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The Mass for Napoleon

Two hundred years ago yesterday, on August 20, the Pope who found himself in the storm of the Napoleonic days died: Pius VII, whose original name was Barnaba Chiaramonti.

Pius VII

Benedictine monk, prior of the Abbey of St. Paul in Roma (1775), bishop of Tivoli (1782), cardinal and bishop of Imola (1785), he was born 81 years earlier, in Cesena, northern Italy, like his predecessor, Pope Pius VI († 1799): “both of whom were torn violently from their episcopal see and taken to exile.”[1] After his election to the chair of Peter on March 14, 1800, at the conclusion of the laborious “conclave of exile,” which lasted more than three months in the Venetian monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore,

in extremely difficult moments for the Church he was able to give to the princes and to the peoples an example of unshakable faith, of magnificent generosity of spirit, and above all of great fortitude in defending, in the face of the irresistible Napoleonic intrusion, the inviolable rights of the Catholic Church.

So wrote the then Secretary of State of Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri († 1934), in the Letter of June 3, 1923, to the Bishop of Cesena.[2]

To the cardinals gathered on October 29, 1804, Pius VII recalled with satisfaction the re-establishment of Catholicism in France, thanks to the Concordat of 1801, and communicated that, adhering to the request of Napoleon Bonaparte († 1821), he would travel to Paris to crown him emperor. Really, Napoleon would crown himself. Unfortunately, good relations with the French emperor didn’t last long, and in 1808, Napoleon incorporated the Papal States into the Empire. In 1809, Pope Chiaramonti, after having excommunicated Bonaparte, was deported to France: he was under house arrest in Grenoble, Savona, and Fontainebleau. Returning to Rome in 1814, after Napoleon’s fall, he re-established the Society of Jesus and gave a decisive boost to missionary work.

The meekness of Pius VII and the pride of Bonaparte are preserved in The Coronation of Napoleon, the highly “touched up” canvas, today exhibited in the Louvre, by Jacques-Louis David († 1825), the painter of the French Revolution and of Napoleon (pictured above).

What a day it was on December 2, 1804! All gathered in the Mother Church of Paris, Notre-Dame Cathedral, instead of Reims Cathedral. How many discomforts, even physical ones, were angelically endured by the Pope! To the delight of King Henry IV († 1106) and the Holy Roman emperors Frederick Barbarossa († 1190), Frederick II († 1250), and Louis the Bavarian († 1347), Napoleon placed on his head the crown of emperor of the French by himself. He had not gone to Rome at the feet of His Holiness, but by coaxing and threats, he had succeeded in persuading poor Pius VII to set off from Rome to Paris in midwinter to consecrate that upside-down Charlemagne.

We like to think that the “soundtrack” of that day, which about 500 musicians and singers performed, at least partially consoled the Pope’s soul. Much of the music was composed by one of the great masters of the Neapolitan school, the Taranto-born Giovanni Paisiello († 1816), for whom Bonaparte was mad. We are referring to the Messe du Sacre, for 3 solo voices (but the singers engaged in the various parts were 9), 2 choirs, and 2 orchestras, and the Te Deum in B-flat Major, for solo voices, double choir, and double orchestra, which the composer had written but didn’t conduct that Sunday in December: in late August, he had left for Naples, leaving as his successor Jean-François Lesueur († 1837), Hector Berlioz’s († 1869), teacher of composition.

Very beautiful was the Mass, of which we are told:

Chosen and numerous the orchestra, first-rate singers, the inspirations followed the Italian maestro. The Mass was a masterpiece, which the most severe critics could not have known to attack […]. In this circumstance, Paisiello proved more than ever how talented he was in the sacred compositions, with how much philosophy he knew to express the many, so varied, and so sublime situations presented by the bloodless sacrifice, and the well-deserved applause he brought back from an immense crowd of people who watched a show almost more theatrical than ecclesiastical.[3]

The Te Deum, performed at the end, was recycled for the occasion with ease. It had been composed in 1791 by Paisiello in Naples “for their Majesties’ [Ferdinand and Carolina] return from Germany, performed in the Belvedere Church above Caserta.”[4] It was heard in Paris on April 18, 1802, Easter Sunday, when the Concordat was proclaimed in France: the musicians of the Consular Chapel and of the Theater of the Republic and the Arts gathered to sing it, along with other Paisiello’s works.

This score is particularly important since Paisiello, although born in 1740, between the comic opera and the pathetic of that “comic material […] interwoven with tragic” − the middle character of Carlo Goldoni († 1793) − here can guess the Empire style in music.[5] Yes, that ornamental version of Neoclassicism with which all Italian and French artists tuned in during the Napoleonic empire; a style that will be fully embodied by Luigi Cherubini († 1842). Paisiello’s Te Deum is all animated with the martial spirit: Te ergo quæsumus, in which the orchestra converses with the fanfare of the National Guard placed in the nave, arouses great wonder. But there are also many delicate, almost intimate moments.[6]

May Paisiello’s music help us recall that glory of the Roman Pontificate, which was Pius VII, “this Saint” who, after Napoleon’s definitive exile (1815) to St. Helena, a British islet in the South Atlantic Ocean, “once returned to the Apostolic See, was the only one hospitable ruler to the tyrant’s family, to begin with his mother.”[7]


[1] BENEDICT XVI, Speech, October 4, 2008.

[2] In Rivista Storica Benedettina, XIV, Santa Maria Nuova, Rome 1923, p. 206; our translation.

[3] F. SCHIZZI, Della vita e degli studi di Giovanni Paisiello, Volume 73, Milano 1833, pp. 46-47; our translation.

[4] La rassegna musicale, Einaudi, 1930, p. 130; our translation.

[5] C. Goldoni, La Scuola Moderna, All’amico lettore.

[6] Cf. P. ISOTTA, Per un bicentenario: Paisiello e il mito di Fedra, Arte’m, Napoli 2016; our translation.

[7] P. ISOTTA, ibidem; our translation.

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