The artifact presented here is a Christmas greeting signed as Cardinal De’Conti on December 14, 1713.
Michaelangelo dei Conti was born in 1655 near Palestrina in Poli. The son of an illustrious Italian family, his ancestors included three 13th-century popes: Innocent III, Gregory IX and Alexander IV. Michaelangelo studied at Ancona and at the Roman College with the Jesuits. He joined the papal service first as governor in the Papal States and later as nuncio to Switzerland and Portugal. Clement XI made him cardinal priest in 1706 and bishop of Osimo in 1709 and of Viterbo 1712, from which he resigned due to poor health.
Upon the death of Clement XI in 1721, another contentious conclave lasting for five weeks ensued. This time, the political divisions pitted Spain and France against Austria who vetoed the leading pro-French candidate, Cardinal Paolucci, Clement XI’s Secretary of State. Dei Conti was unanimously elected in May of 1721 amid vehement protestations on his part. He chose the name of Innocent XIII in memory of his famous ancestor, Innocent III. He was sixty-five years of age and would reign for nearly three years.
Although known for his diplomatic skills, personal piety, intellect and kindly disposition, Innocent’s reign served to show how politically weak the papacy had become. His predecessor, Clement XI, had refused to invest Emperor Charles VI (1711 – 1740) with Naples and Sicily because he had not been consulted about their transfer to the empire. Innocent granted the investiture in 1722 but this was a completely formal matter since the emperor had already taken possession of Naples at the Treaty of Utrecht and exchanged Sardinia for Sicily. Other territories were handled in a similar manner by the monarchs without consultation, serving to highlight the inadequacies of the Vatican. Charles VI even claimed supreme authority over the Sicilian church. Innocent was powerless.
While adhering to Clement’s prohibition against nepotism, Innocent did elevate his brother to the cardinalate but with no added benefices to create any scandal. In France, he raised the unworthy Guilareme Dubois to the cardinalate exhorting him to change his wicked life but to no avail. He addressed other tensions from the previous papacy as well. The ongoing struggle with the Jansenists in France lead him to insist on strict adherence to the bull of 1713, Unigenitus Dei Filius, which had comprehensively condemned the movement. Likewise, he upheld Clement XI’s ban on the use of Chinese rites to ease conversion to the Catholic faith. Innocent went as far as forbidding the Jesuits to receive novices within three years unless they could prove their obedience to the pope on this matter. In Spain, with the assistance of King Philip he regulated several abuses in a bull in 1723.
Innocent died in March of 1724 after a papacy lasting nearly three years. He was buried in a stucco tomb in the grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica near the Chapel of the Pieta. He was sixty-seven years old.
Papal Artifacts honors the gift of his life to our Church.