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Thomas Gray and Horace Walpole on Grand Tour, spread news of a papal election, 1739/1740

By Dr. Robert V. McNamee


On Sunday, 29 March 1739, two young men, aspiring authors and student friends from Eton College and Cambridge, departed Dover for the Continent. The twenty-two year old Horace Walpole, 4th earl of Orford (1717–1797), was setting out on his turn at the Grand Tour. Accompanying him on the journey, which would take them through France to Italy, was Thomas Gray (1716–1771), future author of the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. The pair stayed abroad until September 1741, when an argument saw Gray return to England alone.

Travelling through Catholic domains, they would witness at arms-length one of the longest transfers of papal power in history, only four days shorter than the Interregnum, later imposed by the Napoleonic French, between the expulsion from the Papal States of Pius VI (who died 1799) and the election of Pius VII (14 March 1800). The on-going power struggle between the papacy and Catholic rulers of Europe, particularly with France, Spain and Portugal, had reached new levels of intensity — the latter two objecting in particular to unwelcome Jesuit interference in their treatment (read, “mistreatment”) of native populations in their overseas empires. The issue was still critical twenty years later, when Voltaire, under the pseudonym M. Demand, wrote to the Journal encyclopédique (1 April 1759), in the guise of identifying the real author of Candide, offering in partial evidence reports from the confrontations between Jesuits and colonial officials over their dealings with native populations in Paraguay.

The correspondence and journals of Gray and Walpole chart their travels, visits and discoveries across France and into Italy. The two young English travellers arrived in Florence on 16 December 1739, after a two days’ journey from Bologna across the Apennines. It was only two months before the ancient drama of papal passing and election would attract the attention of the world. Gray reported this news, when it came, to his friend Dr Thomas Wharton, writing on Saturday, 12 March 1740:

I conclude you will write to me; won’t you? oh! yes, when you know, that in a week I set out for Rome, & that the Pope is dead, & that I shall be (I should say, God willing; & if nothing extraordinary intervene; & if I’m alive, & well; & in all human probability) at the Coronation of a new one.

Clement XII (Papa Clemens duodecimus, born Lorenzo Corsini) had been pope from his election on 12 July 1730. He was the oldest person to become pope until Benedict XVI was elected in 2005. Clement died on 6 February 1740, and was eventually succeeded by Benedict XIV (Papa Benedictus quartus decimus, born Pròspero Lorenzo Lambertini), who was elected six months later on 17 August 1740. In a well-known anecdote of the election, Benedict is reported to have said to the cardinals: “If you wish to elect a saint, choose Gotti; a statesman, Aldrovandi; an honest man, me” (M. J. Walsh, Pocket Dictionary of Popes, London: Burns & Oates, 2006) — though as we will see from a contemporary report below, this is a rather colourless translation of the original.

A week later, Gray wrote to his mother Dorothy (Saturday, 19 March 1740):

The Pope is at last dead, and we are to set out for Rome on Monday next. The Conclave is still sitting there, and likely to continue so some time longer, as the two French Cardinals are but just arrived, and the German ones are still expected. It agrees mighty ill with those that remain inclosed: Ottoboni is already dead of an apoplexy; Altieri and several others are said to be dying, or very bad: Yet it is not expected to break up till after Easter. We shall lie at Sienna the first night, spend a day there, and in two more get to Rome. One begins to see in this country the first promises of an Italian spring, clear unclouded skies, and warm suns, such as are not often felt in England; yet, for your sake, I hope at present you have your proportion of them, and that all your frosts, and snows, and short-breaths are, by this time, utterly vanished. I have nothing new or particular to inform you of; and, if you see things at home go on much in their old course, you must not imagine them more various abroad. The diversions of a Florentine Lent are composed of a sermon in the morning, full of hell and the devil; a dinner at noon, full of fish and meager diet; and, in the evening, what is called a Conversazione, a sort of aſsembly at the principal people’s houses, full of I cannot tell what: Besides this, there is twice a week a very grand concert.

Two weeks later, after their arrival in Rome, Gray wrote another Saturday letter to his mother (2 April 1740):

St. Peter’s I saw the day after we arrived, and was struck dumb with wonder. I there saw the Cardinal d’Auvergne, one of the French ones, who, upon coming off his journey, immediately repaired hither to offer up his vows at the high altar, and went directly into the Conclave; the doors of which we saw opened to him, and all the other immured Cardinals came thither to receive him. Upon his entrance they were closed again directly. It is supposed they will not come to an agreement about a Pope till after Easter, though the confinement is very disagreeable.”

The conflict between catholic rulers, their national churches and the papacy led to prolonged disagreements and manoeuvrings in the Conclave, as evidenced by this letter from Walpole and Gray to their schoolboy friend, then fellow of King’s College Cambridge (Rome, 14 May 1740):

Boileau’s Discord dwelt in a College of Monks. At present the Lady is in the Conclave. Cardinal Corsini has been interrogated about certain Millions of Crowns that are absent from the Apostolic Chamber; He refuses giving Account, but to a Pope: However he has set several Arithmeticians to work, to compose Summs, & flourish out Expenses, which probably never existed. Cardinal Cibo pretends to have a Banker at Genoa, who will prove that he has received three Millions on the Part of the Eminent Corsini. This Cibo is a madman, but set on by others. He had formerly some great office in the government, from whence they are generally rais’d to the Cardinalate. After a time, not being promoted as he expected, he resign’d his Post, and retir’d to a Mountain where He built a most magnificient Hermitage. There He inhabited for two years, grew tir’d, came back and received the Hat.

Other feuds have been between Card. Portia and the Faction of Benedict the Thirteenth, by whom He was made Cardinal. About a month ago, he was within three Votes of being Pope. he did not apply to any Party, but went gleaning privately from all & of a sudden burst out with a Number; but too soon, & that threw Him quite out. Having been since left out of their Meetings, he ask’d one of the Benedictine Cardinals the reason; who replied, that he never had been their Friend, & never should be of their assemblies; & did not even hesitate to call him Apostate. This flung Portia into such a Rage that He spit blood, & instantly left the Conclave with all his Baggage. But the great Cause of their Antipathy to Him, was His having been one of the Four, that voted for putting Coscia to Death; Who now regains his Interest, & may prove somewhat disagreable to his Enemies; Whose Honesty is not abundantly heavier than His Own. He met Corsini t’other Day, & told Him, He heard His Eminence had a mind to his Cell: Corsini answer’d He was very well contented with that He had. Oh, says Coscia, I don’t mean here in the Conclave; but in the Castle St. Angelo.

With all these Animosities, One is near having a Pope. Card. Gotti, an Old, inoffensive Dominican, without any Relations, wanted yesterday but two voices; & is still most likely to succeed. Card. Altieri has been sent for from Albano, whither he was retir’d upon account of his Brother’s Death, & his own Illness; & where He was to stay till the Election drew nigh. There! there’s a sufficient Competency of Conclave News, I think. We have miserable Weather for the Season; Coud You think I was writing to You by my fireside at Rome in the middle of May? the Common People say tis occasion’d by the Pope’s Soul, which cannot find Rest.

As the bickering and accusations continued, Gray returned to Florence, where he reported to his father Philip (10 July 1740):

The Conclave we left in greater uncertainty than ever; the more than ordinary liberty they enjoy there, and the unusual coolneſs of the season, makes the confinement leſs disagreeable to them than common, and, consequently, maintains them in their irresolution. There have been very high words, one or two (it is said) have come even to blows; two more are dead within this last month, Cenci and Portia; the latter died distracted; and we left another (Altieri) at the extremity: Yet nobody dreams of an election till the latter end of September. All this gives great scandal to all good catholics, and everybody talks very freely on the subject.

Pope Benedict XIVFinally, on Sunday, 21 August 1740, Gray wrote again to his mother with the news of the new pope’s election:

The day before yesterday arrived the news of a Pope; and I have the mortification of being within four days journey of Rome, and not seeing his coronation, the heats being violent, and the infectious air now at its height. We had an instance, the other day, that it is not only fancy. Two country fellows, strong men, and used to the country about Rome, having occasion to come from thence hither, and travelling on foot, as common with them, one died suddenly on the road; the other got hither, but extremely weak, and in a manner stupid; he was carried to the hospital, but died in two days. So, between fear and lazineſs, we remain here, and must be satisfied with the accounts other people give us of the matter. The new Pope is called Benedict XIV. being created Cardinal by Benedict XIII. the last Pope but one. His name is Lambertini, a noble Bolognese, and Archbishop of that city. When I was first there, I remember to have seen him two or three times; he is a short, fat man, about sixty-five years of age, of a hearty, merry countenance, and likely to live some years. He bears a good character for generosity, affability, and other virtues; and, they say, wants neither knowledge nor capacity. The worst side of him is, that he has a nephew or two; besides a certain young favourite, called Melara, who is said to have had, for some time, the arbitrary disposal of his purse and family. He is reported to have made a little speech to the Cardinals in the Conclave, while they were undetermined about an election, as follows: ‘Most eminent Lords, here are three Bolognese of different characters, but all equally proper for the Popedom. If it be your pleasures, to pitch upon a Saint, there is Cardinal Gotti; if upon a Politician, there is Aldrovandi; if upon a Booby, here am I.’ The Italian is much more expreſsive, and, indeed, not to be translated; wherefore, if you meet with any body that understands it, you may show them what he said in the language he spoke it. ‘Eminſsimi. Sigri. Ci siamo tré, diversi sì, mà tutti idonei al Papato. Si vi piace un Santo, c’ è l’Gotti; se volete una testa scaltra, e Politica, c’ è l’Aldrovandé;c se un Coglione, eccomi!’ Cardinal Coscia is restored to his liberty, and, it is said, will be to all his benefices. Corsini (the late Pope’s nephew) as he has had no hand in this election, it is hoped, will be called to account for all his villanous practices.”

Dr. Robert V. McNamee is the Director of the Electronic Enlightenment Project, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Electronic Enlightenment is a scholarly research project of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, and is available exclusively from Oxford University Press. It is the most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period, linking people across Europe, the Americas, and Asia from the early 17th to the mid-19th century — reconstructing one of the world’s great historical “conversations”.

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Image Credit: (1) Print Collection portrait file, Thomas Gray, Portraits. Source NYPL Digital Gallery
(2) Print Collection portrait file, B, Pope Benedict XIV. Source NYPL Digital Gallery

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One Response to “Thomas Gray and Horace Walpole on Grand Tour, spread news of a papal election, 1739/1740”
  1. Bill Roberts says:

    I enjoyed this substantial and timely article. You might perhaps have mentioned Ashton’s name (the friend at King’s) and suggested further reading about the Grand Tour in my book Grand Tour Revisited.

    Bill Roberts

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