On this day in 1800, Barnaba Niccolo Maria Luigi Chiaramonti was crowned as Pope Pius VII with a papier mâché tiara in Venice, Italy.
The son of Count Scipione Chiaramonti and Countess Giovanna, Chiaramonti was born in 1742 in the papal commune of Cesena. In 1756 he joined the Benedictine Order and received the monastic name Gregory. Some nine years later, in 1765, he was ordained to the priesthood. When his relative, Giovanni Angelo Braschi, was elected Pope Pius VI in 1775, the young priest enjoyed one promotion after another. He was appointed Abbot of the Pope’s monastery, Bishop of Tivoli, Cardinal-Priest, and Bishop of Imola.
In 1797, the French Revolutionary Army invaded Italy and broke the relative peace. While the young Chiaramonti, then a bishop, cautioned temperance and submission, Napoleon virtually took the incumbent Pope Pius VI prisoner, shaking the papal order. Two years later in August 1799, Pius VI died in Valence in southeastern France. The conclave met in November 1799 to elect the next pope, but the Habsburgs found two of the three candidates unacceptable and the conclave was pitched into months of stalemate. Finally, on 14 March 1800 Chiaramonti was elected as Pope Pius VII. However, the coronation ceremony was somewhat less than regal, since along with the previous Pope, the French had also seized the papal tiara with him. In its place, a papier-mâché version of the tiara was used.
Perhaps forewarned by the conclusion of his predecessor’s reign, Pius VII established a policy of cooperation with the French-established Republic. Among his first acts as Pope was to appoint minor cleric Ercole Consalvi Cardinal Secretary of State, in which role Consalvi negotiated the Concordat of 1801 with Napoleon. The treaty afforded the Church certain civil guarantees. Despite Pius VII’s goodwill gestures, the French occupied and annexed the Papal States in 1809 and took him prisoner, exiling him to Savona. He was released as a result of the Concordat of Fontainbleu in 1813. One year later, on 11 April 1814, Napoleon abdicated.
Up until that point, most of Pius VII’s reign had been consumed with dealing with France, but the Pope was now freed to deal with other concerns. At the top of his list was reasserting the Church’s power, retaining its integrity, and maintaining authority over the clergy of European countries. He pursued this cause until his death on 20 August 1823.
Credit: © The Art Gallery Collection / Alamy
Caption: A portrait of Pope Pius VII.