(8 May 1721–7Mar. 1724)
After a long, contentious conclave at which Cardinal Althan, on behalf of the emperor, vetoed the initially favoured candidate, Clement XI's secretary of state Fabrizio Paolucci, Michelangelo dei Conti was unanimously elected. Son of the duke of Poli, near Palestrina, he was born there on 13 May 1655, was a student at Ancona and then with the Jesuits at Rome, and early entered the service of the curia. After holding governorships in the papal states, he was nuncio in Switzerland 1695–8, and then in Portugal 1698–1709. Promoted cardinal priest of SS. Quirico e Giulitta by Clement XI on 7 June 1706, he was successively bishop of Osimo (1709–12) and Viterbo (1712–19), resigning the latter see for reasons of health. When elected, he adopted the name of Innocent XIII, from whose family he was descended.
Possessing both diplomatic skill and a desire for a quiet life, Innocent set about resolving the tensions with the great powers which had troubled his predecessor's reign. Thus he invested (9 June 1722) Emperor Charles VI (1711–40) with Naples and Sicily, which Clement XI had refused to do since he had not been consulted about their transfer to the empire in 1720, and in July 1721 he gratified the regent of France (Philip II of Orléans: 1715–23) by raising his powerful but corrupt minister Guillaume Dubois (1656–1723) to the purple. On the other hand, he was unable to prevent Charles VI from claiming supreme authority over the Sicilian church, in spite of Clement XI's having abolished the ‘Sicilian monarchy’ in 1715, or from investing the Spanish prince Don Carlos with Parma and Piacenza, duchies traditionally fiefs of the papacy. Further, his negotiations with the emperor for the withdrawal of the occupying force left in Comacchio, between Ravenna and Ferrara, in 1709 dragged on inconclusively. Like his predecessors, he recognized the Old Pretender (‘James III’) as king of England and Scotland, not only paying him an income but promising him 10,000 ducats on his re-establishing Roman Catholicism in Britain.
Innocent had a deep aversion to the Jesuits, dating from his time as nuncio in Portugal, and was minded to suppress the order when he learned that its missionaries were not complying with Clement XI's ban on Chinese rites. Instead he forbade it to receive novices unless within three years he had satisfactory proof of its obedience. His antipathy to the Jesuits, as well as the fact that he had protested as cardinal against Clement XI's failure to consult the sacred college before publishing the bull Unigenitus outlawing Jansenism, raised hopes in Jansenist circles that he would adopt a friendlier attitude to them. In fact, on becoming pope, he confirmed the bull, and when seven French bishops wrote to him in June 1721 asking him to withdraw it, he had their petition censured by the Holy Office. In a letter to the French king he declared his complete agreement with Clement XI's constitution, and requested him to take active measures against the bishops.
Innocent created his brother Bernard a cardinal, but any fears that he was succumbing to nepotism were groundless; he limited Bernard's income to the sum stipulated by Innocent XI in his ban on nepotism. In the papal states he was concerned for economic and cultural development, but his short reign was overshadowed by constant illness.