The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church

Biographical Dictionary
Pope Pius VI (1775-1799)
Consistory of June 18, 1792 (XXI)

(64) 1. CAPRARA, Giovanni Battista (1733-1810)

Birth. May 29, 1733, Bologna. Of a noble family. Sixth of the eight children of Marquis Raimondo Francesco Montecuccoli and Countess Maria Vittoria degl'Anziani, of the counts Caprara; they were cousins and at marriage he took the obligation of assuming the name Caprara because the family had been extinguished in the male line. The other siblings were Carlo Francesco Leonardo; Alessandro (canon of S. Salvatore); Lodovico (knight of Malta); Niccolò (senator and brother in law of Cardinal Gregorio Salviati (1777)); Enea (lieutenant marshal of the House of Austria and of Pope Pius VI); Raimondon (died in childhood); and Caterina. His last name is also listed as Caprara Montecuccoli; and as Montecuccoli Caprara.

Education. He was destined to an ecclesiastical career and sent to Rome to study at Piarist Collegio Nazareno, where he completed his philosophical studies with the thesis Propositiones philosophicae, quas Sanctissimo Domino Nostro Benedicto XIV nuncupatas publice propugnandas exponit comes Jo. Baptista abbas Caprara Patricius Bononiensis Collegii Nazareni convictor (Romae, Ex Typ. Zempeliana, 1751); and later, at La Sapienza University, Rome, where he earned a doctorate in utroque iure, both canon and civil law, on September 23, 1755.

Early life. Referendary of the Tribunals of the Apostolic Signature of Justice and of Grace, November 21, 1755. Vicar of S. Marma ad Martyres, September 1756. Vice-legate of Ravenna from April 7, 1758 until the fall of 1761. Returned to Rome and became relator of the S.C. of the Sacred Consulta in January 1761. From January 1765 until November 1766, he was prefect of the Congregation of S. Ivo.

Priesthood. Ordained, December 22, 1765, Bologna.

Episcopate. Elected titular archbishop of Iconio, December 1, 1766. Consecrated, December 8, 1766, Quirinale Palace, Rome, by Pope Clement XIII, assisted by Scipione Borghese, titular archbishop Teodosia, and by Ignazio Reali, titular archbishop of Atena. In the same ceremony was consecrated Giovanni Archinto, titular archbishop of Filippi, future cardinal. Assistant at the Pontifical Throne, December 8, 1766. Nuncio in Cologne, December 18, 1766. Informed that his predecessor was still in Cologne, he stayed in Bologna until the middle of March 1766, taking the opportunity to carefully read Febronio's De statu ecclesiae et legittima potestate romani pontificis liber singularis ad reuniendos dissidentes in religione christianos compositus, which was the anti-Roman sacred text of the opposition in Germany; he arrived in Cologne on April 14, 1767; there he had to face the problems created by Febroniasm as well as the jurisdictional conflicts caused by the three archbishop electors. In late spring 1772, he took a brief trip of vacation and education to Holland and England. The nuncio reported to the Secretariat of State that the situation of the Church in the Netherlands was positive and that the Jansenist dissent had notably decreased; as far as England, he reported the good welcome he received in London, where he was presented to the sovereign by the imperial ambassador, Prince Antonio Barbiano di Belgioioso; he stated to the secretariat that there had been a disappearance of anti-papal animosity. When Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus in 1773, Nuncio Caprara tried with great zeal to implement the papal brief of dissolution Dominus ac Redemptor, but he found insurmountable obstacles from the electors of Cologne and the Palatinate, who also took this opportunity to maintain an independent stance from Rome: important schools, such as Tricoronatum of Cologne and those of Ravenstein, Düsseldorf, Juliers, Duren and Münstereifel, remained entrusted to the Jesuits. Adducing poor health, he requested to be transferred to the nunciature in Lucerne, which was more tranquil (and especially richer in income). Named nuncio in Lucerne (Upper Rhine) on September 6, 1775, where he arrived on October 24; in Lucerne, he tried to avoid any conflict of jurisdiction and compromise of his health; at the end of 1784, he went to Pisa, where he received the new of his transfer to the nunciature in Vienna in February 1785; he left from Pisa after Easter, and went through Bologna and Cremona to return in mid-May to Lucerne for a farewell.

Named nuncio in Austria, Hungary and Bohemia on May 7, 1785; he arrived in Vienna on the following July 21; occupied the post until January 31, 1793. He was very compliant to the ecclesiastical policies of Emperor Joseph II. He immediately restored the palace of the nunciature, for which he faced considerable costs. He genrously helped the poor, especially the inhabitants of a Vienna suburb affected by a flood. He was of little help to the Roman Curia, not only avoiding the slightest collision with the imperial government, but leaving the secretary of state without any information on the events of the Empire. The government in Vienna, at the same time, had such a low esteem for Nuncio Caprara that ignored him completely when, during the Revolution of Brabant, asked the mediation of Rome. On the death of Joseph II, occurred on February 20, 1790, Nuncio Caprara was sent as legate extraordinary to the Diet of Frankfurt, where he arrived July 28, 1790: his task was not only to attend the election of the new emperor, but to prevent that during the works laws contrary to the interests of the Holy See were passed. He did not take full advantage of the support given him by the Elector of Bavaria, enduring hostility of the delegation of Mainz which even refused the apostolic brief that accredited him to participate in the work of the Diet. Retreating himself to a completely passive position, the nuncio, very lately, delivered on behalf of the pope, on October 13, a reserve against certain decisions of the Diet, which had ended on October 4. He returned to Vienna for a few months and in May 1791, he left again for reasons of health and spent several months at the baths of Pyrmont, leaving in charge of the nunciature its auditor, Monsignor B. Agostini Zamperoli, who had been in his retinue in the nunciature in Lucerne. Because of the dissatisfaction with his work, the Secretariat of State finally replaced Nuncio Caprara by elevating him to the cardinalate.

Cardinalate. Created cardinal priest in the consistory of June 18, 1792; the pope sent him the red biretta with an apostolic brief date June 22, 1792; he remained in Vienna until February 1, 1793; received the red hat on December 19, 1793; and the title of S. Onofrio on February 21, 1794. Camerlengo of the Sacred College of Cardinals, February 21, 1794 until June 1, 1795. He was ascribed to the SS. CC. of Bishops and Regular, Propaganda Fide, Good Government, and Sacred Consulta. Named protector of the Carmelite Order on February 6, 1795. He did not enjoy any consideration from Pope Pius VI. When Napoleon's army swept into the Po Valley in June 1796 and occupied Bologna and other papal territories, Cardinal Caprara, also concerned about the interests of his family, supported the need for an agreement with the French at all costs. This commitment earned him the esteem of the agent of the French Republic at Rome, Hyacinthe Bernard, and the nickname "Cardinal Jacobin", as well as the exaggerated merit of having "political clairvoyance." On February 5. 1797, the eve of the Treaty of Tolentino, he was among the few in the College of Cardinals who voted in favor of peace (the others were Tommaso Antici, Filippo Carandini, Romualdo Braschi-Onesti, Ignazio Busca and Carlo Livizzani). In Pisa since January 5. 1798 for health reasons, informed about the French expedition of General Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Cardinal Caprara hastily returned to Rome on February 2. Once the Proclamation of the Republic occurred, he retired to Bologna until the opening of the conclave of Venice. Participated in the conclave of 1799-1800, celebrated in Venice, which elected Pope Pius VII. Cardinal Caprara accompanied the new pope on his journey to Rome. He was chosen archbishop of Bologna by the new pontiff, but the opposition of Austria, which considered him to be pro-French, impeded his appointment. Named administrator of the diocese of Jesi on July 21, 1800; he entered the diocese on the following July 27. Transferred to the see of Jesi, with personal title of archbishop, August 11, 1800; he was a generous pastor duing the famine that affected the diocese. At the request of Emperor Napoléon I of France, was named legate a latere before the French Republic, August 24, 1801; the French Government was satisfied with that choice; he had the delicate task of looking after the execution of the 1801 Concordat between France and the Holy See; he received his powers toward this mission with the facultative reif Cum pro tua relgionie; he received the legatine insignias and the papal cross by the papal brief Dextera Altissimi of September 4 and the letters of credence Deferet tibi; he left Rome on the following September 5 and arrived in Paris on October 4; the next day he was received by Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord; and on October 6 by the first consul, Napoléon Bonaparte. A few days later, on October 11, Msgr. Giuseppe Spina, papal plenipotentiary minister, returned to Italy considering useless his presence in Paris. He facilitated the translation the remains of Pope Pius VI to Rome in February 1802. In April 1802, the most important part of Cardinal Caprara's mission was completed: April 8, the Tribunate and the Legislative Body approved the text of the agreement, which could then be enacted. On April 18, 1802, in the cathedral of Notre Dame, was held a ceremony by which was officially re-established the Catholic religion in France; the achievement was solemnly celebrated by the cardinal, who pontificated in Notre Dame metropolitan cathedral, Paris, on April 18, 1802, with the attendance of First Consul Bonaparte and the state's higher officials. But Cardinal Caprara, under great pressure, was forced to make some heavy concessions: first, on April 9, he made an oath to the French government in which he declared to respect the laws of the French Republic and to recognize the Gallican liberties (he justified himself by saying to Rome that the text which he swore was far less compromising than that prepared by Jean-Étienne-Marie Portalis and then disseminated by the press); and secondly, he accepted the addition to the agreed text of the Concordat of a Progetto d'organizzazione del culto cattolico, drawn up by Portalis and Étienne Alexandre Jean Baptiste Marie Bernier, bishop of Orléans, that attributed to the State significant powers on ecclesiastical discipline (1); and finally, on April 17, he had completely sold on the question of the canonical institution that should be given to the former "constitutional" bishops appointed by the French government in the new diocese (2).

The cardinal legate continued his line towards achieving peace: to the remonstrances of Pope Pius VII against the organic articles, he did present a very mild note of protest (which had no effect) and then, despite the official intransigent opposition of Rome, he collaborated in the preparation of so-called imperial Catechisimo (which was to become the only one in France), trying to mitigate the Gallican spirit, and granted its approval in February 1806. In foreign policy, Cardinal Caprara continued, according to the instructions of Cardinal Consalvi, diligently to seek the restitution of the Legations, denying the validity of the Treaty of Tolentino, and asking compensation for damage caused by the passage of the French armies in the papal territory; he obtained the evacuation from Pesaro, and some kind of compensation. He remained in the post until the imprisonment of Pope Pius VII, July 1809; his difficult legation had mixed results. Nominated to the see of Milan by First Consul Bonaparte. Transferred to the metropolitan see of Milan, May 24, 1802, retaining the see of Jesi as administrator until 1804; received the pallium on May 24, 1802. Cardinal Caprara had a prominent part in the ecclesiastical life of the Cisalpine Republic. Following the decisions taken by the Consulta di Lione for the introduction of an organic law inspired by the Josephine ecclesiastical law, he was commissioned by the Holy See to negotiate a concordat with the government of Milan, which was concluded on September 16. 1803. First Consul Bonaparte wished that Cardinal Caprara were also appointed minister of Religious Affairs of the Italian Republic, but Count Francesco Melzi d'Eril, vide-president of the Republic, was opposed strongly giving the job to the Giovanni Bovara. The cardinal archbishop was named consultant of state, thus ranking higher politically than Bovara. Cardinal Caprara soon acquired new merits with First Consul Bonaparte when he completed the demarcation of the new dioceses in Piedmont (decrees of February 23 and July 17, 1805). The cardinal legate was an accurate and compliant organizer of the ceremony of the coronation of new Emperor Napoléon I on December 2, 1804. Besides, the cardinal personally crowned Napoléon king of Italy in Milan on May 26, 1805, with the Iron Crown. He worked zealously at every opportunity to encourage and make welcome the new regime. In turn, the cardinal received adequate recognition: first the Légion d'Honour (August 4, 1804), then the titles of count and senator of the kingdom of Italy; finally, high dignitary of the Iron Crown. The Holy See granted him the faculty to be major chaplain of the Army of the Italian Republic, January 3, 1804. Cardinal Caprara, however, made a significant misstep that deprived him of the already low esteem that he enjoyed with the Roman Curia, when he accepted the inclusion of organic articles in the Italian Concordat proposed by Count Melzi and already published in the decree of January 26, 1804. This time the intervention of Rome, which was willing to cede in part in the ecclesiastical politics in France, but would not tolerate serious yields in Italy, was energetic, disavowing the action of Cardinal Caprara, and the organic items were soon revoked. Cardinal Caprara, living mostly in Paris as legate, remained virtually isolated, but he tended to tenaciously pursue what he always believed was his task, to soften the attitude of Napoléon towards the Church, particularly once the final break was looming, at the end of 1805, the cardinal went so far as to justify papal protests against the French occupation of Ancona citing the poor state of mental health of Pope Pius VII. After the French occupied Rome on February 2, 1808, Cardinal Caprara communicated on the following March 30 the end of his mission as legate; but he remained in Paris in contravention to the orders from the pope. A fragile instrument in the hands of the imperial government, he even wrote a letter on July 20, 1809 to Pope Pius VII to beg him to concede to the demands of Emperor Napoléon for the good of the Church. Poor health spared him from the difficulties of Napoléon's divorce and second marriage in April 1810. He willed his entire fortune to the hospital of Milan.

Death. June 21, 1810, Paris, ill, deaf and almost blind. Exposed in the metropolitan cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris; the solemn exequies took place in the metropolitan cathedral of Paris on the following July 23; he funeral elogy was delivered by Abbé Jean-Baptiste Rauzan, founder of the Fathers of Mercy (Pères de la Miséricorde); the body of the late cardinal was buried in Vault III, in the lower tomb in the third bay on the right hand side, in the church of Sainte-Geneviève (Panthéon), Paris (3). He was the first foreigner to be buried in the Panthéon. His heart was deposited in the metropolitan cathedral of Milan (4).

Bibliography. Bordas-Charon, Jeannine. Inventaire des archives de la légation en France du cardinal Caprara : 1801-1808. Paris : Archives nationales : Diffusion la Documentation française, 1975. (Inventaires et documents - Archives nationales; Variation: Archives nationales (France).; Inventaires et documents); Bordas-Charon, Jeannine. La Légation en France du cardinal Caprara : 1801-1808, répertoire des demandes de réconciliation avec l'Église. Paris : La Documentation française, 1979; Cazzani, Eugenio. Vescovi e arcivescovi di Milano. Nuova ed./ a cura di Angelo Majo, 2. ed. Milano : Massimo : NED, 1996. Note: Originally published 1955, now enlarged and updated, p. 262-265; Decraene, Jean-François. Petit dictionnaire des grands hommes du Panthéon. Paris : Monum, éditions du patrimoine, 2005, p. 30-31; Karttunen, Liisi. Les nonciatures apostoliques permanentes de 1650 à 1800. Genève : E. Chaulmontet, 1912, p. 237; Leflon, Jacques Adolphe Marie. "Caprara, Giovanni Battista." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Prepared by an editorial staff at the Catholic University of America. 19 vols. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1967-1996, 3, 91; Majo, Angelo. Storia della chiesa ambrosiana. 5 vols. 2nd ed. Milano : NED, 1983-1986, III, 143-145 and 152; Moroni, Gaetano. Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni. 103 vols. in 53. Venezia : Tipografia Emiliana, 1840-1861, IX, 217-218; Notizie per l'anno 1806. In Roma MDCCCVI : Nella Stamperia Cracas, p. 23; Paschini, Pio. "Caprara, Giovanni Battista." Enciclopedia Cattolica. 12 vols. Città del Vaticano: Ente per l'Enciclopedia Cattolica e per il Libro Cattolico, 1949-1954, vol. III, cols. 718-719; Rinieri, I. "Un cardinale legato a latere a Parigi nell'ottubro del 1801." La Civiltà Cattolica, 18ª serie, 2 (1901, II), pp.37-51; Ritzler, Remigium, and Pirminum Sefrin. Hierarchia Catholica Medii et Recientoris Aevi. Volumen VI (1730-1799). Patavii : Typis et Sumptibus Domus Editorialis "Il Messaggero di S. Antonio" apud Basilicam S. Antonii, 1968, pp. 37, 44, 56 and 242; Ritzler, Remigium, and Pirminum Sefrin. Hierarchia Catholica Medii et Recientoris Aevi. Volumen VII (1800-1846). Patavii : Typis et Sumptibus Domus Editorialis "Il Messaggero di S. Antonio" apud Basilicam S. Antonii, 1968, pp.61 and 259; Squicciarini, Donato. Nunzi apostolici a Vienna. Città del Vaticano : Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998, p. 186-190; Weber, Christoph and Becker, Michael. Genealogien zur Papstgeschichte. 6 v. Stuttgart : Anton Hiersemann, 1999-2002. (Päpste und Papsttum, Bd. 29, 1-6), I, 189, tav. 3 Caprara; Weber, Christoph. Legati e governatori dello Stato Pontificio : 1550-1809. Roma : Ministero per i beni culturali e ambientali, Ufficio centrale per i beni archivistici, 1994. (Pubblicazioni degli archivi di Stato. Sussidi; 7), pp. 372 and 546-547.

Webgraphy. Biography by Giuseppe Pignatelli, in Italian, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani - Volume 19 (1976), Treccani; biography by Francis Schaefer, in English, The Catholic Encyclopedia; biography by Ekkart Sauser, in German, Biographisch-Bibliographischen Kirchenlexikons; his portrait, tomb and biography, in Italian, Wikipedia; his portrait by Gerolamo Stambucchi Protaso, Raccolte d'Arte dell'Ospedale Maggiore, Milan; his engraving by Carlo Antonini, Bildarchiv Austria. Die Bildplattform der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek; his engraving by Carlo Antonini, Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna; Famiglia Caprara, in Italian, Origine di Bologna; his tomb in the Panthéon, Paris, Find A Grave; his portrait with Pope Pius VII, by Jacques-Louis David, Philadelphia Museum of Art/CORBIS; Serie cronologica dei vescovi di Milano (III-XXI secolo), in Italian, archdiocese of Milan.

(1) Dialogue véritable, entre les citoyens Portalis, Siéyès, Bernier, et monseigneur le légat [Jean Baptiste Caprara]. Londres, Imp. de Keating, Brown et Keating, 1804
(2) On this last point, after having presented some resistance, Cardinal Caprara, according to the instructions received from Rome, admitted that their appointment could be accepted under specific conditions: making the profession of faith of Pope Pius IV, pledged allegiance to the pope and disavowed the legitimacy of constitutional Church. This request was not accepted by the French Government which contropropose a rather ambiguous oath, refused at first by the cardinal legate. Then, not to derail the negotiations, was satisfied that they had signed the document with the addition of oral abjuration given in front of two witnesses: in fact the seven "constitutional" bishops, which were part of the group of twenty appointed bishops on April 12, recanted in the presence of only Bernier, and this gave way to five of them to declare that as a result not having made any retraction. Cardinal Caprara had judged that the execution of the Concordat justified the dispensing of more strict formalities in the case of the "constitutional" bishops and he assumed all responsibility. In fact, the decision of Cardinal Caprara, although officially blamed, avoided a rupture, while allowing Rome to declare apostate the five apostate (who were reconciled in December 1804, during the journey of Pius VII to Paris) and the French government to consider valid their canonical institution. Even in the more general question of the constitutional clergy, Cardinal Caprara yielded to the entreaties of Portalis and of the First Consul, accepting as valid for reconciliation the subscription of a formula that was deemed insufficient in Rome (July-September 1802). Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, secretary of State, on October 27, told him unambiguously that neither the Holy Father, nor some members of the Congregation of Cardinals for the Affairs of France, had found acceptable the formula in question. The secretary of State added that he was not following the advice of the dean of the Sacred College, Cardinal Gian Francesco Albani, who had proposed sending an apostolic brief to Cardinal Caprara with the invitation to "provide for his conscience".
(3) This is the text of the inscription in his tomb, kindly provided by Mr. Mark West, from London, England:


(4) This is the text of the inscription on the marble plaque that covers his heart, kindly provided by Mr. Eman Bonnici, from Malta:


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