Chateaubriand's memoirs, XX, 9

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XX, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XX, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XX, chapter 9
The sovereign Pontiff’s protest – He is removed from Rome

Cardinal Pacca, one of the successors to Consalvi, who had retired, hastens to the Holy Father. Both of them cry: ‘Consummatum est! (All is over!)’ The Cardinal’s nephew, Tiberio Pacca, brings him a copy of a decree of Napoleon’s; the Cardinal takes the decree, goes to a window whose closed shutters only allow a meagre light to enter, and tries to read the paper; he only does so with difficulty, with his unfortunate sovereign a few paces from him, while listening to the cannon fire of the imperial triumph. Two old men at night in a Roman palace struggling alone against a force which was crushing the world; they drew on the vigour of old age: near death one is invincible.

The Pope first signed a solemn protest; but before signing the Bull of excommunication prepared some time ago, he enquired of Cardinal Pacca: ‘What would you do?’ – ‘Lift your eyes to Heaven,’ replied his servant, ‘then give your orders: what issues from your mouth will be what Heaven wills.’ The Pope raised his eyes, signed and said: ‘Let the Bull go forth.’

Megacci posted the first copies of the Bull on the doors of three churches, Saint Peter’s, Santa Maria Maggiore, and San Giovanni in Laterano. The placards were torn down; General Miollis dispatched one to the Emperor.

If anything could have given excommunication a little of its ancient force, it was Pius VII’s virtue: among the ancients a lighting flash from a calm sky was considered the more threatening. But the Bull still displayed a weakness of character: Napoleon, included among the spoliators of the Church, was not expressly named. The times were fearful; the timid took refuge, with a secure conscience, in this absence of nominal excommunication. It was necessary to fight against thunder-bolts; it was necessary to hurl lightning for lightning, since defence was not an option; it was necessary to suspend religion, close the doors of the temples, forbid church-going, and order priests not to administer the sacraments. Whether the times were right or not for this great attempt, it was worth trying: Gregory VII had not failed to do so. If on the one hand there was insufficient faith to sustain an excommunication, on the other, there was not enough for Bonaparte, like Henry VIII, to make himself head of a separate Church. The Emperor, totally excommunicated, found himself in inextricable difficulties: force could close churches, but not open them; there was no way of forcing people to worship or priests to offer the holy sacrament. Never had anyone played as overwhelming a game with Napoleon.

A sixty-eight year old priest, without a single soldier, held the Empire in check. Murat dispatched seven hundred Neopolitans to Miollis, the inaugurator of the feast of Virgil at Mantua. Radet, General of the Gendarmerie who was in Rome, was charged with seizing the Pope and Cardinal Pacca. Military precautions were employed, and orders were given in the greatest of secrecy exactly as on Saint Bartholomew’s Night: when an hour after midnight struck on the Quirinal clock, the troops that had assembled in silence began intrepidly to climb the stairs of the two decrepit priests’ gaol.

At the agreed moment, General Radet penetrated the courtyard of the Quirinal via the main entrance; Colonel Siry, who had slipped into the palace, opened the doors for him from within. The General ascended to the apartments: having arrived in the Hall of Sanctification, he found the Swiss Guard there, forty strong; they made no resistance, having received orders to abstain from doing so: the Pope wished only God to defend him.

The palace windows giving onto the street running to the Porta Pia had been shattered by axe-blows. The Pope having risen in haste, dressed in rochet and mozetta, occupied the Hall of Common Audience with Cardinal Pacca, Cardinal Despuig, several prelates and members of the secretariat. He was sitting before a table between the two Cardinals; Radet enters; both parties remain silent. Radet, pale and disconcerted, finally speaks: he tells Pius VII that he must renounce temporal sovereignty over Rome, and that if his Holiness refuses to obey, he has orders to conduct him to General Miollis.

The Pope replied that if the vows of loyalty obliged Radet to obey Bonaparte’s injunctions, all the more reason why he, Pius VII, must keep the vows which he made when receiving the tiara; he could neither yield nor abandon the domain of the Church which did not belong to him, and of which he was merely the administrator.

The Pope having asked if he must go alone: ‘Your Holiness,’ the general replied, ‘may take your minister with you.’ Pacca hastened to don his Cardinal’s robes in a neighbouring chamber.

On Christmas Eve, Gregory VII, while celebrating Holy Communion at Santa Maria Maggiore, was dragged from the altar, beaten about the head, despoiled of his ornaments and led to one of the towers by order of the Prefect Cencius. The people took up arms; a fearful Censius fell at his captive’s feet; Gregory, having calmed the people, was led back to Santa Maria Maggiore and completed the Communion.

Nogaret and Colonna, entering at night (on the 8th of September 1303) in Agnani, attacked Boniface VIII’s residence, he waiting for them with his Pontiff’s mantle over his shoulders, his head crowned with the tiara, armed with the keys and cross. Colonna struck him in the face: Boniface dying later of anger and grief.

Pius VII, humble and dignified, showed neither the same human courage nor the same worldly pride; his exemplar was closer to him in time; his trials resembled those of Pius VI. Two Popes of the same name, one the successor of the other, were victims of our revolutions. Both dragged through France on the Via Dolorosa; one, at the age of eighty-two, brought to die at Valence, the other, a septuagenarian, enduring imprisonment at Fontainebleau. Pius VII seemed the ghost of Pius VI, travelling the same road.

When Pacca returned in his Cardinal’s robe, he found his august master already in the hands of the gendarmes and their henchmen who forced him to descend the stairs through the debris of the overthrown doors. Pius VI, taken from the Vatican on the 20th of February 1798, three hours before sunrise, forsook the world of masterpieces which seemed to mourn him and left Rome, through the Porta Angelica. Pius VII, taken from the Quirinal on the 6th of July at daybreak, left by the Porta Pia; he made a tour of the walls as far as the Porta del Popolo. This Porta Pia, where I have so often walked alone, was that by which Alaric entered Rome. Following the circuit, along which Pius VII passed, I only saw in the Villa Borghese Raphael’s retreat and in Monte Pincio the refuge of Claude Lorrain, and Poussin; marvellous memories of female beauty and the light of Rome; memories of artistic genius sponsored by Papal power, which might pursue and console a captive and despoiled prince.

When Pius VII left Rome, he had in his pocket a papetto worth twenty two sous: like a soldier at five sous per halt, he has regained the Vatican. Bonaparte, at the moment of General Radet’s exploit, had his hands full of kingdoms: what else remained? Radet has written an account of his exploit; he had a picture painted which he has left to his family: so are notions of justice and honour confused in some minds.

In the courtyard of the Quirinal, the Pope met his Neapolitan oppressors; he blessed them and the city: that apostolic benediction infusing everything, misfortune as well as prosperity, gives a particular character to the events of the lives of these royal Pontiffs who in no way resemble other kings.

The post horses were waiting outside the Porta del Populo. The blinds of the coach into which Pius VII climbed were drawn on the side where he sat; the Pope entered, the doors were doubly locked, and Radet put the keys in his pocket; the Chief of Gendarmes had to accompany the Pope as far as the Charterhouse at Florence.

At Monterossi weeping women stood on their doorsteps: the General begged his Holiness to lower the blinds in order to conceal himself. The heat was oppressive. Towards evening Pius VII requested a drink; the sergeant Cardigny filled a bottle from a natural spring flowing by the road; Pius VII drank with great pleasure. On the hill of Radicofani, the Pope stopped at a humble inn; his vestments were drenched with sweat, and he had nothing to change into; Pacca helped the servant make up his Holiness’ bed. On the next day the Pope came across some peasants, and said to them: ‘Courage and prayer!’ They passed through Siena; they entered Florence, and one of the carriage wheels shattered; the people, moved, cried: ‘Santo padre! Santo padre!’ The Pope was pulled through the overturned carriage’s door. Some prostrated themselves; others touched His Holiness’ vestments, as the people of Jerusalem did the robe of Christ.

The Pope was at last able to start for the Charterhouse; he was the heir of the bed which Pius VI had occupied ten years earlier, in that solitude, where two grooms hoisted him into the carriage as he groaned with pain. The Charterhouse belonged to the Vallombrosa site; through a series of pine woods you reached Camaldoli, and from there, from cliff to cliff, the summit of the Apennines from which two seas can be seen. An abrupt command forced Pius VII to leave again for Alessandria; he had time only to ask the prior for a breviary; Pacca was separated from his royal Pontiff.

From the Charterhouse to Alessandria the populace crowded in from every side; they threw flowers to the prisoner, they gave him water, they presented him with fruit; the countrymen wanted to free him, calling out: ‘Vuole? Dica! Do you wish it? Say!’ An old thief stole a pin from him, a relic which would open the gates of heaven for the culprit.

Three miles from Genoa, a litter bore the Pope to the seashore; a felucca carried him from the far side of the town to San Pier d’Arena. By way of Alessandria and Mondovi Pius VII reached the first French village; he was welcomed there with effusions of religious tenderness; he said: ‘How could God allow us to be insensible to these marks of affection?’

The Spaniards taken prisoner at Zaragoza were being held at Grenoble: like those European garrisons forgotten amongst the hills of India, they sang at night and made the alien atmosphere echo with the airs of their homeland. Suddenly the Pope descends on them; he seemed to have responded to those Christian voices. The prisoners fly to meet this new captive; they fall to their knees; Pius VII almost pushes his whole body through the door; he extends his thin and trembling hands over these warriors who have defended Spanish liberty with the sword, as they have defended Italian liberty with their loyalty; the twin swords cross over those heroic heads.

From Grenoble Pius VII reached Valence. There, Pius VI had died; there, he exclaimed when shown to the people: ‘Ecce homo!’ There, Pius VI parted company from Pius VII; the dead man encountering his grave, entered it; he brings the twin apparition to an end, for until then the two Popes could be seen travelling together, like the shadow accompanying the body. Pius VII wore the ring that Pius VI had on his finger when he died: the emblem of his having accepted the wretchedness and fate of his precursor.

Two leagues from Comana, Saint John Chrysostom rested at the chapel of Saint Basiliscus; that martyr appeared to him during the night and said to him: ‘Courage: brother John! Tomorrow we will be together.’ John replied: ‘Glory be to God for all things!’ He lay down on the ground and died.

At Valence, Bonaparte had begun the career with which he hurtled towards Rome. Pius VII was not allowed the time to visit the remains of Pius VI; he was urged precipitately towards Avignon: in order to bring him to that little Rome where he could view the ice cellar beneath the palace of another line of Pontiffs, and hear the voice of the laurel-crowned poet of former times who had summoned the successors of Saint Peter back to the Capitol.

Driven on recklessly, he entered Savoy Maritime; at the Pont du Var, he wished to cross on foot; he met the population ranked in order of merit, the ecclesiastics dressed in their sacerdotal vestments, and ten thousand people kneeling in profound silence. The Queen of Etruria with her two children, also kneeling, waited for Saint Peter at the end of the bridge. At Nice, the streets of the town were strewn with flowers. The captain, who was taking the Pope to Savona, took an unfrequented road through the woods that night; to his great astonishment he found himself in the midst of a flood of solitary light; a lantern had been hung from every tree. Along the seafront, the Corniche was similarly illuminated; the ships saw these signals from afar lit, for the shipwreck of a captive priest, out of respect, tenderness and piety. Was this the way Napoleon returned from Moscow? Was he preceded by reports of his good deeds and his blessing of the people?

During this long journey, the Battle of Wagram had been won, while Napoleon’s marriage with Marie-Louise was delayed. Thirty Cardinals summoned to Paris were exiled, and the Roman Consulte created by France had to announce anew the union of the Holy See and the Empire.

The Pope, while detained at Savona, weary and besieged by Napoleon’s creatures, issued a brief, whose principal author was Cardinal Roverella, which allowed confirmatory Bulls to be sent to the various bishops named. The Emperor had not expected such compliance; he rejected the brief because it would have obliged him to set the royal Pontiff at liberty. In an access of rage he ordered the Cardinals who opposed him to quit their crimson robes; some were imprisoned at Vincennes.

The Prefect of Nice wrote to Pius VII that: ‘he was forbidden to communicate with any church in the Empire, under sentence of disobedience; that he, Pius VII, had ceased to be the organ of the Church because he was preaching rebellion and his spirit was full of venom; and that, since nothing could make him see sense, he would find His Majesty quite powerful enough to depose a Pope.’

Was it actually the victor of Marengo who dictated the minute of this same letter?

At last, after three years in captivity at Savona, on the 9th of June 1812, the Pope was summoned to France. He was requested to change his clothes: conducted to Turin, he arrived at the hospice of Mont Cenis in the middle of the night. There, close to death, he received extreme unction. He was only permitted to halt for the time necessary to administer the last sacraments; he was not allowed to remain close to Heaven. He did not complain; he gave a fresh example of the meekness of the martyr of Vercelli. At the foot of the mountain, at the moment when she was about to be beheaded, seeing the clasp of the executioner’s chlamys fall, she said to the man: ‘See, a gold clasp has just fallen from your shoulder; pick it up, for fear of losing what you have only won with much effort.’

During his journey through France, Pius VII was not allowed to descend from his carriage. When he ate some food it was in that same carriage, which was locked when starting the next stage. On the 20th of June in the morning he arrived at Fontainebleau; three days later Napoleon crossed the Niemen to begin his expiation. The doorman refused to receive the prisoner, because no such order had yet reached him. The order having been sent to Paris, the Pope enters the chateau; heavenly justice thereby entering with him: on the same table where Pius VII rested his failing hand, Napoleon signed his abdication.

If the iniquitous invasion of Spain roused the world of politics against Bonaparte, the unrewarding occupation of Rome set him against the world of morality: without the least benefit, he alienated as if for pleasure nations and altars, man and God. Between these two precipices he had created at the borders of his life, he travelled, by a straight path, to seek his destruction at the boundary of Europe, as if over the bridge that Death, aided by disease, threw across the chaos.

Pius VII is no stranger to these Memoirs: he was the first sovereign to whom, during my political career, begun and suddenly interrupted during the Empire, I carried out an embassy. I see him still, receiving me at the Vatican, Le Génie du Christianisme open on his desk, in the same office to which I have been admitted to kneel at the feet of Leo XII and Pius VIII. I like to recall what he underwent; my remembrance of his sufferings will repay my debt of gratitude to him, for his blessing of those other sufferings at Rome in 1803.