Giacomo Antonelli


He was born in a den of thieves. His native place, Sonnino, is more celebrated in the history of crime than all Arcadia in the annals of virtue. This nest of vultures was hidden in the southern mountains, towards the Neapolitan frontier. Roads, impracticable to mounted dragoons, winding through brakes and thickets; forests, impenetrable to the stranger; deep ravines and gloomy caverns,—all combined to form a most desirable landscape, for the convenience of crime. The houses of Sonnino, old, ill-built, flung pell-mell one, upon the other, and almost uninhabitable by human beings, were, in point of fact, little else than depots of pillage and magazines of rapine. The population, alert and vigorous, had for many centuries practised armed robbery and depredation, and gained its livelihood at the point of the carbine. New-born infants inhaled contempt of the law with the mountain air, and drew in the love of others' goods with their mothers' milk. Almost as soon as they could walk, they assumed the cioccie, or mocassins of untanned leather, with which they learned to run fearlessly along the edge of the giddiest mountain precipices. When they had acquired the art of pursuing and escaping, of taking without being taken, the knowledge of the value of the different coins, the arithmetic of the distribution of booty, and the principles of the rights of nations as they are practised among the Apaches or the Comanches, their education was deemed complete. They required no teaching to learn how to apply the spoil, and to satisfy their passions in the hour of victory.

In the year of grace 1806, this sensual, brutal, impious, superstitious, ignorant, and cunning race endowed Italy with a little mountaineer, known as Giacomo Antonelli.

Hawks do not hatch doves. This is an axiom in natural history which has no need of demonstration. Had Giacomo Antonelli been gifted at his birth with the simple virtues of an Arcadian shepherd, his village would have instantly disowned him. But the influence of certain events modified his conduct, although they failed to modify his nature. His infancy and his childhood were subjected to two opposing influences. If he received his earliest lessons from successful brigandage, his next teachers were the gendarmerie. When he was hardly four years old, the discharge of a high moral lesson shook his ears: it was the French troops who were shooting brigands in the outskirts of Sonnino. After the return of Pius VII. he witnessed the decapitation of a few neighbouring relatives who had often dandled him on their knees. Under Leo XII. it was still worse. Those wholesome correctives, the wooden horse and the supple-jack, were permanently established in the village square. About once a fortnight the authorities rased the house of some brigand, after sending his family to the galleys, and paying a reward to the informer who had denounced him. St. Peter's Gate, which adjoins the house of the Antonellis, was ornamented with a garland of human heads, which eloquent relics grinned dogmatically enough in their iron cages. If the stage be a school of life, surely such a stage as this is a rare teacher. Young Giacomo was enabled to reflect upon the inconveniences of brigandage, even before he had tasted its sweets. About him some men of progress had already engaged in industrial pursuits of a less hazardous nature than robbery. His own father, who, it was whispered, had in him the stuff of a Grasparone or a Passatore, instead of exposing himself upon the highways, took to keeping bullocks, he then became an Intendant, and subsequently was made a Municipal Receiver; by which occupations he acquired more money at considerably less risk.

The young Antonelli hesitated for some time as to the choice of a calling. His natural vocation was that of the inhabitants of Sonnino in general, to live in plenty, to enjoy every sort of pleasure, to make himself at home everywhere, to be dependent upon nobody, to rule others, and to frighten them, if necessary, but, above all, to violate the laws with impunity. With the view of attaining so lofty an end without exposing his life, for which he ever had a most particular regard, he entered the great seminary of Rome.

In our land of scepticism, a young man enters the seminary with the hope of being ordained a priest: Antonelli entered it with the opposite intention. But in the capital of the Catholic Church, young Levites of ordinary intelligence become magistrates, prefects, councillors of state, and ministers, while the "dry fruit[6] is thought good enough for making priests."

Antonelli so distinguished himself, that (with Heaven's help) he escaped the sacrament of Ordination. He has never said mass: he has never confessed a penitent; I won't swear he has even confessed himself. He gained what was of more value than all the Christian virtues—the friendship of Gregory XVI. He became a prelate, a magistrate, a prefect, Secretary General of the Interior, and Minister of Finance. No one can say he has not chosen the right path. A finance minister, if he knows anything of his business, can lay by more money in six months than all the brigands of Sonnino in twenty years.

Under Gregory XVI. he had been a reactionist, to please his sovereign. On the accession of Pius IX., for the same reason, he professed liberal ideas. A red hat and a ministerial portfolio were the recompense of his new convictions, and proved to the inhabitants of Sonnino that liberalism itself is more lucrative than brigandage. What a practical lesson for those mountaineers! One of themselves clothed in purple and fine linen, actually riding in his gilt coach, passed the barracks, and their old friends the dragoons presenting arms, instead of firing long shots at him!

He obtained the same influence over the new Pope that he had over the old one, thus proving that people may be got hold of without stopping them on the highway. Pius IX., who had no secrets from him, confided to him his wish to correct abuses, without concealing his fear of succeeding too well. He served the Holy Father, even in his irresolutions. As President of the Supreme Council of State, he proposed reforms, and as Minister he postponed their adoption. Nobody was more active than he, whether in settling or in violating the constitution of 1848. He sent Durando to fight the Austrians, and disavowed him after the battle.

He quitted the ministry as soon as he found there were dangers to be encountered, but assisted the Pope in his secret opposition to his ministers. The murder of Count Rossi gave him serious cause for reflection. A man don't take the trouble to be born at Sonnino, in order to let himself be assassinated: quite the contrary. He placed the Pope—and himself—in safety, and then went to Gaeta to play the part of Secretary of State in partibus.

From this exile dates his omnipotence over the will of the Holy Father, his reinstatement in the esteem of the Austrians, and the consistency in his whole conduct. Since then no more contradictions in his political life. They who formally accused him of hesitating between the welfare of the nation and his own personal interest are reduced to silence. He wishes to restore the absolute power of the Pope, in order that he may dispose of it at his ease. He prevents all reconciliation between Pius IX. and his subjects; he summons the cannon of Catholicism to effect the conquest of Rome. He ill-uses the French, who are willing to die for him; he turns a deaf ear to the liberal counsels of Napoleon III.; he designedly prolongs the exile of his master; he draws up the promises of the Motu Proprio, while devising means to elude them. At length, he returns to Rome, and for ten years continues to reign over a timid old man and an enslaved people, opposing a passive resistance to all the counsels of diplomacy and all the demands of Europe. Clinging tenaciously to power, reckless as to the future, misusing present opportunities, and day by day increasing his fortune—after the manner of Sonnino.

In this year of grace 1859, he is fifty-three years of age. He presents the appearance of a well-preserved man. His frame is slight and robust, and his constitution is that of a mountaineer. The breadth of his forehead, the brilliancy of his eyes, his beak-like nose, and all the upper part of his face inspire a certain awe. His countenance, of almost Moorish hue, is at times lit up by flashes of intellect. But his heavy jaw, his long fang-like teeth, and his thick lips express the grossest appetites. He gives you the idea of a minister grafted on a savage. When he assists the Pope in the ceremonies of the Holy Week he is magnificently disdainful and impertinent. He turns from time to time in the direction of the diplomatic tribune, and looks without a smile at the poor ambassadors, whom he cajoles from morning to night. You admire the actor who bullies his public. But when at an evening party he engages in close conversation with a handsome woman, the play of his countenance shows the direction of his thoughts, and those of the imaginative observer are imperceptibly carried to a roadside in a lonely forest, in which the principal objects are prostrate postilions, an overturned carriage, trembling females, and a select party of the inhabitants of Sonnino!

He lives in the Vatican, immediately over the Pope. The Romans ask punningly which is the uppermost, the Pope or Antonelli?

All classes of society hate him equally. Concini himself was not more cordially detested. He is the only living man concerning whom an entire people is agreed.

A Roman prince furnished me with some information respecting the relative fortunes of the nobility. When he gave me the list he said,

"You will remark the names of two individuals, the amount of whose property is described as unlimited. They are Torlonia and Antonelli. They have both made large fortunes in a few years,—the first by speculation, the second by power."

The Cardinals Altieri and Antonelli were one day disputing upon some point in the Pope's presence. They flatly contradicted one another; and the Pope inclined to the opinion of his Minister. "Since your Holiness," said the noble Altieri, "accords belief to a ciociari [7] rather than to a Roman prince, I have nothing to do but to withdraw."

The Apostles themselves appear to entertain no very amicable feelings towards the Secretary of State. The last time the Pope made a solemn entry into his capital (I think it was after his journey to Bologna), the Porta del Popolo and the Corso were according to custom hung with draperies, behind which the old statues of St. Peter and St. Paul were completely hidden. Accordingly the people were entertained by finding the following dialogue appended to the corner of the street:—

Peter to Paul. "It seems to me, old fellow, that we are somewhat forsaken here."

Paul to Peter. "What would you have? We are no longer anything. There is but James in the world now."

I am aware that hatred proves nothing—even the hatred of Apostles. The French nation, which claims to be thought just, insulted the funeral procession of Louis XIV. It also occasionally detested Henri IV. for his economy, and Napoleon for his victories. No statesman should be judged upon the testimony of his enemies. The only evidence we should admit either for or against him, is his public acts. The only witnesses to which any weight should be attributed are the greatness and the prosperity of the country he governs.

Such an inquiry would, I fear, be ruinous to Antonelli. The nation reproaches him with all the evils it has suffered for the last ten years. The public wretchedness and ignorance, the decline of the arts, the entire suppression of liberty, the ever-present curse of foreign occupation,—all fall upon his head, because he alone is responsible for everything.

It may be alleged that he has at least served the reactionary party. I much doubt it. What internal factions has he suppressed? Secret societies have swarmed in Rome during his reign. What remonstrances from without has he silenced? Europe continues to complain unanimously, and day by day lifts up its voice a tone or two higher. He has failed to reconcile one single party or one single power to the Holy father. During his ten years' dictatorship, he has neither gained the esteem of one foreigner nor the confidence of one Roman. All he has gained is time. His pretended capacity is but slyness. To the trickery of the present he adds the cunning of the red Indian; but he has not that largeness of view without which it is impossible to establish firmly the slavery of the people. No one possesses in a greater degree than he the art of dragging on an affair, and manoeuvring with and tiring out diplomatists; but it is not by pleasantries of this sort that a tottering tyranny can be propped up. Although he employs every subterfuge known to dishonest policy, I am not quite sure that he has even the craft of a politician.

The attainment of his own end does not in fact require it. For after all, what is his end? In what hope, with what aim, did he come down from the mountains of Sonnino?

Do you really believe he thought of becoming the benefactor of the nation?—or the saviour of the Papacy?—or the Don Quixote of the Church? Not such a fool! He thought, first, of himself; secondly, of his family.

His family is flourishing. His four brothers, Filippo, Luigi, Gregorio, and—save the mark!—Angelo, all wore the cioccie  in their younger days; they now, one and all, wear the count's coronet. One is governor of the bank, a capital post, and since poor Campana's condemnation he has got the Monte di Pietà. Another is Conservator of Rome, under a Senator especially selected for his incapacity. Another follows openly the trape of a monopolist, with immense facilities for either preventing or authorizing exportation, according as his own warehouses happen to be full or empty. The youngest is the commercial traveller, the diplomatist, the messenger of the family,Angelus Domini. A cousin of the family, Count Dandini, reigns over the police. This little group is perpetually at work adding to a fortune which is invisible, impalpable, and incalculable. The house of Antonelli is not pitied at Sonnino.

As for the Secretary of State, all who know him intimately, both men and women, agree that he leads a pleasant life. If it were not for the bore of making head against the diplomatists, and giving audience every morning, he would be the happiest of mountaineers. His tastes are simple; a scarlet silk robe, unlimited power, an enormous fortune, a European reputation, and all the pleasures within man's reach—this trifle satisfies the simple tastes of the Cardinal Minister. Add, by the bye, a splendid collection of minerals, perfectly classified which he is constantly enriching with the passion of an amateur and the tenderness of a father.

I was saying just now that he has always escaped the sacrament of Holy Orders. He is Cardinal Deacon. The good souls who will have it that all goes well at Rome, dwell with fervour on the advantage he possesses in not being a priest. If he is accused of possessing inordinate wealth, these indulgent Christians reply, that he is not a priest! If you charge him with having read Machiavelli to good purpose; admitted—what then?—he is no priest! If the tongue of scandal is over-free with his private life; still the ready reply, that he is not a priest! If Deacons are thus privileged, what latitude may we not claim who have not even assumed the tonsure?

This highly-blest mortal has one weakness—truly a very natural one.
He fears death. A certain fair lady, who had been honoured by his
Eminence's particular attentions, thus illustrated the fact,

"Upon meeting me at our rendezvous, he seized me like a madman, and with trembling eagerness examined my pockets. It was only when he had assured himself that I had no concealed weapon about me that he seemed to remember our friendship."

One man alone has dared to threaten a life so precious to itself, and he was an idiot. Instigated by some of the secret societies, this poor crazed wretch concealed himself beneath the staircase of the Vatican, and awaited the coming of the Cardinal. When the intended victim appeared, the idiot with much difficulty drew from beneath his waistcoat—a table-fork! Antonelli saw the terrible weapon, and bounded backwards with a spring which an Alpine chamois-hunter might have envied. The miserable assassin was instantly seized, bound, and delivered over to justice. The Roman tribunals, so often lenient towards the really guilty, had no mercy for this real innocent. He was beheaded. The Cardinal, full of pity, fell—officially—at the Pope's feet, and asked for a pardon which he well knew would be refused. He pays the widow a pension: is not this the act of a clever man?

Since the day when that formidable fork glittered before his eyes, he has taken excessive precautions. His horses are broken to gallop furiously through the streets, at considerable public risk. Occasionally, his carriage knocks down and runs over a little boy or girl. With characteristic magnanimity, he sends the parents fifty crowns.

Antonelli has been compared to Mazarin. They have, in common, the fear of death, inordinate love of money, a strong family feeling, utter indifference to the people's welfare, contempt for mankind, and some other accidental points of resemblance. They were born in the same mountains, or nearly so. One obtained the influence over a woman's heart which the other possesses over the mind of an old man. Both governed unscrupulously, and both have merited and obtained the hatred of their contemporaries. They have talked French comically, without being insensible to any of the delicate niceties of the language.

Still there would be manifest injustice in placing them in the same rank. The selfish Mazarin dictated to Europe the treaties of Westphalia, and the Peace of the Pyrenees: he founded by diplomacy the greatness of Louis XIV., and managed the affairs of the French monarchy, without in any way neglecting his own.

Antonelli has made his fortune at the expense of the nation, the Pope, and the Church. Mazarin may be compared to a skilful but rascally tailor, who dresses his customers well, while he contrives to cabbage sundry yards of their cloth; Antonelli, to those Jews of the Middle Ages, who demolished the Coliseum for the sake of the old iron in the walls.

6: An expression in use among collegians in France, to describe those students who are unable to pass their examinations; tantamount to our English plucked.

7: A man who has worn cioccie.