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Leo XII: the Forgotten Post-Revolution Pope

Above: portrait of Annibale della Genga, Leo XII by Charles Picqué (1828).

Two centuries ago, on September 28, 1823, a “zealous” Pope was elected: Leo XII, whose original name was Annibale della Genga.

François-René de Chateaubriand, French author and diplomat, said of him in his letter dated January 3, 1829:

I spent an hour yesterday with the Pope. We spoke about everything, on subjects both noble and serious. He is a very distinguished and enlightened individual and a Prince full of dignity. The adventures of my political existence only lacked a relationship with a sovereign Pontiff; it rounds off my career.

Count Annibale was born 68 years earlier in Genga, in the diocese of Fabriano-Matelica, central Italy. Archbishop, Papal Representative in Germany and France, cardinal, he is elected to the chair of Peter by the “zealous” cardinals, that is, promoters of a program of spiritual reawakening, against the moderate “political’ reformism of other members of that conclave. Leo XII reigned for just five and a half years during a very difficult period.

Reviewing these years in brief, Leo XII severely repressed banditry and disturbances in the Papal States; celebrated the Jubilee of 1825 with great solemnity; negotiated concordats with the other states; and recognized de facto the independence of the old Spanish colonies in South America. Perhaps he is too intransigent and rigid towards the ideas of freedom and progress of his time, but he promoted large public works, increased museums and libraries, and stood out for his moral rectitude, in which he wanted to be imitated by his collaborators. He died in Rome on February 10, 1829.

His project of re-Christianization of society also included the restoration of sacred music, both vocal and for organ, a music freed from “the fatal influence exercised on sacred art by profane and theatrical art.”[1] The Pope wanted to reorganize Roman musical institutions: the Congregation of Saint Cecilia and the choirs established in the basilicas of Rome. The former, established by Pope Gregory XIII († 1585), further enriched by Pope Sixtus V († 1590), and perpetually retained by Urban VIII († 1644), “with the aim of promoting a happy flowering of composers and artists, and of assuring the highest prestige to the musical art,”[2] resumed, after the Napoleonic upheaval, organizing sacred music and supervising the main abuses in liturgical music matters in the various churches of Rome. Even the choirs established in the basilicas of Rome began to reorganize: the Giulia in St. Peter, led by Valentino Fioravanti († 1837); the Lateran in St. John, conducted by Pietro Terziani († 1831); and the Liberian at Santa Maria Maggiore, directed by Domenico Fontemaggi († 1856).

On December 20, 1824, by order of the Pope, Cardinal Placido Zurla († 1834), Vicar of Rome, published an edict On divine worship and respect to the churches, in which, in the second article, common musical abuses were condemned, such as preludes or interludes, profane content in the music and in the manner of performing it, and having bands playing in church:

Feasts and solemnities are to be celebrated in churches without profane forms prohibited by the sacred canons; and in music, gravity and ecclesiastical decorum should be observed. Choirmasters are to refrain from capriciously altering or postponing the words of the Psalms and Hymns and form those interminable repetitions, which tire the devotion instead of nourishing it. Outside of the music commonly called a cappella, instrumental music shouldn’t be made without our special permission; the ones that are too clamorous and not suitable for the church are always prohibited. During the sung Mass and likewise during the Exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, organists should not be allowed to perform pieces of theater music on the organ, which sound profane, but they should try to foment recollection and devotion, which is the only reason music in the churches is permitted. The superiors of the churches will be responsible for the fulfillment of all this, and in case of negligence fined ten scudi, to be applied in pious works.[3]

Since its ancient foundation at the service of the solemn celebrations of the Popes, the Sistine Chapel Choir has continued to propose the “ancient style” in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, in the Pauline Chapel in the Quirinale, in the Vatican Basilica, and in various Roman churches. The most performed composers are Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina († 1594) and his imitators: Felice Anerio († 1614), Gregorio Allegri († 1652), Tommaso Baj († 1718), Claudio Casciolini († 1760), Giovanni Battista Fazzini († 19th cent.), Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni († 1743), Leandro Piazza († 1817) and Pasquale Pisari († 1778).

In particular, Leo XII had a great admiration for Giuseppe Baini († 1844), who at that time directed the papal singers. For Pope Leo, Baini wrote music, expressed judgments — often negative — on new musical works, and developed plans for musical development. He composed the motets for 4 voices: Corona aurea, for Leo X’s coronation (October 5, 1823), Petrus apostolus et Paulus doctor for his taking possession of St. John Lateran (June 13, 1824), and a Tantum ergo because the Pope “wanted to listen to a different Tantum ergo than usual.”[4] In 1826, Baini presented to the Supreme Pontiff a “plan regarding the erection of a singing school in the House of Industry existing at the Baths of Massimiano called Diocleziane, and a project for a Conservatory of Music.”[5] Despite Leo X’s positive response, with which on June 14, 1826 “the present plan is approved and its prompt execution is committed to the Apostolic Visitor of the House of Industry,” the project remained on paper.[6]

Leo XII, Pope of the “conservative victory,” or the last Pope of the ancient régime? Guilty of personalism, liberalism, excessive reformism, “of having kept the Napoleonic reforms in force and the administrative staff who had supported them, and of having made excessive concessions in his relations with governments”?[7] Leaving the answers to others, let’s recall for him the dream of a great and integral spiritual restoration of the Christian world, which includes the hearing of good, true sacred music.


[1] PIUS X, Tra le sollecitudini, November 22, 1903.

[2] PAUL VI, Speech, November 22, 1966; our translation.

[3] F. ROMITA, Ius Musicæ Liturgicæ, Rome 1947, p. 99; our translation.

[4] L. M. KANTNER, A. PACHOVSKY, La Cappella musicale Pontificia nell’Ottocento, Rome 1998, p. 108; our translation.

[5] Rivista d’Italia, Rome 1904, p. 276; our translation.

[6] J. A. LA FAGE, Essais de diphthérographie musicale, Parigi 1861, p. 544; our translation.

[7] J. M. LABOA, La Chiesa e la modernità, Milan 2001, p. 19: our translation.

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