The Crowning of an Unpopular Pope: October 5, 1824

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


Fernando I

Following the end of the Carbonari rebellion in the Two Sicilies in 1821, governments throughout Italy took severe measures against Liberals and members of revolutionary societies. Such measures were very severe in Habsburg-controlled regions, especially Milan, for Metternich thought governments should show no mercy to the forces of revolution and anarchy. Yet, no ruler was more brutal than Fernando I, the Bourbon king of the Two Sicilies. He had one rather savage military commander, Colonel Guglielmo del Carretto. Once, after putting down a rebellion, Carretto not only ordered many executions but also paraded the heads of rebels through the villages where their kindred, wives, and children lived. For his victory over the rebels, Fernando made Carretto a marquis and granted him a pension.


Yet, repression only seemed to increase the numbers of those who longed for the “liberation” of Italy. Cruelty merely hardened their hearts to further resistance. Their numbers, however, were not overwhelmingly great. Mostly drawn from the middle class, Liberals and revolutionaries did not include the vast majority of the peasantry. And though they agreed on some things (all Liberals wanted an end to Austrian rule in Italy, for instance) they differed on other matters. Some fought for a united Italian government, while others wanted to form a federation of Italian states. The more radical wanted to overthrow all monarchies and establish republics, while the more moderate favored constitutional monarchy. Then there was the problem that a rebellion in one part of Italy would find no support in any other part of the peninsula, and so was easily crushed.


Leopold II

But not everyone was discontent in Italy. Under the Habsburg grand duke, Leopold II, Tuscany was one of the happier realms on the peninsula. Leopold was no friend of Liberalism and was deeply opposed to constitutions; still, his government was mild and his people fairly prosperous. King Carlo Felice of Piedmont-Sardinia was also no friend to “political liberty,” but he was able to provide peace and security to his people.


The same could not be said for the Papal States. It was not that the papal government was cruel or that its people were terribly oppressed. Indeed, the government of the pope was on the whole rather mild—and its taxes were low. The papal government, too, showed a genuine concern for the common good of its citizens and even provided free health care to those who needed it. Yet the papal officials were often incompetent, and the courts were not properly run, which led to confusion and injustice in law cases. Finally, laymen in the middle and upper classes resented the fact that the clergy held the top posts in the pope’s government.


Under Pope Pius VII, Cardinal Consalvi had carried out some reforms of the government of the Papal States. But when Cardinal Annibale Della Genga was crowned pope as Leo XII on October 5, 1824, all thoughts of reform came to an end. A good man, Leo XII worked to improve the condition of the people of the Papal States by establishing public works and lowering taxes. Like Pius VII before him, Leo tried to rid his realm of the bands of brigands that infested much of Italy. To rid his government of corrupt officials, Leo set up the “Congregation of Vigilance” to hear and examine complaints made against the government.


Yet, Leo XII acted as if the best way to fight Liberals was simply to defend old ways and customs, without questioning whether they were truly good or proper for the times. Leo XII had lived through all the horrors of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Like many others his age, he thought that, to avoid similar evils, he had to insist on the duties Christians owed to rulers. “Jesus Christ never spoke of the forms of government,” he once said, “but simply enjoined obedience to authority.”


Rome, at the time of Leo XII

Some of Leo XII’s ministers used harsh measures against revolutionists. When one remembers that groups like the Carbonari used murder and assassination to achieve their ends, it is not surprising that governments reacted harshly against them. Still, a papal official such as Cardinal Rivarola in Ravenna at times punished the innocent with the guilty and used a group called the “Army of the Holy Faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ” to achieve his ends. Called the Sanfedisti, the so-called army arose in southern Italy during the Napoleonic Wars to fight in the cause of King Fernando I. Devoted to the Catholic Faith, the pope, and to absolute monarchy, the Sanfedisti nevertheless carried on guerilla-style warfare and, like the Carbonari, committed atrocities. During Leo XII’s reign, officials like Rivarola imprisoned hundreds and condemned others to death – though, in the end, those condemned to death were usually pardoned.


Although the Liberal middle class disliked Leo XII because of his conservatism, the lower classes in Rome objected to his attempts to regulate popular amusements in Rome. So by the time he died on February 10, 1829, Leo was greatly disliked.

“Beautiful Singing” from 1824


Bel Canto (“beautiful singing”) is the name given to the ornate style of singing that characterized opera in the first half of the 19th century. The excerpt, below, from an opera by Gaetano Donizetti, L’ajo nell’imbarazzo (“The Tutor in a Jam”), is an example of the Bel Canto style. This opera was first performed in January of 1824 and became Donizetti’s first great success. Cardinal Annibale Della Genga may have heard it — if he ever attended opera performances.



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