A papacy that began with high hopes was soon marred by nepotism, nevertheless, Alexander VII (1599–1667) took strong stands on church matters and bequeathed to Rome and the world some of the most endearing baroque works.
Born Fabio Chigi in Sienna, Papal States, on February 13, 1599, the future Pope Alexander VII came from one of Sienna's more powerful families. His father was a nephew of Pope Paul V. Ill-health prevented the young Chigi from attending school, but he was taught first by his mother then a succession of tutors. At age twenty-seven he earned doctorates in philosophy, law, and theology from the University of Sienna.
Became Career Diplomat
Prior to being elected pope Chigi was a career ecclesiastical diplomat. In 1627 Pope Urban VIII appointed him as vice-legate of Ferrara. From there he became inquisitor of Malta and later nuncio in Cologne. In the latter post he participated in the negotiations that led to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years' War. Chigi, himself, protested those provisions he regarded as anti-Catholic and which Pope Innocent X would denounce in a Papal Bull. In 1651 Innocent named him as his secretary of state and in February 1652 he was elevated to the rank of cardinal. Following the death of Innocent X Cardinal Chigi was elected pope on April 7, 1655 over French opposition. He was crowned Alexander VII (honoring the twelfth-century pope Alexander III) on April 18, 1655.
Given his background many expected Alexander to be a dynamic pope, but that did not turn out to be the case. He began his reign by disavowing nepotism and ordering his predecessor's most trusted advisor, his widowed sister-in-law Olimpia Maidalchini (known as la papessa), to return to her native town of Orvieto. By 1656, however, Alexander had reversed his policy and, with the Curia's encouragement, brought his brother and nephews, one of whom was already a cardinal, to Rome. As these and other relatives accrued more power they sought to enrich themselves and the Chigi family.
Foreign Policy Established
Alexander inherited a number of church and foreign policy problems from his predecessor. From the very beginning his pontificate clashed with the policy of King Louis XIV of France and his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin. There was no French ambassador to Rome until 1662 when the Duc de Crequi—also hostile to the papacy—was named. Seeking to weaken the Papal States, France supported the territorial claims of the Farnese and Este families. The pope was also excluded from participating in the 1659 Peace of the Pyrenees between France and Spain.
Relations went from bad to worse. Louis XIV accused the Vatican of violating diplomatic immunity and threatening the life of the French ambassador with Corsican troops. The Duc de Crequi was recalled and the papal nuncio expelled from Paris. Louis then occupied Avignon and Venaissin—both papal enclaves—and threatened to invade the Papal States. Alexander was forced to submit to the Treaty of Pisa in 1664, disband the Corsican guard and erect a monument in Rome commemorating his reconciliation with Louis.
Alexander's call for a crusade against the Turks at first went unheeded by France. He formed the Holy Alliance to halt the Turks' drive into Hungary, but was largely unsuccessful. When Louis XIV finally did consent to engage the Turks, he brought France into the alliance as a member of the Rhenish League. The European powers defeated the Turks at Raab on August 1, 1664, but Alexander's role had been diminished.
Alexander's relations with Spain were little better: the papal nuncio was not received, and after Alexander agreed to the king's nominees for diocesan posts, the king left the post vacant and appropriated the income. On the other hand Vatican relations with the Republic of Venice improved during Alexander's reign so that the Jesuits were allowed to return to that city. Another minor foreign-relations coup was the conversion of Sweden's Queen Christina. Following her abdication she relocated to Rome where Alexander, himself, confirmed her.
In 1656 Alexander reversed Innocent X's decree and allowed Chinese rites to be used by Jesuit missionaries in China. In 1659 he went a step further when he dispensed Chinese clergy from having to pray to the divine office in Latin.
The most important theological controversy of the age was Jansenism, a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church based on the writings of Dutch theologian Cornelis Jansen (1585-1638). The controversy heated up during Alexander's reign. Alexander confirmed his predecessor's condemnation of Jansenism's five important propositions, notably the subservience of free will to God's grace. On October 16, 1656 in Ad Sanctam beati Petri sedem, he decreed that the five points were indeed taken from Jansen's posthumously published treatise, Augustinus. Jansenist's countered that the five points were heretical but were not found in the Augustinus. Since Jansenism's stronghold was in France the controversy became a point at which Alexander and Louis XIV could unite. At the king's request Alexander required all French clergy to reject Jansenism.
The Great Philosophical Debates
Alexander also engaged in the philosophical controversies of probabilism, probabiliorism and laxism. He remained neutral toward the first of these moral positions—the Jesuits supported it—in which a libertarian viewpoint is upheld regarding the lawfulness or unlawfulness of an action, even if the opposite viewpoint is more probable. Probabiliorism took a modified approach, stating that when the lawfulness or unlawfulness of an action was in doubt one should follow the opinion favoring liberty only when it was more probable than the opposing viewpoint. Many felt that probabilism would lead to laxism, where one follows the easiest moral course. Of this last system Alexander was deeply opposed. In 1665 and 1666 he condemned forty-five moral propositions he considered laxist.
Alexander continued the decorative work of his two predecessors and, indeed, commissioned work from sculptor, architect and painter, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini to enclose St. Peter's Square with two curved colonnades. During Alexander's reign Bernini also decorated the church St. Maria del Popolo, which became the church of the Chigi cardinals; the Scala Regia and the Chair of St. Peter. Alexander also encouraged other public works programs in Rome such as making the streets straighter and the piazzas broader.
Pope Alexander VII died on May 22, 1667 and was buried in a tomb designed by Bernini in St. Peter's Basilica.
Duffy, Eamon, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, Yale University Press, 1997.
John, Eric, ed., The Popes: A Concise Biographical History, Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1964.
McBrien, Richard P., Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II, HarperCollins, 1997.
"Pope Alexander VII," Catholic Encyclopedia http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01294a.htm (October 28, 2002).