A Whiff of Papal Controversy: Background information when reading Conclave

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


by Robert Harris

Conclave by Robert Harris X
Conclave by Robert Harris
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Nov 2016, 304 pages

    Jul 2017, 416 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
Buy This Book

About this Book

A Whiff of Papal Controversy

This article relates to Conclave

Print Review

In Conclave, Robert Harris creates an imaginary world of Cardinals meeting in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new Pope. The Bishop of Rome, known as the Pope or Holy Father, is the leader of the Catholic Church, a religion with over one billion members worldwide.

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes 266 popes in the Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook), starting with the apostle Peter who, according to the Roman Catholic Church, was directly chosen by Jesus - "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). Over two thousand years, the process of electing a new Pope has been refined and developed, most recently changing in 1970 when Pope Paul VI limited the age of the Cardinals involved in the conclave to 80 years old. Although the characters in Conclave are entirely fictional, a number of actual Pontiffs from the last hundred years are mentioned as the story progresses. Interested readers might like to know a little more about some of the Popes featured in the novel.

Pope John Paul I

Pope John Paul I John Paul I's reign as Pope was one of the shortest, lasting only 33 days. Born in Italy in 1912, Albino Luciani rose out of poverty to become the Cardinal of Venice and, in August 1978, Pope. His sudden death is believed to have been due to a heart attack but no autopsy was carried out. In Conclave, Cardinal Lomeli points out that the Vatican's reluctance to reveal that the body was discovered by a nun, might have been a starting point for the many rumors that persist around Pope John Paul I's death. In fact several conspiracy theories surround this Pope's sudden death, including discovery of corruption in the Vatican bank, hidden links to freemasonry and a proposed program of Church reform that may have made him many enemies.

Pope Paul VI & Pope Puis XII

Pope Paul VI & Pope Puis XII
Pope John Paul I's predecessor, Pope Paul VI, had occupied the highest office for fifteen years when he died on August 6th 1978. Lomeli refers in an off-the-cuff manner to the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and Pope Puis XII, who died twenty years earlier, in 1958. Difficulties with the embalming process were noted publicly in both cases. Lomeli claims that Pope Puis XII's body "fermented in its coffin and exploded like a firecracker." This may be an exaggeration but there were reports that an innovative embalming technique tried out on the remains of Pope Puis XII failed to prevent significant deterioration to the body as it lay in state. Similarly, Pope Paul VI's body decomposed quickly – Lomeli reports that his face went green - despite the embalming process. Some have speculated that this prompted some of the urgency around embalming John Paul I when he died a month later – the kind of rush that created fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

Pope Benedict XVI

Alan Turing German-born Joseph Ratzinger became Pope in 2005 and resigned from the papacy, aged 86, in 2013 – the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415. In Conclave, Cardinal Lomeli talks about the confined life the next Pope will have, never able to wander the streets and bookshops of Rome and reflects that even Ratzinger ended his days "cooped up in a converted convent" in the Vatican gardens. Father Benedict was a member of the Hitler Youth, a part of his past the Vatican has been coy about. This is despite Father Benedict's prior writings in which he openly describes how he and his brother, as young men in Hitler's Germany in the 1940s, had no choice but to join. Since retirement, Pope Benedict XVI has been known simply as Father Benedict and has made few public appearances.

Picture of Pope Benedict from website for President of Republic of Poland
Picture of Pope John Paul I from NNDB.com

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kate Braithwaite

This "beyond the book article" relates to Conclave. It originally ran in January 2017 and has been updated for the July 2017 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

BookBrowse Sale!

Join BookBrowse and discover exceptional books for just $3/mth!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Wifedom
    by Anna Funder
    When life became overwhelming for writer, wife, and mother Anna Funder in the summer of 2017, she ...
  • Book Jacket: The Fraud
    The Fraud
    by Zadie Smith
    In a recent article for The New Yorker, Zadie Smith joked that she moved away from London, her ...
  • Book Jacket: Wasteland
    by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
    Globally, we generate more than 2 billion tons of household waste every year. That annual total ...
  • Book Jacket: Disobedient
    by Elizabeth Fremantle
    Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi led a successful career as an artist throughout the ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
Fair Rosaline
by Natasha Solomons
A subversive, powerful untelling of Romeo and Juliet by New York Times bestselling author Natasha Solomons.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Wren, the Wren
    by Anne Enright

    An incandescent novel about the inheritance of trauma, wonder, and love across three generations of women.

  • Book Jacket

    Digging Stars
    by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

    Blending drama and satire, Digging Stars probes the emotional universes of love, friendship, family, and nationhood.

Win This Book
Win Moscow X

25 Copies to Give Away!

A daring CIA operation threatens chaos in the Kremlin. But can Langley trust the Russian at its center?



Solve this clue:

A M I A Terrible T T W

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.