1819. Oil on canvas. 269.2 x 177.6 cm. Windsor Castle, Royal Collection, UK. Read Note.
Pope Pius VII (1742-1823), born Count Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti, was, between 1800-1823, the 251st Pope, at a trying time for the Catholic Church when large parts of Italy had been taken over by Napoleon’s French Forces.
He came from a very religious family. Two of his brothers became Jesuits; two became Capucins; Barnaba himself became a Benedictine, taking the name “Gregorio” or Gregory; and his mother, after the death of his father, took the vows of the Carmelite Order. His clerical career took off after the ascent of Pius VI, who had been a long-time family friend, in 1775. In 1782, Chiaramonti was given the Bishopric of Tivoli, then the Bishopric of Imola, and in 1785 became Cardinal. At the Papal Conclave of 1800, which took place in Venice because Rome was occupied by the French, he was something of a dark-horse candidate, and was elected primarily because the main factions could not find a compromise. Ercole Consalvi (1757-1824), secretary of the conclave, later Cardinal and one of the most important diplomats of the 19th Century, was instrumental in Chiaramonti’s election.
With Napoleon, who was in de facto control of Rome and the Papal States, the new Pius VII was forced to perform a delicate balancing act. Among his first acts as Pope was the signing of the 1801 Concordat, in which Napoleon authorized the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in France, from where it had been expelled as a result of the French Revolution. In return, Pius agreed to be present at Napoleon’s coronation in 1804. Relations subsequently deteriorated, however, as Pius refused to take the side of the French in international politics, while Napoleon was unwilling to grant any concessions to the Papacy. In 1809, Napoleon issued a decree formally annexing the Papal States; in response, Pius excommunicated the French Emperor and was subsequently imprisoned. He remained in captivity until Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Pius VII was mostly concerned with restoring both the power and the prestige of the Catholic Church. Though the church would never again have as much political say as it had prior to the French Revolution, he did manage to win some important concessions, most notably the restoration of the Papal States.