Papal conclave, 1799–1800

Papal conclave

Coat of arms during the vacancy of the Holy See
Dates and location
30 November 1799 – 14 March 1800
San Giorgio Monastery, Venice, Archduchy of Austria
Key officials
Dean Gianfrancesco Albani
Camerlengo Vacant
functions administered by Romualdo Braschi-Onesti
Protopriest Francesco Carafa della Spina di Traietto
Protodeacon Antonmaria Doria-Pamphilj
Secretary Ercole Consalvi
Elected Pope
Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti
(Name taken: Pius VII)

The Papal conclave of 17991800 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 February 19, 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 February 13, 1798, and, proclaiming a Roman Republic, demanded of the pope the renunciation of his temporal authority. His actions were at the direction of the French Government, at that time the Directory. Upon the Pope's 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. Napoleon had nothing to do with the matter. He was in the Near East, and did not return to France until November, 1799, where he conducted the coup-d'état of November 9 (18 Brumaire).

The Conclave

With the loss of the Vatican and the pope's other temporal power, the cardinals were left in a remarkable position. All had been expelled from the city of Rome by the French occupying authorities. 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 night chapel of the Benedictine San Giorgio Monastery in Venice was chosen as the 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. Msgr. Ercole Consalvi was almost unanimously elected as Secretary of the Conclave, since the Secretary of the College of Cardinals was trapped in Rome; Consalvi would prove an influential figure in the election of the new pope.

San Giorgio, Venice: location of the conclave

Despite beginning on November 30, 1799, the assembled cardinals could not overcome a stalemate between Bellisomi and Mattei until March 1800. Thirty-four Cardinals were present at the start, with the late appearance in Conclave on December 10 of Cardinal Franziskus Herzan von Harras who was also the imperial commissioner of Francis II. He bore the Imperial commands, the first of which was to get Cardinal Alessandro Mattei elected Pope. Strangely, by December 28, 1799, Cardinal Herzan had not yet presented his credentials as Imperial Ambassador.[1] Carlo Bellisomi seemed a possible winner, with some eighteen committed votes, but his unpopularity among the Austrian faction, who preferred Cardinal Alessandro Mattei, subjected him to the exclusiva. The conclave added a third possible candidate in Cardinal Hyacinthe Sigismond Gerdil CRSP but Austria had rejected him from before the beginning of the Conclave as too oldhe was eighty-two. As the conclave was in the third month Cardinal Maury, who supported neither Bellisomi nor Mattei, suggested Gregorio Barnaba Chiaramonti, OSB Cassin. In the middle of February, both Herzan and Maury independently calculated that Chiaramonti had about twelve supporters. On March 11, a frank private conversation took place between Cardinal Antonelli and Cardinal Herzan, in which each frankly admitted that the candidacies of Calcagni, Bellisomi, Gerdil, Mattei, and Valenti were failures. During the conversation Cardinal Dugnani appeared and suggested that Chiaramonti might be considered; numbers of supporters of Mattei were willing to go over to him. On March 12, the Spanish agent, Cardinal Francisco Lorenzana, received news from Madrid that he had permission to formally exclude Cardinal Mattei. It was unnecessary to do so, of course, since Bellisomi's supporters had already given him the virtual veto. On March 14, with the support of the powerful Conclave secretary, Cardinal Chiaramonti was elected.

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 March 21 at the monastery church of S. Giorgio.

A new pope

Pius VII by David

By the Battle of Marengo on June 14, 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 July 3. 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, was created a Cardinal on August 11, and became the Secretary of State of His Holiness. On July 15 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 Lunéville.

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 Jérôme 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 May 17, the Papal states were formally annexed to the First French Empire and Pius VII was taken to the Château de Fontainebleau.

An unusual 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 different from not only many of its predecessor conclaves, but also all those successive gatherings to date. Foremost, it was the last to be held outside Rome, in this case Venice. The occupation of Rome by the French and then the Neapolitans made a Conclave in Rome impossible.

As the graph at the right indicates, the conclave was conducted with the fewest cardinals present since 1534, a total of 34. 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. The only French cardinal who was able to attend was Jean Maury.

List of participants

List of absentees


  1. Ricard, Memoires ... Maury I, p. 286; Duerm, 61-62
  2. C. A. Ricard, Correspondence diplomatique et mémoires inédits du Cardinal Maury I (Lille, 1891), 227-228. Charles Duerm, Un peu plus de lumiere sur le Conclave de Venise et sur les commencements du Pontificat de Pie VII. 1799-1800 (Louvain 1896), 84.


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