Publishing, Secrecy and Curiosity in a German Conclave Print

Christoph Weigel (publisher), Der Grund-Riß des Conclave und die Beschreibung aller Solennitaeten: welche in Rom nach Absterben eines Pabstes, und beÿ der Erwehlung seines Nachfolgers vorzugehen pflegen (c. 1700-1720), engraving, 38.2 x 47.5 cm. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

Christoph Weigel (publisher), Der Grund-Riß des Conclave und die Beschreibung aller Solennitaeten: welche in Rom nach Absterben eines Pabstes, und beÿ der Erwehlung seines Nachfolgers vorzugehen pflegen (c. 1700-1720), engraving, 38.2 x 47.5 cm. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

The point of the conclave prints that circulated at the death of a pope was to reveal what was, by definition, the secret and mysterious ritual surrounding the election of a new one. The word conclave, from the Latin cum clave, “with a key,” denoted secrecy in its very name.1 These carefully compartmented etchings and engravings, lined with text and crowded with images, began to appear in Rome in the 16th century.2 They picked up momentum with the increase in pomp that characterized papal ceremony in the following century, and the market for them was further fed by the curiosity of the many tourists who came to Rome to marvel at its antiquities, and pilgrims hungry for a glimpse of ancient rites such as these. The prints bristled with impenetrability, from the inscrutable figures of identically robed cardinals, to the halberd-carrying militias guarding them. The tiny, immobile presence of the dead pope gave nothing away either, except the certainty of his absence. Prints purporting to lift the curtain on the goings-on between the death of one pope and the election of the next could not fail to be best sellers, although to modern viewers the reasons for so much curiosity remain obscure.

Single-sheet prints of papal conclaves, once both popular and plentiful, are now curiosities and rarely exhibited, although they were printed up to the 19th century. They are difficult to parse, and blend different genres and cognitive styles, offering us clearly important information in different registers of viewpoint and specificity. We see an ichnographic map, a procession and landscape in bird’s eye view, and emblematic cartouches and coats-of-arms. In the compartments that frame the central image in the engraving published by Christoph Weigel, masses of figures cluster in frenzied motion or silent meditation, or they file across the page in measured procession.3 Two athletic, airborne putti clamber towards the heavens, struggling with a heavy, fringed curtain imprinted with a ground plan of the area around the Vatican palace, annotated in German. Ascending with their odd textile, they reveal a magisterial bird’s eye view in perspective, showing the same area represented in the plan, with an orderly procession in full swing. A shell-shaped cartouche at the bottom, which tells us this is a view of the Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Church in Rome, emphasizes an important fork: on the left, the official entry into Bernini’s colonnade and the sacred space before the most important church in Christendom; on the right, the statue-laden penitential pilgrim’s route to the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo, patrolled by the fierce and colorful Swiss guard, offers the same choice as St. Peter with his keys. During the sede vacante, the time of the empty throne, the unknown moment between two successors to the throne of St. Peter, important choices are being made.

Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi (publisher) Nuova, et esatta pianta del conclave con le funtioni, e ceremonie per l’elettione del nuovo pontefice, fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Innocentio XI. Che sede anni XII mesi X Giorni XXII nel quale entrorno l’Em.mi Sig.ri Cardinali a dì XXIII di Agosto MDCLXXXIX. In Roma: Gio(vanni) Giacomo (de) Rossi le stampa in Roma alla Pace co(n) licen(sa) de Sup(erio)ri (1689), etching, 36.1 x 46.3 cm. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi (publisher) Nuova, et esatta pianta del conclave con le funtioni, e ceremonie per l’elettione del nuovo pontefice, fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Innocentio XI. Che sede anni XII mesi X Giorni XXII nel quale entrorno l’Em.mi Sig.ri Cardinali a dì XXIII di Agosto MDCLXXXIX. In Roma: Gio(vanni) Giacomo (de) Rossi le stampa in Roma alla Pace co(n) licen(sa) de Sup(erio)ri (1689), etching, 36.1 x 46.3 cm. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

This engraving is undated, and unlike most of the single-sheet conclave prints issued to commemorate a specific event, it shows the generic rituals that occurred during the sede vacante. The solemnity of the complex rituals at the death of a pope, and the ostentatious secrecy of the proceedings by which the new pope was elected, barely masked the intersection of the competitive personal and political interests that emerged with the first whiff of the opportunity to gain control of this position. The new pope was elected by the College of Cardinals, made up of men from the most powerful families of Italy and Europe. As such, they not only acted to preserve papal primacy, but also, and perhaps primarily, they wished to safeguard individual influence on the political scene. Most conclave prints included the names of the participating cardinals, by which knowledgeable viewers could imagine what factions were formed and deals might be struck. In reality, the Cardinals’ attendants freely released whatever information they had, so that there was much betting activity as well as political pressure on cardinals by foreign rulers. It was primarily because of interventions by the latter that 17th-century conclaves were such drawn-out affairs, which left a comfortable space for the market in conclave prints.4

The more usual conclave prints were therefore newsy and documentary—they included the list of voting and absent members of the College of Cardinals, and the name of the newly deceased pope as well as the date that the conclave convened; one has the sense of an event still in play. The timeframe within which the prints were rushed onto the market as well as the reliably unchanging rituals made it reasonable to repeat most of the images between one sede vacante and the next. The etchings published by Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi and Giovanni Bartolomichi are typical pictorial versions of accounts of the conclaves, which were also narrated textually in unillustrated brochures that interspersed generic accounts of the rigorous sequestration of the cardinals with timesensitive individual names and offices. They emphasized concealment and security, dwelling not only on the companies of fierce guardsmen, but the chaining of the palace doors and bricking up of the cardinal’s cells, leaving only one window near the ceiling for air, and another revolving window through which to pass food without being able to pass verbal messages.5 The powerful Roman print house of Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi specialized in pictorial prints, and this etching shows the sede vacante at the death of Innocent X in 1689.6 The sede vacante following the death of Clement XIII in 1769 is shown in the print published by the bookseller Giovanni Bartolomichi who ran a shop on the via del Corso, and specialized in printed narratives of church ceremony and reports on the papal court, as well as carnival plays and descriptions of the fireworks machines erected for extraordinary visiting dignitaries.7

Giovanni Bartolomichi (publisher), Nuova, et esatta pianta del’ conclave con le funtioni, e ceremonie per l’elettione del nuovo pontefice fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Clemente XIII. Si vendeno da Giovanni Bartolomichi (1769). In Roma: Giovanni Bartolomichi Sopra la Chiavicha di Fiano, (1769), etching, 43.3 x 34.3 cm. (1769) Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

Giovanni Bartolomichi (publisher), Nuova, et esatta pianta del’ conclave con le funtioni, e ceremonie per l’elettione del nuovo pontefice fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Clemente XIII. Si vendeno da Giovanni Bartolomichi (1769). In Roma: Giovanni Bartolomichi Sopra la Chiavicha di Fiano, (1769), etching, 43.3 x 34.3 cm. (1769) Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

Although one print is horizontal and one vertical, necessitating a different disposition of the subsidiary scenes around the central groundplan, the later print is clearly modeled on the earlier one. The images of the cardinals gathering preliminarily in the Sistine Chapel in orderly silence, the formal recognition of the corpse of the dead pope, the entrance of the cardinals into conclave, the scrutiny in the Sistine Chapel, the spare, temporary cells in which the cardinals were enclosed for the duration, with bed and chair and little windows high at the top, the Swiss Guard and other private militias visibly maintaining order in the city, the procession of clergy to the Vatican to pray for a prompt election, the order with which food was brought in personalized hampers to each sequestered cardinal, and the mass invoking the Holy Ghost to guide and guard the conclave (as it does, in the form of a dove, at the top center of each print), persist unaltered in form from 1689 to 1769.8 The ground plan of the papal palace and Sistine Chapel, in which the meetings of the conclave took place, share the middle of the print with a tromp l’oeil parchment announcing all the cardinals by name, ecclesiastical rank, and—of political importance—the pope who nominated each to office. As an added encouragement to believe in the accuracy of the pictorial report, a scale rule is included at the bottom purporting to show us the relative size of what we see. All these elements were copied either from the de Rossi print or from a common earlier source; in fact, the caption at the top of the earlier print clearly shows the modifications made to the plate when de Rossi had it updated, changing the dates and name of the pope. The previous conclave would have been that of 1676, so at the least, the life span of the images in these two prints was 93 years, and possibly more.

None of these prints bear the name of an artist, though clearly artists were at work. Even when an artist signed the print, the publishers were the forces behind their production, keeping the plates refreshed and images on the market. The publisher named in the top margin of Fig. 1, Christoph Weigel (Bohemia, 1654–Nuremberg, 1725), was a goldsmith, bookseller, publisher and engraver. This engraving, too, follows the model of the de Rossi print, although not quite as faithfully, for the small framing panels. The innovation of rolling up the groundplan to make our knowledge less abstract appeared on another engraving, similarly conceived and rendered, by a Flemish artist who signed it “R. V. A. Gandense.” This one, also published by Giovanni Giacomo de’ Rossi, showed the famously five-month-long conclave of 1691, and includes a flowery dedication to Cardinal de’ Medici at the top. It was then reissued in 1700 by Domenico de’Rossi, for the conclave resulting in the election of Clement XI, with nothing changed but the dates and names of the pope and publisher.9

The conceit of the angels raising the curtain of secrecy and the presence of the same landscape and narrative images, and the unusual fact of the print being an engraving rather than an etching, make one wonder if the same artist was at work in both cases, although the engraving style, particularly the use of crosshatching, is less atmospheric in Weigel’s version, which also omits all time-specific references. Weigel allows no mention of the names of cardinals or pope, and the papal coat of arms itself is devoid of identifying impresa, containing only the words “sede vacante.” There is no particularized papal catafalque visible, as there is in the earliest de Rossi print, and perhaps most notably, no Holy Spirit presides over this German rendition of the arcane ceremonies of papal Rome. Instead, Weigel has collected the most interesting images from the many models that preceded him, and by producing them as an engraving unmoored from particular events, he has rendered them eternal and precious, avoiding the time-bound look of the ruder etchings with their hasty, palimpsest-like quality and breathless, documentary air. The unchanging ritual is revealed, the guarded cells rendered transparent, and the sacred landscape of papal elections is mapped in impersonal segments for the commercial gain of a Nuremberg bookseller and the satisfaction of a more disinterested curiosity.


The Weigel engraving will be part of a print exhibition, “The Festive City,” co-curated with Emily Peters, at the RISD Museum in Providence, RI, 21 December 2012 – 14 July 2013.

R.V.A. Gandense (engraver), Domenico de Rossi (publisher), Nuova et esatta pianta del Conclave con le funtioni e ceremonie per l’Elettione del nuovo Pontefice fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Innocentio. XII. che sedé anni. IX. mesi. II. giorni XV. nel quale entrorno l’emin. Sig[no] n° cardinali adi IX di Ottobre MDCC, Rome, Domenico de Rossi (1700), engraving, 43.5 x 67 cm. Reproduced from the original held by the Department of Special Collections of the University Libraries of Notre Dame.

R.V.A. Gandense (engraver), Domenico de Rossi (publisher), Nuova et esatta pianta del Conclave con le funtioni e ceremonie per l’Elettione del nuovo Pontefice fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Innocentio. XII. che sedé anni. IX. mesi. II. giorni XV. nel quale entrorno l’emin. Sig[no] n° cardinali adi IX di Ottobre MDCC, Rome, Domenico de Rossi (1700), engraving, 43.5 x 67 cm. Reproduced from the original held by the Department of Special Collections of the University Libraries of Notre Dame.

Share:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page


  1. Frederic J. Baumgartner, “I Will Observe Absolute and Perpetual Secrecy:” The Historical Background of the Rigid Secrecy Found in Papal Elections,” in The Catholic Historical Review 89:2 (Apr. 2003): 168. []
  2. Simonetta Tozzi, Incisioni barocche di feste e avvenimenti. Rome: Gangemi, 2002, 22. []
  3. Christoph Weigel (Bohemia,1654–Nuremberg, 1725), Der Grund-Riss des Conclave und die Beschreibung aller Solennitäten welche in Rom nach Absterben eines Pabstes und bei der Erwehlung seines Nachfolgers vorzugehen pflegen, (The Ground-plan of the Conclave and description of all the solemnity that is maintained at the death of a pope and the election of his successor,) engraving, ca. 1700, 47 x 37 cm. []
  4. Baumgartner, 174. []
  5. As, for example, the 8-page Diario delle Funzioni fatte dentro, e fuori del Conclave, Avanti, e doppo la Creazione del Sommo Pontefice Alessandro Settimo, In Roma, e di nuovo in Firenze, nella stamperia di S.A.S alla Condotta, 1655. []
  6. Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi (publisher, 1627– 1691), Nuova, et esatta pianta del conclave con le funtioni, e ceremonie per l’elettione del nuovo pontefice, fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Innocentio XI. Che sede anni XII mesi X Giorni XXII nel quale entrorno l’Em.mi Sig.ri Cardinali a dì XXIII di Agosto MDCLXXXIX, in Roma: Gio(vanni) Giacomo (de) Rossi le stampa in Roma alla Pace co(n) licen(sa) de Sup(erio)ri, (1689), etching, 36.1 x 46.3 cm, Brown University Library. See: Tozzi, cat.# I:22. []
  7. Giovanni Bartolomichi, (publisher), Nuova, et esatta pianta del’ conclave con le funtioni, e ceremonie per l’elettione del nuovo pontefice fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Clemente XIII. Si vendeno da Giovanni Bartolomichi, 1769 In Roma: Giovanni Bartolomichi, 1769, etching; 43.3 x 34.3 cm. Sopra la Chiavicha di Fiano, 1769. Vienna, Nebehay, ‘60. EGd. []
  8. Marcello Fagiolo, ed., La Festa a Roma dal Rinascimento al 1870, Atlante, Torino: U. Allemandi, Roma: J. Sands; Milano: Distributore esclusivo alle librerie, Messaggerie libri, 1997, p. 10. []
  9. Robert van Audenaerde (Ghent 1663-1748), Nuova et esatta pianta del Conclave con le funtioni e ceremonie per l’Elettione del nuovo Pontefice fatto nella sede vacante di Papa Innocentio. XII. che sedé anni. IX. mesi. II. giorni XV. nel quale entrorno l’emin. Sig[no] n° cardinali adi IX di Ottobre MDCC. Rome, Domenico de Rossi, 1700. Audenaerde worked in Rome with Carlo Maratti until 1732. See: Paolo Bellini, L’opera incisa di Carlo Maratti, Museo Civico Castello Visconteo, 1977, pp. 94-96. Both versions of this engraving are pictured in Tozzi, cat. I.26 and I. 30, but identified as etchings and with the images switched. []