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Antonelli, Cardinal Giacomo (1808-1876)

Antonelli, Cardinal Giacomo (1808-1876) The last of the "lay Cardinals," Giacomo Antonelli was associated not only with the revolutionary upheaval of 1848, but the reaction which followed. Papal secretary of state for almost three decades (1848-1876), he played a key role in the counter-Risorgimento which opposed Italian unification, influencing Italian and European affairs in the process. While serving Pope Pius IX he crossed swords with Massini, Garibaldi and Cavour in Italy, and Napoleon III and Bismarck in Europe. For a time he was even embroiled in the diplomacy of the American civil war, and later was called upon to explain the meaning of Papal infallibility and the work of the vatican council. After the loss of Rome in 1870, he remained with Pius IX a "fellow prisoner" in the vatican.

Born in Sonnino, near Terracina, in the southern tier of the Papal States, his family made its fortune serving lay and clerical patrons. Giacomo's father Domenico, who decided his third son should enter the state administration, educated him accordingly. Enrolled in the Roman Seminary, and then the University of the Sapienza, Giacomo received his degree in canon and civil law. In 1835 he transferred from the judicial to the provincial administration when appointed apostolic delegate to the province of Orvieto. In 1836 he was moved to Viterbo, and in 1839 to Macerata.

The conservative Pope Gregory XVI named Giacomo under-secretary of the interior in 1841, nominating him a canon of St. Peter's basilica. He received holy orders up to the diaconate, but chose not to become a priest. Subsequently designated deputy treasurer (1844), he became treasurer-general in 1845. Mastai-Ferretti, who succeeded Gregory in 1846 as Pius IX, raised Giacomo up to the dignity of cardinal deacon in 1847. Antonelli served Pius IX's council of ministers and presided over the consultative chamber or consulta, the reformist Pius inaugurated.

When Pius granted his people a constitution in 1848, Antonelli played a major role in its elaboration. Presiding over the first constitutional ministry of the Papal States, named March 10, 1848, his cabinet favored closer relations with the other states of the peninsula, the creation of the Italian league and opposition to Austrian intervention in Italian affairs. Confronted with a rising anti-Jesuit agitation in the state, Antonelli found himself caught between the clamor of the radicals seeking their expulsion and the scruples of the pope, who considered them workers in the vineyard of the Lord. Eventually Antonelli arranged a compromise, calling upon the Jesuits to assure their safety. Even more explosive was the issue of papal participation against Austria initiated in March 1848, with the rebellion of the Milanese and Venetians against the Austrians, and the Piedmontese decision to champion their cause. Antonelli, who presided over a constitutional ministry and required the support of the moderate liberals to remain in office, accepted their call for participation in the war alongside the Piedmontese. The pope finally a greed to send his army northward, but from the first insisted that it assume a purely defensive posture. The cardinal acquiesced to the papal position, sending instructions to the papal forces not to cross the Po or attack the Austrians. The cabinet refused to accept this pacific posture, and pressed for a papal declaration of war against Austria.

When Pius publicly renounced participation in the war of national liberation in his allocation of April 29, 1848, the Antonelli cabinet resigned. Whereas the law, liberal figures in the cabinet refused to serve the pope any longer. Antonelli quietly accepted the post of prefect of papal palaces, wielding considerable influence behind the scenes. He continued to advise Pius during the turbulent summer and fall of 1848, when demonstrations rocked the Papal States. Following the assassination of Pellegrino Rossi, the chief papal minister, on November 15, the storming of the papal residence on November 1 and the imposition of a radical ministry, An tonelli advised flight. He coordinated the arrangements for the successful escape of November 24, 1848, which brought Pius to Gaeta in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Following the proclamation of the Roman Republic early in 1849, Antonelli again, acting as the papal secretary of state, called upon the armed intervention of the Catholic powers France, Austria, Spain and the Two Sicilies, to restore the Pope's sovereignty without condition.

Since Pius had concluded that constitutional government was not suitable for the independence of the Holy Father and the well-being of the faith, he relied on Antonelli to resist the French pressure for liberal institutions and secularization of the administration. Pursuing the pope's instructions, after the fall of the Roman Republic, Antonelli drafted the motu-proprio of September 12, 1849, which promised judicial and administrative concessions for the people of the Papal States, but provided that political power would remain in the hands of the Pope and his nominees. Antonelli, who resisted the French pressure for the restoration of constitutionalism, remained indispensable to the Pope at Gaeta. With the return to Rome in April 1850, Antonelli served not only as the Pope's prime minister but as the chief architect of the restored regime.

The revolutionary events of 1848, and the proclamation of the Roman Republic in 1849, turned Pius IX against even a moderate reformism, limiting Antonelli's political options after 1849. When pressed for reforms, he retorted that the conscience of the pope would not permit him to make any concessions which threatened the church's spiritual authority. Rome's unwillingness to come to terms with Piedmont in the 1850s, and the Kingdom of Italy after 1861, was due to the maneuvers of Count Cavour and Napoleon III on the one side, and the scruples of Pio Nono on the other. Likewise the Syllabus of Errors and the declaration of Papal Infallibility, which contributed to the political isolation of the papacy, were the work of the pope rather than his secretary of state.

Antonelli was maligned for a number of reasons. Many who dared not criticize the pope found it convenient to blame his minister. Liberals disliked the cardinal for making papal absolutism viable after 1848, nationalists for his attempt to block unification, and some conservative catholics for his failure to do so.

Frank J. Coppa


Coppa, Frank J. "Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli: An Accommodating Personality in the Politics of Confrontation" Biography, II (Fall, 1979), 283,302.

_______. Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli and Papal Politics in European Affairs Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Dalla Torre, Paolo "Il Cardinale Giacomo Antonelli fra carte di archivio ed atti processuali," Pio IX, VIII (1979), 144-195.

Falconi, Carlo Il Cardinale Antonelli. Vita e carriera del Richelieu italiano nella chiesa di Pio IX Milan: Mondadori, 1983.

Pirri, Pietro "Il Cardinale Antonelli tra il mito e la storia," Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia, XII (1958), 81-120.

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