The Ceremonies of the Conclave and Print Culture in Baroque Rome

John Hunt, University of Louisville

Rituals served many functions in early modern Europe. They symbolized the values and beliefs of the society that enacted and performed them. They also could unite or divided members of the society who participated in them. Baroque Rome was no different. Popes used rituals to propagandize their power, teach the faithful about doctrine, and to unite the various factions of the city. This all changed with the death of the pope.

The pope’s death initiated a period in Rome called sede vacante, or the empty seat, in which the papal throne lay vacant until the election of his successor. The vacant see also unleashed a frenzy of violence and ritual disorder associated with the cessation of law and justice in the wake of the pope’s death. During this time, the cardinals gathered in the conclave to elect the next occupant of St. Peter’s throne. The conclave—which means “with key” in Latin—was traditionally sealed to prevent foreign princes and local barons from influencing the supposedly divinely-guided election. The pope’s death and the papal election were heralded and symbolized by a range of popular and official ceremonies. These rituals evolved from the first conclave created by Urban V’s bull Ubi periculum of 1274. Many of these ceremonies remained a mystery to the populace of the city because the conclave was kept locked except for the main entrance to the Vatican Palace and four route, or turning wheels, by which the cardinals received food and drink. To ensure that the entrances were protected several companies of soldiers, a contingent of Swiss guards, and the civic militia all watched over the conclave and St. Peter’s Square.

Despite these precautions, information of the political machinations and the daily balloting that occurred within the conclave leaked out into the city and the Curia, that is, the papal court of officials, ecclesiastical courtiers, and messengers. The ambassadors of the great Catholic powers impatiently sought news of the election to send to their masters in Madrid, Paris, and Vienna. No less eager to discover information concerning the election were the people of Rome, who always desired a magnanimous leader, preferably one from a Roman family. Many of them also looked forward to sacking the pope elect’s house—a customary and ritualized right that Romans had enjoyed since the papacy’s definitive return from Avignon in 1420. The source of these leaks was the cardinals’ servants and even the cardinals themselves, who hoped to influence popular opinion. Much of this news, both false and true, spread through whispers and concealed notes passed through the ruote of the conclave. Once this information hit the streets, it disseminated either by word of mouth or through hand-written newsletters called avvisi. (Since this material constituted state secrets it could never be published in printed accounts.) The papal government—even during the vacant see—closely monitored the activities and output of printers and censored anything critical of the deceased pope, his regime, and the papacy in general.

From the second half of the seventeenth century, the public’s curiosity for news of the electoral process spurred printers to publish accounts of papal conclaves. These accounts took the form of conclave maps, which depicted the Vatican and the names and cells of the cardinals who participated in the election. They also illustrated and described in small captions the various ceremonies attached to the pope’s death and the conclave. Papal censors, however, sanitized these accounts to prevent state secrets from being divulged and to conceal the violence that always colored the sede vacante. These conclave maps conveyed a sanitized and static view of the vacant see and the papal election. Indeed, by 1655, a standardized map had developed that could describe any conclave, regardless of what actually occurred during the vacant see. Consequently, the public still had to acquire actual knowledge of the politicking and the disorder of the conclave and vacant see through the avvisi. What the conclave maps provided was a window into the mysteries of the conclave’s ceremonies—albeit a comforting rather than a realistic vision.

This conclave map was engraved by Giovanni Battista Falda (c. 1640-78), famous for his prints of the fountains and palaces of Baroque Rome, and published by Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi (1627-91), a prominent printer in Rome. This print described the vacant see of Clement IX and the conclave of 1670. It includes ten captions that illustrate the funeral obsequies of the dead pope, the ceremonies of the conclave’s inauguration, and the rites associated with the election and presentation of the new pope. Listed below are brief descriptions of each of the captions. Taken as a whole, these captions illustrate the official and unofficial rituals of the conclave and what they meant to those who participated in them and viewed them. The last two captions are out of sequence.

Fig. 1. Nuova et essattaGiovanni Battista Falda, New and Exact Map of the Conclave with the Functions for the Election of the New Pope Made in the Vacant See of Pope Clement IX (Rome: Giovanni Iacomo Rossi, 1670) [Nuova et essatta pianta del conclave con le funtioni per l’elettione del nuovo Pontefice fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Clemente IX]

The manner in which the body of the pontiff is taken from the Quirinal Palace to the Vatican [Ordine col quale si porta il cadaver del Pontifice dal Palazzo Quirinale al Vaticano]

Immediately after the pope’s death, his body was quietly taken in litter from the Quirinal Palace, the pope’s main residence in the heart of Rome, to the Vatican Palace, the seat of his court. The body was heavily protected by light cavalrymen and cannon as it made its way through the city. Although this ritual was done with utmost secrecy, the mournful procession of soldiers signaled the pope’s death to the city at large.

Fig. 2. Prima CongregationeFirst general congregation of the Lord Cardinals in the dressing room [Prima Congregatione generale de’ Sig.re Card. nella stanza de paramenti]

On the first day of the vacant see the College of Cardinals met to provide law and order in the wake of the pope’s death and the cessation of his law. The Cardinal Chamberlain, head of the chancery, assumed full leadership of the conclave and the state. He and the other cardinals chose two officers: the Governor of the Borgo, who was responsible for the protection of the conclave and the surrounding district (known as the Borgo) and the General of the Church, responsible for the papal army during the vacant see.

Fig 3. Essequie novendiali che si fannoNine-day obsequies that the Lord Cardinals perform in the Choir of the Lord Canons of St. Peter’s [Essequie novendiali che si fanno da Sig. Card. nel Choro de Sig. Canonici di S. Pietro]

To broadcast and commemorate the pope’s death, the cardinals held nine days of private funeral obsequies in the Choir of the Canons at St. Peter’s. Only the cardinals and other powerful members of the clergy attended these ceremonies. On the first day, in the presence of the papal court and Masters of Ceremonies, the Cardinal Chamberlain broke the Fisherman’s Ring, the symbol of St. Peter’s legacy, and the papal seals used to make bulls and laws official. This signified that the deceased pope’s law had ceased, that the vacant see had started, and that the College of Cardinals now held governmental responsibility. Funeral masses for the dead pope were held each day. The nine days of funeral obsequies also gave cardinals residing outside Rome time to make the trip to the conclave in order to take part in the election.

Fig. 4. Cadavre del PontificeThe pontiff’s body is exposed in the Chapel of the Most Holy Trinity in St. Peter’s Basilica [Cadavre del Pontifice esposto nella Cappella della SS.ma Trinità]

For the first three days of the vacancy the pope’s body was displayed at the Chapel of the Most Holy Trinity in St. Peter’s for pilgrims and locals to view. The pious kissed the pope’s slippered foot and begged forgiveness for their sins. They treated the deceased pope’s body as if it were a holy object, as attested to by diarists and newsletter writers who commented on the hordes of people crowding around the body to see and touch it.

Fig. 5. Messa dello SpiritoThe Mass of the Holy Spirit for the election of the new pontiff in the aforementioned choir [Messa dello Spirito S.to per l’elettione del nuovo Pontefice nel sud.o Choro]

On the day of the opening of the conclave, the cardinals all gathered in the Choir of the Canons where they would hear a mass asking for the Holy Spirit to inspire them to elect a wise and pious leader of the Church. The cardinals would also hear a sermon exhorting them to put aside factional loyalties and personal desires during the election.

Fig. 6. Ingresso del Sacro CollegioEntrance of the Sacred College of Cardinals in the conclave for the election of the new pontiff [Ingresso del Sacro Collegio de Card. nel Conclave per l’elettione del nuovo Pontef.]

The Cardinals made their way to the conclave on the tenth day after the pope’s death. Each cardinal was greeted by the Duke Savelli, whose family traditionally held the title of Warden of the Conclave, and by the Masters of Ceremonies. Crowds gathered outside the conclave cheered their favorite candidates as the Masters of Ceremonies read aloud their names with much fanfare. Afterwards ambassadors and Roman nobles met the cardinals to remind them to keep their candidates in mind as they took part in the election. Spanish and French ambassadors regularly gave factional leaders in the conclave lists of candidates acceptable to their sovereigns.

Fig. 7. Ordine col quale si portanoThe method in which food is carried to the Lazy Susans of the conclave for each cardinal [Ordine col quale si portano le vivande alle Ruote del conclave per ciascun Cardinale]

The conclave was to remain entirely sealed except for the main entrance and four route each guarded by men under the command of Duke Savelli. The route were turning wheels on which food and wine could be taken to the servants of the Cardinals. They were a major source of leaks and rumors emanating from the conclave. Cardinals and their agents passed notes between each other by means of the turning wheels. They also whispered to one another at the turning wheels, sometimes employing a cant, or a secret language, that no one else could understand.

Fig. 8. Liberatione de CarceratiFreeing of the prisoners who have committed light crimes [Liberatione de Carcerati per leggier delitto]

At the death of the pope, prisoners who committed less serious crimes—debtors and petty thieves—were released from Rome’s four prisons by the civic militia. The release of the prisoners reflected the cessation of the dead pope’s judicial authority. The more serious prisoners—murderers and heretics—had already been transported to the fortress Castel Sant’Angelo once the cardinals knew that the pope was near death. Although imprisoned for slight crimes, the release of these prisoners accounted for a great deal of the violence and disorder, as they sought revenge against the persons responsible for placing them in the papal jails.

Fig. 9. Caporione che con moltaThe Caporione with many armed men goes patrolling during the night for the protection of the city [Caporione che con molta gente armata la notte per custodia della Città]

The vacant see unleashed a spate of violence as Romans took the law into their own hands now that the pope’s law ceased to function. Consequently, murders and vendettas spiked during the vacancy. To keep the peace, the civic government of Rome sent out the Caporioni, the head of the civic militia, to patrol the city at night. There were fourteen Caporioni, one for each quarter of Rome. The Caporioni were prominent notaries, lawyers, and noblemen of their neighborhoods; their militiamen were artisans and shopkeepers.

Fig. 10. Processione del CleroProcession of the clergy who go to the Vatican to beg for the prompt and excellent election of the pontiff [Processione del Clero che va’ al Vaticano per implorare la sollecita et ottima elettione del Pontfice]

For the duration of the conclave, processions of clergymen marched to the Vatican to spur the cardinals to elect a worthy leader of the Church. Laymen enlisted in confraternities were also marshaled in the work of soliciting divine assistance for election. The Cardinal Vicar organized this program of the prayers and processions among the confraternities in order to ask God to inspire the cardinals in the conclave.

Fig. 11. Cella de Sig. Card.The cell of the Lord Cardinals and the Lazy Susans through which food is introduced into the conclave [Cella de Sig. Card. e Ruota p introdurre le vivande in Conclave]

Each cardinal had a cell in which he stayed for the duration of the conclave. Cardinals brought books, wine, and other items to pass the time between ballots. Some cunning cardinals whose cells faced the courtyard of the Belvedere would bore holes in their walls in order to pass notes to servants and agents waiting outside.

Fig. 12. Adoratione del PonteficeAdoration of the pontiff seated on the Great Altar of St. Peter’s Basilica [Adoratione del Pontefice assiso sopra l’Altar maggiore della Basilica di S. Pietro]

Once the election of the pope was decided and announced, the other cardinals sat him on the Great Altar in St. Peter’s Basilica where they performed the ritual of adoration. Based on the Adoration of the Magi and filled with feudal overtones, the cardinals knelt before the pope and kissed his foot, then his hand, and finally his cheek. In these ways, they recognized him as the Vicar of Christ and the legitimate father of the Church.

Fig. 13. Ordine col quale si portaThe manner in which the pope is carried from the said chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica [Ordine col quale si potra il Papa dalla detta Cappella alla Basilica di S. Pietro]

After the adoration of the newly elected pope, the cardinals placed him on a litter and bore him to the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square where he was introduced by the Cardinal Deacon to the waiting crowd with the words, “Habemus Papam!” (We have a pope!). The pope then performed the first act of his new office: blessing the crowd, which had come to St. Peter’s Square, having heard of the election by word of mouth and from salvoes fired from Castel Sant’Angelo. It was only in the nineteenth century that the papal ceremony adopted the ritual of the white smoke to herald the pope’s election.

Fig. 14. Prima adoration che prestanoThe first adoration that the Lord Cardinals take with crosses to the new pontiff in the said chapel [Prima adoration che prestano con le croccie li Signori Card. al nuovo Pontefice nella detta. Capella]

Before the adoration at the Great Altar in St. Peter’s, the cardinals would recognize the new pope by presenting crosses to him in the Sistine Chapel. They would then perform the ritual of adoration, thereby recognizing his legitimate election.

Fig. 15. Scrutinio che due volteThe scrutiny that the cardinals make two times a day in the Chapel of Sixtus IV for the election of the pontiff [Scrutinio che due volte di si fa da Sig. Card. nella Cappella di Sisto 4 per l’elettione del Pontefice]

During the conclave, the cardinals held ballots daily in which they voted on the candidate of their choice. These were called scrutinies. The candidate who received a two-thirds majority would be elected pope and then recognized through adoration by all the cardinals. Gregory XV established the definitive rules for the scrutiny and papal election with his bull of 1623. The papacy did not change the rules established by Gregory until 1978.

Suggested Readings

Baumgartner, Frederic J. Behind Locked Doors: A History of Papal Elections. London: Palgrave, 2003.

Leti, Gregorio. The Ceremonies of the Vacant See. Translated by J. Davies. London: Printed by H. L. and R. B. for Tho. Basset, 1671.

Nussdorfer, Laurie. “The Vacant See: Ritual and Protest in Early Modern Rome.” Sixteenth Century Journal 18 (1987): 173-89.

Paravicini-Bagliani, Agostino. The Pope’s Body. Translated by David S. Peterson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Prodi, Paolo. The Papal Prince: One Body and Two Souls. Translated by Susan Haskins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Key Words: Conclave, Baroque Rome, Papal Ceremonies