Popes in the Napoleonic Crossfire


…That Napoleon took two popes prisoner? The first died in French captivity in 1799. The second, Pius VII went voluntarily to Paris in 1804, part of his policy of cooperation aimed at restoring freedoms to Catholics in France who had been persecuted during the Revolution. Pius had been invited (it is unclear how much choice he had) to witness the coronation of Napoleon as “Emperor of the French.” He did not crown the emperor, Napoleon crowned himself. The myth is that he snatched the crown from the pope and put it on his own head. In actuality Pius probably knew ahead of time that would happen and the entire ceremony was a remarkable melange of tradition, history, and modern; of monarchist and republican symbolism. It occurred at about the same time the Code Napoleon was established, and the coronation was meant to create a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute. Pius can be seen in the famous painting of the coronation, which adorns an entire wall of the Louvre with key figures at 3/4 life size. The people in that painting range from several members of the Bonaparte clan to Tallyrand to the Ottoman ambassador to Pius himself. I found it almost overwhelming and had to study it for a long time when we were there.

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Pius VII is not the bishop in gold to Napoleon’s left as you might guess. The seated figure behind the emperor in white with a white zucchetto (skullcap) is Pius VII. Accord did not last. In 1809 France annexed the Papal States and Pius excommunicated Napoleon who promptly took him prisoner and transported him to France where he remained until the abdication in 1814.

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The Arrest of Pius VII

Pius VII, named Barnaba Chiaramonti, had been a Benedictine monk and later bishop before being elected pope. He was at best a compromise candidate at a time of great political upheaval across Europe and, due to the death of his predecessor in French hands, the church. While his personal reputation is that of a humble monk, and profoundly spiritual, his papacy is a mixed bag of political missteps and shrewdness (largely guided by his Secretary of State, Ercole Consalvi, who may have been the power behind the throne). He vehemently opposed slavery, but reinstated the inquisition and ghetto after the fall of Napoleon. He’s never been canonized.

If you’ve read Dangerous Secrets you may recall Jamie’s friend, Father Barnabas. I chose to cast him as a humble man, not particularly comfortable in the role of Pope, who might occasionally wish to visit his cousin in the habit of a Benedictine monk.

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Caroline Warfield, Author

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