty, practically senile, and to whom Medici commonly referred as "The Idiot". The greatest secrecy was observed by the French faction, Altieri himself being unaware of their intentions.

Spain openly favoured Odescalchi, a young and ardent churchman whose austerity and religious enthusiasm were unlikely to please any of the other parties.

Louis XIV again entrusted the Duc de Chaulnes with the lay leadership of the French faction and despatched him immediately to Rome, feeling confident of scoring yet another prompt success. But clever and level-headed as he was, the Duke this time was to meet with such complications and unexpected difficulties in the accomplishment of his mission that he practically lost his bearings, and had it not been for a fortuitous circumstance would probably have failed to bring it to a successful issue. To start with, he had left Paris with instructions based on a good understanding between Chigi and Rospigliosi, and arrived in Rome to find that the two prelates had become irreconcilable enemies, which meant an entirely revised plan of campaign. There was nothing to expect from Chigi, who was stubbornly determined to support d'Elci and proved quite intractable. Chaulnes, to guard against all risks, had brought with him the King's exclusion against d'Elci and now congratulated himself on his foresight; but the weapon was only a negative one and Chigi's defection a serious set-back.

The French Ambassador's arrival had been awaited with feverish [p. 187] anxiety by all parties. The conclave had already been assembled for some time when he reached Rome, but no voting had as yet taken place. The entrance of the French cardinals who had accompanied Chaulnes caused great excitement, d'Este as Cardinal Patron of France taking charge of them with officious cordiality.

It was the custom, when a special envoy was due to reach the capital, for the Pope to send welcoming gifts of fruit, pastries and other delicacies to his residence, in readiness for his arrival. Many cardinals seized on the excuse of the interregnum during which they all represented the Holy See, to shower presents of food on the Duke, so that when he alighted he found the hall of his palace transformed into a veritable market-place. Pyramids of fruit, trestles supporting an accumulation of dishes, towers formed of superimposed jars of preserves, flagons of wine, baskets of dainties, boxes of comfits and battalions of cheeses in close formation greeted the surprised and overwhelmed traveller. His embarrassment was intense, for how to dispose of such a plethora of victuals without giving offence to the donors was a serious problem. But this was a trifling difficulty compared to what awaited him at the hands of the ladies; for if Chaulnes was too courteous to risk slighting the cardinals, he was also incapable of meeting any advances from the fair sex with anything but ready response. Christina, who had undertaken with regal selfassurance to win over the French Ambassador to Vidoni's cause, pounced on him without a moment's delay. The Court of Madrid when approached on Vidoni's behalf had been downright inimical and Medici had informed Retz that "The Queen Regent would sooner have the Vatican set on fire than consent to Vidoni's election". Spanish antagonism being considered a sure passport to French favour, much was expected of the effect which the above pronouncement might have on Chaulnes, and Christina could not contain her impatience to set about the gallant Frenchman's conquest.

Whatever his feelings regarding her personality and electoral activities may have been, the Queen's rank commanded Chaulnes' obedient attendance to her summons and, emboldened by his deferential urbanity, she grew daily more possessive and dictatorial. His troubles, alas! did not end with her, for another siren had likewise been lying in wait for him. Marie Mancini, one of Mazarin's famous nieces, who in the capacity of Louis XIV's first love had [p. 188] distinct claims on his envoy, and in that of wife of the Lord High Constable Colonna could not be overlooked by a visitor to Rome, was no less determined on his capture. She also wished to play an influential part in the conclave and to recruit supporters for her protégé Bonvisi. Her strategy was devoid of all subtlety as it consisted in the simple and time-honoured device of seduction. Attired in the most ravishing and all-revealing Eastern finery, her golden gauze trousers intended as a parody of her rival's masculine apparel, Marie Mancini, still young and alluring, received the pleasantly startled diplomat in her private apartment and managed without difficulty to keep him there for twenty-four hours! "La Connetable", as she was generally called, had a vast experience of the world in general and of men in particular, and the incidents of her struggle with Queen Christina to secure the allegiance of the bewildered Ambassador make most diverting reading. She certainly managed to unsettle him as he made several tentative advances in Bonvisi's favour, though in a perfunctory and hesitating manner.

No less entertaining is the correspondence between Azzolini and Christina. Adopting the policy which the French had found so successful in the last conclave, Azzolini never spoke to Vidoni, even abusing him to his colleagues on the agent provocateur system. He kept a detailed account of the electors' reactions to these comments and forwarded them every night to Vidoni together with the reports sent by the Queen from the outer world. Azzolini treated his royal Ægeria with scant courtesy, begging her curtly to cease interlarding her letters to him with so many terms of endearment, as it prevented him passing them on to Vidoni and constrained him to the tiresome and unnecessary labour of copying out the interesting extracts. He also objected to her perpetual entreaties to him not to touch any food or drink which had not come from her kitchens, as her solicitude made him the laughing-stock of the Sacred College. Christina does not seem to have resented her friend's ungracious chiding. She was evidently very proud of the way in which she was hoodwinking the Roman world, and of the caution and discretion she exercised generally, informing Azzolini that to guard against all risks she had been careful to select a deaf confessor!

Never were the skeins of intrigue more tangled than in this conclave. Even Chaulnes seemed to flounder and lose his footing, so that [p. 189] his irresolution struck Medici, who reported to the Grand Duke that the French Ambassador's attitude was incomprehensible and that he could not determine whether he was fooling his colleagues or being fooled himself.

There was practically no bribing. Cardinal de Bouillon had brought titles to French benefices worth 15,000 crowns for Rospigliosi himself and the Order of the Holy Ghost for his brother; but these honours were his due in recognition of past services and a mere act of civility on the part of the French monarch.

Owing to the paucity of gold, underlings were to be had at bargain prices. The Duc de Chaulnes' secretary sold his services to Medici and Medici's to Chaulnes; the Marquis d'Astorga's was also bought by France and Chigi's conclavist by Queen Christina. The situation, therefore, was much the same all round and no progress made in any direction.

What in this galère had become of Albizzi? There is not a single reference in the accounts of the conclave to his popularity and witticisms, and the omission seems unaccountable till one comes across his name on the list of official candidates. His reserve and circumspection are then readily understood, but one is amazed that a man so clear-sighted about the merits or rather demerits of others should have been so blind as to his own!

When at last the voting began, the first name put forward was d'Elci's, Chigi's friend and nominee. The opening scrutiny yielded twenty-seven votes in his favour, and this was considered such a promising start that an urgent message was sent to Chaulnes, who rushed to the Vatican with the King's exclusion and handed it through the wicket to d'Este with authority to use it at his own discretion. This d'Este did with such precipitancy and so little consideration for the aged candidate's precarious state of health that the shock actually killed him. Chigi immediately replaced him by Bonvisi, Marie Mancini's protégé; but Azzolini made short work of him. The cardinals then amused themselves at playing a cat-and-mouse game with several stray aspirants to the papal tiara, having particularly good sport with Albizzi, whose misguided ambition seemed to have completely deprived him of all acumen, and who was now treated by his former victims to a taste of his own sharp sauce. It must have been galling for him to see how successfully Retz had stepped into [p. 190] his shoes. The Frenchman's memory was prodigious; he had been everywhere and known everybody, and was a versatile and inexhaustible raconteur. The cardinals thronged to Medici's cubicle to hear Retz read extracts from his memoirs, which were pronounced far more entertaining than Albizzi's parochial witticisms. Cardinal de Retz had all the ease and charm of manner which stamped the habitué of the court of Versailles, where you might call out a man and kill him on the flimsiest of pretexts, but where brutality of speech would have been an unthinkable lapse of manners and a personal joke concerning physical infirmities utterly beneath contempt.

The French element, composed mostly of prelates of the highest birth and standing, had imposed on this heterogeneous assembly a refinement of tone and expression which some of its members may have found irksome, but to which they all strove to conform. There was an unwonted exchange of small civilities, the cardinals entertaining one another to appetising collations. From Florence Medici obtained an inexhaustible supply of light Tuscan wine called Verdea which was more potent than it looked and was especially appreciated by the French prelates. They themselves produced the finest Burgundy vintages in return, and Chigi provided delicious cream cheeses which his colleagues, especially old Altieri, devoured greedily. Besides his cream cheeses, Chigi's horses were also very popular as they were brought every day to parade under their master's eye on the Piazza S. Pietro, and the cardinals much enjoyed watching the beautiful animals being schooled and put through their paces. This of course was a flagrant infringement of the regulations as the windows should have been boarded up and the outer world invisible to the electors; so Azzolini, who detested Chigi, had no difficulty in inducing the Dean to put a stop to this equine exhibition.

The weeks slipped by without any headway being made by either of the factions though the plotting and scheming proceeded unabated. Bildt says that "the adversaries exchanged lies like rapier-thrusts, without malice or ill-will, as good fencers should"; but Medici, who was better acquainted with the turbid undercurrents, notes that never had he known a conclave where so much hate and deceit underlay such a courteous surface. Azzolini considered that the time had now come to change the Squadron's tactics, and his advice to Christina was: "Tell the truth, it is safest, as everybody will think you are [p. 191] lying—to deceive by honesty is the art of arts".

By April 24th Vidoni's candidature was official, but France had not yet divulged Altieri's name, when a special courier arrived hot-foot from Madrid bearing information of the highest import. The Marquis d'Aitona, a powerful member of the regency council, was dead and his disappearance had caused a complete revulsion in the Government's policy, for the Cardinal of Arragon, who had succeeded him, was devoted to Vidoni's interests. He had managed to overrule the Queen's scruples and the Spanish faction was now ordered to abandon Odescalchi's candidature and support that of the man they had previously been enjoined to oppose most energetically. The abruptness of such a complete change of front, though it left Astorga quite unmoved, was violently resented not only by the Spanish prelates but more especially by their Italian colleagues, who, having joined issue with Spain, had so irretrievably compromised themselves with Vidoni that they could not possibly hope for his favour should he become Pope. Led by Medici they therefore went over in a body to the French party, Chigi for similar reasons following their lead. All night fresh recruits came pouring into the French ranks, even Cristina's squadron being carried away by the rising tide, Azzolini alone remaining staunch to Vidoni.

D'Este now disclosed the name of the Pope-elect and without waiting for daybreak the cardinals hurried to Altieri's cubicle to carry him in triumph to the chapel. Here, however, they met with an unexpected check. The aged invalid had no desire whatever to occupy the Apostolic See. His eighty years weighed heavily upon him and he begged and prayed to be allowed to die in peace. He had really lost interest in everything but food and was devoid of all personal ambition; but his electors would brook no refusal. D'Este and Medici, those very prelates who had always been wont to refer to him as "The Idiot", seized him bodily in their arms and, though he clung to the bedclothes with feeble desperation and sobbed piteously, they managed to convey him to the chapel, where he was duly elected, acquiescing out of sheer exhaustion to his proclamation as Pope Clement X. It is amusing to note that when the barriers were removed to permit the ambassadors and officials to pay their respects to the new Pontiff, the first person to fall at his feet with every show of devotion and jubilation was Queen Christina of Sweden! [p. 192]

Clement had no nephews; but his niece having married a Paluzzi he adopted that family as his own and they took the name of Altieri. They filled the usual offices and enjoyed the usual prerogatives, showing no great competence in any branch of affairs but that of their own aggrandisement. Clement's election was not a popular one. His great age, however, augured a short pontificate, so consternation was great when the rumour spread that his father had lived to be 105! His former colleagues' discomfiture on hearing of this strain of longevity in their Sovereign's immediate forebear excited the mirth of the Roman populace and caused much lampooning and derisive banter. Clement was not destined, however, to try his subjects' patience quite so severely as they had feared—but he survived for six years, during which he was kept strictly secluded from business of any kind. His memory was completely gone and he would, if not restrained, bestow the same honours and benefices promiscuously on anybody he came into contact with, his nephew having the ungrateful task of disillusioning the overjoyed recipients of the pontifical favours. He was a harmless, childish old man that France had thought to keep in leading-strings; but she had not foreseen the adoption of the Paluzzis. The new Cardinal-Nephew Altieri was distinctly Francophobe and he carefully selected men of the same political opinions to fill all vacancies in the Sacred College.

No outsider was allowed to see the Pope unless accompanied by a member of the Altieri clan; they watched over him and cosseted him with unceasing vigilance, fanning the flickering flame of life which must at all costs be kept burning till they had had time to feather their nests. The object of so much solicitude vegetated happily enough, incurious and indifferent to what happened outside his own restricted world. Meanwhile the Altieri governed and grew rich; they had pinned their faith on a horoscope which gave the Pope nine years of life from the day of his accession, and when he slipped through their fingers three years before the allotted time the Cardinal-Nephew's rage was such that he assaulted the doctors who had attended his uncle, kicking one of them savagely in the stomach. The Altieris, like so many of their predecessors who had prospered and fattened on their relative's pontificate, refused to disburse a farthing for his funeral, and Clement X was buried like a pauper.

 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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