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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




William IV


Francis I
Ferdinand I

Ferdinand VII
Isabella II

AUSTRIA'S suzerainty over Italy, though gratifying to her national pride, had not proved an unmixed blessing, and the Papal States in particular caused Metternich endless anxiety. At each new conclave a hostile or unreliable pontiff might be elected who would refuse to consider, or fail to grasp, the vital importance of solidarity between the Papal States and the Lombardo-Venetian realm.

So far Metternich had kept the situation well in hand, neither Consalvi nor Leo XII's Government being in a position to defy him, and Albani acting for Pius VIII having proved absolutely dependable. But in the restive and unsettled condition of the Italian Peninsula, where revolutionary ideas were daily gaining ground, the new pontiff's personality might either precipitate a catastrophe or help to maintain the status quo. Austria seemed to have little interference to anticipate from the other Catholic Powers at this juncture, as they did not appear to be taking any active interest in the coming election. In his allocution to the Sacred College, the Marquis de Latour-Maubourg, representing the democratic Louis Philippe, informed their Eminences that France did not intend to make use of her right of veto in this circumstance and politely expressed the conviction that only a wise and virtuous pontiff could be elected by such a wise and virtuous assembly.

Pope Gregory XVI
From a print in the British Museum after a drawing by Delaroche
During the novemdiale, Albani, having singled out a Camaldulian monk called Cappellari as the best qualified candidate to fulfil Austria's purpose, had convened him to a secret interview at the Villa Albani to discuss the conditions of his elevation to the Holy See. Cappellari was an Austrian subject, had always shown great deference to Albani, and there was every reason to think he would be amenable to Austrian influence. The monk was not quite as simple, though, as Albani imagined, and having supporters in other parties was determined not to bind himself to any definite undertaking with the late and would-be future Secretary of State. He agreed verbally to all [p. 318] Albani's stipulations but stubbornly refused to commit himself to anything in writing. This self-assertive attitude struck Albani as suspicious and he broke off negotiations, immediately casting about him for a more tractable candidate.

During his twenty months of power, Albani had made himself generally unpopular and lost ground considerably with his followers. His Italian colleagues resented his unblushing servility towards Austria, and all the Bourbons had been outraged at the precipitancy with which he had recognised Louis Philippe as King of the French after the fall of Charles X. He had certainly served Metternich with exemplary fidelity, but was hated by the Austrian cardinals—as Gaisrück, their dean, bitterly resented the fact that Metternich had entrusted Albani instead of himself with the leadership of his party in the conclave, a resentment which was shared by all his compatriots. Furthermore he bad quarrelled with Lützow, the Austrian Ambassador, so that outside as well as within the conclave he would find latent enmity and ill-will.

Forty-five members of the Sacred College entered the Quirinal on December 10th, forming two opposing factions, one led by Albani, the other by Bernetti, both antagonists aiming at the secretaryship of state as personal objective. Bernetti was younger than his rival, and having been in office under Leo XII had therefore had his share of political experience. He foresaw the coming death struggle between democracy and absolutism and had even been known to speak of the fall of the temporal power in a more or less distant future as practically inevitable. His was certainly the stronger party of the two, especially as it stood for a change of régime always so welcome to the suffragists.

Albani had now decided on a prelate called Giustiniani to take the place of the disappointing Cappellari, and he sent one of his conclavists in the dead of night to inform his followers of the fact and give them orders for the next morning's scrutiny. So as to ensure his passing unnoticed Albani had forbidden the messenger to carry a light, with the result that he crept by mistake into the cubicle of one of the Spanish cardinals, who, having realised the portent of the whispered message, rushed to his leader with the news. No candidate of Albani's could be welcome to Spain, and the Spanish veto having been cautiously left in blank to be made use of at the leader's [p. 319] discretion, he hastily filled in Giustiniani's name and presented it to the Dean of the Sacred College just before the morning scrutiny. The routed candidate made an impassioned protest against the arbitrary interference of the Powers and, refusing to be pacified, insisted on leaving the Quirinal.

Albani had rashly discounted the danger of any veto being produced in this conclave, but Spain did not intend to let her prerogative lapse, and used it much in the same spirit as a right-of-way is closed to traffic once a year to assert its legal ownership.

Meanwhile the weeks were slipping by and the Court of Vienna, which was waiting for a dispensation to proceed with the marriage preliminaries pending between one of the Archdukes and a Princess of Naples, remonstrated with the Sacred College on their procrastination. The Roman people also showed signs of impatience, which they expressed by perpetually exploding squibs round the Quirinal, which frightened the old cardinals out of their wits, much to the amusement of their younger colleagues. The dénouement, however, notwithstanding all obstacles, was not far distant, as Cappellari had by now managed to enlist Bernetti's support, and his election was only a matter of days. But Albani did not consider himself beaten yet, and when a thieving conclavist sold him a letter written by Bernetti to Cappellari giving him last-moment instructions and thus exposing their plans, he made a supreme effort to defeat them. Seeing no other means of averting the danger he decided that the only solution consisted in becoming Pope himself. He therefore called on all his adherents to attend a secret meeting which would enable him to ascertain what his chances of success really were.

The Quirinal being riddled with spies, Lützow, as might be expected, was informed within a few hours of Albani's new scheme. Now not only was the Austrian Ambassador a personal enemy of Albani's, but he also knew that Metternich, much as he valued the late Secretary of State's services and much as he desired him to retain the post under the future Pontiff, would certainly disapprove of his own elevation to the Apostolic See. Metternich had no illusions as to Albani's reliability where his own interests were not concerned, and as Sovereign Pontiff he might adopt quite a different policy. Lützow therefore took it upon himself to write a note to Albani threatening him with Austria's disavowal if he persisted in his project. Albani was [p. 320] not powerful enough to take such a risk and fell back on the candidature of Pacca, a prelate as old and decrepit as Pius VIII had been, and the battle now entered on its last and decisive phase. The victory would be not so much with the candidate who carried off the papal crown as with the one who secured the secretaryship of state.

There was, as we have seen, no loyalty to Albani in the Austrian faction and from that quarter came the blow which finally destroyed him. Gaisrück and Lützow between them, unaware that Cappellari was Bernetti's nominee and that they had been prompted to do so by one of his confederates, persuaded Metternich to give the wily monk his covert support. Betrayed by his own followers, Albani naturally failed to secure the necessary majority for Pacca, and on February 1st, 1831, Cappellari was elected Pope, choosing the name of Gregory XVI.

The new Pontiff was tall and lusty, with a coarse rubicund countenance; the typical gormandising, bibulous, hoydenish monk of the irreverent French novelist come to life in the XIXth century. He lacked both poise and dignity, and his favourite recreation consisted in playing blind-man's-buff with the least aged of the cardinals. So roughly did he treat his unfortunate playfellows that in his exuberance he knocked down Cardinal Soglia one fine day, the shock being so violent that the victim almost died of it. In another mood he would order all the palace servants to be assembled in the courtyard and from a window would throw down handfuls of money to them, laughing till his sides ached to watch the ensuing scrum. The only person he showed any affection for was his barber Morrone, who was his most trusted adviser and confidant. This man and his wife lived in the Quirinal, where the couple occupied a luxurious apartment, and the christenings of their numerous progeny were made occasions of important Court functions to which the Sacred College and the diplomatic corps were solemnly bidden. The Romans of course made the Pope's predilection for his barber's offspring the subject of endless jokes and pasquinades of the usual disrespectful nature.

Bernetti did not remain long in office—Austria disapproved of his liberal tendencies and Gregory, having neither the strength of mind nor the loyalty to resist the pressure put upon him by Metternich, asked Bernetti to resign his post. The indignant Secretary of State flatly refused to comply with this demand, which he denounced [p. 321] as violating a contract to which, in honour, the ungrateful Pontiff stood committed. Gregory said no more, as indeed there was nothing much he could say, but as soon as Bernetti had left the presence His Holiness wrote him a letter officially accepting his resignation. This he sent by the Dean of the Sacred College, who was also entrusted with another to Cardinal Lambruschini notifying him of his appointment to the secretaryship of state. Bernetti had perforce to accept his dismissal, his resentment at such a flagrant breach of faith being perhaps tempered by the knowledge that Gregory had given himself the most rigid and tyrannical of monitors.

Lambruschini's appearance was in perfect conformity with his disposition. His tall gaunt frame never relaxed, his haughtiness never unbent. He was gifted with a clear perceptive intellect and his nature was determined and steely. His diplomatic calling had taken him to many Courts, he knew the world and despised it. His policy was ultra-conservative with an avowed hatred for France, whence had come the epidemic of sedition, and his attitude was that of an inexorable disciplinarian.

No doubt Austria had imposed him on Gregory, for it seems incredible that the Pope should himself have selected this prelate whose aims, tastes and character were so diametrically opposed to his own, as the holder of an office which brought them into perpetual contact. On the other hand Gregory may have been personally impressed by those very characteristics which he himself lacked so utterly and have acted on an impulse of genuine esteem and admiration. Whatever the reasons which had prompted his nomination, Lambruschini soon gained complete ascendancy over his incompetent Sovereign, who was so overawed by his formidable Minister that he agreed to all his suggestions before the words were well out of his mouth, and hastened to sign all documents put before him, scarcely daring to read them. If he had had too much to drink, which was not a rare occurrence, the mere sight of Lambruschini's red robe would sober him in an instant.

And yet Gregory XVI was not unprincipled nor was he a nonentity. He had the reputation of being an able theologian and had written several scholarly works on the subject; but he had no talent for statecraft and not a trace of political acumen. He was feckless, too easily influenced by his familiar and vulgar associates, [p. 322] and more than willing to let another shoulder the responsibilities and cares of government. So Lambruschini ruled and time hung heavily on the Pontiff's hands.

Morrone, the barber, searching for some means of amusing and occupying his master, now had an inspiration. Why should not the Holy Father take a trip through the Papal States? He could worship at miraculous shrines, visit many places of interest under pleasant and favourable circumstances, and his travels would bring him into direct contact with his people. The Pope was so delighted with the notion that he actually defied Lambruschini, who disapproved of the plan, and triumphantly asserted his determination to please himself in the matter. The Secretary of State of course had to remain at his post, and the Pontiff, like a truant schoolboy, freed from censorious and oppressive supervision, enjoyed himself whole-heartedly. His peregrinations lasted six weeks and cost the Treasury 400,000 crowns, which fact did not deter him from renewing the experience in 1843 with equal satisfaction and at no less an expenditure.

He welcomed every opportunity of getting away from Rome and would prolong his residence at Castel Gandolfo far beyond the customary limits. He grew yearly less in touch with State matters and more absorbed by the material satisfactions in which circumstances allowed him to indulge. Epicurean gratifications assumed tremendous importance in his life, and he would travel miles to taste a celebrated local dish or to enjoy one of the famous maigre dinners cooked by Capuchin monks, especially by those of the Genzano monastery. All his princely neighbours in the country, such as the Torlonia, Barberini and Orsini, were expected to provide at least one banquet a season for him, and as the expense of entertaining His Holiness and his entire retinue was stupendous, the Sovereign's condescension in gracing their boards was, one presumes, only moderately prized by his subjects.

Meanwhile Lambruschini governed with an iron hand, and conspiracies, risings and general discontent were the result. The insurrections at Viterbo in 1836, in various parts of the Legations in 1840, at Ravenna in 1843 and Rimini in 1845, were followed by wholesale executions and severe sentences to the hulks, hard labour or exile, but still the country seethed with unrest.

On June 1st, 1846, Gregory died after a very short illness. His [p. 323] end was peaceful and edifying. Under different circumstances he might have been a good Pontiff but the times in which he was called to his high dignity were times of transition and ferment that he had not the breadth of mind or ability to cope with. Nothing in his upbringing or past experience had fitted him to assume the crushing responsibilities, or to face the problems, which beset the papal government at such a crucial period of Italian history. He did not attempt a task of which he knew himself incapable, and, thus reduced to the status of a figurehead, with a figurehead's empty hours of leisure, and encouraged thereunto by his vulgar and sycophantic entourage, he allowed his coarser instincts free play. But it must be borne in mind that the conventual code of propriety, in his days, dealt very indulgently with gastronomical excesses and looked upon such transgressions as mere peccadilloes, the penalty for which rested more appropriately with outraged Nature than with a higher tribunal.

 Pius VII  Leo XII  Pius VIII  Gregory XVI  Pius IX

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