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Ercole Consalvi

Cardinal and statesman (1757-1824)

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Consalvi, ERCOLE, cardinal and statesman, b. in Rome, June 8, 1757; d. there, January 24, 1824. His ancestors belonged to the noble family of the Brunacci in Pisa, one of whom settled in the town of Toscanella in the Papal States about the middle of the seventeenth century. The grandfather of the cardinal, Gregorio Brunacci, inherited from Ercole Consalvi of Rome a large fortune on condition of taking the name and arms of the Consalvi family. In this way Gregorio Brunacci became Marchese Gregorio Consalvi, with residence in Rome. At the age of nine, Ercole Consalvi was placed in the college of the Scolopii or Brothers of the Pious Schools at Urbino, where he remained from 1766 to 1771. From 1771 to 1776 he was in the seminary of Frascati, where he finished his studies in rhetoric, philosophy and theology; it was there also that he gained the powerful protection of the Cardinal, Duke of York, Bishop of Frascati. The years from 1776 to 1782 were devoted to the studies of jurisprudence and ecclesiastical history in the Academia Ecclesiastica of Rome, where he had among other professors the Jesuit scholar, Zaccaria. He then entered on his public career. Named private chamberlain by Pius VI in April, 1783, in 1786 he was made Ponente del buon governo, i.e. member of a congregation charged with the direction of municipal affairs. Appointed in 1787 secretary of the congregation commissioned to administer the Ospizio of San Michele a Ripa, in 1790 he became Votante di Segnatura, or member of a high court of appeals, and in 1792 obtained the nomination of Uditore di Rota, or member of the high court of justice. He was made assessor in 1796 of a military commission established by Pius VI for the purpose of preventing revolutionary disturbances and intervention of the French Directory in the Papal States. In this latter capacity he accomplished his work with such tact, prudence, and foresight that no serious troubles arose, which could have served as an excuse for an invasion of Rome by the armies of the French Republic. Unfortunately on December 28, 1797, the French general Duphot was killed in Rome; he was himself largely to blame, and the event took place without the slightest fault of the Papal Government. Still it was used as a pretext for the occupation of the city. On February 10, 1798, General Berthier entered Rome with an army, and five days afterwards the pope was deprived of his temporal sovereignty, and a Roman republic proclaimed. Consalvi, having been assessor of the military commission, was placed first on the list of those who were to be handed over to the French Government. He was arrested, imprisoned in the fortress of Sant’ Angelo, sent to Civitavecchia en route to Cayenne, French . Guiana, brought back to the castle of Sant’ Angelo, and then sent to Terracina, whence he was finally permitted to repair to Naples.

Consalvi thus recovered his personal liberty; but he disliked to remain in Naples, and wished rather to join Pius VI, who shortly after the occupation of Rome was taken from his capital and held a captive in a Carthusian monastery near Florence. Having obtained permission from the Neapolitan Government, he went by sea to Leg-horn and thence to Florence, where he made two visits to the pope; his wish to remain with the pontiff was frustrated by the French envoy at Florence. Towards the end of September, 1798, he took up his residence in Venice. After the death of Pius VI at Valence in France, August 29, 1799, the cardinals assembled in Venice for the conclave, and Consalvi was chosen secretary by an almost unanimous vote. He had a large share in securing the election of Cardinal Chiaramonti, Bishop of Imola (March 14, 1800). The new pope, Pius VII (1800-23), soon appointed Consalvi pro-secretary of state; and thus Consalvi accompanied the pope to Rome, where they arrived July 2, 1800. Shortly before, the pope had recovered possession of the Papal States, which were then partly under the control of Austria and partly under that of Naples. On August 11, 1800, Consalvi was made cardinal and appointed definitively secretary of state. In this capacity he first endeavored to restore better conditions in the Papal States. He abolished the custom of furnishing food to the people at low prices, introduced free trade, withdrew from circulation all depreciated money, and admitted a large number of laymen to Government offices. He did much to embellish Rome and to make it an art-center by designing public promenades along the Tiber, restoring the ancient monuments, and filling the museums with statues unearthed by excavations made under his direction. In his negotiations with the various courts or Governments of Europe he was ever watchful in safeguarding the interests of the Holy See, both temporal and spiritual, the latter especially, in which the pope as the head of Christendom was primarily concerned. In this respect he rendered an incalculable service to religion in signing the French Concordat. The negotiations commenced for that purpose by Monsignor Spina, Archbishop of Corinth, and Father Caselli, former Superior General of the Servites, seemed to lag; in order not to interrupt them completely Consalvi was sent to Paris in June, 1801. Long and painful discussions followed with Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of the French Republic, or his commissioners, until finally, on the 15th of July, the Concordat was signed by the papal and the French commissioners, and afterwards ratified by the pope and the French Government. Consalvi left immediately for Rome, where he arrived on the 6th of August. With what are known as the “Organic Articles“, added by the French Government to the Concordat, Consalvi had nothing to do; on the contrary he condemned them unequivocally as destructive of the Concordat, of which they pretended to be commentaries. He was also prominent in the negotiations that preceded the Italian Concordat, concluded with the Cisalpine Republic on the 16th of September, 1803.

When Napoleon was proclaimed emperor in 1804, Consalvi urged Pius VII to accept Bonaparte’s invitation to crown him as the new sovereign of France, and during the pope’s absence (November, 1804, to May, 1805) Consalvi acted as his representative to the entire satisfaction of his master. When the discussions between Napoleon and Pius VII commenced, Consalvi was blamed for the refusal of the pope to consider himself a vassal of the French emperor. The suspicions of Napoleon were confided to Cardinal Fesch, then French ambassador at Rome; and the dismissal of Consalvi was insisted upon. Consalvi, hoping to secure peace for his master, asked repeatedly to be relieved; but only after long hesitation did the pope consent to the demand. Consalvi left the secretariate of state on June 17, 1806, but was often consulted privately on matters of importance. The imperial persecution of the pope reached its climax with the annexation of the Papal States to the French Empire (June 20, 1809), and the deportation of the pope to Savona during the night of 5—July 6. Consalvi was forced to depart from Rome, December 10 following; in company with Cardinal di Pietro he journeyed to Paris, where he arrived February 20, 1810. There he lived in retirement as much as possible, and refused a pension of 30,000 francs assigned to him by the French Government. On the occasion of Napoleon’s marriage to the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, Consalvi with twelve other cardinals declined to assist at the civil and religious ceremony, held 1—April 2, 1810, though he was present at the semi-solemn reception at Saint-Cloud, March 31, and went also to the Tuileries in Paris for the great reception, on April 3. He did not wish to appear as approving the second marriage of Napoleon, as long as the pope had not pronounced on the validity of the first. Napoleon was so incensed at his action, that he expelled him with the other cardinals of like sentiments from the Tuileries on April 3, and in the first moment of passion gave orders to have him shot. However, he modified his rash judgment and decreed that Consalvi and the twelve other cardinals should be deprived of their property and of their cardinalitial dignity. From that moment these princes of the Church were compelled to wear black garments, whence their name of “black cardinals”, and on June 11 they were all banished to various cities of France. Consalvi was sent to Reims; it was there in his enforced retirement that he wrote his memoirs. Set free on January 26, 1813, he hastened to Pius VII, then at Fontainebleau. At his suggestion the pope retracted (March 24) the concessions made to Napoleon in a Brief from Savona and in a new concordat agreed upon at Fontainebleau; as a consequence Consalvi was restricted in his free intercourse with the pope. When Pius VII left Fontainebleau for Italy (January 23, 1814) Consalvi followed a few days afterwards, at first under a military escort as far as Beziers. Having heard of Napoleon’s abdication in Fontainebleau (April 11, 1814) he asked for a passport and rejoined Pius VII in Italy. He was at once reappointed secretary of state by papal letter written from Foligno, May 19, 1814.

Before taking office Consalvi went to Paris for the purpose of claiming from the allied Powers of Europe the restoration of the Papal States under the sovereignty of the pope. With the same object in view he went also to England, and assisted afterwards at the Congress of Vienna (September, 1814, to June, 1815). He was successful in his negotiations, and obtained the restitution of all papal territory such as it had been before the French Revolution, with the exception of Avignon, Venaissin, and a small strip of land in the legation of Ferrara. After his return to Rome Consalvi continued to work for the welfare of the Papal States and of the Church. He abolished the ancient privileges of the nobility and of the papal cities, devised a new plan of administration for the papal territory, readjusted the finances, prepared a new civil and criminal code of laws, reorganized the system of education, and provided for public safety. He continued the elaboration of his plans for the embellishment of Rome and the improvement of the Campagna; he endeavored, as already said, to make Rome a center of art, and extended his protection to such famous artists as Canova and Thorwaldsen. At the same time he maintained with firmness the rights and sovereignty of the pope. When in 1817 the Carbonari tried to bring about a rebellion, a few of their leaders were prosecuted, banished, or imprisoned; and in 1821 a Bull was issued against these disturbers. During this period several concordats or similar agreements were concluded with foreign Powers: with Bavaria in 1817, with Prussia and the princes of the Upper Rhine in 1821, with Hanover in 1823, with Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia in 1817, with King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies in 1818. The new French Concordat concluded in 1817 with King Louis XVIII never received legal force in France; hence that of 1801 continued in existence. The career of Consalvi came to an end with the death of Pius VII (August 20, 1823). After his retirement his thoughts were devoted to the erection of a monument at St. Peter’s in honor of his former master; only a few months afterwards he was carried himself to his tomb in San Lorenzo, while his heart was taken to the Pantheon. Appropriate monuments were erected to his memory in both places.

Ercole Consalvi is to be regarded as one of the greatest statesmen who has ever served the papal court; his eminent qualities were at all times apparent during the great trials of the papacy. If not always successful in his enterprises, it was largely because of the scarcity of means at his disposal and the prejudices of his age. The purity of his life was the more admired because in his position he had to mingle much with a worldly society. He was devoted to works of charity and religion; the poor knew him as their friend, and in his exercises of devotion he was most punctual. Finally he was very unselfish and disinterested. He served the pope and the Church loyally without looking for personal advantage. He never asked for a position, except for that of Uditore di Rota, which appeared desirable owing to the studies he had made and the great opportunities it offered for travelling during the vacation months. The many gifts, pensions, or legacies, offered him, and at times persistently, by friends, admirers, and patrons, were invariably declined. All in all, both for the work he accomplished and for his personal character, Consalvi is one of the purest glories of the Church of Rome.


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