De Bernis was a true Frenchman. I have travelled much, I have deeply studied men, individually and in a body, but I have never met with true sociability except in Frenchmen; they alone know how to jest, and it is rare, delicate, refined jesting, which animates conversation and makes society charming.
(Memoirs of Casanova, To Paris and Prison, Chapter XXI)
Francois-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis (or Abbé de Bernis) was born 22nd May 1715 in the south of France at Saint-Marcel d’Ardeche (‘Abbé’ merely referred to his tonsure and black gown). Studious and intelligent, he was educated at Louis-le-Grand college in Paris (as had Voltaire, almost 20 years de Bernis’ senior, who nick-named de Bernis ‘Belle-Babet’) before moving on to study for the priesthood at Saint Sulpice. He was the younger son of a noble family that had fallen on hard times, so much so that he had to leave St Sulpice when he was nineteen in an attempt to support the family’s finances. He did eventually take orders in 1755.
Fortunately, his noble birth, ready wit and courteous manners opened doors for him. He wrote and published poetry (in November 1744 he became a member of Académie Française, in recognition) and caught the attention of Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, joining her entourage in 1745. This was his big break. As well as obtaining for him an apartment in the Tuileries and a pension of 1500 livres, she set him on his way to becoming a high-flying diplomat, politician and cleric.
In 1751 de Bernis was appointed French ambassador to Venice, mediating between Venice and Pope Benedict XIV and winning favour with the latter. This, in 1754, was where Abbé de Bernis and Casanova met. The Frenchman was almost ten years older. They had previously been at the same dinner party in Paris a couple of years earlier but had not been introduced or spoken to each other. Ian Kelly, in his biography ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’, notes:
(de Bernis) was a renowned voluptuary, much favoured by the Venetian government: his sexual peccadillos put him in their debt to a degree only surpassed by the equally libidinous British ambassador, John Murray”.
De Bernis’ interests, like Casanova’s, stretched in particular to nuns and convents. Indeed, their first meeting was organised by a nun from the convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli on Murano who had initiated an affair with Casanova the previous November. In his memoirs she was referred to by Casanova only as MM and was probably from an aristocratic family. He wrote how she was: ‘religious and a Free-thinker, a libertine and gambler, was wonderful in all she did’ (which involved, when necessary, disguising herself as a man). MM was one of de Bernis’ mistresses and part of her motivation in her liaison with Casanova seems to have been to enable de Bernis to indulge in a spot of voyeurism, not that this seems to have concerned Casanova overly much. Furthermore, MM was the older friend of an educanda (a convent boarder) called Caterina Capretta who had been having an affair with Casanova and had consequently been enrolled at Santa Maria degli Angeli by her father for safe-keeping (alas, too late – she was already pregnant). MM introduced Casanova to their admirer in February and it quickly transpired that the aim of MM and the French ambassador was to rope Casanova into helping de Bernis seduce Caterina (a girl for whom Casanova had proclaimed his ‘undying’ love and whom he had intended to marry). The future archbishop and cardinal got his way:
The ambassador, whose profession it was to carry on intrigues skilfully, had succeeded well, and I had taken the bait as he wished. There was nothing left for me but to put a good face on the matter, not only so as not to shew myself a very silly being, but also in order not to prove myself shamefully ungrateful towards a man who had granted me unheard-of privileges.
(Memoirs of Casanova, To Paris and Prison, Chapter XXI)
De Bernis’ experience of European diplomacy gained from his time in Venice helped to make him a valuable asset to the French government. In May 1755 he was recalled by Louis XV and employed to negotiate an alliance between France and Austria prior to the outbreak of the Seven Years War. In June 1757, he became secretary for foreign affairs. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was de Bernis who Casanova sought out when he arrived in Paris in 1757 after his extraordinary escape from ‘Il Piombi’. For the next two years de Bernis was Casanova’s patron, introducing him to the highest echelons of society. It was through these contacts that the Venetian fugitive met men such as a Joseph de Paris-Duverney, an important financier, and was able to present his plan for the Paris lottery which was to make him a fortune. There is some suggestion that he also became a spy for de Bernis. Ian Kelly comments on Casanova’s trip to Dunkirk at this time:
What he was doing there remains a mystery; he may have been on his first foray into espionage…stateless Casanova was useful to de Bernis for missions in Dunkirk and later in Holland from which the French government could distance itself if necessary.
The Seven Years War went badly and de Bernis, rather unfairly, was blamed. His cause had not been helped by his strained relationship with Pompadour as he attempted to rein in her extravagant spending. In October 1758 he was made a cardinal by Clement XIII but then in the December he was banished by Louis XV to the Abbey of Vic-sur-Aisne, Soissons. On April 15 1764 Madame de Pompadour died and the next month de Bernis was nominated archbishop of Albi by Louis XV. His rehabilitation continued and in 1769 he was offered the French ambassadorial post in Rome where he met up with Casanova who arrived in September 1770. De Bernis procured a post for his erstwhile friend in the Jesuit Library in Rome where he continued his translation of ‘The Iliad’.
In 1793, de Bernis celebrated the funeral of the executed Louis XVI. He died in Rome in 1794 and was declared by Pope Pius VI to be “Protector of the Church in France”. Oddly, his heart and entrails are buried in Rome while the rest of him was transferred to Nîmes Cathedral in 1803.
Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2017)