Timidity has never been admired in Vatican secretaries of state. Poor old Fabrizio Paolucci, who held the top job twice in the early 1700s, would be dismissed by one contemporary as “a thoroughly good-hearted man, but one of no great ability, and depending on the pope with a sort of terror”. Then again, when secretaries of state have been a little too domineering they have often provoked equally strident criticism.

One typical mid 19th-century rant talked of “the functions of the white pope” being “transmitted to a red pope, to an irresponsible all-powerful cardinal who is called secretary of state”. Such a man, the author barked, could become “more dictatorial than his dictator” and “no restraint is placed on his abuse of power, which he always uses to promote what he may consider his own private interests”.

This was precisely the kind of charge levelled at Giacomo Antonelli, who enjoyed an unusually lengthy spell as secretary of state from 1848 to 1876. His uncompromising resistance to the cause of Italian unification and his hatred of liberalism secured many enemies, who accused him of leading Pius IX down the path of intransigence. When Antonelli died, the New York Times obituary was relatively even-handed, describing the cardinal as an “ambitious and indomitable statesman”. Others had been less kind during the previous few decades, comparing Antonelli to Machiavelli or Cesare Borgia, talking of his “rolling demoniacal eyes”, and suggesting that “his soft hands were said to hide the hawk’s talons, remorseless in their search and vice-like in their grip”.

Antonelli, sad to say, does not warrant much sympathy. He appears to have left gaping holes in papal finances, was not averse to a little nepotism and, as Eamon Duffy puts it, was a careerist who “practised celibacy only episodically”. The forceful secretary of state who manages to achieve a great deal while sustaining an excellent reputation is not, however, a mythical creature. The model, here, is surely another 19th-century dynamo, Ercole Consalvi.

Consalvi was appointed secretary of state in 1800 and despatched to secure a concordat with the Napoleonic regime. The resulting agreement was hardly a high-water mark in papal diplomacy but there is room to admire Consalvi’s pluck. At one point, some documents were meant to be signed and Joseph Bonaparte assumed, in a “don’t you know who my brother is?” kind of way, that he should be first to pick up the pen. Consalvi was having none of it. “I replied,” he recalled, “in the quietest manner, but with all the firmness necessary under such circumstances, that my double quality of cardinal and papal legate did not allow me to take second rank… It was impossible for me to yield, considering not my own person, but the dignity with which I was invested.”

Here was steel, and though Consalvi would be forced to resign in 1806, he would be back as secretary of state by 1814: just in time to confound expectations at the Congress of Vienna. He was only, officially, an observer, working from a position of weakness, but he managed to secure the restoration of the Papal States with just a few minor territorial losses. Viscount Castlereagh, not easily impressed, described him as the most astute diplomat at the Congress. Consalvi was as tough as they came and dominated Rome for a generation, but he never lacked admirers. His genius, someone said, could be glimpsed in his eye: “deeply seated under shaggy and overhanging brows”, looking “you through without suggesting a thought of keenness or cunning… it was the brilliance of a gem not a fire-spark.” One imagines that a penetrating gaze, figurative as well as literal, still works wonders in curial corridors.

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