The conclave which followed the death of Pope Innocent X on January 7, 1655 was a very lengthy one; it started on January 18
and it ended on April 7 with the election of Cardinal Fabio Chigi. He was born in Siena and he chose to be called Pope Alexander VII as a
tribute to Pope Alexander III, who was born in Siena too. His election was favoured by Spain and opposed by France: the hostility of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the French Prime Minister,
and after his death in 1661, that of King Louis XIV marked the whole pontificate of Pope Alexander VII.
The Chigi family acquired great wealth when Agostino Chigi became the banker of Pope Julius II: the two were on very friendly terms and the Pope allowed the banker to add to the mountains of his coat of arms the oak which was the Pope's heraldic symbol. At first Pope Alexander VII refrained from assigning positions to his relatives, but in 1656 he changed his mind: the Romans saw so many relatives of the Pope come to Rome that Pasquino, one of the talking statues of Rome, spoke of a procession.
On Christmas Day 1655 the Pope welcomed the arrival of Queen Christina of Sweden at Porta del Popolo: she was the daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus who led the Protestant armies in the Thirty Years' War and died in 1632 at the Battle of Lutzen; she came to Rome to convert to Catholicism: although she had abdicated the throne of Sweden, the Pope hoped this event could lead to more important developments. He was soon disappointed by the Queen because she plotted with Cardinal Mazarin to acquire Naples for herself to the detriment of Spain, the country who had supported the election of the Pope (you may wish to read some remarks about her by Francis Mortoft).
In 1659 Pope Alexander VII issued a bull which reserved access to the highest positions of the ecclesiastical career to those who could claim a noble origin: this decision favoured in the long run the election of popes coming from minor noble families of the Papal State: eight out of ten popes between 1740 and 1903 belonged to the provincial aristocracy. It is estimated that 60% of the cardinals during that period were relatives of another cardinal.
S. Maria della Pace: detail of the Pope's
portrait and of his heraldic symbols
For pictures of the best masters Rome excells all
places, there being more heer than I think in all
Italy besides, so that Rome is become the school of
Painters, who come from all parts of Europe hither
to study and practise. At present Cavalier Bernini is
the most noted and indeed only excellent Sculptor,
and Pietro de Cortona the most eminent painter.
John Ray - Observations (..) made in a journey through part of (..) Italy in 1663
Pope Alexander VII underlined his links with the Della Rovere popes (Sixtus IV and Julius II) by adding a Baroque finishing to two churches founded by Pope Sixtus IV inside which the Chigi had a family chapel: Bernini modified the façade of S. Maria del Popolo, renovated its interior and completed the family chapel following Raphael's original design; Pietro da Cortona worked at providing S. Maria della Pace with an easier access by enlarging the square in front of the church and by designing a new façade; he also designed a new façade for S. Maria in Via Lata.
Bernini had during the pontificate of Alexander VII the same artistic leadership he enjoyed during that of Pope Urban VIII; the Pope asked him to assist Carlo Rainaldi in designing S. Maria in Montesanto and S. Maria dei Miracoli. Bernini was also commissioned the palace now known as Palazzo Odescalchi, the overall redesign of Ariccia, a family fiefdom, and S. Tommaso da Villanova at Castelgandolfo. Other tasks given to Bernini were the clearing of Piazza del Pantheon from adjoining buildings, new portals in Spedale di S. Spirito in Sassia, the enlargement of Palazzo del Quirinale along Strada Pia and the monument for the obelisk in Piazza della Minerva. The Jesuits were highly regarded by the Pope and for them Bernini designed S. Andrea al Quirinale.
Francesco Borromini, the other leading architect of this period built the Chapel of the Magi in Collegio di Propaganda Fide, completed his restoration of Battistero Lateranense and redesigned S. Giovanni in Oleo; he did not receive important commissions and this played a role in his decision to commit suicide in 1667.
Pope Alexander VII promoted the construction of S. Maria in Campitelli designed by Carlo Rainaldi and S. Rita da Cascia, designed by Carlo Fontana, a young architect whose early career was favoured by Bernini. The Pope took care of restoring several fountains: in Piazza dell'Aracoeli, near Palazzo Mattei and at Acqua Acetosa. Other initiatives taken by the Pope were related to the enlargement of Via del Corso where he pulled down Arco di Portogallo, the foundation of Biblioteca Alessandrina and the excavation and restoration of Piramide di Caio Cestio, perhaps the first archaeological excavation in history.
Cardinal Mazarin did not name a French ambassador to Rome, as a sign of hostility towards the Pope;
after the Cardinal's death, King Louis XIV decided to make a gesture of good will and
sent to Rome the Duke of Crequy who established his residence in Palazzo Farnese, which belonged to the Duke of Parma,
a traditional ally of France. In June 1662 the ambassador came with a large retinue of assistants and servants, escorted by 200
guards; he requested diplomatic immunity not only for his residence, but also for a large area around it: in
August a brawl between Papal and French soldiers broke out near
Palazzo Farnese: it soon developed into a fight during which gunshots
were discharged: a French page was killed.
The papal government apologized for the incident, but King Louis XIV recalled his ambassador and in retaliation occupied Avignon and the other papal possessions in France. Pope Alexander VII regained Avignon only after accepting the humiliating terms of the 1664 Peace of Pisa, which provided for the erection in Rome of a monument with an inscription apologizing for the killing of the page (it was removed a few years later). The hard stance of King Louis XIV had deeper political objectives than retaliating for an incident; at the request of Venice the Pope asked the Christian nations to help the Republic in the defence of Candia, which was under siege by the Ottomans. These appeals caused embarrassment to the King because France, although being a traditional ally of Venice, relied very much on the Ottomans to contain the expansion of the Austrian Empire: the event at Palazzo Farnese gave the King the opportunity for watering down the papal requests.
The support the Pope gave to Venice was not entirely disinterested: in 1665 the Republic had to accept the return of the Jesuits, who had been banned in 1607.
In the late XVIIth century France became the leading European country in artistic and more broadly cultural matters. A symbol of this change of leadership from Rome to Paris can be seen in Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 1665 journey to Paris: he was called there by King Louis XIV who wanted him to design the main façade of the Cour Carrée du Louvre of which three sides had already been completed.
It was an offer Bernini, then aged 67, could not refuse:
the invitation to Paris seemed to Pope Alexander VII
an occasion to improve relations which could not be missed.
Bernini was very well received; among those who felt honoured to meet him and to have the opportunity to eye his plans there was Christopher Wren, a young architect who was to play a great role in the artistic development of his country. Bernini had already proposed two projects for the Louvre façade and while in Paris he developed a third one. Once back in Rome he further modified it to take into account comments from French architects and from Jean Baptiste Colbert, the powerful minister of the King. During his stay in Paris, Bernini had to show also his skills as a sculptor in an extraordinary bust of the King.
Bernini spent five months (June - October) in Paris; upon his return to Rome he learnt that the King's interest for the Louvre was fading, as he became keener on developing his new residence in Versailles: Bernini's project for the Louvre was shelved. He was commissioned an equestrian statue of the King which eventually ended up in the gardens of Versailles and was modified to portray Marcus Curtius, a mythological hero of ancient Rome, rather than the King.
King Louis XIV, who likened himself to some of the great Roman emperors, was determined to promote French architects and artists:
several initiatives went in the same direction: in 1666 he founded the French Academy of Rome where young French artists were sent to study the ancient monuments of the city; a few years later he ordered two plaster casts of the reliefs of Colonna Traiana, one for the students of the academy in Rome and one to be brought to Paris again for study reasons.
The King promoted the development of a national music by supporting Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian-born composer who is regarded as the founder of French opera.
Strong economic reasons were behind the decline of Rome and the growth of Paris: the popes had drained all the resources of their state to pour them into the embellishment of Rome: Pope Alexander VII left to his successors a very difficult financial situation which led to a dramatic containment of all expenditures. King Louis XIV started in Versailles a cycle of great investments, thus laying down the basis for the cultural supremacy France enjoyed in the following centuries.
Piazza S. Pietro on Palm Sunday 2007 (early morning): (left) entrance to the colonnade; (right) central part of
At the time of Bernini's journey to Paris, however, few thought Rome was going to lose its leadership: Pope Alexander VII was close to seeing the accomplishment of his most cherished project: the piazza in front of S. Pietro, Bernini's masterpiece as an architect: even in the late XVIIIth century, when this artist was regarded as the champion of decadent bad taste, neoclassicist critics praised its solemn yet simple design. The image which appears in the background of this page is a XVIIth century sketch of a medal celebrating the event and showing that the original project foresaw just one fountain and the partial closure of the square by a third colonnade.
Bernini's involvement in S. Pietro during the pontificate of Alexander VII included also Scala Regia with an equestrian statue of Emperor Constantine and the Chair of St. Peter.
The cardinals who met in conclave in June 1667 to elect the successor of
Pope Alexander VII looked for a man who could restore good relations with France,
without upsetting Spain: their choice fell on Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi from Pistoia,
a town near Florence. He became Pope Clement IX and he showed
his clement attitude by reducing taxation, visiting the sick, helping the poor and sparing the
Jews from having to race during the Roman Carnival.
Pope Clement IX was moderate in helping his relatives; the Rospigliosi did not become one of the most important Roman families; they managed however to acquire the town of Zagarolo and Palazzo Rospigliosi.
Relations with France improved and King Louis XIV agreed to send some troops to Candia; the Pope was able to negotiate a peace agreement in the War of Devolution which involved France, Spain, England, Sweden and the United Provinces (Netherlands). He also eased the tensions within the French church. It is said that his death was caused by the grief over the surrender of Candia in September 1669.
Ponte S. Angelo: details
Pope Clement IX praised a project by Bernini for building a new gigantic apse in S. Maria Maggiore,
but he preferred to delay a decision in the light of the poor financial situation of
the Papal State.
The Pope's name is mainly associated with the ten statues of angels by Bernini and his associates which were placed on Ponte S. Angelo. During his pontificate Pietro da Cortona designed the dome of S. Carlo al Corso, his last work.
The conclave which followed the death of Pope Clement IX was again a very long one because
Spain and France were not prepared to accept a pope other than their candidate:
four candidates were vetoed by the ambassadors of the two countries;
after more than four months of debates, the cardinals decided
to elect Cardinal Emilio Altieri: he was 80 and he had spent many years
in Poland without being involved in one way or another with France and Spain so the ambassadors of these
two countries had no reason to oppose his election. He took the name of
Pope Clement X as a sign of gratitude for his predecessor who appointed him cardinal just before his death.
The new pope's poor health soon forced him to leave the administration of the Papal State to Cardinal Paluzzo Paluzzi; a niece of the Pope had married Paluzzo Albertoni, a nephew of the Cardinal; the Paluzzi-Albertoni added to their name that of the Pope and their town palace was called Palazzo Altieri, as were their Roman villa and their palace at Oriolo Romano.
Pope Clement X was snubbed by King Louis XIV, who in the light of a forthcoming new conclave put pressure on the Pope to appoint cardinals designated by him; the Pope concentrated his attention on Poland and the Ottoman threat; he financially supported John Sobiesky, a Polish commander who in 1673 defeated the Ottomans on the Dniester River and who was elected king in 1674.
The 1675 Jubilee Year was a minor event when compared to those of the past:
the project Bernini had made for the apse of S. Maria Maggiore was
abandoned in favour of a much less expensive one by Carlo Rainaldi.
Bernini's most important commission during this period was Cappella Albertoni, where he availed himself of the assistance of Giovan Battista Gaulli, a young Genoese painter known as il Baciccio; Bernini recommended him to the Jesuits for decorating the vault of il Gesù; his ceiling is regarded as a masterpiece of illusionistic painting.
Victoria and Albert Museum in London: clay models by Gian Lorenzo Bernini of the statue of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni and of that of Pope Alexander VII, two of his last works
On August 2, 1676 the cardinals met to elect the successor to Pope Clement X; a large majority of them were in favour of Cardinal Benedetto Odescalchi who became Pope Innocent XI only on
September 21, when France lifted the veto on his name which had stopped his election in the previous conclave.
The new pope was determined to reduce the large budget deficit he had inherited from his predecessors: in a matter of few years he achieved his objective and even managed to have a budget surplus.
Relations with France soon deteriorated: King Louis XIV put pressure on the French clergy to issue a declaration stating that the pope had only a vague spiritual authority over the Church: the Pope refused to confirm the appointment of bishops chosen by the King; the conflict grew to such a point that in 1688 French troops occupied again Avignon and the nearby papal territories.
Spain was gradually losing ground in the European political scene, so the Pope looked elsewhere to show the Catholic Church had still a political role to play. In 1682 some Hungarian noblemen who nourished strong anti-Habsburg, anti-Catholic feelings sought Ottoman help in establishing an independent Hungarian kingdom under the sultan's suzerainty. France acted behind the scenes to support the revolt and the Ottoman intervention. Pope Innocent XI was able to financially support the Habsburgs: the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans ended in defeat: the event marked the beginning of a strong alliance between the popes and the Austrian emperors.
In 1684 the Holy League promoted by the Pope (Austrian Empire, Poland and the Republic of Venice) attacked the Ottoman possessions north of the Danube and in Greece, including Athens; the Ottoman Empire never recovered from the territorial losses suffered during this war.
S. Marcello: details
Pope Innocent XI's austere lifestyle meant that he was not
willing to promote the embellishment of Rome as much as his predecessors;
his coat of arms can be found
only on very minor initiatives: Cappella dell'Arco Oscuro,
an addition to Collegio de' Neofiti and a restoration of Ponte Quattro Capi.
The main works of art of his pontificate are due to rich families and to religious orders: Andrea Pozzo painted the ceiling of S. Ignazio, another illusionistic masterpiece; Carlo Fontana became the leading architect: he built the façades of S. Margherita and of S. Marcello, which is considered his finest work.
At the 1689 conclave the cardinals had to take into account the views of the Austrian ambassador in addition to those of the French and Spanish ones;
after two months of debate they elected Cardinal Alessandro Ottoboni, who chose to be called Pope Alexander VIII, maybe because Cardinal Flavio Chigi, nephew of Pope Alexander VII, favoured his election.
His pontificate lasted only 16 months, enough however to abandon the austere lifestyle introduced by his predecessor: he reopened the theatres and the traditional Carnival celebrations.
He appointed cardinal his nephew Pietro who was just 22; this young man was fond of gambling and parties, but his uncle had no reservations about providing him with large amounts of money taken from the public finances.
As a gesture of good will King Louis XIV withdrew his troops from Avignon, but Pope Alexander VIII did not greatly soften the hard stance taken by Pope Innocent XI; he continued to support the Republic of Venice and Austria in the war in Greece.
Acqua Paola: inscription celebrating the improvements made by Pope Alexander VIII
Pope Alexander VIII did not have enough time to make his contribution to the embellishment of Rome; he is mainly remembered for having charged Carlo Fontana with the redesign of the basin of Acqua Paola.
The following links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page; they open in another window:
King Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701) - Louvre - Paris.
Pope Alexander VII by Gian Battista Gaulli il Baciccio (1639 - 1709).
Gian Lorenzo Bernini by Gian Battista Gaulli il Baciccio (1665) - Galleria di Palazzo Barberini - Rome.
Pope Clement IX by Gian Battista Gaulli il Baciccio (1639 - 1709) - Galleria di Palazzo Barberini - Rome.
Garbo as Queen Christina of Sweden.
Queen Christina of Sweden by Sebastien Bourdon (1652) - Nationalmuseum - Stockholm.
Next page: Part III: Modern Rome
VIII - A Sleeping City
Previous pages: Part I: Ancient Rome:
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
X - A Century of Turmoil (180-285)
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine
XII - The End of Ancient Rome
Part II: Medieval Rome:
I - Byzantine Rome
II - The Iron Age of Rome
III - The Investiture Controversy
IV - The Rise and Fall of Theocratic Power
V - The Popes Leave Rome
VI - From Chaos to Recovery
Part III: Modern Rome:
I - Rome's Early Renaissance
II - Splendour and Crisis
III - A Period of Change
IV - The Counter-Reformation
V - Early Baroque Rome
VI - The Age of Bernini