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Napoleon’s Duel with the Pope

“Treat the Pope as though he had an army of 200,000 men"—Napoleon. By E.E.Y. Hales.

At the end of November, in the year 1799, thirty-four cardinals proud, penniless, and proscribed, found their way to the island of San Giorgio, across the water from the piazzetta of Venice. It was their duty to elect a new Pope, and to do this they had been summoned to a Conclave in the Benedictine monastery on the island.

Rome was without cardinals. The Holy City was occupied by Neapolitan troops, and had not been the seat of the Curia since “Citizen Pope,” Pius VI, had been seized by the soldiers of the French Directory and dragged to his last prison at Valence. When he died, the problem confronting the scattered cardinals was where they could manage to meet together to hold a Conclave, in peace and security, undisturbed by the violent moves and counter-moves of the French Revolution.

The island of San Giorgio seemed suitably separated from the areas of disturbance; above all, it might serve to keep the cardinals clear of Napoleon, and that was a first consideration with the most consequential of the cardinals, Mattei. For Mattei had already had an interview with the young Corsican, three years earlier, at the general’s headquarters at Brescia. On that occasion Napoleon, with characteristic directness, had told the cardinal he might have to shoot him, and Mattei had replied that, if so, he would like a quarter of an hour in which to prepare himself.

After that the two had worked together quite well, and a year later Mattei, on behalf of the Pope, had signed the treaty of Tolentino, which surrendered the northern part of the Papal States to the general. All the same, that first interview had been a shock; it had been a relief to see the young general disappear on his Egyptian campaign. Now, with Napoleon back from Egypt, and on the move again, Mattei thought the island of San Giorgio would be an excellent place for the Conclave.

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