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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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 Pius VII  Leo XII  Pius VIII  Gregory XVI  Pius IX






Napoleon III

Isabella II
Alfonso XII

Ferdinand I

Emmanuel I

BY his arbitrary remapping of the Italian Peninsula Napoleon doubtless laid the foundations of United Italy. Without any apparent difficulty age-old republics were transformed overnight into kingdoms, principalities into republics, and the ecclesiastical government of the Papal States was taken over by civilian officials. Yet these amazing changes seemed scarcely to affect the even tenor of life, which continued to flow as regularly and in some cases even more easily than it had done before. Neighbouring States which had been hereditary foes discovered to their surprise that they could live together on terms of peace and even of amity under a common rule. Moreover, conscription, introduced into Italy by Napoleon, brought the natives of various provinces into fraternal contact through a community of hardships, danger and glory; it freed them from parochial prejudices and to a great extent from the domination of the priests. It improved their physical powers of endurance and broadened their outlook. They were now capable of focussing on a more distant horizon, and of realising the immense advantages to be derived from the formation of a great and united nation, which would give the lie to Metternich's aphorism that Italy was merely a geographical expression.

The tone adopted by the various ephemeral régimes imposed on the Peninsula since the beginning of the XIXth century also played an important part in the development of these nationalistic tendencies, as the intruders invariably courted popularity by appealing to the patriotism of the native populations. The following proclamation issued by Murat is typical of them all: "Italians! Providence has at last enabled you to become a free nation. Henceforward from the Alps to the straits of Scylla only one cry should be heard: Independent Italy!"

The cry was indeed heard, and to some purpose; for it produced such patriots as Manin, Mazzini and Garibaldi, albeit they gave to the clarion call a very different interpretation from the one Murat [p. 326] himself had in view. These men wanted no sovereigns either human or divine, and above all they wanted no foreign rulers not excepting French heroes; but equality, freedom and justice for all under a republican system of government. These Utopian aspirations had been exasperated by the violent reaction following on the restoration of the various ruling houses and of the temporal power of the Holy See, after the Congress of Vienna. Petrucelli asserts that between 1821 and 1846, 200,000 people suffered punishment for political offences either by death or by life sentences of imprisonment, and that over one million and a half were subject to constant police supervision.

Pope Pius IX
From a print in the British Museum
Under Austrian sway in Italy, schooling was reduced to a minimum on the principle enunciated by the Emperor that faithful and not scholarly subjects were what a monarch needed. Militarism of course was promptly suppressed. Italians were no longer allowed to shoulder a musket, but they were encouraged to become sbirri (policemen) and especially to join the spying service. The armed forces were composed exclusively of Austrians and Swiss. Newspapers were virtually abolished and the censorship of books was so severe that few escaped the ban. Special tribunals sat permanently to try political offenders and the gallows were never removed from the main piazza in all Italian towns during this reign of terror. It was difficult enough for the accused to get a hearing anywhere in Italy; but in the Papal States vindication was a practical impossibility, as Leo XII decreed that only the Latin language should be used and spoken in the law courts, which debarred the great majority even from following the course of the prosecution.

As no meetings of any kind were tolerated, the masses were naturally driven to join the secret societies, which they did by the thousands, their legitimate yearning for freedom soon degenerating into a fierce hatred of all authority. The intellectuals, who cared little for political liberty as the republicans understood it, had yet an equally forcible longing for independence of thought and religious emancipation. Poets were never more numerous or poetry more popular in Italy than at this time. Bards sang everywhere in rousing rhythm of liberty, glory, laurels and blood; or striking the lyrical chord, they wept over the desecrated soil of the Fatherland or mourned the heroes who died for it. They kindled the flame of patriotism in [p. 327] the young and fanned it into a conflagration. Poems written in the dialects of the various provinces reached the most remote villages, bringing them into touch with the new nationalistic spirit, and in the Papal States, where the Austrian troops were always called upon to repress popular risings, the Holy See and the foreign oppressors were linked together in the minds of the people, who held them both in equal abhorrence.

The members of the Sacred College knew exactly how matters stood and the greater number of them fully recognised the necessity of the Holy See steering a more liberal course to conciliate the lower orders and reinforce the defences of the now tottering temporal power. But the European Governments, viewing the matter each one from its own particular standpoint, saw no object in any immediate change of policy: Guizot, addressing the Chambre des Pairs, declaring that no modifications beyond the Alps either political or territorial would be advantageous to France; and Lord Palmerston sending a message to Metternich to the effect that Her Majesty's Government was of opinion that the conventions of the Congress of Vienna should be adhered to in Italy as well as in other European countries, and that no alterations should be made in the boundaries agreed to in that treaty without the sanction of the signatory Powers.

This determination of the European Cabinets to preserve the existing order of things having become known to the suffragists, influenced many of them to take a more optimistic view of the situation. Nevertheless a number of reforms were absolutely indispensable and there was no reason to think the Powers would be averse to their adoption, even Metternich admitting the necessity of certain concessions being made to modernism. The voice of the country was anyhow too clamorous to be altogether ignored. From every city in the Papal States petitions were reaching the College of Cardinals pleading for urgent judicial and other reforms and for a general amnesty.

Elaborate precautions were taken to preserve order during the coming conclave. Austrian troops occupied various strategic points and four Austrian battleships in the port of Ancona brought their broadsides to bear menacingly on the town; while reliable and determined churchmen were entrusted with the provisional government of the provinces pending the Cardinal Legates' absence in Rome.

On June 14th, after various contretemps had delayed their departure, [p. 328] the assembled suffragists filed out of the church of S. Silvester on Monte Cavallo to enter the Quirinal. Rain was falling heavily and the older cardinals, fearful of catching cold, gathered up their robes and hurried along, jostling their colleagues, and being in turn jostled by the crowd as they broke the ranks, quickening their pace to a run. The younger prelates naturally followed their elders' lead and the procession, which should have been so stately and imposing, degenerated into a most undignified scramble. Cardinals, conclavists and onlookers, all equally drenched and bedraggled, raced along higgledy-piggledy, stumbling into puddles, hopping over gutters; the cardinals doggedly panting out the "Veni Creator" while their unwelcome retinue, composed largely of the Roman scum, vociferated threats, witticisms and abuse at them as they ran.

The Sacred College, now immured within the Quirinal, formed itself immediately into three groups. Lambruschini and Bernetti, the two late Secretaries of State, each led an opposing faction, and between the two hovered the "moderates" who would inevitably be swayed sooner or later in the one or the other direction. Lambruschini was himself Austria's nominee and Bernetti's candidate was Mastai, a prelate belonging to the moderate party. Diplomats played a very secondary part in this conclave, which only lasted forty-eight hours, the French Ambassador, Count Rossi, being the only one to take any active interest in the proceedings. He was anxious to secure the election of Cardinal Gizzi, who was both hostile to Austria and to the Jesuits, this latter idiosyncrasy appealing to him very specially, there being just then in France a general anxiety to rid the country once more of the intriguing fraternity. Rossi worked so hard in Gizzi's cause that he was nicknamed by his colleagues the "Count of the Holy Ghost"; albeit his efforts were all in vain, for it was obvious at the very first scrutiny that the contest would be a straightforward one between Lambruschini and Mastai.

Bernetti having been informed that Gaisrück was on his way from Vienna bearing the Austrian veto against Mastai, fully realised that he would have to obtain the necessary majority for his candidate within a few hours or resign himself to Lambruschini's elevation to the Holy See. With incredible energy and notwithstanding the fact that he was a dying man, Bernetti managed within the short space of time at his disposal to overcome all difficulties. This success [p. 329] was due entirely to his personal efforts, as Mastai himself made no attempt to recruit any adherents, gave no promises and maintained an attitude of serene aloofness.

In his heart, however, Mastai was not as indifferent as he wished to appear. At the decisive ballot he happened to be one of the scrutators, and his emotion was such that his voice failed him while reading out the result of the votes. He even begged to be relieved of the task; but as such a step would have invalidated the election, he was prevailed upon to remain at his post, and so enjoyed the rare experience of announcing his own election to the Sacred College.

When Pope Pius IX, as Mastai was in future to be known, appeared on the loggia of the Quirinal to bless the waiting throng, he was received without much enthusiasm by the Romans, who knew little about him and had hoped for the election of Cardinal Micara, a special favourite of the people. That first coldness, however, soon wore off; it was rumoured that Pius was liberal-minded, generous and anxious to promote the welfare of his subjects. Prompted it is said by Mazzini's confederates, who had made it their business to discover the vulnerable chink in the pontifical armour, the Romans now uproariously acclaimed and applauded the Sovereign Pontiff on every possible occasion, continually clamouring for his appearance on the loggia of the palace, where he showed himself willingly enough to distribute smiles and blessings. He was genuinely solicitous of his people's happiness but their ovations turned his head, as they were meant to do. He found it an irresistible temptation to raise storms of enthusiasm by granting a concession here and there; for the Pontiff's weakness, a weakness, alas! which was to deliver him bound hand and foot to his enemies, was an inordinate thirst for approbation and popularity.

Petitions now rained at the Quirinal and bit by bit Pius yielded to all the mob's demands, being cheered to the echo in consequence. After the demolition of the ghetto and such-like minor requests had been conceded, came a persistent cry for a general amnesty and later for the expulsion of the Jesuits, which went sorely against the grain but which Pius dared not refuse. He became the idol of his people; they surged round his carriage whenever he left the Quirinal, occasionally, such as after the granting of the general amnesty, unharnessing the horses to drag the lumbering coach themselves. They yelled [p. 330] themselves hoarse with vivas while the ultramontane party looked on with grim disapprobation.

Pius IX's early career had been more chequered than that of most pontiffs. His ambitions as a young man had been centred on a military career. Born at Sinigaglia in 1792, the son of Count Mastai-Ferretti, he had grown up during the Napoleonic era when the youth of Italy had been stirred by martial enthusiasm and patriotic ardour. His elder brothers were in the army and Giovanni Mastai hoped to follow in their footsteps. Owing to his delicate health his early education had been very neglected. As a young man he learnt to fence and to ride, and added to a smattering of the gentler arts of music and poetry these superficial accomplishments made up the sum-total of his proficiency.

He was a fine handsome lad with a craving for admiration. To attract notice he had adopted a peculiar style of dress, wearing a grey frock-coat, pantaloons with broad stripes, spurs and an open collar à la Byron with a fly-away scarlet cravat. He always sported a flower in his buttonhole, and in this get-up would swagger past the Sinigaglia cafés smoking a huge cigar; the women adored him and he was accounted the local Don Juan.

But Giovanni's chances of a brilliant future were not as promising as might at first appear, inasmuch as he had from infancy been subject to epileptic fits so there could be no question of his joining the regular army and covering himself with glory on the field of battle. The best he could hope for was to obtain a commission in the Pope's Noble Guards, and with this object in view he set out for Rome. His family being distantly connected with that of Pius VII he would probably have secured the coveted appointment and history would never have recorded his name, had he not had a sudden seizure in the street, probably brought on by the unwonted excitement. The unfortunate occurrence having reached the ears of the Commandant of the Pope's Guards, that officer decided that it was inadvisable to admit him to the corps in question.

Mastai's despair at having his hopes thus dashed was so bitter that he had, it was rumoured, contemplated drowning himself in the Tiber, only being saved from such an untimely end by a most opportune meeting with a friend of his father's, who pointed out to him with great good sense that if military glory had been his objective [p. 331] he had nothing to regret on that score, as patrolling the Vatican or escorting the pontifical carriage could scarcely be accounted deeds of valour. As for the showy and attractive uniform which the young man in his childish vanity had probably fancied himself as wearing so proudly, surely he could in those days of sartorial licence have contrived an individual touch here and there about his person reminiscent of the brilliant raiment he had so narrowly missed wearing. Mastai's intense despondency can easily be explained by the humiliating publicity of his accident and of his failure, and by the dread he must naturally have felt that his terrible complaint would preclude him from ever making his mark in the world, and would restrict the field of his activities, whatever they were to be, within the diminutive confines of his native town.

But this life sentence of Sinigaglia was not to be passed on him after all, for Pius VII, who was kindness itself, having been informed of his young relative's distress, offered to grant him the necessary dispensations if he chose to become a priest. Considering circumstances, this certainly seemed not only a wise course to adopt but even an unhoped-for opportunity, so on December 18th, 1818, Giovanni Mastai took Holy Orders. It was concordant with his ardent temperament that he should throw himself heart and soul into his new avocation. He resolutely exchanged the gaudy forage-cap for the black shovel hat, and discharged his ecclesiastical duties with thoroughness and genuine religious zeal. Being gifted with a powerful and musical speaking voice and a natural fluency of speech, he soon acquired a reputation of eloquence which drew large crowds to his sermons. An adept at obtaining the best possible effects from circumambient conditions, he would preach preferably in the evening, when the shadows gathered about the church and a carefully contrived shaft of light threw his prepossessing features into high relief against the sombre background. Nor did he hesitate to resort to melodramatic means of impressing his audience, such as setting a skull with a lighted candle in it beside him in the pulpit while all the church remained in darkness, his own pale, handsome countenance alone being visible as he addressed the gleaming death's head.

His career was a successful one, honours following in easy succession. His attitude to the world in general at this time of his life was one of effusive goodwill. That his friendly protestations were [p. 332] often mere empty words some had already discovered, but the majority accepted him at his face valuation and he was generally popular and universally respected. If Mastai was a faux bonhomme there could, however, be no doubt as to the sincerity of his beliefs. His faith was of the quality which moves mountains. It was the simple, blind, uncritical faith of the uneducated. His credulity regarding miracles was astounding. He accepted the most outrageous, grotesque hoaxes unquestioningly as divine manifestations; as for instance when, as Pope Pius IX, he approved of the publication of a document giving the contents of "A true letter of Jesus Christ sent by the hand of a Guardian Angel to a girl called Bridget, printed in letters of gold and found at the foot of a crucifix", etc., and proceeding to describe the miracles which it had accomplished!

The Pontiff's lack of discrimination is to be deplored, but it was the outcome of his intrinsic piety untempered by natural discernment. His mental capacities were distinctly limited; he never read a book and his intellectual activities were restricted to the writing of diffuse and sometimes scarcely intelligible encycicals such as the one defining the dogma of the Virgin's Immaculate Conception. Had his judgment been as good as his intentions he might have done great things; but like those people who make pets of tiger cubs and are under the delusion that they have domesticated the pretty little creatures, Pius imagined he had tamed the monster of sedition because it licked his feet and fawned on him when he had fed it. But the time came when, sure of its strength and prompted by its predatory instincts, it behaved exactly as playful tiger cubs do when they grow up, and suddenly turned on its keeper.

Pius IX had been living for two years in this fool's paradise when in 1848 Europe burst into revolutionary flames. Louis Philippe fled from Paris, Metternich from Vienna, and Italy leapt at the chance of throwing off the Austrian yoke. Charles Albert of Savoy, supported by the copious good wishes and very small reinforcements sent to him by his fellow rulers in the Peninsula, attacked the Austrian forces, scoring a couple of victories at the outset of the campaign. But Radetzky, having been given command of the Austrian army, turned the tables on the Italians, inflicting a crushing defeat on them at Custozza.

Meanwhile the Pope, finding his subjects thoroughly out of hand, [p. 333] called on Count Rossi, the erstwhile French Ambassador who had now been naturalised a Roman, to undertake the secretaryship of state. Rossi was clever and enlightened, with a sound knowledge of Italian politics, but he was never given a chance to display his ability as the people, disapproving of his nomination, simply murdered him on the steps of the Quirinal. From his windows Pius could see the mob which had acclaimed him so deliriously and which he had taken for a lot of boisterous but good-hearted and loving children, surging this way and that waving banners inscribed with threatening demands, while their mutinous cries and imprecations swelled to an angry roar. The Holy Father was utterly taken aback at such unmistakable symptoms of ill-will, and unable to come to any decision as to the best course to adopt under such critical circumstances. Should he face the monster or more cautiously give it the slip? He hesitated, debated the question with his household, conferred with those diplomats who had managed to gain access to the Quirinal, and finally decided on flight. He managed to leave the palace undetected, disguised as a servant, and joined the Countess Spaur, the wife of the Bavarian minister, who was waiting for him with her family just outside Rome, and who smuggled him safely over the Neapolitan frontier.

As soon as his escape became known, the Romans declared the Pontiff-King deposed and proclaimed a Republic. For a year Pius remained the King of Sicily's guest at Gaeta, when France, wishing for political reasons to restore him to his throne, sent an expeditionary force to escort him back to his capital.

It was a very sobered and disgruntled Pope who returned to the Quirinal in 1849; gone was his popularity and with it his illusions and his liberalism. His subjects made it plain that they now detested him, and the rumour having spread that he had the evil eye they kept well out of his way, which, all things considered, was distinctly to the Pontiff's advantage. Pius, disgusted at so much ingratitude, handed over practically the entire responsibility of the temporal government to his new minister Antonelli, throwing all his energies into the spiritual guidance of his flock.

Evidence of his industry was soon forthcoming. In 1854 he promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; in 1864 appeared the Syllabus, and in 1869 he assembled the Oecumenical Council to declare the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Many members [p. 334] of the Council were opposed to this new tenet, but after they had been browbeaten into either acquiescing or taking their departure, this portentous article of faith was triumphantly proclaimed to the world at large, causing several spectacular secessions from the Church of Rome and other no less spectacular submissions. This satisfactory conclusion was reached not a minute too soon, for war now broke out between France and Germany and the council was adjourned sine die.

The French troops were hastily recalled from Rome and the Pope's lieges rolled up their sleeves and were preparing to deal with their Sovereign, when King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont, now promoted King of Italy, entered Pius IX's capital, so soon to be declared his own. The Pontiff shut himself up in the Vatican, where he remained unmolested, the Italian Government treating him with far more deference and consideration than he would have been likely to receive at the hands of his own people. The King's ministers did everything in their power to conciliate the fallen monarch, and consistently adhered to Cavour's principle of a Free Church in a Free State. The diplomats accredited to the Holy See continued to transact business with the Vatican and orders were issued by Victor Emmanuel that on all occasions Pius should receive the honours due to a monarch. The Government offered to provide largely for the Pope's material welfare, and he was given the free use of the Vatican, the Lateran, and the papal villa of Castel Gandolfo.

That, smarting under the loss of his Kingdom, Pius should have refused these proposals, was only to be expected. As regarded a civil list there was no need for him to put himself under any obligation to the enemy, as Peter's Pence would certainly make him independent of any State subsidy; the "captivity" of the Holy Father, properly exploited by the clergy all over the world, constituting a sound capital producing a splendid rent-roll. The more distant and gullible faithful imagined the Sovereign Pontiff as confined in a dungeon loaded with chains, and naturally wished to relieve his distress. The Republics of South America especially contributed enormous sums towards the fund, Ecuador even decreeing that half the State revenues should be devoted to the Pope's maintenance.

Poor Victor Emmanuel came in for endless abuse which he felt very keenly; he always hated having to play the part of spoliator but could not well help himself. It is a notorious fact that since the [p. 335] restoration of the temporal power in 1816, it was only maintained at the point of foreign bayonets; by the Austrians at first and the French later. The real temporal power had not survived the French occupation and the semblance of it, bolstered up by Metternich, could not endure for long. As to Napoleon III, he was merely, under the cloak of reverence for the Vicar of Christ, attempting to postpone the unification of Italy, which did not suit his views. All Italians were strenuously opposed to ecclesiastical rule and its ultimate collapse was inevitable.

Deep in his heart Pius must have felt some regard for Victor Emmanuel's individuality as is evidenced by several instances which occurred at the time of the King's death; but towards the Italian Monarchy he never disarmed; anathemas, complaints, indignant appeals to the faithful flooded the Catholic press; its readers never being allowed to forget the "Roman Question" and the duties it imposed on them. In Italy it only existed for a restricted set of the Roman aristocracy whose position or offices were so closely bound up with the Holy See that their solidarity was inevitable. As to the people and the great majority of the upper classes, they rallied enthusiastically round the flag of United Italy and were loyal to the King who had brought it into being.

If his late subjects harboured such vindictiveness against Pius IX as reports freely circulated abroad would have had the public believe, it in no way reflected on the new Government. It could have had no imaginable object in encouraging any hostile manifestations which could only bring onus and discredit on itself. The Italian Government was prepared to put a military escort at the Pope's disposal to ensure his safety at any time he might wish to leave the Vatican, but he stubbornly ignored the offer. And just as a few decades later martyrs to other causes refused nourishment while the outer world jeered or prayed, so did Pius IX refuse the freedom which, unlike food, could not be forcibly administered to him.

One cannot help nevertheless feeling great compassion for Pius IX during those last sad years of his pontificate. Considering how passionately he loved the limelight and how much he had revelled in his pseudo-popularity he must have drained the cup of bitterness when, from his Vatican fastness, ignored and almost forgotten by the masses, he heard the burst of acclamations which always greeted the [p. 336] appearance of the man who now reigned in his stead. On occasions of special public rejoicings such as the opening of the first Parliament; when the guns of S. Angelo boomed, the church bells pealed and a roar of cheering rose and fell, marking the progress of the King through the streets of his capital, the echoes of these demonstrations of loyalty to the new régime must have roused in the aged Pontiff unbearably sad memories of more fortunate days.

He settled down to his life of voluntary reclusion, however, without much apparent difficulty. His days were fully occupied with his religious duties, the granting of audiences, and the writing of numerous encyclicals. He had occasional moods of irritability and depression, but was usually cheerful and much addicted to the making of utterly childish puns. His disposition was essentially sociable, he could not bear solitude and was at his best when receiving the pilgrims who came in droves to kiss his feet and who never failed to succumb to his undeniable charm of manner. He was benevolent, impulsive and in a manner shrewd. His affections and sensibility, which had never been deep-rooted, wore very thin indeed as he advanced in age. The death of his minister Antonelli, who had been his constant companion for years, left him apparently quite unmoved, to the surprise and relief of his attendants, who had dreaded the ill-effects such a shock might have on his enfeebled constitution.

Pius IX and Victor Emmanuel I died within three weeks of one another early in 1878. The ceremonies of the King's funeral were scarcely over and the royal guests, whom the Pope had peremptorily refused to receive, had only just left Rome, when Pius followed his "sacrilegious despoiler" to the grave; the Pontiff's obsequies being attended with all the splendour and pageantry compatible with altered circumstances. And so were linked in death, as they must always be in history, the names of the first Sovereign of United Italy and the last Pope-King of Rome.

 Pius VII  Leo XII  Pius VIII  Gregory XVI  Pius IX

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