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When the Pope Was in Prison

Ambrogio A. Caiani

On the night of 5 July 1809 French forces kidnapped Barnabà Chiaramonti, Pope Pius VII, from his private apartments in the Quirinal Palace in Rome. He would spend the following five years as a prisoner of Napoleon. Ultimately, the Pope refused to renounce his central Italian kingdom, nor would he accept the emperor’s claim that he could appoint all bishops within his empire without Papal approval. Pius was taken to the Ligurian town of Savona, where he would spend almost three years in exile. Despite being isolated from the College of Cardinals and other church leaders, he still managed to communicate with the Catholic world through an elaborate clandestine network that smuggled his messages out of Savona. From 1809 to 1812 he denounced all bishops who accepted appointments from the imperial government and encouraged passive resistance among Catholics. During this time, the military authorities in Liguria became worried by the growing presence of Royal Naval vessels in Savona’s harbor. They feared the British might attempt to rescue the imprisoned Pope. In 1812 the decision was taken to transfer Pius to the palace of Fontainebleau to the south of Paris.

On the evening of 9 June 1812, the Pope was informed that he would be leaving Savona in the dead of night for an undisclosed location. His pectoral cross was removed, he was given a dark wide-brimmed hat, a grey overcoat, and his white papal slippers were dyed with black ink. The pope was escorted by gendarmes. This convoy headed north to Piedmont at breakneck speed. The aim was to whisk the Pope out of Italy undetected. The itinerary was planned so that the convoy would only transit through cities late at night. After three years of imprisonment and isolation Chiaramonti’s health had weakened considerably. For some time, he had suffered from a recurring inflammation of his bladder. The stress and discomfort of the journey exacerbated the condition acutely. After two days the convoy reached the Montcenis, a key Alpine pass, connecting France and Italy. By now the Pope was feverish, delirious, and dangerously ill.

The monks at the Montcenis hostel were astounded to realize that the gravely ill traveler brought to them was none other than the head of the “universal” church. They fell to their knees and then escorted the dying pontiff to the so-called Emperor’s bedroom in the hostel. Ironically, Pius was given the same bed occupied by Napoleon during his second invasion of Italy in 1800. The patient’s condition became so extreme that the monks administered the last rights to Chiaramonti on 11 June. Colonel Antoine Lagorce informed the minister of police in Paris that the Pope was close to death. Despite this alarming news he was commanded to continue his journey with all possible haste. Although historians usually avoid “what ifs,” the speculation surrounding the events at Moncenis in June 1812 is irresistible. Had Pius VII died, it seems probable that Napoleon would have assembled a conclave of French and Italian Cardinals in Paris or Avignon. Here he would have bullied them into electing a pro-imperial pontiff. Without doubt those Cardinals outside of the French sphere of influence would have organized a counter-conclave in which an anti-French Pope would have been elected. In June 1812 Catholicism was on the brink of a renewed Great Schism, which would have mirrored that of the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries when multiple Popes had wrestled for leadership of the church.

Yet the person who rescued the situation was a local Savoyard surgeon named Balthazard Claratz. He was taken brusquely away from dinner with his family by gendarmes. To his surprise, the patient who required his care was the Pope. Colonel Lagorce wanted him to perform surgery on the pontiff, but Claratz categorically refused and prescribed rest for the Pope. He was certain the patient would die if moved to any other location. After a few days, Pius’s condition improved and he was able to resume his journey. Few suspected how close Catholicism had come to a renewal of the great divide that had pitted the medieval Popes of Rome against the anti-Popes of Avignon. After several weeks of journey Pius finally reached the palace of Fontainebleau, where he remained an isolated prisoner for almost two more years.

In January 1813, returning from his disastrous invasion of Russia, Napoleon visited the captive pontiff. He was eager to resolve the crisis between Church and State that was undermining the legitimacy of his rule. After almost a week of psychological bullying and pressure, Pius showed signs of weakening for the first time. He accepted the Imperial demands and signed the so-called Concordat of Fontainebleau. In its terms Chiaramonti renounced the Papal States and promised to confirm all imperial nominees to vacant dioceses. Although Napoleon celebrated this event as a victory, it was to be short lived as Pius VII retracted the agreement on 24 March 1813.

The collapse of the French Empire and Napoleon’s exile to Elba allowed the Pope to return to Rome in triumph on 27 May 1814. Through his defiance of Napoleon, Pius had saved the church from becoming a vassal state of France. Yet, his captivity had deeply marked him and not for the better. He was no longer the affable and open-minded Pope who had signed a Concordat with Napoleon in 1801 seeking to heal the divisions of the French Revolution. After all his suffering and isolation, he was unwilling to come to terms with the modern state and was very diffident when it came to reforming the Papal States. The kidnapping, imprisonment, and near death of the Pope in 1812 cast a long shadow over the nineteenth century and perhaps beyond. Catholicism would fight a losing battle to retain control over the Papal States for the next fifty years. The church resisted the influence of modernizing states and refused to accept any reduction of its authority. Gone for good was the equal alliance of throne and altar that had characterized the ancien regime.

Ambrogio A. Caiani is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Kent and is the author of Louis XVI and the French Revolution 1789–1792.

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