Page 3, 18th September 1970

18th September 1970
Page 3
Page 3, 18th September 1970 — The day they shelled the Vatican

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Locations: Rome, Naples, Paris, Oxford


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The day they shelled the Vatican


AT 5.30 a.m. on September 20, 1870, Italian guns opened fire on the walls of Rome . .

So dawned the last day of the oldest monarchy in Europe. The day before, the seventy-seven-year-old Pontiff, Pius IX, had ascended the Scala Santa on his knees and given his farewell blessing to his little army of interna tional volunteers. Thence he had retired to the Vatican palace from which no Pope was to issue forth for another 59 years.

Since their beginning in the eighth century, the States of the Church had grown to cover the whole of central and part of northern Italy. By the great revolutionary year of 1848 Italy was still, in -Mettemich's phrase. a geographical expression, but a movement to knit together the old kingdoms and duchies into some form of national union with a degree of popular representation and freed from foreign influence was now active in all parts of the peninsula. Eventually it became most active in the kingdom of Piedmont, the most forward-looking of the Italian states.

At the beginning of his reign, the Pope was sympathetic to these national aspirations. He pleaded with the Austrians to release the provinces of Lombardy and Venetia, and was willing to act as President of some federation of reformed Italian states. Within his own kingdom he established a national assembly with power to veto the administrative acts of the Papal Government. He even appointed a Prime Minister, and this office was open to laesien.

For a season the Pt was the darling of liberais all over Europe. and the cry `Viva Pio Nono!' resounded even in Oxford common rooms. But when a national crusade was preached to support Piedmont's sudden attack on Austria in 1848, the Pope found he was not as free as other Italian rulers might be—the Head of the Church could hardly sanction war, especially against a traditional defender of the Holy See and a Catholic people. Liberal sentiment turned against him, spurred on by extreme republican and irreligious elements which infiltrated the movement. Instead of 'Viva Pin Nono!' wits now cried 'Pio. No! No!'

Nationalist discontent culminated in the assassination of premier Pellegrino Rossi by a band of disgruntled volunteers just returned from the Piedmontese disaster. The city was given over to mob violence and the Pope fled to the protection of Francis II of Naples. After the brief Roman Republic had been overturned in 1849 by a French expeditionary force, the Pope eventually returned, accompanied by Cardinal Antonelli—to be his Secretary of State for over a quarter of a century.

This bland, devious and brilliantly capable man encouraged the Pope to follow a hard line against any more popular concessions. As Piedmont followed a secularist policy and, as the Risorgirnento progressed, automacally introduced her own anti-clerical legislation into each newly 'liberated' territory, the Pope intransigently defended the Temporal Power as 'the seamless robe of Christ' and the only protection against the forces of Belial.

"I cannot by any act of my own," he told the British agent Odo Russell, "give up the States of the Church which I hold in trust. They are not my property, I cannot dispose of them." Whenever his warm Italian heart leaned towards Victor Emmanuel, Antonelli whispered: 'Remember Pellegnino Rossi!'

It remained, however, that if the faults of the Papal States were merely that they were rather inefficient and out of date, the principal difficulty was that the world was becoming more 'worldly' and 'de-Christianised' and impossible tensions were building up between the spiritual ruler and temporal sovereign.

The increase in indifference and irreligion was fast making the Temporal Power a practical anachronism. That the Pope was aware of the day-to-day shortcomings of his civil administrators was illustrated by his outburst to the French ambassador: "Clowns, all clowns, clowns here, clowns there, we are all clowns" Not least of these shortcomings was the character of his Secretary of State, the son of a pig-dealer who had risen in the world by shrewd estate management and ecclesiastical favour. Antonelli, and his brother Philip, whom he had installed as Governor of the Pontifical Bank, made large fortunes, and there were coarser traits in the Secretary's character which made it appropriate that he never became a priest.

In 1859 the Empress Eugenie, one of the Papacy's greatest friends, though not the extreme ultramontane she has been made out to be, wrote prophetically : "I rather fear that great complications will be coming from the States of the Church and it breaks my heart. The unfortunate thing in all this is that people want to be more Catholic than the Pope, and that his friends, who always abandon him when it suits them, wish to show him their respect by inducing him to take a road which will be as thorny for the Holy Father as for everybody else . . ."

By 1870 the Papal territory consisted only of the City and a strip of the western seaboard. On August 5 the French garrison began to leave to defend la patrie against the Prussians. Victor Emmanuel, diffident about further moves against Rome, tried to swing his cabinet into declaring war against Prussia, but the entire Left revolted.

As French fortunes swiftly declined. the Italian Government circularised the European Powers guaranteeing the Pope's inviolability but reserving freedom of action. By September came the debacle at Sedan. and Victor Emmanuel wrote to the Pope asking permission to occupy the Roman State to prevent `internal disorder,' despite the fact that Ma2zini and Garibaldi were being held in restraint and bribery had failed to produce potential rebels. The Pope refused and, on September 11, 50,000 Italian troops crossed the border.

For over a week General Raffaelle Cadorna (whose son was to preside over the Caporetto disaster in 1917) hovered outside the walls of Rome while last minute briefings took place. It was finally decided that a breach would be blown between Michelangele,'s Porta Na and the Porta &tiara, not far from where the new British Embassy is rising. To cover this, a diversion was arranged near the Porta San Pancrazio.

The commander here was Nino Bixio. a rabid anticlerical and one of the few Garibaldians whom the dominant Piedmontese had deigned to admit into the Italian Army. He exceeded his orders and commenced an indiscriminate cannonade. Shells fell near the Vatican buildings themselves.

Meanwhile the Pope, with typical ironic humour, sat at his desk playing one of his favourite word-games. He was composing a charade on the verb tremare (to tremble). Though the defenders had been told to surrender after the first shot, the unexpected fury of the assault provoked a resistance which lasted for four hours. There were about seventy casualties, mainly on the Italian side. Then bersaglieri entered the breach, a truce was arranged and, during the next twentyfour hours, the entire City except the Vatican was occupied.

Four years later, the Archbishop of Paris could truly say that the City of the Popes had become 'the vulgar capital of a modern state.'

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