Amid the aftershocks of the political and intellectual earthquake known to us as the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Pope Pius VII (1742 -1823) attempted to reconcile the latter’s old church with the former’s new state. The early signs were promising. Together in 1801 they formalized an agreement, but relations between them rapidly deteriorated. In 1809, to the horror of the faithful across the continent, Napoleon ordered the Pope’s arrest. Pius’ imprisonment, which would vary in severity and isolation, lasted until Napoleon’s fall in 1814.
In his pioneering account of the tempestuous relationship between the Emperor and his most unyielding opponent Ambrogio Caiani draws on original findings in the Vatican and other European archives. He uncovers the nature of Catholic resistance to Napoleon’s aggression; charts Napoleon’s approach to Papal power; and reveals how the Emperor attempted to subjugate the church to his particular vision of modernity.
“In gripping, vivid prose, Caiani brings to life the struggle for power that would shape modern Europe. It all makes for a historical read which is both original and enjoyable.” – Antonia Fraser, author of ‘Marie Antoinette’.
Why ‘To Kidnap a Pope’?
Well, the title is meant to provide the reader with the basic storyline of the book: in 1809 Napoleon ordered that Pius VII be removed from Rome against his will. He would remain the French Emperor’s prisoner for nearly five years. I have always been fascinated by the politics of religion. The more I researched this topic in the Vatican Archives, and National Archives in Paris, the more I became convinced that its legacy cast a long shadow over the Catholic Church. Indeed, the age of revolutions catalysed the decline in church and state relations that had its roots in the long eighteenth century. The experience of persecution under the French Revolution and Napoleon ensured that the Papacy would view modern states with unconcealed distrust.
Biographers are often asked if they came to like and / or respect their subjects. How do you feel about these two personalities now compared to when you started out? Would you want to share a small and remote holiday cottage with either for an indeterminate period?
Ultimately, I learned to respect both my protagonists as men of principle. Regrettably for them their most deeply held convictions set them on a collision course that was to have disastrous consequences for Europe and the Church. If I had to spend a wet weekend with them…. that’s easy …. Napoleon would definitely be better company than the taciturn and contemplative, former monk, Barnaba Chiaramonti, who was elected Pope in March 1800. I imagine that it would have been tricky to pry even the smallest of conversations out of Pius. He was a deeply religious man, and I am not sure he was that keen on human company. His companions tended to be theologians and confessors. He only really spoke freely to a tiny circle of friends and family.
Whereas Napoleon adored conversation and, when he was not in one of his dark moods, he was, apparently, very good company and a scintillating conversationalist (you just have to read the memorial de Sainte-Hélène to realise that this was the case). Having said this, I suspect that a hyperactive guest, who barely slept four hours a night, like the French Emperor would have tried the endurance skills and energy levels of even the most consummate host. Despite this snag, I think I would be willing to risk it.
How does Napoleon’s struggle with the Papacy of Pius VII stack up against his more famous military campaigns in terms of planning, execution, and adaption to shifting circumstances? Did he have a particular idea of what ultimate victory might look like?
That’s a great question, I think Napoleon planned his offensive against the Papacy like a military campaign. Manoeuvring, invasion, battle, victory, and capitulation were the set pattern of his triumphs. He, probably, expected that he could follow a similar grand design, and ultimately subordinate the Catholic Church to his will. Yet, like in Spain and Calabria, he met a determined group of ecclesiastical resisters, especially the Pope, who simply refused to concede defeat and yield. Simply put, Chiaramonti, unlike a Habsburg or Hohenzollern sovereign, was unresponsive to bullying and military intimidation. Pius’ weapons and provisions were spiritual. He organised a mass campaign of passive resistance that made French rule in the papal states next to impossible. Such tactics prove much more effective in resisting Napoleon than brute force.
Neither Napoleon or Pius were especially modern political thinkers. Neither believed that political legitimacy rests exclusively on the consent of the governed. Keynes described Newton as the last magician rather than the first scientist. Did you ever find yourself wondering if you were chronicling a late medieval struggle rather than an early modern chapter of European history?
Well you say that … but I do wonder if anything, at the end of the day, is really that modern. Napoleon often drew parallels between himself and the medieval investitures crisis of the eleventh century. For example, the struggle that pitted Gregory VII against the Emperor Henry IV, or that which saw Philip IV, possibly, murder Boniface VIII bear remarkable analogies to the events of my book. Yet, by the same logic, the investiture crisis that set Communist China against the Holy See, in the early twenty first century, bears some, loose, though striking parallels to the Napoleonic Empire’s relationship with the Catholic Church. Governments, whether ancient or modern, have and will continue to put pressure on the Church to yield to the power of the state. A harmonious relationship between church and state remains an elusive objective even to this day.
What lessons from this period could the Papacy have absorbed and applied when it came to dealing with 20th century dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler?
Let me start by saying that in general concordats have a good track record in the long history of the Catholic Church. When both contracting parties have upheld the bargain, then, these treaties often created harmonious periods in church and state relations. This was particularly the case in nineteenth century Latin America. Such agreements cemented the Church’s position, rather than undermining it, in South America. A major problem emerges when one party is ‘not playing by the rules.’ The soft power of the church unsupported by hard power of the state could only go so far. The church negotiated these agreements in good faith, but it did not possess the means to force secular states to adhere to the terms of the concordats it signed. The dictators of the twentieth century proved unscrupulous and manipulative in their selective reading of the concordats they had ratified. Like Napoleon, they showed little respect for the Church’s prerogatives and position.
Unlike the French Emperor, they did not kidnap a Pope and exile him (although apparently at one point Hitler did consider kidnapping Pius XII according to one author). Ultimately, there is no easy lesson for the Papacy to draw from the Napoleonic period. Perhaps focusing on its pastoral mission, and avoiding politics where possible, could only be to the church’s advantage.
You express an admiration for Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife and the mother of his son. Why has she been so overlooked? Why does she deserve a greater share of the limelight?
I think we tend to be dismissive of arranged marriages in our society as they lack the romance and passion of courtship. In consequence, I guess, the public dismisses the marriage of Napoleon to Marie Louise as mere politics. This eclipses the fact that Marie Louise and Napoleon formed a notable political partnership. Unlike Josephine, she served as regent of France in 1813-1814 while the Emperor was on campaign. This was certainly a token of the trust and esteem Napoleon placed on her. Indeed, as Michael Broers has stated, she attended the council of state and was given a good education. After Napoleon’s fall, she became Duchess of Parma where she is remembered as an enlightened ruler. Under her beneficent guidance, Parma achieved some of the highest literacy rates in Italy, and she was a renowned patron of the arts, especially Italian opera. It has even been suggested that the quality controls and production standards for Parma ham were inspired by her. I also quite like that Napoleon was only husband number one (out of three), so she clearly was a strong woman who put her stamp on an age ruled by men. I do wish somebody would write a political biography of this formidable princess.
If you could directly ask one question of each of your protagonists what would you ask them and what answers would you expect?
I’d love to ask Pius VII what kept him going during his imprisonment/exile? It would be fascinating to know if his faith that he would be delivered from and survive his incarceration ever wavered. I suspect I would not be likely to get an honest answer. Once freed, the Pope claimed his emancipation was a clear manifestation of divine providence. We have no real source with which access to Pius VII’s inner most thoughts which is frustrating for a historian.
To Napoleon I would ask why he wavered (which was out of character) on what to do with his prisoner? Why he wrote to Fouche, his minister of police, claiming that taking the Pope into custody had never been his intention (a manifest lie)? Perhaps I would also ask if deep down he had some lingering belief in the Catholic God… I suspect we’ll never know.
If you could possess one artefact mentioned in your narrative, what would it be and why?
Oh dear, I am not very good when it comes to the ‘material turn’ in history or the current obsession some historians have with knick-knacks. But I would love to possess some of the notes and fragments of paper that Pius smuggled out of Savona, in the seams of his cassock, to communicate with the outside world. It would be fun to spend hours trying to decipher and reassemble his messages to loyal Catholics across Europe.
Was Pius VII an effective Pope? Does he have any wider claim to fame other than having reigned and suffered in interesting times?
Oh, definitely! He was, to an extent, the architect of the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century. The re-establishment of the Jesuit order in 1814, the rediscovery of baroque/popular piety and the drive towards Marianism, can all be attributed to his post-Napoleonic reign. He was determined to not only ensure the church survived the Napoleonic episode, but prospered after one of its darkest hours. He showed an iron determination that the Papacy should retain its central Italian principality. This turned out to be a lost cause and left something of a burdensome legacy. He created a church that was spiritually vibrant. Indeed, numbers of vocations and worshippers increased in rural Europe in the decades following his pontificate. Yet, at the same time, he left much unfinished business with the modern secular state. He would not be the last Pope forced to leave Rome and lose his principality.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a political history of Global Catholicism during the age of revolutions 1700-1903. It is a great challenge but must say I am loving every minute of it!
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