Chateaubriand's memoirs, XX, 8

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XX, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XX, 9

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XX, chapter 8
Pius VII – The Union of the Roman States with France

Bonaparte was subject to the transit of what the astrologers call an adverse planet: the same political pressures which troubled him in vassal Spain troubled him in submissive Italy. What had been the result of his squabbles with the clergy? Were the sovereign Pontiff, bishops, and priests, even the catechism, not overflowing with praise of his power? Did they not preach sufficient obedience? Were the weakened Roman States, diminished by half, an obstacle to him? Were things not subject to his will? Had not Rome itself been despoiled of its masterpieces and its treasures? Only its ruins remained to it.

Was it the moral and religious power of the Holy See that Napoleon feared? Yet, in persecuting the Papacy, did he not increase that power? Would not Saint Peter’s successor, submissive, as he was, have been more useful working in concert with his master, than being forced to defend himself against his oppressor? What drove Bonaparte then? The dark side of his genius, his inability to rest: an eternal gambler, when he could not stake an empire on a card, he staked a fantasy.

It is probable that at the root of these anxieties lay some desire for domination, some recollections from history entering athwart his ideas, inapplicable to his times. All authority (even that hallowed by time and faith) which was not attributed to himself seemed an insult to the Emperor. Russia and England fed his hunger for dominance, one because of its autocracy, the other because of its spiritual supremacy. He recalled the time when the Popes resided at Avignon, when France enclosed the source of religious dominance within its own boundaries: a salaried Pope on the Civil List would have delighted him. He could not see that in persecuting Pius VII, in rendering himself guilty of pointless ingratitude, he lost the benefit of appearing as the restorer of religion among the Catholic community: in his covetousness he acquired the last vestments of the priestly nonentity who had crowned him, and the honour of playing gaoler to an old and dying man. Yet in the end Napoleon required a department of the Tiber; it is said that he could not achieve total conquest except by taking the Eternal City: Rome is always the world’s greatest prize.

Pius VII had blessed Napoleon. On the point of returning to Rome, the Pope was told that he might be held in Paris: ‘All is foreseen,’ the Pontiff replied, ‘before leaving Italy I signed a formal notice of abdication; it is in the hands of Cardinal Pignatelli at Palermo, outside the range of French power. Instead of a Pope, all that will remain in your hands is a monk named Barnabé Chiaramonti.’

The initial pretext for dispute given by the one seeking the dispute was the permission the Pope had accorded the English (with whom the sovereign Pontiff was at peace) to visit Rome like other foreigners. Now, Jérôme Bonaparte having married Miss Patterson in the United States, Napoleon disapproved of his alliance: Madame Jérôme Bonaparte, about to give birth, was not allowed to disembark in France and was obliged to land in England. Bonaparte wished the marriage annulled by Rome; Pius VII refused, finding no reason to nullify the contract, even though it had been made between a Catholic and a Protestant. Who defended the rules of justice, liberty and religion, the Pope or the Emperor? It was the latter who cried: ‘I have found a priest in this century more powerful than I; he rules minds, I only rule matter: the priests keep the soul and leave me the body.’ Remove Napoleon’s bad faith from the communications between those two men, one standing among the ruins of the new, the other seated among the ruins of the old, and an extraordinary depth of greatness remains.

A letter dated from Benavente in Spain, from the theatre of destruction, mixes the comic with the tragic: one might think oneself present at a performance of Shakespeare: the master of the world orders his Minister of Foreign Affairs to write to Rome and tell the Pope that he, Napoleon, would not accept the Candlemas candles, which the King of Spain, Joseph no longer desired; the Kings of Naples and Holland, Joachim and Louis, were equally required to refuse the aforesaid candles.

The French Consul had been ordered to tell Pius VII ‘that it was neither crimson robes nor power which give things their worth (the crimson robes and power of an aged captive!), that there might well be Popes and priests in hell, and that a candle blessed by a priest might be as holy a thing as that blessed by a Pope’: wretched indecencies of the philosophy of the clubs.

Then Bonaparte, having passed in a stride from Madrid to Vienna, taking up his role of exterminator once more, by a decree dated the 17th of May 1809, united the Papal States with the French Empire, declared Rome a free imperial city, and named a Consulte (Council) to take possession of it.

The Pope, having been dispossessed, still lived in the Quirinal; he still had command of several devoted members of the authorities, and the Swiss of his Papal Guard; it was excessive: Bonaparte needed a pretext for a final act of force; it was found in a ridiculous incident, which nevertheless displayed a naïve proof of affection: the fishermen of the Tiber had caught a sturgeon; they wanted to take it to their new Saint Peter in Chains; the agents of France immediately called this a riot, and whatever of the Papal government remained was dispersed. The sound of the cannon from Castel Sant’Angelo announces the fall of the Pontiff’s temporal sovereignty. The Papal flag is lowered and gives way to that tricolour which has announced glory and ruin in all parts of the world. Rome has seen plenty of other storms pass by and vanish: it is only necessary to lift the dust with which her ancient brow is covered.