The Capture of Rome 150 Years Ago

October 05, 2020
Breach of the “Porta Pia,” carried out by Italian troops

September 20, 2020 saw the 150th anniversary of the capture of Rome and the conquest of the last provinces of the papal state. An event that deserves to be retraced historically and considered from the perspective of theology. This first article is limited to the historical aspect.

The background to the capture of Rome is of course the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. It caused the dissolution of Napoleon III’s imperial dream, and at the same time realized Chancellor Bismarck’s desire for German unification, creating the Second Reich.

Indirectly, this victory contributed to the Italian Revolution, left unfinished by the Count of Cavour. A week after the French defeat, Foreign Minister Emilio Visconti Venosta, reneging on his promise to Napoleon III, notified foreign powers of the impending occupation of Church states by Italian troops.

Victor Emmanuel II's Letter

On September 8, Victor Emanuel II sent Count Gustavo Ponza di San Martino to Pius IX to offer the Pope the “protection” of his troops. In a letter that represents a masterpiece of hypocrisy, the Italian ruler presented the impending attack on the papal provinces as arising out of a desire to prevent unrest associated with revolutionary agitation. It announced the will “to let our troops enter Roman territory, when the circumstances justify it.”

The letter must be understood from the perspective of the Risorgimento ideology. There was no justification for the Italian invasion, even in a possible situation of internal turbulence, or in a conflict between the populace and the government, since “at that time, the State of the Church was in the deepest silence,” according to newspapers.

In fact, there was no popular uprising; there was no liberal-national uprising among the people. This excluded any justification such as presenting the Italian military intervention as required to “maintain order” and to guarantee “the security of the Holy See.”

Pius IX responded to the letter, signed by Vittorio Emanuele II, on September 11, 1870. The Sovereign Pontiff, affirming that the initiative of the Kingdom of Italy filled him with “bitterness,” firmly declared that the act of the appropriation of the territories of the Papal States was morally and legally inadmissible.

The Italian Troops Attack

On September 20, 1870, at 5:15 am, the St. Mary Major Observatory warned the War Ministry that enemy batteries had opened fire on the Porta Pia, which was the most vulnerable point of the city. At the first canon shots, the Pope invited the ambassadors and the ministers of foreign courts to meet him. From 6:30 a.m., all the diplomats gathered in the Vatican where they attended the Pope’s private mass, celebrated under a volley of cannon fire.

As he was receiving the diplomatic corps at about 9 o’clock, Cardinal Antonelli arrived, a dispatch in hand: it was the news that there had been a breach in the walls of Villa Bonaparte, to the left of the Porta Pia. “The Rubicon has been crossed: Fiat voluntas tua in coelo et in terra,” said Pius IX.

General Kanzler, commander of the papal army, had arranged - according to the instructions given by Pius IX – for the various divisions established to defend the provinces to be brought together in the city to “avoid too unequal conflicts and unnecessary bloodshed.”

Around 10 o’clock in the morning, Pius IX, as he had already expressed it to Commander Kanzler, to prevent the foreseeable shedding of blood in the defense of the city, gave the order to hoist the white flag. Papal troops obeyed, thus refraining from any new military action.

The assault by the Italian divisions, however, was given despite the fact that the white flag was clearly visible. Along the walls surrounding the Eternal City, in the interminable pause of silence that preceded the attack, the last hymn of Zouava loyalty rose at that moment.

The Abuses and Thefts Against the Papacy

The Garibaldi, once in the City, began to enact all sorts of violence against men and anything representing papal authority, especially against papal soldiers, surprised alone or in small groups.

The newspapers describe their abuses:

“They rushed into Rome; they attacked the gendarmes’ barracks; they invaded the district offices, looting them, robbing them, and destroying their records […]; they broke the papal coats of arms; they beat to death many soldiers; they charged in with furious cries, and at once succeeded in frightening the citizens, who had decorated their balconies with national flags, distributed by their accomplices.”

Pius IX, in a circular addressed to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, declared null and void the annexation of the papal territories by the Kingdom of Italy. Among the lootings carried out by the new state, it should be pointed out that the Apostolic Palace of the Quirinal and that of the Roman College, were stolen respectively from the Papacy and the Society of Jesus.

On the morning of September 21, 1870, the papal militia, after spending the night under the portico of St. Peter’s, gathered under the windows of the Vatican. Canadian Colonel Allet, having formed the square, presented the weapons for the last time with the cry of “Long live Pius IX, Papa-Re!” On October 9, Rome and its territory were annexed to Italy by royal decree.

Pope Pius IX blessing the troops gathered in St. Peter's Square on April 25, 1870