A Short* History of Conclave
*Disclaimer: Despite the title, this post is not short.
This Tuesday afternoon (5 March 2013), around 1:15pm, the Sistine Chapel closed its doors to the public in preparation for conclave, which, although it has not been officially announced, is expected to begin early next week. (Side note: how cool would it be if the new pope were elected on the Ides of March? I'm mean, we've had enough omens since the Artist Formerly Known as Pope Benedict XVI announced his impending resignation, what's one more?)
But before conclave begins, before I go into what exactly it entails, and who the biggest contenders are, I'd like to delve into the history of this sacred ritual. I have always been fascinated with conclave. It's such a mysterious and secretive rite, dating back so many centuries, it makes the history-lover in me tingle with glee. Plus, it takes place in the Sistine Chapel. It is an understatement so say I have spent a lot of time in the Sistine Chapel. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that I have been inside its sacred and gloriously frescoed walls at least 500 times (not nearly as many as the maritino though, I must reluctantly admit).
Everyone knows that popes are elected inside that spectacular chapel in the Vatican, but exactly how long has that tradition been around? The chapel itself was built only in the late 15th century, and we've had Popes in Rome the time of St. Peter. Where was conclave held before 1481, when the structure of the chapel was completed? And once conclave moved to the chapel, was it always held there? The answers will probably surprise you.
Although the title of this post contains the word "short," I have a feeling it is going to be something a challenge to adhere to it, what with nearly 2000 years of history to cover. To avoid going into the history of the papacy itself (although that would be a fun--for me, probably not you--and challenging undertaking and I hope to attempt it soon), I will brush over the first millennium entirely, because during that time, papal elections did not exist. The pope was chosen by various means, sometimes entirely secular, such as by appointment of the Holy Roman Emperor. It wasn't until 1059, when Pope Nicholas II issued the papal bull In nomine Domini, that an election by cardinals was established.
The very first pope to be chosen by a college of cardinal-electors was Nicholas II's successor, Pope Alexander II. The election took place in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in 1061. But although it was an election, and although a pope was made, it was not, technically, a conclave. The word conclave, as many of you are surely aware, comes from the Latin cum clave, "with key." In fact, the first true conclave wouldn't take place for another two hundred years.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, papal elections were held in a slew of different locations, including over half a dozen churches in Rome, from St John's in Lateran to the old St. Peter's, a Benedictine monastery on the Palatine Hill, the Septizodium (before it was practically raised to the ground by Sixtus V), an Abbey in France, and the cities of Terracina, Naples, Verona, Pisa, Perugia, Ferrara, and of course, Viterbo. It was the general practice to elect the new pope wherever the previous pope had died.
Some of these elections were less than efficient. The election of 1261 dragged on nearly three months, that of 1264 for five, but by far the biggest debacle in papal election history (perhaps even worse that last week's catastrophic Italian parliamentary election), occurred upon the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268. The election began in November of that year in the Palace of the Popes in Viterbo, where the official seat of the papacy had moved during that time of instability in Rome. When, for political reasons, the cardinals were incapable of reaching an agreement, the election process dragged on for nearly three years. Two years in, the magistrates of Viterbo had locked the cardinals up in the palace, and put them on a ration of bread and water, in the hopes that it would hasten a decision. When even that didn't work, the roof of the hall in which they were convened was removed, supposedly in order to facilitate the Holy Spirit to descend upon the hapless cardinals.
At long last, in September of 1271, Pope Gregory X was elected and the longest papal election (and technically, the first conclave) was at an end. Little wonder, after that fiasco, that the newly minted pope issued a papal bull, Ubi periculum, in 1274 that established new rules regarding the election, such as the sequestering of the cardinals and menu restrictions after a set number of days. Many of these rules are still in use today.
Gregory's new conclave rules worked, and the next election in 1276 was wrapped up in an astonishing two days. Unfortunately the sensible rules were chucked out later that same year, and soon the old problems cropped up again, as you'll remember in the case of our friend Pope Celestine V. If one good thing did come out of the old hermit's papacy, it was the reinstatement of the conclave rules of Ubi periculum in 1294.
Still, just 15 years later, as a result of the conflict between the papacy and the French king, the seat of the papacy was moved to Avignon, France, and the following seven conclaves took place at the Palace of the Popes in that lovely Provencal city, each one producing a French pontiff. When the papacy was at last restored to Rome in 1376, and a conclave for the next pope occurred two years later, Roman citizens rioted, so strong was their fear that another Frenchman would ascend the throne of St. Peter and the court would be moved back to France. It's important to point out that the papal court was vital to the economy of Rome, for it brought pilgrims to the city, good for business for innkeepers, rosary-makers, tour guides, and sellers of all kinds of souvenirs (not much has changed there). Also, the presence of wealthy prelates and cardinals guaranteed work for the city's tailors, artists, skilled craftsmen like cabinet-makers and weavers, and, of course, prostitutes.
In the end, under the pressure of the Roman populace, an Italian, Urban VI Prignano, was elected, the last time a non-cardinal became pope. Despite Urban’s Italian blood, he had such strong French sympathies that many of the cardinals who had elected him, regretting their decision, formed their own faction and elected an anti-pope. Thus began the great Western Schism that would divide the church for almost 40 years. Although the backstabbing and betrayal going on in the Vatican today, even as I write this, does not bode well for the future of the Catholic church, if it could survive the Western Schism (which eventually produced a second anti-pope in Pisa–so three popes in total were vying for power), it can survive anything.
All this chaos finally came to an end between 1415-17 during which time two anti-popes were deposed, the legitimate Pope Gregory XII was pressured to resign (some claim he, not Celestine V, was the last pope to resign before Benedict XVI, but considering the circumstances, I find it pointless to compare the two events), and Martin V Colonna was named pope in the Council of Constance. Every so often, anti-popes popped up, but none were taken too seriously. Martin V’s papacy not only marked the end of the Western Schism, but also the dawn of the Renaissance in Rome.
Not until 1455 did it become the norm to hold conclave in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, beginning with the election of the first Borgia pope, Callisto III. Coincidentally, it is Callisto’s nephew, our favorite papal bad boy Alexander VI, who holds the honor of being the first pope to be elected in the Sistine Chapel, in 1492.
I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that Alexander VI's election was one of the most infamous in history. If you've watched The Borgias, you've seen this portrayed, although getting history from a television drama might not be the most accurate route. Here's what Nigel Cawthorne, in his book Sex Lives of the Popes, has to say about it:
...Rodrigo used the promise of rich preferments and out-and-out bribery to win the election. Some cardinals wanted palaces; others castles, land, or money. Cardinal Orsini sold his vote for the castles of Monticelli and Sariani. Cardinal Ascanio Sforza wanted four mule-loads of silver and the lucrative chancellorship of the Church to secure his vote. Cardinal Colonna got the wealthy Abbey of St. Benedict... The Cardinal of St. Angelo wanted the bishopric of Porto... Cardinal Savelli was given the Civita Castellana. ... The clinching vote belonged to a Venetian monk. All he wanted was 5,000 crowns and a night with Rodrigo's daughter, the lovely Lucrezia.
That is all pretty damning, although I will say this highly entertaining work of"non-fiction" has no references of any kind, so take it with a grain of salt.
One would imagine that the Sistine Chapel, so connected in modern consciousness with conclave, remained the de facto location for papal elections from that year forward, but in fact, during the following four centuries, only a handful of conclaves are recorded to have taken place there.
In the 1540s, Michelangelo, whose work in the Sistine Chapel was already considered a masterpiece, was hired to fresco the walls of the Pauline Chapel, just a few steps away. This smaller and more intimate chapel, built for the by-then dead Pope Paul III Farnese, was considered more appropriate for the solemn task of electing the pastor of the Catholic church. Michelangelo’s most famous work in that chapel (unfortunately closed to the public) is the Crucifixion of St. Peter. The martyr lies against the cross, upside down as he is about to be crucified. With visual effort, he lifts his head up and cranes his neck to look down at the viewer. During a conclave, Peter could gaze into the eyes of each of the cardinal-electors, reminding them of their sacred duty: to elect the man who will fill his shoes and represent Christ on Earth. Still, only two conclaves have ever been held in the Pauline Chapel: that of 1549-50 that elected Julius III, and that of 1559 that elected Pius IV.
Apparently Peter’s stern gaze failed to elicit the appropriate gravitas for the situation at hand, at least in the case of Julius III’s election. This conclave became notorious for rampant bribery, the influence of the Holy Roman Emperor, and cardinals passing inside information to bankers who would then make bets on the election’s outcome. It was Pius IV, moving into the thick of the Counter Reformation, who finally re-established the conclave rules long abandoned by his predecessors, regarding seclusion, secrecy, and brevity.
Papal elections continued in various areas of the Apostolic Palace (sometimes the Sistine Chapel) without much incident (with the exception of the conclave of 1799-1800, which took place in Venice due to the threat of Napoleon) until 1823, when it was moved to the Quirinal Palace, the official residence of the popes during the 19th century. It took place in a chapel that, while in terms of artistic decoration is very different from the Sistine Chapel, is of the exact same dimensions. The Pauline Chapel in the Quirinale, not to be confused with Paul III’s Pauline Chapel in the Vatican, was commissioned by Pope Paul V Borghese, and its measurements are the same as the ancient temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, as laid out in the Old Testament (also the model for the Sistine Chapel).
After Rome was captured from the Papal States by the nine-year-old Kingdom of Italy in 1870, during the papacy of Pius IX, the Quirinal Palace became the residence of the king, and conclave once again returned to the Sistine Chapel. Pope Leo XIII was elected there in 1878, as has every pope since. The election of Pope Pius X in 1903, was the last conclave that was openly influenced by a political leader outside the church. The favorite for pope, Leo XIII's former Secretary of State Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, was vetoed by the Prince-Bishop of Krakow in the name Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria, possibly because of Rampolla's support for the French Third Republic. This was considered scandalous by the cardinals present, but as the King of France, the King of Spain and the Emperor of Austria all had veto power by law, there was nothing they could do.
When eventually elected, Pius X (later to become a saint) took the opportunity to eliminate the power of veto of the heads of state. He went even further to warn that anyone attempting to introduce a veto into conclave would be immediately excommunicated. Since then, as part of the solemn vowat the beginning of a conclave, all cardinal-electors must swear not to introduce a veto on behalf of a secular monarch. Pius X was the last pope to make major reforms of conclave, consolidating almost all of the previous rules set up by various popes throughout the centuries.
If you made it through this whole post (without falling asleep) I am seriously impressed. There were enough names and dates to make even the most avid history nerd's eyes glaze over. As you well know by now, if it didn't happen at least 100 years ago, I probably haven't heard about it yet. I humbly decline the post of up-to-the-minute correspondent during this exciting papal resignation/conclave period. Head to Patricia Thomas' delightful and informative blog, Mozzarella Mamma for all the breaking Vatican news. She's covering the conclave for the Associated Press, and attends press conferences with the Papal Spokesman, Father Lombardi, every day. If she isn't well informed, no one is.
However, I will be on smoke watch from the moment conclave begins until those glorious words "Habemus Papam" ring out. Follow me on twitter (@ThePinesOfRome) where I will announce the very minute that white smoke billows so you can high-tail it to St. Peter's or, if you're a bit further away, switch on the telly. In the meantime, stay tuned for my next post, detailing the rituals and rules of conclave. I don't know about you, but after that, I need a cup of tea.