Vatican reveals secret parchment conferring papal knighthood on Mozart

Mozart Chevalier of The Golden Spur

The Vatican has promised other documents from the “closed period” of World War II. | Aug 16, 2011

by James Bone

A LAMBSKIN parchment conferring a papal knighthood on the boy prodigy Mozart is to be put on public view for the first time as the Vatican opens up its secret archives.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 14 when he attended a performance of Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on April 11, 1770. Because Allegri’s composition for two choirs was considered sacred music, the Roman Catholic Church forbade its reproduction.

But Mozart, touring Italy with his father Leopold, returned to his room and transcribed the 15-minute work. “You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, to copy it or to give it to anyone,” Leopold wrote to his wife. “But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down.” The feat earned Mozart celebrity and an invitation to an audience with Pope Clement XIV, who conferred on him the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur.

In the letter to Mozart the Pope said that he had “agreed to the Petitions in your name”, triggering speculation that it was the prodigy’s pushy father who had asked for the award.

The Vatican document, dated July 4, 1770, bears the papal seal of St Peter the fisherman casting his nets on to the sea. Clement XIV praises Mozart for excelling in “suavissimo cymbali sonitu”, literally “the sweetest sound of cymbals”, since his earliest youth.

Mozart was at first proud of his papal honour, signing a letter to his sister “Chevalier de Mozart”. He wore the insignia of the order on his breast, as seen in a 1777 portrait. In a letter to his father on October 17 of that year, however, Mozart recounts how, invited to give a concert, he was mocked by assembled noblemen who claimed the cross was worth no more than a pinch of snuff.

“It is not gold, only copper, ha! ha!” one nobleman said. “By no means – it is lead, ha! ha!” Mozart replied, burning with rage. After that he removed the title “Knight” from his signature.

The document conferring the Golden Spur is one of 100 objects to be put on view at the Capitoline Museums in Rome in February to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the archive, which has vast holdings dating to the 8th century. The documents to be put on display range from Galileo’s admission of heresy in 1633, for arguing that Earth goes around the sun, to a letter written by English peers to Pope Clement VII in 1530, calling for Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled.

The Vatican archives have been embroiled in controversy over the Church’s refusal to allow access to its records on Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust. The exhibit will contain a 1934 letter written to Hitler by Pope Pius XI in 1934 and the Vatican has promised other documents from the “closed period” of World War II.


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