The Pope as Statesman

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A Dutch engraving of Clement IX, who was Pope from 1667-1669

Clement IX and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

The papacy of Clement IX lasted only thirty months, from the summer of 1667 to December 1669. His papacy is primarily remembered if at all for a truce of sorts in the Jansenist controversy, discussed later in this exhibit, but Clement IX was also active in the less spiritual elements of the papal office throughout the Early Modern period, serving as head of state of the Papal States, as well as a leading political ruler in Europe at a time of constant warfare and fighting across the continent.

Yet Clement IX is not remembered as a “Warrior Pope” like Julius II of the sixteenth century; his involvement with this century of wars comes as a peacemaker. The War of Devolution between France and Spain (with support from a Triple Alliance of the Dutch Republic, England, and Sweden) started weeks before Guilio Rospigliosi became Clement IX, and a year later the Bishop of Rome was chosen to mediate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle between the two sides. Voltaire, hardly the papacy’s most enthusiastic cheerleader, noted that the pope served as a figure trusted to bring peace, although he characteristically claimed in the next paragraph the “Court of Rome… left no means untried to gain the honor of being arbitrator… in order to hide its weakness under an appearance of power” (Voltaire, Age of Louis XIV, 114). 

The short reign of Clement IX thus illustrates the papacy’s continued relevance in European political life through the seventeenth century. It further shows the unity the papacy could bring amongst Catholic nations. Finally, it shows that this authority was hardly predicated on the individual worth or longevity of any particular pontiff.

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A series of engravings showing the response to an outbreak of the plague in Rome in 1656

The Plague in Rome, 1656

Created sometime around the plague outbreak, this set of engravings shows the suffering and response of Roman authorities to the spread of disease through the city in 1656. Rome, like the rest of Italy, underwent steep population and economic decline in the seventeenth century, driven in large part by multiple outbreaks of the plague. Although it proved more resilient than many of the cities of Italy, these scenes make clear the disease wreaked havoc in Rome (Alfani, 414).

Rome served as the center of the Papal States, the sprawling territory controlled directly by the pope, and the example of plague shows that the papacy, in its earthly role, was forced to confront the economic stagnation and decline that faced the whole of Italy (Hanlon, 208-209).

The symbols of Christendom are present throughout the engravings, and although specific characters are difficult to discern, there are surely clerics walking the streets, carrying out their spiritual and sacramental duties. The Bishop of Rome confronted such outbreaks as the head of one branch of Christendom, but he confronted the seventeenth century’s economic and social upheaval not only as a pan-European leader, but as an Italian head of state. If there is any doubt of the Early Modern papacy’s implicit connection to the Italian peninsula, it should be remembered that when the Dutch Adrian VI died in 1523 it would be 455 years until a non-Italian again sat on the Chair of Saint Peter.