1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Consalvi, Ercole
CONSALVI, ERCOLE (1757–1824), Italian cardinal and statesman, was born at Rome on the 8th of June 1757. His grandfather, Gregorio Brunacci, of an ancient family of Pisa, had changed his name in order to become heir to a certain marchese di Consalvi. Ercole, who was the eldest of five children early left orphans, began his education at the Piarist college at Urbino. Removed thence on account of the cruel treatment he and his brother received, he went to the college opened at that time by Cardinal Henry of York at Frascati. Here Consalvi soon became one of the cardinal’s favourite protégés. In 1776 he entered the Academia Ecclesiastica at Rome, in which Pope Pius VI. took a strong personal interest. This led to his being appointed in 1783 camariere segreto to the pope, an office which involved the duty of receiving those who desired an audience. Next year he was made a domestic prelate and shortly afterwards a member of the Congregation del buon governo. His further promotion was rapid; at the instance of Pope Pius, who thought his talents would be best employed at the bar, he became votante di segnatura, and, on the first vacancy, auditor of the Rota for Rome. This last post left him plenty of leisure, which he used for travelling and cultivating the society of interesting people, a taste which earned him the title of Monsignore Ubique. When the outbreak of the French Revolution made a reorganization of the papal army necessary, this was carried out by Consalvi as assessor to the new military Congregation.
In 1798, when the French occupied Rome, Consalvi was imprisoned in the castle of St Angelo, together with other papal officials, in retaliation for the murder of General Duphot; a proposal to whip him through the streets was defeated by the French general in command, but, after three months’ confinement, he was deported with a crowd of galley slaves to Naples, and his property was confiscated as that of “an enemy of the Roman republic.” He managed with difficulty to reach Pius VI., who had sought refuge in the Certosa of the Val d’ Ema, and was present at his death-bed.
As secretary to the conclave which assembled in the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore at Venice, Consalvi had the difficult task of corresponding with the various governments and organizing the assembly at a time when the Revolution had confused all issues and reduced the individual cardinals to beggary. In this his diplomatic ability was conspicuously evident, and it was also largely owing to his influence that Cardinal Chiaramonte was elected as Pius VII. (March 14, 1800). On the 3rd of June the new pope re-entered Rome; on the 11th of August Consalvi was appointed cardinal-deacon and secretary of state, or prime minister. The appointment was an admirable one; for Consalvi possessed just the qualities necessary to supplement those of Pius. The pope was above all a religious man, of a gentle and contemplative character; the cardinal was pre-eminently a man of affairs. Their personal sympathy for each other continued to the end, though at the outset at least their political views differed. Pius, who had openly expressed sympathy with the new liberties of France, was accused of “Jacobinism”; Consalvi, brought up in the legitimist atmosphere of the entourage of Cardinal York, was a convinced supporter of the divine right of kings generally and of Louis XVIII. in particular. But, though opposed to the principles of the Revolution, Consalvi was far from being a blind obscurantist, and he' recognized the urgent need for reform in the system of papal government. In this, despite bitter opposition, he made many significant changes. He permitted laymen to hold certain public offices, under surveillance of the prelates, organized a guard from among the Roman nobility, decreed a plan for redeeming the base coinage, permitted the communes a certain degree of municipal liberty, and promised the liquidation of the public debt. In the long debates between Rome and France about the Concordat Consalvi took the leading part. In June 1801 he arrived in Paris, where his handsome presence, urbane manners, and conspicuous ability made him a general favourite. Even Napoleon, though enraged at the firmness with which he maintained the papal claims, could not resist his personal fascination. It was largely owing to Consalvi’s combined firmness and tact that the Concordat, as ultimately signed, was free from the objectionable clauses on which the First Consul had at first insisted. During the pope’s absence in Paris, at the coronation of Napoleon, Consalvi remained as virtual sovereign in Rome; and his regency was rendered remarkable by a great inundation, caused by the overflow of the Tiber, during which he exposed himself with heroic humanity for the preservation of the sufferers. Not long after the return of the pope the amity between the Vatican and the Tuileries was again broken. Rome was full of anti-revolutionary and anti-Napoleonic strangers from all parts of Europe. The emperor was irritated; and his ambassador, Cardinal Fesch, kept up the irritation by perpetual complaints directed more especially against Consalvi himself. “Tell Consalvi,” wrote the conqueror, still flushed with Austerlitz, “that if he loves his country he must either resign or do what I demand.” Consalvi did accordingly resign on the 17th of June 1807, and when in 1808 General Miollis entered Rome, and the temporal power of the pope was formally abolished, he broke off all relations with the French, though several of them were his intimate friends. In 1809 he was at Paris, and, in a remarkable interview, received from Napoleon’s own lips an apology for the treatment he had received. With unbending dignity, however, he retained his antagonism; and shortly afterwards he was one of the thirteen cardinals who refused to attend the ceremony of the emperor’s marriage with Marie Louise. For this display of independence he was imprisoned at Reims, and not released till some three years later, when Napoleon had extorted terms from the captive pope at Fontainebleau. On his release Consalvi hastened to his master’s assistance; and he was soon after allowed to resume his functions under the restored pontificate at Rome.
In 1814 Consalvi went, as the pope’s representative, to England to meet and confer with the allied sovereigns, and later in the year was sent as papal plenipotentiary to the congress of Vienna. Here he was successful in obtaining the restitution to the pope of the Marches (Ancona, Treviso and Fermo) and Legations (Bologna, Ferrara and Ravenna), but he failed to prevent Austria from annexing the ancient papal possessions on the left bank of the Po and obtaining the right to garrison Ferrara and Comacchio. This led to his presenting at the close of the congress a formal protestatio, in which he not only denounced the failure of the Powers to do justice to the church, but also their refusal to re-establish that “centre of political unity,” the Holy Roman Empire.
The rest of Consalvi’s life was devoted to the work of reorganizing the States of the Church, and bringing back the allegiance of Europe to the papal throne. He was practically governor of Rome; and Pius was so much under his control that “Pasquin” said the pope would have to wait at the gates of paradise till the cardinal came from purgatory with thekeys. Nor was the affectionate confidence of the pope misplaced. Consalvi’s rule, in times of singular difficulty and unrest, was characterized by wisdom and moderation. He had to steer a middle course between the extremes represented by the Carbonari on the one hand and the Sanfedisti on the other, and he consistently refused to employ the cruel and inquisitorial methods in vogue under his successors. His foreign policy was guided by the traditional antagonism of the papacy to German domination in Italy, and generally by a desire to free the Holy See as far as possible from the political entanglements of the age. Thus he resisted all Metternich’s efforts to draw him into his “system”; stoutly maintained the doctrine of non-intervention against the majority of the Powers of the continental alliance; protested at the congress of Troppau against the suggested application of the principle of intervention to the States of the Church; and at Verona joined with Tuscany in procuring the rejection of Metternich’s proposal for a central committee, on the model of the Mainz Commission, to discover and punish political offences in Italy.
On the death of Pius VII. (August 21, 1823), Consalvi retired to his villa of Porto d’ Anzio; and, though he accepted from the new pope the honorary office of prefect of the college De Propaganda Fide, his political career was closed. He died on the 24th of January 1824. By his will he directed that all the presents he had received should be sold, and the proceeds applied to the completion of Thorwaldsen’s monument of Pius VII. in St Peter’s.
Consalvi, besides being a statesman, was a man of wide and varied interests. As a young abate he had followed the fashion of writing verses, and to the end he remained a notable patron of the arts and sciences, music being his main passion. For the city of Rome he did much; ancient buildings were excavated and preserved by his direction; chairs of natural science and archaeology were founded in the university; and extensive purchases were made for the Vatican museum, which was augmented by the addition of the beautiful Braccio Nuovo, or new wing.