Recollections of Rome During the Italian Revolution (Part II)

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

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


A thoughtful Italian writer has traced the developments of ecclesiastical policy which culminated in the Council of the Vatican to the state of Italian politics in the winter of 1859-60. He might have been even more precise. He might have named the 22d of December, 1859, and have claimed that the Council was the ultimate consequent of the influences which were set in motion and of the combinations brought about by the French pamphlet, Le Pape et le Congrès, published on that day.

There was a calm in Italian politics during that fall and early winter. The Lombard war was over and Garibaldi had not yet sailed for Sicily. The interests of the revolution, of Italy and of the Papacy, were therefore, for the time being, wholly in the hands of the diplomates. The Treaty of Zurich had been signed in October; and the European congress therein provided for, and to which was referred the future of the Romagna and of the Roman question, was to meet early in January of the coming year.

Of this calm interval the political event was the sudden appearance of the above remarkable pamphlet. It was unsigned, but it was none the less everywhere attributed to M. de la Guerronière, and regarded as the virtual utterance of the French emperor; and, with whatever reserve in phraseology, was always discussed as such. It is curious reading now, in the light cast upon it by the events of these intervening years, a light very different from that in which it was written to be read; and it would furnish the text for a monograph which would be interesting to the student of philosophic history. A glance at its argument is quite worth a page or two of these reminiscences.

To a certain point this pamphlet was an echo of About’s La Question Romaine, already cited in the former article. M. About had called the attention of Europe to the practical character of the Papal government, and had compelled a public recognition of the social, financial, moral, and political results which were inevitably involved in it. So doing, he proposed that these evils should be at least minimized, by releasing the trans-Apennine states from subjection to ecclesiastical rule, and indeed by restricting the temporal power to the smallest territory possible. And he added, by the way, a broad hint that it would also be better for France if her ecclesiastical affairs were ordered from Paris rather than from a foreign see.

Upon a basis somewhat like this the writer of Le Pape et le Congress now sought to discuss the Papal question, or rather that of the legations, as it must come before the approaching congress; and to foreshadow such a solution, or, perhaps, to test the preparedness of public opinion to accept it.

The pamphlet tacitly assumed as conceded, or rather as not in question, the permanence of the spiritual Papacy.

It was then argued that the temporal power was, not only from a religious but from a political point of view as well, absolutely essential to that spiritual supremacy. “It is necessary that the chief of two hundred millions of Catholics should be subject to no one; that he should be subordinate to no other authority; and that the august hand that governs souls, being relieved of all dependence, should be able to rise above all human passions. If the Pope were not an independent sovereign, he would be French, Austrian, Spanish, or Italian, and the title of his nationality would take from him the character of his universal pontificate;” for it would thus, in the interest of that one nationality, make the ecclesiastical and religious power reposing in his hands a source of possible disquiet, or even danger, to the peace of all other governments.

The conclusion was that the maintenance of the temporal power was, therefore, for Europe, a political necessity. “It concerns England, Russia, and Prussia, as well as France and Austria, that the august representative of the unity of Catholicism should be neither constrained, humiliated, nor subordinated.”

But, on the other hand, the writer urged that the social, civil, and political complications in which such a temporal sovereignty had ever and would ever involve the Pope must keep up a permanent conflict between the secular interests of his people and the true and consistent exercise of that spiritual sovereignty. “The Pontiff is bound,” he argues, “by the principles of divine order, which he has no right to abandon; the Prince is solicited by the demands of social order, which he cannot put away. How, then, shall the Pontiff find in the independence of the Prince a guarantee of his authority, without at the same time finding there an embarrassment for his conscience?”

In fine, it is inevitable that, in such a state, the rights of the people and the correlative duties of the Prince must yield to those of the Pope. Such a state would indeed wish—especially if it were an important factor in a possible nationality—“to live politically, to perfect its institutions, to participate in the general movement of ideas, to benefit by the changes in the times, by the advance of science, by the progress of the human spirit.” But of course this is out of the question. The laws of such a state “will be enchained to dogmas. Its activity will be paralyzed by tradition. Its patriotism will be condemned by its faith. It will be compelled to resign itself to immobility, or to go on to revolution. The world will move, and will leave it behind.” There will result one of two things: either all real life will die out among that people; or the noble aspirations of nationality will break out, and it will be necessary to repress it by foreign intervention, and the temporal power will again be dependent, as it has been heretofore, upon French or Austrian military occupation.

“So, then,” continues the brochure, “the temporal power of the Pope is necessary and legitimate; but it is incompatible with a state of any considerable extent.” In other words, while the temporal sovereignty must be maintained, it is also essential to reduce the territory over which it is exercised to the smallest possible proportions.

Now, whatever may have been the syllogistic force of such an argument (concerning which there certainly was room for question), its practical conclusions were that the true course for the approaching congress was to recognize the separation of the Romagna from the Papal government, if not also to relieve the Pope of Umbria and the Marches of Ancona, — of all, indeed, save the city and immediate neighborhood of Rome; and that the true policy of the Pope was frankly to consent to this dismemberment of his inheritance, and to ask of Europe in return a guarantee of the territory which would then still remain to him.

On the other hand, the people of Rome were to be asked, in the interests of Catholicity, to acquiesce in a future which was sketched for them in these attractive colors: “There will be in Europe a people who will have at their head less a king than a father, and whose rights will be guaranteed rather by the heart of their sovereign than by the authority of laws and institutions. This people will have no national representation, no army, no press, no magistracy. All their public life will be concentrated in their municipal organization. Beyond that restricted horizon there will be no other occupation for them than contemplation, the arts, the worship of great memories, and prayers. They will be forever debarred that noble participation in public life which is in all countries the stimulant of patriotism, and the legitimate exercise of the higher faculties and of the nobler traits of character. Under the government of the sovereign Pontiff none can aspire to the fame either of the soldier, or of the orator, or of the statesman. This will be a realm of repose and meditation; a kind of oasis where the passions and the interests of politics will not intrude, one which will have only the sweet and calm perspectives of the spiritual world.”

To most logical and wholly unbiased readers, it would seem that this pamphlet must have had the effect of a reductio ad absurdam, suggesting more than a doubt of the assumed major premise from which such embarrassing conclusions had been drawn. It is difficult, indeed, not to take it for a piece of exquisite satire. It requires an effort to regard it as a sober political document, put forth in all simplicity and good faith, in a period of patient but resolute expectancy following one of great excitement in the midst of a national revolution. If such an argument meant anything at all, it surely placed the spiritual supremacy itself in a position of irreconcilable antagonism to all that was truest, noblest, and most ardently sought and longed for in social and political life and progress. It certainly was accepted by both the Papal and the patriot party as the expression of a purpose far more radical than that which it professed.

This pamphlet, of which Cardinal Antonelli was no doubt even more promptly informed, was clandestinely brought into Rome during Christmas week. The effect of its appearance can, at the present day, scarcely be appreciated. Its importance was certainly due far less to the intrinsic value of its analysis or to the force of its reasoning less even to its conclusions themselves than to the circumstances under which those conclusions were put forth, the source to which the pamphlet was attributed, and above all to the ulterior purposes which were, on either side, to say the least, suspected.

The English press regarded the propositions of this brochure, so far as they referred to the maintenance of the temporal power, in anything but a serious spirit. The Times especially characterized the prospect therein held out to the Romans in a vein of humorous irony that was much more appropriate than any sober counter-argument.

It was at once answered, however, by Mgr. Dupanloup of Orleans, under date of December 25th; the doughty bishop sharply denouncing alike its professed principles, its proposed means, and the ends in view, declaring these latter “worthy of the absurdity” of the first and “the iniquity” of the second.

The Giornale di Roma, of December 30th, protested in the most formal manner against the pamphlet, and its very presence in Rome was interdicted. On Sunday, January 1st, when General Count de Goyon waited upon the Pope to pay his New Year respects, the Pope made it the text of his reply. He denounced it as a monster monument of hypocrisy and a despicable jumble of contradictions; and affecting to believe that its principles and purposes would of course be repudiated and condemned by Napoleon, in that conviction he bestowed his hypothetical blessing upon the emperor and upon France.

Matters were not made much better, therefore, by the arrival, immediately thereafter, of a letter from Napoleon to the Pope, dated December 31st, which, in language not materially variant from that of the pamphlet itself, reached virtually the same conclusions: that the solution of the difficulties and dangers with which the problem was beset, most conformable to the true interests of the Holy See, would be to surrender the revolted provinces.

Whatever language the Pope might think it best to hold on state occasions, neither he nor Cardinal Antonelli had, from the first, misunderstood this sufficiently significant brochure; and there seem to have been grounds for an entry in the writer’s journal, on the evening of that very New Year’s day, to the effect that the Pope had determined to withdraw from the congress, and that, in consequence, Austria, Spain, and Naples had also withdrawn, and the meeting, of course, been given up. At all events, the fact that the French emperor did not disavow the principles of the pamphlet; the great favor with which it was received in England, and even more throughout Italy; the coincident announcement that Sardinia would, with the consent of the powers, be represented at the congress by Count Cavour, together with the intimation from the Papal nuncio at Paris that the policy thus foreshadowed was one that might compel the Pontiff to resort to the last defense of Rome and to appeal to spiritual arms, — all made a harmonious issue of such a congress hopeless. The diplomates therefore abandoned the Italian question, and turned it over again to the men of action and to the self-solution of coming events.

From this time forward, for the next two or three months, Rome was in a state of continual excitement and expectation. The vigilance of the Papal police was so excessive that it sometimes involved Cardinal Antonelli in awkward predicaments. Even a sealed packet of “dispatches” for the American minister—a harmless congressional report, in fact—was seized at Civita Vecchia, taken from the possession of an American gentleman coming to Rome with a courier’s passport, under the suspicion that it might contain copies of the obnoxious pamphlet. The packet was demanded in the middle of the night, and at once produced with explanations. The custom-house authorities, according to Cardinal Antonelli, had not observed the two large, red official seals with which the character of the packet was certified, and to which Mr. Stockton pointedly called the cardinal’s attention!

But even such vigilance was in vain. The pamphlet, or at all events a knowledge of its contents, was soon all over the city. Both French and Italian copies made their appearance. Strips from newspapers containing it were received in letters; and, finally, it was actually reprinted in Rome itself, secretly and by private hands, and circulated everywhere. An Italian reply, said to have been written by the learned Jesuit Father Curci, — of late widely known for the stand he has so nobly and so firmly taken against all effort to recover the temporal power, was published in the hope of counteracting its influence.

Though Rome was still quiet enough, every one realized, nevertheless, that a deep undercurrent of feeling was setting in and steadily gaining strength. It would from time to time break out in some seemingly futile, even trifling, but yet very characteristic demonstration. Illustrations of this state of popular feeling and of the on dits of the day are found in such incidents as these, gathered from a diary of the time.

It was said in well-informed circles, on January 14th, that Marshal Canrobert had been appointed to replace Count de Goyon in command of the French troops at Rome; that these latter would remain only till the 22d of February; that the Pope would leave Rome before that day, in which case the marshal would take possession of the city and put it under French martial law. These rumors were, however, on the 19th somewhat discountenanced by the appearance of Cardinals Antonelli and D’Andrea, in at least conventionally friendly intercourse with the Duc de Grammont and Count de Goyon, at a reception given by the American minister.

The next subject of comment was an address of the Roman nobility to the Pope, no doubt initiated by Antonelli, and intended to impress public opinion with the devotion of the Romans to the pontifical government and to the person of the Pope. This had, however, an ambiguous effect, for it was as notable for the names which were absent as for those which were appended.

As an offset to this, on the evening of January 22d, about a thousand Italians of the middle classes gathered under the Palazzo Ruspoli, where General de Goyon lives; and when a body of Chasseurs de Vincennes came by, shouted, ‘Viva la Francia,’ ‘Viva Italia,’ ‘Viva Napoleone Terzo,’ ‘Viva Vittorio Emmanuele,’ and so on, after which they quietly dispersed without waiting for the attentions of the police. The following day, some twenty of these, who had been identified, were arrested, and sent to the Castle of St. Angelo. None the less the Duc de Grammont received intelligence on the 26th that a body of some two thousand more were coming to make a similar demonstration in the cortile of the Palazzo Colonna, at that time the French embassy. General de Goyon sent for the leaders of these patriot irrepressibles, and told them firmly that the demonstration must not take place, and that if it were attempted he should himself put it down. This, therefore, was given up.

But the spirit which was thus repressed in the piazzas broke out in the theatres, if nowhere else. Cost what it might, the actors in the popular pantomimes and the favorite ballet dancers must needs indulge in treasonable witticisms, or in little demonstrations of their own. For instance, at the Argentina, on the evening of that very 26th, Punchinello, in a stage dilemma which of two pigs to kill, one white and the other black, blindfolded himself, and seizing at hazard upon the black pig, plunged his knife into him, and snatching away his handkerchief roused the enthusiasm of the audience to frenzy by crying out, “Providence wills the death of the blacks!”—the neri, that is, the priests and Papal party. A well-known dancer, about the same time, having been rebuked for appearing in tricolor costume, and warned not to wear more than a single color, appeared in red; but receiving from among the spectators a large green wreath, in twining it around herself, skillfully caught up her skirt and displayed her white under-dress, so combining the three national colors of Italy. Of course both of these reckless exponents of popular feeling were arrested: the one was imprisoned, and the other sent out of Rome.

Still another and a far more unmanageable demonstration was inaugurated on the 4th of March. The popular party resolved to abstain from cigars and from the purchase of lottery tickets, on the very principle of the Boston tea-drinkers of old. Tobacco being in every form a government monopoly, and the lottery being the source of no inconsiderable portion of the local-revenue, such abstentions had great meaning; while they also implied no ordinary understanding among themselves, and no small amount of feeling and resolution on the part of a populace so deeply addicted to both smoking and this form of gambling. For a given period this continued almost universally; since even a Papal police could not force a man to smoke when he said politely that it did not agree with him; nor even a Roman priest constrain one to buy a lottery ticket when he ingenuously replied that he really could not afford it at just that time.

So passed the weeks and early months of 1860 to the Romans and foreign sojourners in the Papal capital. From time to time there was ever a new report that the French troops were about to be withdrawn; that Rome was to be given up to her own citizens or to a guardia civile; and that Pius IX., launching an interdict alike against the French, the Italians, and his own rebellious provinces, and against Rome itself, would withdraw to Benevento. One day it would be a sensational telegram from Paris; another, a paragraph in the usually well-informed Belgian paper, Le Nord; now it would be a whispered report of a conference at the Vatican; and again, the opinion of an officer of the French army of occupation.

There was naturally some anxiety about the local consequences of such a revolution in Rome as ever seemed impending. American priests asked of Mr. Stockton the promise of protection in case of popular tumult, and that he would hoist the American flag over the so-called American College, as Mr. Cass had done in 1849; and, indeed, very many priests of all nationalities made their arrangements for safety in case of an emergency. American residents and travelers generally had an understanding with their minister as to what they should do if a revolution should suddenly burst upon them.

Meanwhile, during all this commotion and expectation in Rome, the question of the future of Central Italy was, on the 10th and 11th of March, submitted to the decision of those immediately concerned, the people of Tuscany, the duchies, and the legations. In consequence of an overwhelming popular vote to that effect, the union of these provinces to the throne of Piedmont was formally proclaimed, constituting the Kingdom of Italy, and Victor Emmanuel II. its king.

Most of the Americans then in Rome speculated with eager interest upon the probability that they would now have the opportunity of witnessing a great rnediæval ceremony of the major excommunication in awful form, with bell, book, and candle; and it was with a certain sense of personal disappointment that they saw the terrible blow fall in the form of an ordinary modern printed poster, dated March 26th, and affixed on the 28th to the gates of the Vatican basilica, and realized that their disappointment of the expected dramatic pageantry was probably the chief practical effect produced by it.

Italian politics passed now once more into the hands of soldiers. Umbria and the Marches had but a few months more to wait; the Romans, indeed, more than ten years yet; while the ecclesiastical politicians of the Holy See devoted themselves to the preparation and evolution of a policy which, if it did not arrest the progress of Italian nationality, would restore to the Papacy, in another form, the power which thus seemed slipping from its grasp.

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