Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIX, chapter 4
Leo XII and the Cardinals



The first hours of my stay in Rome were employed on official visits. His Holiness received me in private audience; public audiences are no longer entertained and cost too much. Leo XII, a very tall prince with an air both serene and sad, was dressed in a simple white cassock; he eschewed splendour and occupied a humble room, almost devoid of marble. He hardly ate; with his cat, he lived on a little polenta. He considered himself very ill and watched himself wither away with a resignation filled with Christian joy: like Benedict XIV he chose to store his coffin beneath his bed. Reaching the door of the Pope’s apartments, an Abbé led me through dark corridors to His Holiness’ refuge or sanctuary. He had not allowed himself time to dress, for fear of keeping me waiting; he rose, came towards me, would not allow me to kneel to kiss the border of his robe instead of his slipper, and led me by the hand to a seat placed to the right of his humble armchair. Once seated, we talked.

On Monday, at seven in the morning, I went to see the Secretary of State, Bernetti, a man of business and pleasure. He was a close friend of Princess Doria; he knew his century and only accepted the Cardinal’s hat with reluctance. He had refused to enter the Church, was only certified as a sub-deacon, and could marry tomorrow by relinquishing his hat. He believed in revolutions and went so far as to consider that, if he lived long enough, he had the possibility of seeing the temporal fall of the Papacy.

The Cardinals are divided into three factions:

The first is composed of those who seek to advance with the times and among whom are Benvenuti and Opizzoni. Benvenuti is famous for his elimination of brigandage and his mission to Ravenna after Cardinal Rivarola; Opizzoni, Archbishop of Bologna, is reconciled to the diverse opinions in that industrial and literary city which is difficult to govern.

The second faction is formed of the zelanti, who are attempting to reverse things: one of their leaders is Cardinal Odescalchi.

Finally the third faction covers those who are set in place, the elderly who do not wish to, or cannot, go forwards or backwards: among these old men one finds Cardinal Vidoni, a kind of policeman for the Treaty of Tolentino: tall and fat, shiny-faced, cap askew. When he was told he had a chance of the Papacy, he replied: Lo santo Spirito sarebbe dunque ubriaco: the Holy Spirit must have been drinking then! He is planting trees by the MilvianBridge, where Constantine made the Christian world. I see the trees when I leave Rome by the Porto del Populo and re-enter by the Porto Angelica. From the far distance the Cardinal calls out on seeing me: Ah! Ah! Signor ambasciadore di Francia! Then he rages at the planters of pines. He does not follow Cardinals’ etiquette; he is accompanied by a single lackey in a carriage when he pleases: one excuses all, by calling him Madama Vidoni. (When I left Rome he bought my calash and did me the honour of dying in it on his way to the MilvianBridge. [1]


  1. Note: Paris, 1836)