Recollections of Rome During the Italian Revolution (Part I)

The first in a three-part series of reflections on religion and governance in the papal city

This is part one of a three-part series. Read part two here and part three here.


The foreign tourist now reaches Rome in the comfortable, carriage of an express train from Florence or from Naples; he enters the city under an arch opened for the purpose in the walls near the Lateran Gate; he traverses the gardens and vineyards back of the ruined temple of Minerva Medica and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and, did he but know it, almost along the line of the far more ancient Servian wall; and he alights in a spacious and incongruously modern station opposite the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, on the plateau of the Viminal and the Esquiline.

Our tourist then takes his seat in an open barouche, drives across the broad piazza, with its beautiful fountain, and turns into the modern avenue of the Via Nazionale: it may be to stop at the large, French-looking Hotel Quirinale, or it may be to drive further on, down into the very heart of the city, passing in front of the stately American church, whose noble Lombard tower rises on the corner of the Via Napoli, — a monument, as the present King of Italy once said that it would be, of American faith in the stability of the Italian kingdom, and especially in the continuance of freedom of worship in the city of Rome.

It is said that when such an innovation as steam traveling was proposed to Pope Gregory XVI., he peremptorily refused to allow it in the Papal States; adding that were a railroad to come into Rome it would undermine the Papacy. The old Pope was quite right, and wise in his generation, as the event has proved.

Accordingly, when, six and twenty years ago, the writer first visited the Eternal City, he arrived in a little Mediterranean steamer at Cività Vecchia; waited for hours for permission to disembark; was rowed on shore in a small boat; hired an Italian postilion to drive him, with a friend, up to Rome; and spent some five or six hours on the dreary and desolate road over the Campagna, passing on the way those who drove only a single horse, but obliged to submit to be passed by any one who boasted more horses, or even to lag behind such an one, however slowly he might be moving on.

Early in the month of November, 1859, we were able to go up from Cività Vecchia to Rome by rail; but we were obliged to leave the train outside the city walls, where our passports were closely scrutinized by the police. We were then permitted to enter, in an omnibus, by the Porta Cavalleggieri, and thence to drive along the colonnade of St. Peter’s, over the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, through the dark and narrow streets, under the oppressive shadows of huge stone palaces with their iron-barred prison windows, to our hotel in the Via Condotti.

If a railroad had indeed been allowed to come so near the sacred city, in all other things the Vatican stood firm. Non possumus was still enthroned upon the seven hills. Pius IX. was in the vigor of his pontificate; Antonelli was in the zenith of his influence and power. It is true that the battles of Magenta and Solferino had been fought in June of that same year; that Milan and Lombardy had been ceded to the Sardinian king. It is true that although the Treaty of Zurich had declared that the dispossessed princes of Central Italy should be reinstated in their former rights, yet there was no provision for carrying this declaration into effect, and Tuscany and the duchies only waited, under the dictatorship of Ricasoli and Farini, for permission to unite themselves with Piedmont and Lombardy. It is true that even the Romagna had, so far, maintained its independence of the Holy See, pending the decisions of a European congress which was soon to meet at Paris, and to which the Italian question had been referred; but, meanwhile, a French army of occupation kept all fear of revolution from the thresholds of St. Peter’s. The French bugle daily resounded from the arches of Constantine’s Basilica; General Count de Goyon, on the 15th of November, reviewed his troops, some nine thousand strong, and engaged them in battle with an imaginary foe on the Campo Farnesino, beyond the Tiber; and the tall and elegant figure of the Duc de Grammont, the French ambassador, was ever seen on all state occasions in the halls and corridors of the Vatican.

Nevertheless, of all the exciting problems in Italian politics, “the Roman question” was “la question brulante.” About’s trenchant little volume was the politico-literary event of the day. Despite post-office censors and papal police, not a few copies of it had been smuggled into Rome. Wherever people dared discuss public affairs at all they debated whether the French emperor would be induced by Austria to restore the legations to the Pope; or whether he could be brought by Count Cavour to leave the Romans also free to settle their own future for themselves, or even, as About had proposed, if the temporal power were inevitable, to reduce the inevitable to a minimum, and the temporal papacy to the city and comarca of Rome.

Such was the state of Italian politics when the first steps were taken towards the establishment of American services and the organization of an American church.

Protestant worship had for several years been provided for American travelers, from time to time, under the auspices of the American and Foreign Christian Union; and the Rt. Rev. Dr. Alonzo Potter, then Bishop of Pennsylvania, had in the preceding May officiated in the American legation, and administered the rite of confirmation. But now a chaplain of the legation was appointed, with a view to a more settled provision for the religious needs of the Americans in Rome; and since there could be but one organization, an Episcopal church was established, under the protection of the Hon. John P. Stockton, then the minister resident, and with the hearty concurrence of all Protestant Americans in the city, without regard to denominational differences, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists uniting with Episcopalians, alike in the steps which were then taken and in the subsequent support of their church.

Such services could be held at that time only within the legation itself, the residence of the minister bringing the premises constructively under the jurisdiction of the American government, so that the papal authorities could take no cognizance of anything done there. The legation was that autumn in the Palazzo Bernini, on the east side of the Corso, between the Via Frattina and the Via Borgognona, where, opposite a broad flight of marble steps turning to the left, was, and no doubt still is, a large sitting statue of Truth, by Bernini. Here the tourist of a younger generation, who feels a patriotic pride in the noble church on the Via Nazionale, who may also be interested in its earliest beginnings, and who wishes, therefore, to recall the day of small things, will find a little anteroom, where, on Sunday morning, November 20, 1859, were gathered some forty persons for the opening services. A formal business meeting was held on the 26th, in the private apartment of Mr. Joseph Mozier, Trinità de Monti, No. 18, at which the protection extended to the congregation by the American minister was gratefully acknowledged, and an organization effected under the name of Grace Church, of which the Hon. Mr. Stockton was appointed senior, and Dr. Fitz-William Sargent junior warden. It is noteworthy that the next morning Cardinal Antonelli told Mr. Stockton what had been done the evening before, as a good-humored intimation that the authorities were watching us.

Shortly after, the legation was removed and Grace Church, of course, with it to the Palazzo Simonetti, further up the Corso. In the court, on the ground floor of this palace, a brother of Cardinal Antonelli carried on a profitable banking business. Up the winding staircase, whose open stone balustrade and marble pillars were very fine, week after week, all that winter, the more devout of the Americans in Rome ascended to the chancellerie of the legation, which was transformed every Sunday into a church; while during other days the chancel and the ecclesiastical appointments generally were screened from sight, and the rest of the large room, whose windows looked into the Via Lata, given up to diplomacy. The whole number of Americans in Rome at any one time this winter never quite reached four hundred: of whom the maximum attendance at our services all the room would hold was one hundred and forty.

Under the protection of the legation and of the rectorship of this little congregation, partly of resident Americans, more largely of mere travelers, the opportunity was enjoyed of studying Italian politics, ecclesiastical and secular, if Italian politics could then, in Rome, ever be regarded as wholly secular, and of undergoing many experiences, not uninteresting then, but well worthy now, after so great changes, both political and ecclesiastical, of being recalled from the journals and private correspondence of those years.

One of the first incidents of the chapel in this palazzo was strikingly illustrative of the place and times. The Rev. Mr. Heintz, the chaplain of the Prussian embassy, early in December asked for our assistance in a marriage. The groom was a lieutenant in the French army of occupation; the bride, though also French by family and nationality and Roman by birth, was a member of his own spiritual flock and charge, and therefore a Lutheran. He could himself officiate, on such an occasion, only in his own chapel; but this marriage could not take place in the Prussian embassy because the parties were French. They could not be married by the French chaplain, a Roman Catholic priest, because the lady, at least, was a Protestant; nor could any one but a Roman Catholic priest officiate in the chapel of that embassy; nor, for the same reason, could she be married by any one anywhere under papal jurisdiction. Could they be married by the American chaplain under the protection of the American flag? Mr. Stockton replied that the ceremony might be performed in the American chapel, if in accordance with American laws, and provided the French ambassador would express in writing a wish to that effect.

The necessary correspondence having taken place, and the parties having been duly instructed concerning the service, on the appointed day the chancellerie was turned into the chapel, the minister resident, consul, and vice-consul, with a few others, attending as American witnesses. The French ambassador and General de Goyon were represented by their respective aides-de-camp. The groom was accompanied by a number of his fellow officers in full uniform, making quite a brilliant gathering; and the bride, by her parents and several friends, as well as by her Prussian pastor. The civil contract had already been signed in the French embassy; the religious services were partly in French, partly in English; and this quasi-international marriage under difficulties was thus happily solemnized to the satisfaction of all concerned.

But the American chaplain at Rome had, that winter, as ever since, much more to do with sorrow and sickness and death than with wedding rejoicings; and there was one day when, amid the wildest saturnalia of the Carnival, he made his way with difficulty through the noisy buffoonery of the crowded streets, from one scene of heart-rending anguish and the bedside of one dying American traveler to that of another. There were five deaths among the Americans in Rome during the season of 1859-60, and three during the following.

As this second season drew near, a renewal of the lease of the apartment in the Palazzo Simonetti was refused to the legation, if heretic worship were to be held there. Mr. Stockton thought, at first, that he might avoid this difficulty by getting some large room elsewhere, and constituting it a part of the legation by placing the American arms over it. But Cardinal Antonelli told him categorically that we could not be permitted to hold our services under any other roof in Rome save that under which the minister resident himself slept. Thus forced to the alternative of closing the chapel, or making another move, Mr. Stockton who never spared himself either trouble or expense where the interest of his country folk, or what he held to be his duty to them, was involved transferred the legation to the Palazzo Lozzano, immediately opposite the Church of San Carlo al Corso. Here, however, it was not the business offices, but the ball-room of the apartment, and therefore of the legation, which alone he had to place at our disposal for a chapel.

The appointments and decorations of this saloon were, as may well be imagined, anything but ecclesiastical. The walls between the marble pilasters were either covered with polished artificial marble, or occupied by large gilt-framed mirrors. Below, along three sides of the room, ran an almost continuous divan, upholstered in yellow damask. On the fourth side the windows looked down into the Corso. The ceiling was divided by the most graceful gilt arabesques into paneled compartments, filled with brilliantly frescoed mythological figures and subjects, of which the central group represented some revelry of the gods. There was around the room a broad frescoed frieze of dancing nymphs and graces. At the further end, between the windows, two carved and gilded tables, of elaborate design and with crimson velvet tops, did duty, the one for the desk and pulpit, the other for an altar; a movable chancel-rail standing in front. However incongruous, however strange a contrast, for instance, to the interior and chancel of the church on the Via Nazionale, yet all this was not without some interesting and primitive associations; for it was probably in just such places that many congregations of early Roman Christians worshiped, in that transition period when they were no longer forced to take refuge in the catacombs, but could not yet build churches, and when they therefore gathered, for all religious purposes, in the large halls and festive saloons of the richer members of their brotherhood.

Here no Romans, clerical or lay, dare enter to worship with us, or even to look on in respectful curiosity. On the occasion of our services, two papal gens-d’armes were stationed at the street portone to mark who came. On one occasion, indeed, a young lay attaché of the papal court was seen among us. He was recognized by several of us, who knew him at least by sight or name. His presence there at once excited anxious speculation. Could he be indeed interested to learn something of our worship, and of the religious faith of Protestants, that he should run such a risk of getting himself into serious trouble? How could he have escaped the watch of the police? Or could he, indeed, have come by permission and with due connivance, as a spy, to ascertain what we were doing, and what were our heretical ends and aims; or to see if perchance any Roman had been tempted to venture in? It was a grave matter, this young chamberlains appearance at our service. It transpired, not long afterwards, that he had secured his entrance by the simple expedient of giving a few pauls each to the two Cerben; and that his mysterious purpose was to gaze upon a fair American who had bewitched him at some late social gathering.

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A great war has come and gone for us Americans since those days: the wondrous Italian revolution has at last reached Rome. The successor of Pius IX. regards himself as morally a prisoner in the Vatican; the successor of Victor Emmanuel reigns, the king of a united Italy, from the Quirinal. The few American residents of Rome who once attended those early services, and who yet remain, and the children of those travelers who visited Rome then, now turn their steps on the Lords day to very different courts; and many Italians, with none to arrest their purpose, meet with them in a noble temple, Grace Church is now St. Paul’s-within-the-walls, conspicuous on a broad avenue, which had no existence twenty years ago.

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When in 1873 the foundations of St. Paul’s Church were about to be laid by the Rev. Dr. Nevin, the present rector, it was necessary, in one place, to dig down through forty feet of accumulated rubbish before the workmen could lay the first stones on solid ground. The strong tower rests on the massive masonry of Servius Tullius. But out of those depths rose the substructure on which the spacious chancel was built up, and the solemn apse. Upon that Servian wall the tower now stands firm, and from its fair open arches the sweet bells chime out on the clear air of Rome their call to prayer. From its lofty apex the cross is revealed against the pure blue sky. Within those courts thousands have worshiped where many thousands more, God willing, will yet follow them.

But whether Americans or Romans, whether from near or from across the seas, little or nothing will they think or know of the walls or of the substructures which lie hidden so far beneath; quite as little of the moral depths to which they had to go, the difficulties with which they had to contend, or the stones which they laid bare, who first began the work, ere anything permanent could be done towards gathering such a congregation of Americans in Rome.

This is part one of a three-part series. Read part two here and part three here.