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Papal Library

Innocent XIII

by Catherine Frakas 02 Jan 2007

Michelangelo Conti born 1655
Innocent XIII, eldest child of Charles Conti, Duke of Poli, and Isabella Muti, was born at Rome on the 13th of May, 1655. The Conti family, which Sixtus V pronounced to be one of the four most illustrious and most ancient in Italy, was originally Roman. It counted no fewer than sixteen pontiffs, among whom were Saint Leo, Saint Gregory the Great, Innocent III, Gregory IX, and Alexander IV
Michelangelo Conti made his first studies in the Roman College. Alexander VIII then named him his chamberlain of honor, and sent him to Venice to carry thither the stocco and the berrettone to the doge Francis Morosini, who had gained advantages over the Turks.
Innocent XII placed Conti in the prelacy, and named him governor of Ascoli, then of Frosinone, and finally of Viterbo. Two years later Conti was elected Archbishop of Tarsus, and sent as nuncio into Catholic Switzerland. In 1698 he proceeded in the same quality to Lisbon, where he remained twelve years. Clement XI, in a single promotion, named him cardinal on the 7th of June, 1706, but without mentioning the nunciature in Portugal. It was not desired at Rome that it should be supposed that he was raised to the purple as nuncio in Portugal. That prerogative was not granted to Portugal until the reign of Clement XII.
After the funeral of Clement XI the conclave commenced the 31st of March. On the 9th of April only forty electors had assembled. Subsequently fifteen more arrived. It was remarked at the time that the Cardinals da Cunha and Pereira, although they had come from Lisbon to Leghorn in nine days, did not enter Rome until after the election. The same thing occurred in the case of Cardinals Belluga and Borgia, Spaniards.
As the constitutions for the election of a pope prescribed that, in order to render the election legitimate, all absent cardinals, even those who were excommunicated, should be summoned, Cardinals Noailles and Alberoni were invited to the conclave. The former excused himself on account of his advanced age, and the latter suddenly made his appearance from his place of confinement.
It was at first proposed to elect Cardinal Paolucci, and in the second ballot he would have obtained the tiara; the three scrutators had several times repeated his name, when Cardinal Althan, the imperial minister, seeing that the votes were fast approaching the requisite two thirds, greatly to the astonishment of all present, pronounced, in the name of the emperor, the exclusion of Cardinal Paolucci. He, although astounded by so sudden and unexpected an attack, quickly resumed the cool bearing to which he was well accustomed, having for twenty years been secretary of state to Clement XI. He demanded liberty to be heard, and praised the justice of the emperor, who, knowing Paolucci's demerits, saved him from a pontificate of which he was unworthy. Meantime the scrutators continued to read the ballots, and only three votes were wanting to give Paolucci the requisite two thirds. And very certainly Paolucci would have been elected and adored, for the exclusions, says Ottieri, which are pronounced against a single subject who might displease the three courts–those of the empire, of France, and of Spain–are admitted not by any compact or determination, but by a prudent attention, so as to prevent a schism in the Church in case that some one of those most powerful among the princes should refuse to recognize a pope personally or politically distasteful.
Some authors maintain that the privilege of exclusion enjoyed in the conclaves by the three courts of Vienna, Paris, and Madrid originated with the Council of Saint John Lateran, celebrated by Nicholas II in the year 1059. But that privilege granted to the emperors concerned, as Cenni serves in the Bulletin of the Vatican Basilica, only the coronation and not the election of the sovereign pontiffs. The right, then, of exclusion, practised from about a hundred years back, originated, as has been said above, in a kind of precautionary connivance, inoffensive to the pontifical authority; a species of prudent dissimulation, which determines that the supreme pontiffs shall not be disagreeable to the great Catholic powers, for the pope is for all of them the father and the pastor. There have been more than thirty schisms, all occasioned and fomented by the suspicion existing between the pontiffs and the princes. It is fitting, therefore, sometimes to consent to this exclusion; for if it be despised, there will be the risk of disturbing the peace of the Church; and a pontiff elected in despite of that exclusion will be deprived of the friendship of the most powerful monarchs. The Jesuit cardinal De Lugo, a man of rare doctrine, and celebrated for his attachment to the Holy See, resting upon those arguments and many others, published, at the time of the conclave which, in 1655, elected Alexander VII, a document replete with solid theological and judicial arguments. He demonstrated to the Sacred College the precise obligation, even in conscience, not to vote in favor of cardinals excluded by Catholic sovereigns.
After giving every mark of sympathy to Paolucci, the cardinals resolved to choose as pontiff Michelangelo Conti, and was elected on the 8th of May, 1721. Conti had given his vote to Cardinal Tanara, dean of the Sacred College, as is the custom. Conti, having accepted the pontificate, took the name of Innocent XIII, in memory of Innocent III, who was of the Conti family.
On the 18th of May he was crowned at the Vatican by Cardinal Benedict Pamphili, first deacon; and on the 16th of November he took possession of Saint John Lateran.
The Romans vied with each other in magnificence, on account of their joy at seeing the tiara upon the head of one of their fellow-citizens, for the first time since the pontificate of Clement X.
In the first days of his election Innocent XIII had loaves brought to the palace, taken at random from various bakers, in order to examine them as to both quality and weight, so that poor people should not be cheated by dishonest dealers.
On the 20th of June Innocent raised to the purple his brother Bernard Mary Conti, of the dukes of Poli and Guadagnolo, born on the 26th of March, 1664, monk of the order of Saint Benedict, and successively abbot of Farfa and Bishop of Terracina.
On the 16th of July, in the same year, Innocent made his second promotion of cardinals.
One of these was the celebrated Dubois, born in France, at Brives-la-Gaillarde, in the lower Limousin, on the 23rd of September, 1656, of poor but worthy parents, his father being an apothecary. At twenty-five he had been preceptor to the son of the Duke of Orleans, brother of Louis XIV. By their favor he had obtained rich benefices. On the death of Louis, Dubois, by serving the caprices of the regent, gained his confidence, and became secretary of state, secretary of the cabinet, ambassador extraordinary to England (1715) to supervise the league of Great Britain and Holland with France. He had negotiated peace at Hanover and at The Hague, when the regent named him minister of state in 1718 and Archbishop of Cambray in 1720.
It is certain that Louis, apparently with a view to conciliation, intended to give a bishopric to Dubois; but the representations of his confessor, Father La Chaise, prevented him. That confessor told the king that Dubois was to debauchery, to wine, and to gaming.
After the death of the king came the entreaties of the regent and of almost all the sovereigns, and Dubois was named cardinal. Innocent had made a long resistance; the entreaties were redoubled, and the nomination may be said to have been European rather than papal. The foreign ministers who had met Dubois in England, in Holland, and at Hanover remarked nothing in him but his talents, his facility for work, and a sort of propensity of asking little for France and conceding much to other nations, and the pope was obliged to yield to so many interested solicitations.
Innocent at the same time addressed a letter to the new cardinal, in which he begged him to change his conduct. Dubois, in a very respectful letter, promised that he would do so, but he did not keep his word.
Here we have to insert a diplomatic fact of considerable importance, which produced useful results to Portugal, without being at all mischievous to the Holy See. John V, established as king at Lisbon, saw that some sovereigns still regarded him with either coldness or indifference. He begged the pope to take an interest in his position, and he reminded him that at the election of Conti the court of Lisbon had heartily contributed to his success by its good wishes and influence. The two princes were acquainted and greatly attached to each other. Michelangelo Conti had been nuncio in Portugal, and had been treated with the most respectful distinction. John now solicited a display of gratitude perhaps somewhat exaggerated.
Under Alexander VIII the Emperor Leopold and other sovereigns had demanded that the Holy See, previous to sending a nuncio to their courts, should forward a list of the aspirants to that position. By that means, said the princes, We shall be forewarned, and no nuncio will reside with us without our approbation. Alexander refused to recognize that pretension; but finally Innocent XIII had granted the favor. Clement XI, having to send such a list to John V, had placed the name of Monsignor Bichi at the head of the list; but the king would not notice that intimation, and only yielded after much entreaty from the pontiff. Bichi, therefore, was as it were forced upon that court. John one day ordered his ambassador at Rome to demand that the nuncio Bichi should be recalled, and various charges were made against him to Innocent XIII, who immediately ordered the secretary of state to recall Bichi. Meantime the nuncio, warned by friends of what the king had done, brought such influence to bear that John actually retracted his most calumnious accusations, and strongly insisted that should not lose his post at Lisbon.
The order received by the nuncio was strict, and he had not obeyed, hoping that things would easily be arranged between the two courts, since the accusations no longer existed. But the pontiff did not see the affair in that light.
Innocent would hear nothing more from the king; he required Bichi to return to Rome, and sent in his place the nuncio Firrao. The circumstances became critical: the king would not allow Bichi to depart, and also refused to receive Firrao.
John still imagined that the former affection of the nuncio Conti would revive in the heart of the pope, and that he would be allowed to retain his nuncio at Lisbon. But as often as the Portuguese ambassador, Andrew de Mello, spoke to Innocent about that continual hope of the king, the pope replied in these words: Let the nuncio obey us. Mello then received a formal command to demand passports and to notify the pope of his recall, which greatly pained the king's heart. Mello had scarcely finished his half menace, when Innocent replied: Ambassador, you will do well, very well, to set out immediately in obedience to your king, for princes should always be obeyed by their ministers.
Such a reply circumvented the stratagem of Mello, who on no account was to quit Rome. That ambassador, however, obtained, on the instant, every favor that he requested, except what concerned Bichi. John, impressed by the pontifical constancy, at length announced his consent to the departure of the nuncio, on condition that previous to leaving the cabinet he should receive the cardinal's hat. The cabinet of Lisbon, said Mello, dwelt the more emphatically on that request, because it understood that course would be pursued towards future nuncios, as the cardinal's hat had been granted to the three nuncios residing at Vienna, Versailles, and Madrid.
Innocent well understood John's intention, and he as pontiff would grant nothing that was prejudicial to the Roman court, and which might displease the three great courts, jealous for the maintenance of their peculiar privileges. He used to admit the new project. In consequence of his refusal, Bichi remained at Lisbon during the remainder of his pontificate, Firrao not being received.
It was not until the reign of Clement XII that that business was settled. That pontiff consented not to recall the nuncios from Portugal until after they should be named cardinals.
It has not been useless to relate these details, which show the origin of a right which the sovereigns of Portugal still persistently claim. It is now solemnly recognized at Rome and by all the powers which possessed or have since acquired the same right.
In 1722 the pilgrims continued to go in crowds to Jerusalem. On that subject Innocent granted to the guardian of the holy tomb, Father John Philip of Milan, the faculty of conferring the sacrament of confirmation, provided there were no Catholic bishops present. That right was recognized by Benedict XIV, on the 30th of March, 1742.
The Holy Land always contains a great many indigent Christians. Urban VIII, Innocent X, Alexander VIII, Innocent XII, and Clement XI had ordered the bishops to exhort the faithful twice a year, at Advent and in Lent, to give alms for the Holy Land. Innocent renewed the decrees of his predecessors, and he imposed the same obligation upon all the ordinaries in Christendom.
The general chapter of the Observantine Franciscans had not met for twenty-five years. Innocent, to manifest the affection that he bore for that order, commanded the ceremony to be celebrated in the usual form, declaring his desire to preside himself at that ceremony, which took place in church of the Aracoeli, on the 15th of May, 1723. Father Cozza was elected there as minister-general, obtaining a hundred and eighty-three votes. On that occasion the gratitude of that order was so great that they decided by a perpetual law that for the future, in all the convents of the order, a Mass should be celebrated for the preservation of pope while living, and a requiem Mass every year after his death. Every priest of that order was also to celebrate three Masses on account of the pontiff benefactor. In order that the remembrance of that act should not perish, the Father solicited Innocent to authorize it by a bull; and he published one on the 3rd of June of the same year. An inscription in the church of Aracoeli records the whole matter.
The war having ended in 1722, the pope gave the investiture of Sicily to Charles VI, whom the treaty of peace declared the sovereign. It was granted at this period with same conditions imposed as previously.
The Turks made preparations for war and vengeance. Villena, the grandmaster of Malta, feared that that island would be the object of the Turk, and he called for aid, especially in money. The pope on the instant despatched a part of what he could spare, and the cardinals subscribed sums more or less considerable, according to their fortunes. When the Jesuit, Cardinal Salerno, was asked what he would do, he replied that he had nothing, that he possessed no income, but that Augustus, King of Poland, having given him a crucifix ornamented with brilliants, he would joyfully sacrifice that. It was sold for a thousand Spanish doppie, and that sum was added to the amount already received, which reached to a hundred thousand Roman crowns.
The time had now arrived when Innocent's life was to terminate. He had been to a fief of his family for the benefit of his health. On his return to Rome the nobility and the populace met him, testifying the utmost joy at seeing him again. The crowd insisted upon following him even into his rooms, where he thus had to give an audience of love and tenderness to almost all Rome. The outer guards lowered their arms, the Swiss allowed the multitude to enter, comprising the highest and the lowest, nobles and magistrates, sailors and street-porters. The great concourse of children and old men was especially remarked.
But the good pontiff speedily fell ill. The hernia, which so tormented him, and which he had disclosed to no one except his valet, burst, and febrile inflammation ensued. Innocent called for the consolations of religion, made his profession of faith, and died on the 7th of March, 1724, aged sixty-nine years, after governing the Church two years and ten months. He left four hats vacant. He was urged to give them, but he replied: We are no longer of this world.
Innocent had not time to distinguish his pontificate by any extraordinary actions; his sufferings would not allow him to do all that his zeal suggested for the interests of religion. He was interred at the Vatican.
Innocent was above the middle height and strongly built, with light eyes and a large nose. He was grave and majestic in his bearing, believing that his predecessor had perhaps shown somewhat too much mildness and affability. He never allowed any one, except cardinals and ambassadors extraordinary, to be seated in his presence; all others were obliged to remain kneeling or standing.
He was not wanting in either modesty or humility, but he thought it necessary to be of a reserved bearing, and no one better than he could sustain the pontifical dignity. In his relations with the Stuart family he showed great munificence, and he assigned to the son of James III a pension of eight thousand Roman crowns.
Innocent was greatly grieved at seeing the first symptoms of a division which burst out at Utrecht. He was engaged in an earnest investigation of the affair at the very time when he was surprised by death.
On the 27th of April, 1723, seven Dutch priests, on their own authority, named an archbishop of Utrecht. After the death of Codde, in 1710, there had been no bishop in Holland. The vicars apostolic that had been sent thither found themselves obliged to abandon their mission. The spiritual government of those provinces was intrusted by the pope to his nuncios in Cologne and Brussels. But the partisans of Codde and Quesnel had never consented to submit to the jurisdiction of the nuncios, and recognized only the vicars-general named by Codde or by the chapter of Utrecht, which had pretended to have the right to govern during the vacancy of the see. It named patrons, gave demissions, and exercised all the other functions of the ecclesiastical administration. The Roman court, on the contrary, judged that the chapter of Utrecht having become extinct by the change of religion in Holland, and having for a long time ceased to exist, the priests who called themselves by the title of Canons of Utrecht, but who did not even reside in that city, were attached to different parishes of that country, could not be considered as forming the cathedral chapter and the Metropolitan church. How could seven priests, followed by scarcely six

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