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Papal conclave, 1800
Piux VII
Previous: Pius VI (died 29 August 1799)
Next: Pius VII (elected 14 March 1800)
Dates: 30 November 1799–
14 March 1800
Cardinals present: 35
Cardinals absent: 11
Secretary: Ercole Consalvi
Imperial commissioner: Franziskus Herzan von Harras
Vetoes (2): Carlo Bellisomi
Hyacinthe Sigismond Gerdil

The Papal conclave of 1799–1800 followed the death of Pope Pius VI on 29 August 1799 and led to the selection as pope of Giorgio Barnaba Luigi Chiaramonti, who took the name Pius VII, on 14 March 1800. This conclave, the last conclave to take place outside Rome, was held in Venice. This period was marked by uncertainty for the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church following the invasion of the Papal States and abduction of Pius VI under the French Directory.


Historical context


Pope Pius VI

Pius VI's reign had been marked by tension between his authority and that of the European monarchs and other institutions, both secular and ecclesiastical. This was largely due to his moderate liberal and reforming pretences. At the beginning of his pontificate he promised to continue the work of his predecessor, Pope Clement XIV, in whose 1773 brief Dominus ac Redemptor, the dissolution of the Jesuits was announced. Pro-Jesuit powers remained in support of Pius, thinking him secretly more inclined to the Society than Clement. The Archduchy of Austria proved a threat when its ruler, Emperor Joseph II, made internal reforms which conflicted with some of the power of the Papacy. Further, German archbishops had shown independence at the 1786 Congress of Ems, but were soon brought into line.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution Pius was compelled to see the independent Gallican Church suppressed, the pontifical and ecclesiastical possessions in France confiscated and an effigy of himself burnt by the populace at the Palais Royal. The murder of the republican agent Hugo Basseville in the streets of Rome (January 1793) gave new ground of offence; the papal court was charged with complicity by the French Convention, and Pius threw in his lot with the First Coalition against the French First Republic.

The State of the See


In 1796 Napoléon Bonaparte invaded the Italian Peninsula, defeated the papal troops and occupied Ancona and Loreto. He did not continue and conquer Rome, as the French Directory ordered, being aware that this would not win favour among the French and Italian populations. Pius sued for peace, which was granted at Tolentino on 19 February 1797. The Treaty of Tolentino transferred Romagna to Bonaparte's newly formed Cispadane Republic (founded in December 1796 out of a merger of Reggio, Modena, Bologna and Ferrara) in a hope that the French would not further pursue the Papal lands. Several reforms were made in the French-controlled regions, where much property of the Church was confiscated.

Several factors led to the complete occupation of Rome by the French. Firstly, the entrance of the Russian army into Northern Italy pushed the French back. Secondly, on December 28, 1797, in a riot created by some Italian and French revolutionists, the French general Mathurin-Léonard Duphot of the French embassy was killed and a new pretext furnished for invasion.

Louis Alexandre Berthier marched to Rome, entered it unopposed on 13 February 1798, and, proclaiming a Roman Republic, demanded of the pope the renunciation of his temporal authority. Upon his refusal he was taken prisoner, and on February 20 was escorted from the Vatican to Siena, and thence to the Certosa near Florence. The French declaration of war against Ferdinand III, Grand Duke of Tuscany led to Pius' removal, though by this time deathly ill, by way of Parma, Piacenza, Turin and Grenoble to the citadel of Valence, where he died six weeks later, on August 29, 1799.

The Conclave

With the loss of the Vatican and the pope's other temporal power, the cardinals were left in a remarkable position. They were forced to hold the conclave in Venice, making the conclave the last to be held outside Rome. This followed an ordinance issued by Pius VI in 1798, in which was stated that the conclave, in such a situation, would be held in the city with the greatest number of Cardinals among the population. The Benedictine San Giorgio Monastery, Venice, was the chosen location of the conclave. The city, along with other northern Italian lands, was at the time held by the Archduchy of Austria, whose ruler Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor agreed to foot the costs of the conclave.

San Giorgio, Venice: location of the conclave

Despite beginning on 30 November 1799 the assembled cardinals could not overcome a stalemate between three candidates until March 1800. Thirty-four Cardinals were present at the start, with the late arrival of Cardinal Franziskus Herzan von Harras who was also the imperial commissioner and used the imperial veto of Francis II twice. Ercole Consalvi was almost unanimously voted as secretary of the conclave; he would prove an influential figure in the election of the new pope. Carlo Bellisomi seemed the sure winner, with wide support from the Cardinals, but his unpopularity among the Austrian Cardinals, who preferred Mattei, subjected him to the veto. The conclave added a third possible candidate in Cardinal Hyacinthe Sigismond Gerdil CRSP but was also vetoed by Austria. As the conclave was in the third month Cardinal Maury, a neutral, suggested Chiaramonti who, with the support of the powerful Conclave secretary, was elected.

Barnaba Luigi Count Chiaramonti was, at the time, the bishop of Imola in the Subalpine Republic. He had stayed in place after the assumption of his diocese by Bonaparte's army in 1797 and famously made a speech in which he stated that good Christians could make good democrats, a speech described as "Jacobin" by Bonaparte himself. Though he could not save ecclesiastical reform and confiscation under the new rule, he did prevent the church being dissolved, unlike that in France.

Due to its temporary siting in Venice, the Papal coronation was hurried. Having no papal treasures on hand the noblewomen of the city manufactured the famous papier-mâché papal tiara. It was adorned with their own jewels. Chiaramonti was declared Pope Pius VII and crowned on 21 March in a cramped monastery church.

A new pope

Pius VII by David

By the Battle of Marengo on 14 June 1800 The French regained Northern Italy from the forces of Austria. Following this promotion, Bonaparte decided to recognise the new Pope and restored the Papal States to those borders set out at Tolentino.

The new Pope headed for Rome, which he entered to the pleasure of the population on 3 July. Fearing further invasion he decreed the Papal States should remain neutral between Napoleonic Italy in the north and the Kingdom of Naples in the south. At the time the latter was ruled by Ferdinand III of Sicily/Ferdinand IV of Naples, a member of the House of Bourbon.

Ercole Consalvi, the secretary of the conclave, ascended to the College of Cardinals and became the Secretary of the Papal State on 11 August. On 15 July France officially rerecognised Catholicism as its majority (not state) religion in the Concordat of 1801, and the Church was granted a measure of freedom with a Gallician constitution of the clergy. The Concordat further recognised the Papal States and that which it had confiscated and sold during the occupation of the area. In 1803 the reinstatement of the Papal States was made official by the Treaty of Luneville.

Napoleon pursued secularisation of smaller, independent lands and, through diplomatic pressure, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire (1806). The relations between the Church and the First French Empire declined following the Pope's refusal to divorce Jerome Bonaparte and Elizabeth Patterson in 1805. The newly-crowned Emperor of the French restarted his expansionist policies and assumed control over Ancona, Naples (following the Battle of Austerlitz, making his brother Joseph Bonaparte its new monarch), Pontecorvo and Benevento. The changes angered the pope, and following his refusal to accept them, Napoleon, in February 1808, demanded he subsidise France's military conflict with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The pope again refused, leading to further confiscations of territory such as Urbino, Ancona and Macerata. Finally in 1809, on 17 May, the Papal states were formally annexed to the First French Empire and Pius VII was taken to the Château de Fontainebleau.

A unique conclave

A graph showing numbers of cardinals present and absent, for conclaves since 1700

The conclave of 1800 had several unique features and occurrences which render it quite estranged from not only many of its predecessor conclaves, but also all those successive gatherings to date. Foremost, it is the last to be held outside Rome, in this case Venice.

As the graph on the left demonstrates, the conclave was conducted with the fewest cardinals present since 1534, a total of thirty-four. Indeed, due to the political situation in which the church found itself at the time it had just 45 cardinals in total, the lowest number since the 31 of 1513.

At 105 days (30 November–14 March) this also happens to be the longest conclave to date since its immediate predecessor, which lasted from 5 October 1774 until 15 February 1775 — a total of 133 days.

The extent to which the successor was debated, and the contentiousness of certain nominations, may be seen in the fact that the Austrian Emperor presented the veto twice — a unique occurrence in the history of the conclave; the Empire then included Venice, and had already denied the use of St. Mark's to the Cardinals for declining to accept the Austrian candidate. Typically, a single veto would have been used by a represented kingdom, to ensure that a particular objectionable candidate would not succeed.

List of participants

List of absentees



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