which followed the death of Pope Clement XIV
on September 22, 1774 lasted several months and only in February 1775 the cardinals elected Giovanni Angelo Braschi, who chose to be called Pope Pius VI, maybe owing to a connection with the Ghislieri, the family of Pope Pius V.
J. W. Goethe, the German writer who travelled to Rome in October 1786 made the following remark about the conditions of the Papal State:
One look is sufficient to show that the people (of Tuscany) enjoyed a lucky succession of good governments. The most striking thing about Tuscany is that all the public works, the roads and the bridges, look beautiful and imposing. They are at one and the same time efficient and neat, combining usefulness with grace, and everywhere one observes the care with which things are looked after, a refreshing contrast to the Papal States, which seem to keep alive only because the earth refuses to swallow them. (Italian Journey)
Many parts of Italy knew a significant economic development during the second half of the XVIIIth century: the good administration of Austria in Lombardy and that of the Austrian dynasties in Parma, Modena and Tuscany improved communication and trade, favoured the development of advanced farming techniques, reduced army related expense and introduced effective and fair judiciary and fiscal systems. In 1786 the Grand Duke of Tuscany, influenced by Cesare Beccaria's book On Crimes and Punishments, became the first sovereign to end the death penalty; he also promoted the execution of profitable public works such as the drainage of Val di Chiana.
The comparison between Tuscany and the Papal State was so unfavourable for the latter that Pope Pius VI decided to embark upon a major plan of public works aimed at reclaiming the Pontine marshes which were located to the south of Rome (see a page on Terracina). Results were rather poor, but Luigi Onesti Braschi, the nephew of the pope, made a fortune by being involved in many dealings related to the execution of the drainage.
In 1782 Pope Pius VI visited Vienna in an attempt to convince Emperor Joseph II not to go ahead with his religious reforms. In his journey to Vienna the pope stopped in many towns and paid a visit to Venice; he was heartily welcomed everywhere, but overall his journey seemed to many a sort of going to Canossa with reversed roles. Emperor Joseph II and his successor, his brother Leopold II (previously Grand Duke Leopold I of Tuscany) went ahead with their plans to put the clergy entirely under the control of the lay power.
Pope Pius VI tried to restore the papal charisma by increasing the number and the pomp of
religious celebrations. J. W. Goethe attended the 1786 Christmas High Mass and so described it in Italian Journey: On Christmas Day I saw the Pope with the assembled clergy in
St Peter's, where he celebrated High Mass.
At times he sat on his throne, at others he stood in front of it.
It is a spectacle unique in its kind, magnificent and
dignified. But I am so old a protestant Diogenes that the effect on me of this
splendour was more negative than positive. Like my pious predecessor, I should like to say to these spiritual conquerors of the world: Do not come between me and the sun of sublime art and simple humanity. Goethe saw the pope also at a ceremony for the Feast of All Souls (November 2, 1786) and described him with these words: .. the Holy Father (was)
a beautiful and venerable figure of a man.
Pope Pius VI restored the Obelisk of Augustus and relocated it in Piazza di Montecitorio; he also placed two other obelisks in Piazza del Quirinale and in front of Trinità dei Monti; it clearly was an attempt to imitate the grandeur of some popes of the past.
The growing interest for the ancient sculptures led him to redesign most of Palazzo del Belvedere to place the masterpieces of the papal collections in an appropriate and more logical way: for this reason he assembled in the Animal Room all the sculptures portraying animals.
The French Revolution which started in July 1789 soon led to laws limiting the role of the Church: in November all religious properties were confiscated;
in February 1790 all religious orders and congregations were abolished; in July 1790 a decree established that bishops should be elected by general constituencies; in November 1790 all members of the clergy
were asked to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution.
In March and April 1791 Pope Pius VI reacted by declaring schismatic those members of the
clergy who had complied with this requirement. His bulls were publicly burned by the revolutionaries and
eventually the National Assembly declared that
Avignon and the nearby other papal possessions were an integral part of the French Nation.
Appeals by the pope, by members of the French royal family and by cardinals who had fled France, fell flat as the other European nations were reluctant to intervene; overall they were pleased at the destruction of the power of France and of her influence in Europe by her internal disorders.
In the end, France declared war first, with the Assembly voting for war on Austria and its allies in April 1792. Pope Pius VI joined the wide coalition (the first of a long series) aimed at restoring the Ancien Régime, the political and social system which existed in France before the Revolution.
The Papal State was very weak from a military viewpoint, but Pope Pius VI was confident the war would have been fought in France and the trained troops of the coalition would have easily defeated the disorganized armies raised by the revolutionary government. It seemed an easy mission to accomplish.
Things turned out differently and in 1796 a French army led by Napoleon Bonaparte, a young general, made a daring expedition across the Alps, defeated the Sardinian troops and then the Austrian ones and occupied Milan; Bonaparte then advanced eastwards and in June laid siege to Mantua, the strongest Austrian base in Italy: his troops invaded the Papal State and on June 23 Pope Pius VI, in order to obtain a ceasefire, agreed to surrender the papal territories of Bologna and Ferrara, to pay a large sum as a compensation for war damage and to send to Paris a list of works of art.
In February 1797 Bonaparte claimed that the pope had resumed his alliance with Austria and moved towards Rome: the pope in a desperate attempt to stop him agreed to surrender all his northern territories and to pay an even larger amount (Peace of Tolentino). The gigantic statue of solid silver portraying St. Ignatius in il Gesù was melted down to make up the silver due to France.
Pope Pius VI placed large coats of arms to celebrate minor repairs or renovations: occasionally they were of a gigantic size
(see that in S. Spirito in Sassia): he had a complex coat of arms showing
Borea (a wind) blowing on lilies: the image in the background of this page shows this detail.
The main building erected by Pope Pius VI was Sacrestia di S. Pietro, while his nephew enlarged an existing palace near Piazza Navona; the renovated building was designed by Giuseppe Valadier in a Neo-Renaissance style which became a model for many XIXth century palaces.
Pope Pius VI is associated with many sacred images which behaved in a miraculous way when Bonaparte invaded the Papal States: the pope granted special indulgences to those who prayed at these images (see madonnella a Borgo Pio, that opposite Arco dei Pantani, that near Palazzo Mattei Paganica and Madonna dell'Archetto).
The ideals of the Revolution greatly helped the Republican armies at war against the various Italian sovereigns.
French troops were not seen by many Italians as invaders, but rather as liberators from the tyranny of the local rulers:
rebellions in many towns favoured the advance of the French army; these rebellions were
often organized by French agents; one such agent tried to raise the Romans against the pope, but in the course of the riots he was leading he was killed by papal soldiers: the event gave the
pretext to Bonaparte to send French troops from Naples (which had fallen into their hands a few months earlier) to Rome.
They occupied the city in February 1798, almost without opposition; the Romans who believed in the revolutionary ideals, gathered in Foro Romano and declared the restoration of the Roman Republic.
French troops sacked and looted the papal residence at Palazzo del Quirinale: according to an account of the event not even the doors were left in place.
Pope Pius VI was deposed and sent first to Siena and then to a monastery near Florence; in 1799 the situation of the French in Italy worsened: Bonaparte was involved in a long campaign in Egypt and in southern Italy Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo led the Armata Cristiana della Santa Fede (Christian Army of the Holy Faith) to regain control of Naples; the French decided to move the pope outside Italy and the old man, accompanied by a few priests, was transferred to Grenoble and later on to Valence: in this town Pope Pius VI died after a few days: his pontificate lasted more than 24 years, thus confirming the general thought that no pope would stay in office for 25 years.
In May 1799 the French were forced out of Naples and in September they had to leave Rome which was occupied by troops of the King of Naples.
Accademia di S. Luca (guild of the Roman artists): project for a military academy
One of the first decisions of the Roman Republic was to pull down the gates of the Ghetto
where the Jews had to return every night. The coats of arms of the popes in Castel Sant'Angelo were all erased by French soldiers.
Although the move from Baroque to Neoclassicism occurred before the French Revolution, the changes in society and public opinion caused by this event strengthened the view that all Italian and Roman art after Michelangelo had been an uninterrupted period of decadence. Even the young architects who submitted their works to the periodic competitions organized by Accademia di S. Luca were careful to show they had not been influenced by the "bad taste" of Bernini and Borromini (see how the fortune of Borromini in the tourist guides evolved during the XIXth century).
The death of Pope Pius VI was not immediately followed by a
conclave; only towards the end of the year Austria took the initiative to promote a meeting of the cardinals which took place in the Venetian monastery of S. Giorgio Maggiore (in 1797 Bonaparte notwithstanding the fact that the old Republic
had declared its neutrality, put an end to its independency and then gave it to Austria in return for Lombardy).
The French were driven out of Italy by a Russian army and Austria thought that the election of a pope could help to restore the old political situation. The cardinals however spent more than four months before agreeing to elect Cardinal Barnaba Chiaramonti, who chose to be called Pope Pius VII. The Austrian emperor wanted the pope to set his residence in Vienna, but Pope Pius VII insisted that he should return to Rome, which he eventually did on July 3, 1800.
On that day however the situation had already changed; Bonaparte on June 14 won a decisive battle at Marengo: the news of the victory was described in Giacomo Puccini's Tosca:
Sciarrone (Gendarme - bass): Eccellenza! quali nuove!... (Excellency, dreadful tidings)
Scarpia (Chief of the Police - baritone): Che vuol dir quell'aria afflitta? (What has happened, tell me quickly)
Sciarrone: Un messaggio di sconfitta... (The royal troops have been defeated)
Scarpia: Che sconfitta? Come? Dove? (How defeated? When? Where?)
Sciarrone: A Marengo... (At Marengo ..)
Scarpia: Tartaruga! (Wretched dullard!)
Sciarrone: Bonaparte è vincitor! (Bonaparte won the day!)
Scarpia: Melas... (Melas - the Austrian commander)
Sciarrone: No! Melas è in fuga!... (Melas was routed)
Cavaradossi (painter and Italian patriot - tenor) : Vittoria! Vittoria! (Victory! Victory!)
L'alba vindice appar (Thou Spirit of vengeance awake!)
che fa gli empi tremar! (Let tyrants and myrmidons quake!)
Libertà sorge, crollan tirannidi! (Freedom! brandish thy glaive and strike down thy enemies!)
Del sofferto martîr (Raise thy clarion voice)
me vedrai qui gioir... (Bid a sad world rejoice)
Il tuo cor trema, o Scarpia, carnefice! (Tremble Scarpia butcherly hypocrite!)
Tosca - Act II - Scene in Palazzo Farnese - English Libretto by W. Beatty-Kingston.
Pope Pius VII assisted by his Secretary of State Cardinal Ercole Consalvi tried to keep the Papacy and the
Papal State out of the political and military turmoil: he proclaimed an amnesty for those who had held positions in the Roman Republic administration;
he entered lengthy negotiations with Bonaparte, by now the political leader (First Consul) of France, to sign an agreement
which restored Catholicism in France and its client republic in Italy
(which adopted the French tricolour flag - with green instead of blue).
In 1804 Bonaparte felt he was ready to take absolute power in France and managed to become Emperor Napoleon: for the coronation ceremony he summoned the pope to Paris, although he crowned himself before crowning his wife. A similar ceremony occurred one year later at Milan where Napoleon was crowned with the iron crown of Lombardy, which was used by the Germanic conquerors of northern Italy. The supremacy of Napoleon on the continent was increased by his victories at Austerlitz in December 1805 against the Third Coalition and at Jena and Friedland in 1807 against the Fourth Coalition.
Napoleon issued a series of decrees which brought into effect the Continental System which was aimed at reducing the power of Britain by closing French-controlled territory to its trade.
Pope Pius VII refused to comply with these decrees claiming the independency of the Papal State.
Although some popes had already taken initiatives for the restoration and maintenance of
the monuments of Ancient Rome it is only during the pontificate of Pope Pius VII that this activity was seen as requiring a systematic approach and as not needing any longer to be
justified from a religious viewpoint.
Pope Pius VII was even prepared to sacrifice some churches and monasteries to bring to light the ruins of Trajan's Market; a major intervention safeguarded the outer structure of Colosseo; excavations were conducted in the Roman Forum which was no longer used as a cattle market; the tombs along Via Appia Antica were restored and their inscriptions were reconstructed; Arco di Tito was freed from the adjoining medieval walls and later on brought back to its original appearance. Some of these restorations took many years and were completed during the second French occupation of Rome or even after the pope returned to power.
The artist who stood like a new Michelangelo during this very difficult period was Antonio Canova, whose services were requested by all European sovereigns: he designed funerary monuments for the Austrian rulers as well as for the British King, he worked for Napoleon and for Pope Pius VII (who bought a statue of Perseus to replace Apollo del Belvedere, which was sent to Paris).
In 1809 Napoleon defeated again the Austrians at Wagram (Fifth Coalition) and imposed harsh conditions on the loser which
included his marriage to Marie Louise, the daughter of Emperor Francis.
While he was still fighting the Austrians the French Emperor felt he could no longer tolerate the lack of support showed by Pope Pius VII and he declared the annexation of Rome to the French Empire. The pope reacted by excommunicating Napoleon. On the night of July 5, 1809 French troops assaulted Palazzo del Quirinale: the papal guards were instructed not to oppose resistance. The pope was arrested and transferred to France: he always refused to officially set his residence in Paris and for many years he lived in Fontainebleau in a condition close to house arrest.
Rome was declared second capital of the French Empire and the child Napoleon had from his second wife was given the title of King of Rome. Notwithstanding these honorific aspects Rome was entirely ruled according to the wishes of the central government in Paris. Some members of the great Roman families accepted positions in the French administration: Prince Camillo Borghese married Paolina, a sister of Napoleon and sold his collections of paintings and statues to France; Luigi Braschi Onesti, the nephew of Pope Pius VI, jumped on the winner's wagon and was appointed Mayor of Rome.
The French introduced radical reforms: the Napoleonic Code replaced the papal very messy judicial system; the Italian hour was replaced by the European one and the traditional systems of measurements were replaced by the metric system. The sort of welfare state which existed in Rome and which was based on religious charities was dissolved; conscription was introduced; the education system was entirely redesigned; burial in churches was forbidden.
The Romans used to walk in the gardens of Villa Borghese which were always
open to them owing to a clause of Cardinal Scipione Borghese's will. The French administration however felt that Rome ought to have a proper public walk:
the site chosen was il Pincio, near Villa Medici which was acquired by France in 1804. The northern part of this site was overlooking Piazza del Popolo and eventually
the project for the walk included also the redesign of the piazza.
Many XVIIIth century travellers described with admiration this piazza and the view of the three streets departing from it; however they also noted that the buildings surrounding it were not appropriate for the entrance to the Eternal City.
Pope Pius VI commissioned a project to Giuseppe Valadier who recommended to build on both sides of the piazza two huge barracks preceded by a double portico. Due to political events nothing was done but the project was again considered during the French administration. Louis-Martin Berthault, the Imperial architect and landscaper, negatively reviewed the project and suggested a large open space linked to the gardens he had in mind for il Pincio. Eventually Berthault's project was endorsed by Napoleon; the gardens were called Jardins du Grand César and a gigantic ancient statue of Rome was to be placed on the terrace overlooking Piazza del Popolo (it is now in the private gardens of Villa Medici). The whole decoration of the alleys leading to the main terrace was a reminder of Ancient Rome and this explains the presence of copies of the Dacian prisoners of Arco di Costantino and of decorated columns celebrating the naval victories of Ancient Rome.
Piazza del Popolo: building and fountain designed by Giuseppe Valadier
Valadier prepared an entirely new project for Piazza del Popolo; it involved the construction of four
rather dull identical buildings at the corners of the square; Valadier also relocated the existing fountain and designed a new one around the obelisk.
The completion of both the piazza and the gardens took place after the end of the French administration.
After the defeat of Napoleon in Russia and at Lipsia,
ambassadors from the major powers met in Vienna in September 1814 to redraw the continent's political map.
The Papal State returned under the rule of the pope,
with the exception of Avignon and the nearby territories which remained part of France.
Pope Pius VII returned to Rome and abolished most of the reforms introduced by the French; he restored the Jesuit order and imposed to the Jews to live again in the Ghetto. The attempt to impose a Conservative Order, in which peace and stability were traded for liberties and civil rights did not take into account how deeply the Roman society had changed between 1798 and 1814. In addition the northern part of the Papal State had been part of an Italian Kingdom, although only for a few years and under the strict supervision of France; many people of Bologna and Romagna felt that being tied to Rome did not make sense any longer; strong anticlerical feelings undermined the papal authority.
In 1821, members of Carboneria, a secret society calling for constitutional reforms and Italian unity, were arrested in many parts of Italy. The pope issued a formal condemnation of these societies and of their objectives; he became more and more instrumental to the design of the Austrian Prime Minister Prince von Metternich for ensuring the stability of Europe by preventing revolutionary movements.
Pope Pius VII bore Napoleon no grudge; the emperor's mother settled in Rome in Palazzo d'Aste and Lucien Bonaparte, one of the emperor's brothers, conducted archaeological excavations near Canino for many years.
Foligno: S. Nicolò: 1492 missing "predella" of the polyptych by Niccolò Alunno
Pope Pius VII and some of the wealthiest Roman families tried to obtain the return of
the many works of art which had left the country in the previous years.
The Borghese managed to reconstitute their painting galleries, but were unable to recover
their ancient statues and for this reason they started a campaign of excavations in their
possessions to find "new" ones. Antonio Canova, on behalf of the pope, raised the issue with the French King Louis XVIII. The king, who had been a fierce opponent of
the Revolution and of Napoleon, nevertheless claimed that the documents (treaties, confiscations, purchases) legally supported the right of his country to retain the works of art.
Eventually a compromise was reached, occasionally at the detriment of the work of art itself: a
polyptych by Niccolò Alunno ended up by being divided from its predella which remained at the Louvre: Pope Pius VII placed a panel of the same size of the missing piece: a lengthy inscription
explained how in 1812 the whole work of art was sent to Paris and how in 1817
its upper part returned to Foligno.
On July 16, 1823 a fire destroyed most of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, but the news was not given to the ailing pope who died on August 20, without knowing that the historic and artistic heritage of Rome had received such a blow.
The following links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page:
J. W. Goethe in the Roman Campagna by J. H. W. Tischbein (1786) - Städelsches Kunstinstitut - Frankfurt.
Pope Pius VI's visit to the Pontine Marshes by Louis Ducros (1786) - Museo di Roma - Rome.
Death of Pope Pius VI engraving by Angelo Campanella (1805).
Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker by Antonio Canova (1809) - Museo di Brera - Milan.
Works by Antonio Canova between 1801 and 1815.
Consecration of Emperor Napoleon I by Jacques-Louis David (1805-07) - Musée du Louvre - Paris.
Next page: Part III: Modern Rome
XI - The Agony of the Papal State
Previous pages: Part I: Ancient Rome:
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
X - A Century of Turmoil (180-285)
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine
XII - The End of Ancient Rome
Part II: Medieval Rome:
I - Byzantine Rome
II - The Iron Age of Rome
III - The Investiture Controversy
IV - The Rise and Fall of Theocratic Power
V - The Popes Leave Rome
VI - From Chaos to Recovery
Part III: Modern Rome:
I - Rome's Early Renaissance
II - Splendour and Crisis
III - A Period of Change
IV - The Counter-Reformation
V - Early Baroque Rome
VI - The Age of Bernini
VII - The Loss of the Leadership in the Arts
VIII - A Sleeping City
IX - Grand Tour Rome