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Pope Pius VI
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Pope Pius VI

Pius VI, né Giovanni Angelo Braschi, (December 27, 1717 - August 29, 1799), pope from 1775 to 1799, was born at Cesena.

After completing a degree of Doctorate of Law, Braschi went to Ferrara and became the private secretary of Cardinal Ruffo, in whose bishopric of Ostia and Velletri he held the post of uditore until 1753. His skill in the conduct of a mission to the court of Naples won him the esteem of Pope Benedict XIV, who appointed him as one of his secretaries and canon of St Peter's. In 1758 he was raised to the prelature, and in 1766 to the treasurership of the apostolic chamber by Pope Clement XIII. Those who suffered under his conscientious economies cunningly convinced Pope Clement XIV to make him cardinal-priest of Sant' Onofrio on April 26, 1773 - a promotion which rendered him, for a time, innocuous. In the four months' conclave which followed the death of Clement XIV, Spain, France and Portugal at length dropped their objection to Braschi, who was after all one of the more moderate opponents of the anti-Jesuit policy of the previous pope, and he was elected to the vacant see on the February 15, 1775.

His earlier acts gave fair promise of liberal rule and reform in the corrupt administration of the papal states. Though usually benevolent, he sometimes showed discrimination. He reprimanded Potenziani, the governor of Rome, for failing to adequately deal with corruption in the city, appointed a council of cardinals to remedy the state of the finances and relieve the pressure of imposts, called to account Nicolo Bischi for the spending of funds intended for the purchase of grain, reduced the annual disbursements by denying pensions to many prominent people, and adopted a reward system to encouragement of agriculture.

The circumstances of his election, however, involved him in difficulties from the outset of his pontificate. He had received the support of the ministers of the Crowns and the anti-Jesuit party upon a tacit understanding that he would continue the action of Clement, by whose brief ''Dominus ac redemptor'' (1773) the dissolution of the Society of Jesus had been pronounced. On the other hand the zelanti, who believed him secretly inclined towards Jesuitism, expected from him some reparation for the alleged wrongs of the previous reign. As a result of these complications Pius was led into a series of half measures which gave little satisfaction to either party: although it is perhaps largely due to him that the order was able to escape shipwreck in White Russia and Silesia; at but one juncture did he even seriously consider its universal re-establishment, namely in 1792, as a bulwark against revolutionary ideas.

Besides facing dissatisfaction with this temporizing policy, Pius met with practical protests tending to the limitation of papal authority. To be sure "Febronius", the chief German literary exponent of the old Gallican ideas, was himself led (not without scandal) to retract; but his positions were adopted in Austria. Here the social and ecclesiastical reforms undertaken by Joseph II and his minister Kaunitz touched the supremacy of Rome so nearly that in the hope of staying them Pius adopted the exceptional course of visiting Vienna in person. He left Rome on February 27, 1782, and, though magnificently received by the emperor, his mission proved a fiasco; he was, however, able a few years later to curb those German archbishops who, in 1786 at the Congress at Ems, had shown a tendency towards independence. In Naples difficulties necessitating certain concessions in respect of feudal homage were raised by the minister Tannucci, and more serious disagreements arose with Grand Duke Leopold I of Tuscany and Scipione del Ricci, bishop of Pistoia and Prato, upon the questions of reform in Tuscany; but Pius did not think fit to condemn the offensive decrees of the synod of Pistoia (1786) till nearly eight years had elapsed.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution Pius was compelled to see the old Gallican Church suppressed, the pontifical and ecclesiastical possessions in France confiscated and an effigy of himself burnt by the populace at the Palais Royal. The murder of the republican agent Hugo Basseville in the streets of Rome (January 1793) gave new ground of offense; the papal court was charged with complicity by the French Convention; and Pius threw in his lot with the league against France. In 1796 Napoleon I invaded Italy, defeated the papal troops and occupied Ancona and Loreto. Pius sued for peace, which was granted at Tolentino on February 19, 1797; but on December 28 of that year, in a riot created by some Italian and French revolutionists, General Duphot of the French embassy was killed and a new pretext furnished for invasion. General Berthier marched to Rome, entered it unopposed on February 13, 1798, and, proclaiming a republic, demanded of the pope the renunciation of his temporal authority. Upon his refusal he was taken prisoner, and on February 20 was escorted from the Vatican to Siena, and thence to the Certosa near Florence. The French declaration of war against Tuscany led to his removal by way of Parma, Piacenza, Turin and Grenoble to the citadel of Valence, where he died six weeks later, on August 29, 1799.

The name of Pius VI is associated with many and often unpopular attempts to revive the splendour of Pope Leo X in the promotion of art and public works; the words Munificentia Pii VI. P. M. graven in all parts of the city, giving rise amongst his impoverished subjects to such satire as the insertion of a minute loaf in the hands of Pasquin with that inscription beneath it. He is best remembered in connection with the establishment of the Museum of the Vatican, begun at his suggestion of his predecessor and with an unpractical and expensive attempt to drain the Pontine Marshes, something later successfully achieved in the 1930s by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica.

Preceded by:
Pope Clement XIV
Pope
- chronological list
Succeeded by:
Pope Pius VII