Napoleon felt that he had taken substantial steps in transforming Italy from a geographical expression into a nation by organizing the Cisalpine Republic in the north and the kingdom of Naples in the south. But the Austrians, during his absence in Egypt, had put an end to the Roman Republic established by the French only a year before; the Papacy had regained its historic capital, and most of its Papal States; and on March 13, 1800, a conclave of cardinals had elected a new pontiff, Pius VII, to whom nearly all Catholics looked for a firm defense of the “temporal power”—the territorial possessions—of the popes.
Napoleon found Pius reasonable enough in negotiating concordats in Paris and Rome, and in blessing his assumption of imperial powers. But those Papal States (though not, as once claimed, deeded to the Church by the supposed “Donation of Constantine”*) had been given to Pope Stephen II in 754 by Pepin the Short, king of the Franks. Charlemagne in 774 confirmed this “Donation of Pepin,” but “interfered in the government of the Papal States,” and “considered himself Christendom’s head, to whom the Pope had to listen, even in matters theological.”10 Napoleon had developed similar ideas. He had set his heart on countering England’s blockade of France with a Continental Blockade against the entry of British goods; but the Papal Curia, or administrative court of the popes, insisted on keeping the ports of the Papal States open to all trade. Moreover, these states stood as a divisive barrier between north and south Italy. Now the desire to unify Italy under his own hat had become a ruling passion in Napoleon; “this,” he told Joseph, “is the chief and constant goal of my policy.”11 In accord with that policy French troops had occupied Ancona (1797), a strategic port on the Adriatic, commanding a main road between north and south Italy. Now, November 13, 1805, as Napoleon was preparing to face Austria and Russia in battle, Pius VII, stung to uncharacteristic audacity by his Curia, sent to Napoleon a startling challenge: “We owe it to ourselves to demand from Your Majesty the evacuation of Ancona; and if we are met with a refusal, we fail to see how we can reconcile it with the maintenance of friendly relations with Your Majesty’s minister.”12 Hotly resenting the timing of this ultimatum, which he received at Vienna on the eve of Austerlitz, Napoleon answered the Pope with a counterchallenge: “Your Holiness is the sovereign of Rome, but I am its emperor.”13 Having spoken like Charlemagne, he advanced like Caesar, and overwhelmed the Austrians and the Russians at Austerlitz.
A year later (November 12, 1806), having destroyed the Prussian Army at Jena, Napoleon sent from Berlin to the Pope a demand that the English be expelled from Rome, and that the Papal States join the “Italian Confederation”; for, he said, he could not tolerate, “between his Kingdom of Italy and his Kingdom of Naples,” the existence of “ports and fortresses which, in the event of war, might be occupied by the English, and compromise the safety of his states and his peoples.”14 Pius was given till February, 1807, to obey; he refused, and allowed the British minister to remain in Rome. On his triumphant return from Tilsit Napoleon again demanded the expulsion of the English agents from Rome; Pius again refused. On August 30 Napoleon threatened to seize the Papal Marches. Frightened, Pius agreed to close his ports to the British. Napoleon now demanded that the Pope make common cause with him against the enemies of France. Pius refused. On January 10, 1808, Napoleon ordered General Miollis (then heading a French division in Florence) to march upon Rome.
From that day events moved forward in one more historic conflict between Church and state. On February 2 Miollis and his troops took Civitavecchia; the next day they entered Rome, and surrounded the Quirinal—the hill that held the papal palace and the offices of the Curia. From that time till March, 1814, Pius VII was a prisoner of France. On April 2, 1808, Napoleon ordered the annexation of the Papal Marches to the kingdom of Italy. Now there was an open corridor between the kingdom of Naples and the kingdom of Italy—between Joseph and Eugène.
A year intervened, in which Napoleon was busy with Spain. On May 17, 1809, from Vienna again conquered, Napoleon proclaimed the absorption of the Papal States into the French Empire, and the end of the temporal power of the popes. On June 10 the Pope excommunicated Napoleon. On July 6 General Radet led some French troops into the Pope’s audience chamber and gave him a choice of abdication or exile. Pius took only his breviary and a crucifix, and followed his captors to a waiting carriage, which bore him along the Italian coast past Genoa to Savona. There he was kept in polite imprisonment until Napoleon—after publishing an alleged plot to abduct the Pontiff to England—had him transferred to Fontainebleau (June, 1812). On February 13, 1813, Pius signed a new agreement with Napoleon; on March 24 he revoked his signature. In his palatial jail he lived simply, even to mending his own shirt.15 He remained there through all the events of 1812 and 1813, until, on January 21, 1814, Napoleon, himself facing imprisonment, had him returned to Savona. In April, the Allies, having taken Paris and Napoleon, sent word to the Pope that he was free. On May 24 Pius VII, worn out with physical and mental suffering, reentered Rome. Nearly all the population welcomed him with fervor and acclaim; young Romans competed for the privilege of replacing the horses and drawing his carriage to the Quirinal.16
In their brief control of the Papal States Napoleon’s French administrators, helped by native liberals, transformed the economic and political scene with perhaps painful vigor and speed. Feudalism and the Inquisition were ended. Over five hundred religious houses were closed, giving an uncomfortable freedom to 5,852 monks and nuns. Corrupt officials were dismissed; public accountancy was introduced. Roads were repaired and policed; brigandage was almost stopped. Streets were cleaned and lighted; a quarter of the Pontine Marshes was drained and put under cultivation. Religious liberty was proclaimed; the Jews moved freely from their ghetto; Masonic lodges flourished. Hospitals multiplied; prisons were improved; schools were built and manned; a new university was opened in Perugia. The excavation of classic remains was continued, and Canova was put in charge of a museum that housed the findings. But taxes were collected with unheard-of insistence, and men were conscripted into the national Army. The merchants complained of the restrictions laid upon trade with England. The majority of the population frowned upon the sudden transformation of their traditional institutions, and the scandalous treatment of a Pope whom even the atheists had begun to love. “The populace looked back with regret to the soft and indolent rule of the Pope.”17
All in all, Napoleon’s imprisonment of Pius VII was an astonishing blunder for so astute a ruler. The concordats and the coronation had brought to the Consul and the Emperor a helpful reconciliation with Catholics throughout Europe, and even a formal acceptance of his rule by nearly all the kings of Europe; but his later treatment of the Pope alienated nearly all Catholics and many Protestants. The Papacy was strengthened by Napoleon’s attempt to make it his political instrument; the French Catholic Church, which till his time had been “Gallican”—i.e., antipapal—now gave its reverence and loyalty to the Papacy. The Jesuits, who had been expelled by a politically intimidated Pope, were restored throughout Christendom by the gentle but resolute Pius VII in 1814. The temporal power of the Papacy was renewed in that year, and its spiritual power was increased by the quiet resistance of the imprisoned Pope. Napoleon himself, between abdications, admitted his misjudgment of Pius VII. “I always believed the Pope to be a man of very weak character. … I treated him harshly. I was wrong. I was blind.”18 Pius, on the other hand, had never underestimated Napoleon, had in many ways admired him, and showed a certain tenderness for him when his former jailer became a prisoner in turn. When Napoleon’s mother complained to the Pope that the English were mistreating her son on St. Helena, Pius begged Cardinal Consalvi to intercede for his fallen foe.19 The Pope outlived the Emperor by two years. He died in 1823, murmuring, in delirium, “Savona, Fontainebleau.”20