Conclaves in the Age of Absolutism

  • Frederic J. Baumgartner


After 1600 most cardinals led respectable lives, and few had children. With men of good moral quality from whom to choose, the conclaves from then on elected popes who never disgraced their office with their personal failings. On the other hand, popes and cardinals were more eager than ever to enhance the status and wealth of their families by giving them much of the papal patrimony. Urban VIII set the example in this. An observer wrote, “Upon his elevation his kindred flew to Rome like so many bees to suck the honey of the Church.” i His generosity and their rapaciousness made him the worst example of papal nepotism. His twenty-six-year-old nephew, Francesco, became a cardinal in October 1623 and later secretary of state. He became so important an adviser to his uncle that Urban called him Padrone, “Master.” The cardinal-nephew became known as the cardinalepadrone. Urban’s brother and another nephew, both Antonios, later received red hats. A third nephew received the highest positions in the Papal States open to a layman, and amassed so great a fortune that he rivaled the duke of Tuscany as the wealthiest man in Italy.


Papal State Roman Family French Faction Noble Family Good Moral Quality 
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    J. Bargrave, Pope Alexander the Seventh and the College of Cardinals, ed. by J. Robinson (reprint, London, 1968), article R Barberini. Bargrave was an exiled English divine who lived in Italy for two decades. His work describes the 68 cardinals of 1670. Bargrave’s work was part of a vast literature on the papacy and the conclave appearing during this era in England and throughout Europe. The fascination of Protestants and Catholics alike with the conclave reflected not only the importance of the papacy in European affairs, but also the fact that it was the only election for which the outcome was uncertain, that of the Holy Roman emperor from the Habsburg family being a foregone conclusion by this time.Google Scholar
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    G. Ernst, ‘Astrology, religion and politics in Counter-Reformation Rome,’ in S. Pumfrey, et al., eds., Science, Culture and Popular Belief in Renaissance Europe (Manchester, 1991 ), p. 266.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in B. de Bildt, “The Conclave of Clement X (1670),” Proceedings of the British Academy (1903), p. 5.Google Scholar

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© Frederic J. Baumgartner 2003

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  • Frederic J. Baumgartner

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