The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
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... XVIIth Century
LEO XII (DELLA GENGA)
PIUS VII had dispensed with a cardinal-nephew, and Consalvi as Secretary of State was naturally the
leader of the late Pontiff's creatures; but his unpopularity in the Sacred College undermined the influence
he should have had over them. His colleagues could not forgive him either for having centralised and
absorbed so many branches of government of which they had so far enjoyed the benefits without
hindrance or supervision, or for having shackled their authority at every turn as he had done. The system
of progressive evolution which he had striven to establish had roused the bitterest resentment among the
ultramontanes. He had also antagonised the Austrian Government by his energetic opposition to its
hectoring policy towards the Holy See, and by his persistent struggle to free Italy from the stranglehold
Austria was gradually acquiring over the entire Peninsula; therefore in that quarter he had nothing to
expect but systematic hindrance. To make matters even worse, Consalvi was in a most precarious state of
health and in constant physical pain; but undaunted and mettlesome he fought the losing battle which he
knew must be his last, without yielding an inch and without showing the slightest sign of discouragement
or lassitude. His life's work was in the balance. Would the more enlightened system of government he
had inaugurated survive or be abolished? The odds against him were formidable, for he was beset with
enemies, and the Powers, who having no cause for hostility against him might have given him their
support, were at this juncture but broken reeds owing to the notorious incapacity of their representatives
Never had the diplomatic corps presented such a lamentable collection of incompetent figureheads.
Owing to the fact that since the restoration of the temporal power the Holy See was known to be in
Austrian leading-strings, Rome was considered by the various European Courts to be a post of secondary
importance. They had therefore been sending ambassadors or ministers either too old or too [p. 306]
stupid to be employed elsewhere, or favourites who wished for a temporary diplomatic appointment, or
even officials who had failed in other capacities but for one reason or another could not well be
dismissed. Even the French Ambassador, the Duc de Laval, though a charming and cultured man of the
world, was so flighty and unreliable that he could not be given any responsible office and there was
nothing whatever to be hoped from his co-operation.
Such was the situation when the forty-nine suffragists, who were to elect the new pope, met in conclave
on September 2nd, immediately taking up their respective positions as Consalvists or anti-Consalvists.
The troublous times had left their mark on the Sacred College. It was no longer the exclusively
aristocratic body it had been during the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. There was a distinct infiltration of
the plebeian element and consequently less formalism and less ostentation. It seemed at first as if a happy
solution had been found in the candidature of Severoli, who, though a member of the Zelanti, had friends
in all groups, but at the last minute his chances were shattered by the Austrian veto. The explosion of this
bombshell was due to Severoli having refused to attend the marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise
which had taken place during his nunciature in Vienna.
Castiglioni also came very near to securing the necessary majority; he was the Bourbons' nominee
chosen by them as a result of the persecution he had endured at Napoleon's hands. He had been a great
favourite with Pius VII, who always referred to him as Pius VIII, and he was secretly supported by
Consalvi. Unfortunately at one of the scrutinies Cardinal Pallotta, who happened to be a scrutator,
recognised Consalvi's writing on a ballot paper bearing Castiglioni's name. He immediately gave the
alarm and the candidate lost all the votes of the Zelanti party without which his election was impossible.
Cardinal della Somaglia, one of the two prelates who had been within an ace of renouncing his
ecclesiastical dignities during the French occupation, now came forward as a potential pope, but the fact
that during the regrettable period of his temporary aberration he had signed his letters "Citizen
Somaglia" made his elevation to the Apostolic See unthinkable to the majority of the suffragists.
Austria had shot her bolt, and that complication at least could be discounted; but the contest would
probably have lasted a few weeks [p. 307] longer had not the most disquieting news reached the Sacred
College regarding the activities of the secret societies which honeycombed the country. Emboldened by
the judicial coma consequent on the vacancy of the Holy See, they were raising their heads above ground
and openly spreading their poisonous doctrines. These alarming reports drew the reactionary party more
firmly together and frightened many of the liberals into joining their opponents. It was generally felt that
a prolonged conclave might endanger the security of the Holy See, and the outcome of the scare was the
immediate proposal of Cardinal della Genga as candidate by the Zelanti-anti-Consalvist party, his
election being rushed through before the French leader could secure a veto from the King. Della Genga
had pleaded ill-health, and to discourage his adherents from pressing the burden of Papacy upon him had
lifted his robes and displayed a pair of shockingly swollen and ulcerated legs. But the only effect of this
distressing exhibition had been to make his followers all the more eager to confer the papal dignity upon
him, and this they accomplished on September 28th, 1823, on which day he was proclaimed Pope under
the name of Leo XII.
The new Pontiff was only sixty-three years of age, but a prey to so many infirmities that a short
pontificate could reasonably be anticipated. He was a tall, thin, ascetic-looking man with a forbidding
and melancholy countenance. He ate practically nothing; in fact he was reported to live on one plate of
polenta a day, even that meagre portion being shared by him with his favourite cat. He fell so ill shortly
after his enthronement that his life was despaired of, but to the dismay of some and the surprise of all he
rallied and was soon struggling up to attend to his duties. He had no desire to live and watched himself
wasting away with a serenity akin to relief. Several times he was at death's door, but for six years
managed to survive the most exhausting attacks of sickness and the excruciating treatment inflicted on
him by the most ignorant and clumsy of medical attendants.
Leo XII was a typical martinet who never showed a trace of affection or cordiality for anyone. He never
spared himself, was a slave to duty and attended to business both spiritual and temporal with methodical
punctuality. He was simple, even austere in his apparel and mode of life. He had been rather wild in his
youth, and [p. 308] his passion for shooting had caused him, so it was said, to have killed a peasant with
whom he had quarrelled about certain sporting rights. Needing auxiliaries to help him in his fight with
the revolutionary secret societies, he employed the Jesuits. In compensation for the loss of such
properties as his predecessors had confiscated, he bestowed on the Order important donations and several
fine buildings in Rome, among others the Roman College and the Church of S. Ignatius. He also gave
them every encouragement and facility to pursue their educational schemes; in fact over the entire Papal
States the Jesuits enjoyed a virtual monopoly of tuition.
In France things had not been made so easy for the Society of Jesus. Charles X, minus the Pope's
unflinching strength of purpose, represented on the throne of St. Louis the aims and ideals that Leo embodied on the throne of St. Peter. Both Sovereigns longed to turn back the clock to the good old days
before the Revolution, and both did their utmost to re-establish an order of things which had disappeared
for ever. The Paris University put up a vehement defence for its educational prerogatives, and Count
Frayssinous, the Minister of Public Instruction, called on the Chamber of Deputies to prohibit the Jesuits
from introducing into France their own methods of schooling. A law was passed imposing on all colleges
the curriculum of the University, and subjecting them to severe governmental supervision.
As Pius V had done, Leo XII made himself intensely unpopular with his subjects by constraining them to
observe endless rules and regulations concerning private as well as public matters. Not only did he
prohibit vaccination, he also renewed all sorts of obsolete privileges such as that of sanctuary, and
decreed that any dressmaker who sold low or transparent dresses would be ipso facto excommunicated.
To ensure against any possible disregard of this spiritual chastisement, the penalties for wearing the
offending garments were made tangible and immediate, so it is unlikely that the sempstresses' pious
allegiance was often put to the test. But if the ladies had cause for complaint, the Jews fared even worse.
The Pontiff denied them the right to possess property, allowing them only the shortest possible time in
which to sell what they owned. He exhumed laws of the Middle Ages regarding their segregation and the
marks of infamy they should wear on their clothing, and finally placed them [p. 309] under the power of
the Inquisition. It was only logical of course that this hideous institution should have been restored, and
delation not only encouraged but made compulsory. This system of anonymous denunciation was
welcomed by those who, being unhampered by scruples and having a score to wipe off, were enabled
thus to do so with absolute impunity; nor did the advantages which might accrue to the cunning escape
the blackmailers, as can readily be imagined.
In Spain the Cortes had abolished the Inquisition in 1820, and Ferdinand VII, much as he would have
liked to follow the Pontiff's lead, did not find himself in a position to do so openly; the Holy Office was
revived, however, under the name of juntas da fé and in 1826 in Valencia a poor schoolmaster called
Rizaffa who was convicted of deism was condemned to be hanged and burnt at the stake. The first part of
the sentence was duly carried out on July 26th; but as an unwilling concession to the new spirit of
tolerance and humanity pervading the world, symbolism was substituted for reality where the burning
was concerned, flames being painted as vividly as could be contrived on the old barrel in which the body
was thrust into unconsecrated ground.
The religious principles and the morality of ambassadors accredited to the Holy See by the Catholic
Powers were also the object of most searching enquiries, as the Pontiff would accept none who did not
conform to his high standards of orthodoxy and domestic virtues; which naturally reduced the choice
very considerably and caused much embarrassment to the various European Ministers for Foreign
Affairs. The Vicomte de Châteaubriand, the famous French writer, had to undergo a severe cross-examination by the Papal Nuncio in Paris before he could be given his credentials. He was compelled to
make an official declaration of such stringent ultramontanism that the Duc de Blacas jokingly said that
"Châteaubriand had founded a sect to which he did not belong!" Leo received the new Ambassador with
stiff formality, as was his wont. The Pontiff's well-known detestation and mistrust of all things French
was difficult to circumvent; but the eloquent Vicomte must have managed to do so, as Leo left him one
of his favourite cats in his will—a signal mark of esteem.
With Austria the Pope was continually at loggerheads, but considering the overbearing attitude of the
Court of Vienna this could scarcely have been otherwise. When the announcement of an "Anno [p. 310]
Santo" was made from Rome and widely advertised all over Christendom, the Austrian government
refused to grant its subjects the necessary passports to attend the ceremonies, thus depriving the would-be pilgrims of inestimable spiritual benefits and the Holy See of considerable material ones.
Leo XII's death, which had been so often anticipated, took place on February 11th, 1829. Few mourned
the anachronistic, pallid evocation of the great and terrifying popes of yore; the Pontiff who had floated
above the realities of the XIXth century on a bank of artificial clouds which hid them from view; a
flimsy fastness which was bound to disperse at the first gust of the coming revolutionary storm.
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