Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects: Pope Pius VII's paper crown

Pius VI's papal tiaras had been destroyed or looted, so the assembled throng came to a practical solution when Pope Pius VII was crowned...

Rhodri Marsden
Saturday 21 March 2015 01:00 GMT
The papal tiara was made out of papier mâché and was decorated with silver cloth and jewels
The papal tiara was made out of papier mâché and was decorated with silver cloth and jewels

* Today in 1800, Barnaba Chiaramonti was crowned Pope Pius VII. It was a time of upheaval in Italy; Napoleon's soldiers had taken Pius VI prisoner, destroying or looting the Holy See's papal tiaras in the process, and after the Pope's death in exile in 1799, it took months of stalemate to elect a new one. When the cardinals finally did so, there was a problem. They had no papal tiara to crown him with.

* The assembled throng came to a practical solution and one was made out of papier mâché. Silver cloth was stretched over it, and it was decorated with jewels donated by local aristocratic ladies. It did the job rather nicely.

* Pius VII set about forging an uneasy peace with France, and in 1805 Napoleon gave him a new tiara, made partly from pieces of the looted ones. Unfortunately, it weighed about five times as much as the previous tiara, it was far too small and had inscriptions glorifying Napoleon. Pius VII declined to wear it, and stuck with the papier mâché one.

* In fact, this stunt tiara proved to be rather popular with the papacy. Even when a new silver tiara was made for Pius VII in 1820, he seemed to prefer wearing the paper one. After all, it was light, it was convenient, and no one else really knew any different. A few years later, Pope Gregory XVI, a financially profligate chap, decided that said tiara was demeaning and opted for a new, extravagant version.

* But his successors kept coming back to it, particularly when they had to wear a tiara during lengthy ceremonies. Pius IX brought it out of retirement, and Leo XIII was reported to have worn it up to the end of the 19th century. Papal tiaras of all forms were eventually retired in 1963.


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