The Abbé de Bernis is one of those fascinating, worldly prelates, more at home in the drawing room than the confessional, who inhabited the haut monde of pre-Revolution Paris and Versailles. It was on 2 October in 1758 that the red biretta was bestowed on him.
The future Cardinal de Bernis was born in 1715 and took minor orders after finishing his studies at a seminary in Paris. Before embarking on his political and diplomatic career he was known as a writer, indeed he was elected to the Académie Française at age 29. He was a friend and protégé of Mme de Pompadour, and through her influence was appointed ambassador to Venice (1752-1755). He remarked on his appointment to this post, which was not one of the more important or prestigious ones, that the worst thing that could happen to him there would be to be forgotten.
On his return to France, he helped to organize the famous reversal of alliances, which saw France abandon its traditional allies in favour of joining the Austrian Habsburgs to fight England and Prussia in the Seven Years’ War. Appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1758, again through Mme de Pompadour’s influence, he supervised the early stages of France’s participation in the war. It was during this period of high favour with Louis XV that the Abbé was appointed cardinal by Clement XIII. The poor showing of the French forces resulted in his sudden dismissal in 1758, upon which he retired to the country, where he was belatedly ordained a full-fledged priest in 1760.
Before her death in 1764, Mme de Pompadour managed to get him appointed Archbishop of Albi, where he proved himself an able administrator.
On the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, Cardinal de Bernis became France’s ambassador to the Holy See, in which capacity he welcomed Mesdames, the surviving daughters of Louis XV, to Rome on their emigration in 1790. He remained in Rome until his death in 1794. After 1790, of course, his position in Rome was purely nominal.
He was a witty man, even though his sentiments were rather unchristian for a cardinal. A sample: “I would prefer to go to Heaven for the climate, but the company would be better in Hell!”