Catholic Encyclopedia – Pope Pius VI

[Pope Pius VI]Article

(Giovanni Angelico Braschi)

Born at Cesena, 27 December 1717; elected 15 February 1775; died at Valence, France, 29 August 1799. He was of a noble but impoverished family, and was educated at the Jesuit College of Cesena and studied law at Ferrara. After a diplomatic mission to Naples, he was appointed papal secretary and canon of Saint Peter’s in 1755. Clement XIII appointed him treasurer of the Roman Church in 1766, and Clement XIV made him a cardinal in 1775. He then retired to the Abbey of Subiaco, of which he was commendatory abbot, until his election as Pius VI.

Spain, Portugal, and France had at first combined to prevent his election, because he was believed to be a friend of the Jesuits; he was well disposed towards the order, but he dared not revoke the Bull of their suppression. Still he ordered the liberation of their general, Ricci, a prisoner in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo in Rome, but the general died before the decree of liberation arrived. Upon the request of Frederick II of Prussia he permitted the Jesuits to retain their schools in Prussia; while in Russia, he permitted an uninterrupted continuation of the order. Soon after his accession he took steps to root out the Gallican idea of papal supremacy which had been spread in Germany by Hontheim. Joseph II forbade the Austrian bishops to apply to Rome for faculties of any kind, and suppressed innumerable monasteries. Pius VI resolved to go to Vienna; he left Rome on 27 February 1782, and arrived in Vienna on 22 March. The emperor received him respectfully, though the minister, Kaunitz, neglected even the ordinary rules of etiquette. The pope remained at Vienna until 22 April 1782. All that he obtained from the emperor was the promise that his ecclesiastical reforms would not contain any violation of Catholic dogmas, or compromise the dignity of the pope. The emperor accompanied the pope on his return as far as the Monastery of Mariabrunn, and suppressed this monastery a few hours after the pope had left it. Scarcely had the pope reached Rome when he again saw himself compelled to protest against the emperor’s unjustifiable confiscation of ecclesiastical property. But when Joseph II filled the vacant See of Milan of his own authority, Pius solemnly protested, and it was probably at this occasion that he threatened the emperor with excommunication. On 23 December 1783, the emperor unexpectedly came to Rome to return the papal visit. He was determined to continue his ecclesiastical reforms, and made known to the Spanish diplomat, Azara, his project of separating the German Church entirely from Rome. The latter, however, dissuaded him from taking this fatal step. To avoid worse things, the pope granted him the right of nominating the bishops in the Duchies of Milan and Mantua, in a concordat dated 20 January 1784.

Joseph’s example was followed in Tuscany by his brother, the Grand Duke Leopold II and Bishop Scipio Ricci of Pistoia. Here the antipapal reforms culminated in the Synod of Pistoia in 1786, where the doctrines of Jansenius and Quesnel were sanctioned, and the papal supremacy was eliminated. In his Bull “Auctorem fidei” of 28 Aug., 1794, the pope condemned the acts, and in particular eighty-five propositions of this synod. In Germany the three ecclesiastical Electors of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, and the Archbishop of Salzburg attempted to curtail the papal authority by convening a congress at Ems. With Portugal the papal relations became very friendly after the accession of Maria I in 1777, and a satisfactory concordat was concluded in 1778. In Spain, Sardinia, and Venice the Governments to a great extent followed in the footsteps of Joseph II. But the most sweeping anti-ecclesiastical reforms were carried out in the Two Sicilies. Ferdinand IV refused the exequatur to all papal briefs that were obtained without the royal permission, and claimed the right to nominate all ecclesiastical beneficiaries. Pius VI refused to accept the bishops that were nominated by the king and, as a result, there were in 1784 thirty vacant sees in the Kingdom of Naples alone, which number had increased to sixty in 1798. The king, moreover, refused to acknowledge the papal suzerainty which had existed for eight hundred years. The pope repeatedly made overtures, but the king persisted in nominating to all the vacant sees. In April, 1791, when more than half the sees in the Kingdom of Naples were vacant, a temporary compromise was reached and in that year sixty-two vacant sees were filled.

In response to the application of the clergy of the United States, the Bull of April, 1788, erected the See of Baltimore.

Pius VI put the papal finances on a firmer basis; drained the marshy lands near Città della Pieve, Perugia, Spoleto, and Trevi; deepened the harbours of Porto d’Anzio and Terracina; added a new sacristy to the Basilica of Saint Peter; completed the Musee Pio-Clementino, and enriched it with many costly pieces of art; restored the Via Appia; and drained the greater part of the Pontine Marshes.

After the French Revolution, Pius rejected the “Constitution civile du clergé” on 13 March, 1791, suspended the priests that accepted it, provided as well as he could for the banished clergy and protested against the execution of Louis XVI. France retaliated by annexing the small papal territories of Avignon and Venaissin. The pope’s co-operation with the Allies against the French Republic, and the murder of the French attaché, Basseville, at Rome, brought on by his own fault, led to Napoleon’s attack on the Papal States. At the Truce of Bologna (25 June 1796) Napoleon dictated the terms: twenty-one million francs, the release of all political criminals, free access of French ships into the papal harbours, the occupation of the Romagna by French troops etc. At the Peace of Tolentino (19 February 1797) Pius VI was compelled to surrender Avignon, Venaissin, Ferrara, Bologna, and the Romagna; and to pay fifteen million francs and give up numerous costly works of art and manuscripts. In an attempt to revolutionize Rome the French General Duphot was shot and killed, whereupon the French took Rome on 10 February 1798, and proclaimed the Roman Republic on 15 February. Because the pope refused to submit, he was forcibly taken from Rome on the night of 20 February, and brought first to Siena and then to Florence. At the end of March, 1799, though seriously ill, he was hurried to Parma, Piacenza, Turin, then over the Alps to Briançon and Grenoble, and finally to Valence, where he succumbed to his sufferings before he could be brought further. He was first buried at Valence, but the remains were transferred to Saint Peter’s in Rome on 17 February 1802. His statue in a kneeling position by Canova was placed in the Basilica of Saint Peter before the crypt of the Prince of the Apostles.

MLA Citation

  • Michael Ott. “Pope Pius VI”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. Saints.SQPN.com. 27 April 2013. Web. 20 April 2014. <>