Recollections of Rome During the Italian Revolution (Part III)

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

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


In the immediate neighborhood of the Fountain of Trevi, within sound indeed of its falling jets and cascades, was an ordinary building at the corner of the Via del Nazereno and the Angelo Custode. An alto-relievo figure of such an angel, on the walls of a house near by, gave the latter street its name. An oil-lamp burning before a shrine supplied the neighborhood, on moonless evenings, with pretty much all its light, whether for those who, coming down from the direction of the Pincian, turned to the left towards the Stamperia and the Fountain, or for those who took the right fork, the Nazereno, towards S. Andrea delle Fratte.

In the latter narrow street is the stone-arched doorway to this corner house, closed by two strong wooden doors, on one of which hangs a large iron knocker. Two distinct blows with this are followed by a sharp click within; a large iron latch is invisibly lifted by a cord from above; and, pushing the heavy door slowly open, the visitor finds himself in a small, dark, lava-paved vestibule. Entering, the deep gurgling of unseen waters, ever flowing somewhere just beneath, is his welcome. A dark stone stairway opens on the right; and unless the stranger has learned to provide himself with a small match-box and a waxen taper, which the resident in Rome generally carries for such an exigency, he must grope his way up-stairs, with no light but his imagination or his memory. On the second landing a small red and white cord and tassel hang out from a little hole in a well barred and bolted door, with which, if needful, a second summons can be given.

At least, all this was so twenty-four years ago. And then a voice would promptly meet the ascending visitor with its quick “Chi è?” (Who is it?) And if the reply were satisfactory, or if a searching glance from within, through a little grated wicket, rendered the inquiry superfluous, the door was quickly opened, and a bright little woman, unnaturally short in stature, appeared upon the threshold with an antique brass Roman lamp, to give a cheery greeting, and to show the comer into a small apartment of three rooms, which did duty for the first rectory of the American church in Rome. What the ante-room of the Palazzo Bernini and the Chancellerie of the American Legation were to St. Paul’s-within-the-Walls, that this little apartment was to the rectory which is now slowly going up on the Via Napoli, near that church.

No one of these three rooms boasted either fireplace or chimney, — indeed, few Roman houses had anything of the kind save in the kitchen; but a sheet of tin replaced a pane of glass in one parlor window, and a hole in this gave egress to the outer air for a pipe from a little stove standing near; and in this stove, on a cold or rainy day, our dwarf maid, Checca, would light up a fagot or two of brush for us. Another and a less obstructed window looked out across the Angelo Custode upon the quarters of certain officials of the French Army of Occupation. Here the French colors were brought back after every great parade, escorted by a special guard of honor, and were formally saluted, before being taken into the house, by military music from a fine brass band of fifty-seven pieces. This frequent performance was a great attraction to the neighborhood.

Checca, good soul, was a devotee, and never missed her daily mass, or her devout prayer in the Fratte on every festa. Her padrone and our landlord, on the contrary, was a liberal and a republican. He had his stories of the early days of Pius IX., of the lay ministry of Count Mamiani, of the assassination of Count Rossi, of the flight of the Pope to Gaeta, and of the siege of Rome. He had been a member of the civic guard under Garibaldi, in the defense of the city against the French, ten years before. Checca faithfully brought us all the church news. She knew when the Pope might be seen driving in the Villa Borghese or on the Pincio, when a triduo would be sung at the Gesù, who would preach the Quarantina at the Fratte, or what were likely to be blessed numbers at the pontifical lottery. From the padrone, on the other hand, we were pretty sure to hear of all the revolutionary ebullitions or half-open secrets, to get a copy of any political pamphlet which might be in clandestine circulation, or to learn the latest rumors from the world without, bearing on the prospects of the national movement. That Checca believed in the holy church and asked no questions was clear. That the padrone was concerned in every demonstration against the Pope-king, of which he so forewarned us, or afterwards gave us details, was very probable.

When the Pope and Antonelli had given up all hope from the congress and the diplomates, they turned appropriately to more ecclesiastical defenders and methods of defense. St. Joseph was the husband and protector of the Virgin: consequently, he was the natural protector of the church. To San Giuseppe, therefore, on the 19th of March, 1860, all the faithful were now exhorted to address themselves, invoking his interference to arrest the revolution. Checca of course went over to the church betimes; but so did the padrone! At St. Peter’s and everywhere the churches were thronged far beyond ecclesiastical expectation; but by no means only with devotees. For the Romans, wishing to do honor to any one, instead of observing his birthday, as with us, celebrate his name-day; that is, the festa of the saint whose name he bears. The liberals now opportunely recollected that Giuseppe was the Christian name of Garibaldi, and the festa was accordingly observed is a spirit most uncalled for; and San Giuseppe (Garibaldi) was invoked in the very churches, as well as in the piazza, to come to the relief of Rome.

This, as may be imagined, was most aggravating to the authorities. A charge of cavalry could readily be launched against any liberal demonstration in the streets, — as was done, indeed, on this very St. Joseph’s day, — and bad politics there corrected with sabre blows and horses hoofs. But when the Romans conformed only too generally to the Invito Sagro of the cardinal vicar, and filled the very churches themselves, what could be done about it?

We were not supposed to get any political information which the authorities did not think best for the faithful to receive; but, early in April, in spite—or in consequence? — of this observance of St. Joseph’s Day, disquieting rumors began to come again, this time from the south. What the Naples papers and the Giornale di Roma called “some unimportant disturbances” had taken place in Palermo and Messina, possibly in other parts of Sicily. These were, it seems, readily suppressed; but the steamers of the Marseilles line were pressed into government service, and twenty thousand troops dispatched from Naples, — a fact which raised a doubt about the “unimportance” of the uprising. Private letters, moreover, and even the Paris press soon represented the whole island as in arms, the most inland villages being in insurrection, until it was difficult to say whether the Neapolitan troops in the cities held the inhabitants of the island in a state of siege, as the Giornale di Roma assured us to be the case; or the insurgents had shut up the troops in the cities, which was more probable.

Under these circumstances, although the Roman journal reiterated the assurance that these Sicilian troubles were “wholly without significance,” yet the Pope decided to organize a small army of “Pontifical Volunteers,” upon which he could rely were French protection suddenly to fail him. The cardinal vicar, also, ordered a litany procession on the 15th of April, for the defense of the Pope and “the recovery of the Romagna.”

The procession came off, as ordered, but was spoken of as consisting only of “three fraternities, the last of whom were Cappuccini, bearing crucifixes and sauntering along negligently, carrying candles and chanting in a monotonous, soulless way.” But the Papal army was soon made up of volunteers of almost every nationality, — notably, however, Belgian and Irish; the French General Lamoricière being authorized by the emperor to enter into the Papal service and take the command. Yet even these seemed soon to be infected with the spirit of the place. Some Irish squads were quite too ready to extemporize a fight on any occasion, even though they chanced to get on the wrong side; and it was said that a whole regiment, the second Cacciatori, apparently Italians, having been severely upbraided by their French commander, marched off from Viterbo, over the frontier, and tendered their services to the King of Italy.

The popular feeling about these pontifical zouaves found little opportunity of expression in Rome itself. But the Florence Lampione of May 17th had a cartoon representing Lamoricière marching forth to the defense of Rome, armed with a sword in one hand and a pastoral staff in the other, the cross-keys on his breast, and on his head a cardinal’s hat, from which waved a military plume. A long winding train of priests and priestlings followed him, in full churchly rig, fiercely prancing onward, four abreast, chanting in full chorus, and armed with bell, book, and holy-water sprinklers.

Meanwhile that Rome was thus at once assuaging alarm and preparing for the worst, news was brought by travelers and by newspapers in their pockets that, whatever San Giuseppe might be doing, Giuseppe Garibaldi had escaped the vigilance of the Sardinian authorities at Genoa, suddenly embarked for Sicily with a thousand or more enthusiasts from North Italy (three thousand, as the story then came to Rome), well supplied with arms and ammunition, and landed at Marsala, under the virtual protection of some English vessels, which were so constantly in the way that the Neapolitan cruisers could not attack the Garibaldians.

During this month of May, the news from Sicily came bit by bit, and in such shape that no one could tell what to make of it. The Papal authorities evidently dreaded political infection. Almost daily did the Giornale di Roma, on the faith of official information from Naples, announce one after another a succession of actions or skirmishes, in which the royal cause was invariably victorious, — losses, defeats, routs, pursuits, for the patriots, until it was a marvel what there could be left from one of these disasters to form material for the next. Daily did the cause of the heroic adventurer, desperate at first, seem to grow worse and worse; until the climax was finally reached in the announcement that, in despair of escape, Garibaldi had committed suicide. But in the teeth of such veracious chronicling, private rumor would persist in telling a very different story. A three days’ prayer to the Virgin for the King of Naples was unnecessarily, as would seem, ordered to be observed at S. Andrea delle Fratte, under the auspices of some of the cardinals. The very scenes of all these defeats and routs, as given in the Giornale itself, succeeded each other in an extraordinary direction, the victors ever falling back, the defeated ever advancing, until we learned at last, as a Munich paper put it, that Garibaldi was so much exhausted by his repeated discomfitures that he was obliged to retreat to Palermo, and rest himself in the royal palace. Even after the Sicilian capital had actually been surrendered, the Giornale di Roma would not admit the fact, until the Count de Goyon threatened, if it were not at once acknowledged, to placard the intelligence in the streets over his own signature.

Remarkable as this expedition will ever be held as an episode in history, it seemed even more extraordinary at the time. Few then knew how far Garibaldi really received cooperation where the effort was apparently made to thwart and arrest him. Count Cavour was obliged to reprove the negligence of the officials who allowed arms to be left where Garibaldi could get possession of them, and to charge the naval commander at Genoa to prevent his departure from that port. But both the Italian and the English naval officers understood perfectly, in the one case, that they were not expected to be over-vigilant; and, in the other, that they would not be severely censured should Garibaldi turn to account their presence in Sicilian waters. But neither Garibaldi nor the public understood this at the time. A popular caricature of a little later day, July 8th, represented Cavour as a balancer on the tight rope of Italian unity, at one end of which Garibaldi is tugging, with great danger to the equilibrium of the other. Cavour, carrying the long pole of diplomacy, weighted with England and France at either end, calls to Garibaldi not to pull so hard upon the rope. The latter rejoins that he must do his duty; that it is Cavour who does not know how to perform his part properly. The world now knows with what great skill Cavour was, at that very time, guarding his gallant but most undiplomatic co-laborer from foreign interference, and securing for him the possibilities of success.

Few of those, moreover, who had not come within the sphere of Garibaldi’s personal influence then fully realized the moral power of the man, — of his great unselfishness, of his sublime single-heartedness. He was indeed a brave and daring soldier; but he was no general. It was this moral power, not exceptional military capacity, that was the secret of his Sicilian campaign. It was this power that, at Calatafimi, gave to a thousand of his volunteers victory over six times as many regular Neapolitan troops, who cared little for either their cause or their king. This confidence in the paladin of the Italian revolution was so unquestioning that the news of the taking of Palermo actually anticipated the fact. For a week previous to the event, the record appears, in the diary on which this article largely depends, of whispered congratulations on the piazze, and the assurance of our padrone that “after a skirmish, in which the royal troops were repulsed, Garibaldi intrenched himself on the heights of Monreale, above Palermo; and it is now stated definitely that on the [day following] he marched into the city itself.” Palermo was actually occupied on the 6th of June, one month from the date of Garibaldi’s departure from Genoa.

Here Garibaldi, without the slightest authority for so doing, save his own honest heart and loyal purpose, proclaimed himself dictator in the name of Victor Emmanuel. During the month of June, while the cession of Savoy and of his native Nice to France was quietly effected, and while he was himself engaged in organizing a provisional government for Sicily, — a work for which he was but poorly fitted, and in which contending factions of either extreme sought to make their own account, — Rome was comparatively free from rumors and disturbances.

Towards the close of June, Francis of Naples made a late and desperate attempt to save his throne. The Florence caricaturist represented him as a gallant in the street, guitar in hand, serenading Signorina Cavour at a window above. The serenade consisted of the offer of a general amnesty, a constitution, the tri-colored flag, an almost independent viceroyalty for Sicily, and an alliance with Piedmont. But the Sicilians and Neapolitans received the tardy offer in much the same amused and sarcastic temper as the fair lady at the window, and both Francis and Rome awaited the progress of the revolution, helpless either to persuade or to resist it.

Just at this time, moreover, a comet appeared over Rome, which was of course interpreted as the precursor of war and further troubles, causing no small excitement amongst the people, and thus added to the perturbation which the news from Sicily and Naples gave to Antonelli and the Pope. “Almost daily,” to quote a private letter of this date, “the troops are practiced in the fields near the city. The Pope himself went to witness the drill a few days since, praised and encouraged them, and presented each soldier with a little medal of the Virgin, for whose aid there are daily and constant prayers and special ceremonies in the churches in behalf of the Pope, and for his victory over his enemies.”

But to turn from this little flurry in the secular armory to these more appropriate “special ceremonies,” on St. Peter’s day, June 29th, the function at the Vatican basilica was, or was intended to be, exceptionally solemn. It was, however, far too seriously wanting in reverence and even in common decency, on the part of the subordinate performers, to impress the northern spectator with its religious character.

The Pope was always reverent in manner, and even devout, on such occasions. Antonelli never forgot himself. But near the high altar was a sort of buffet; and during the services a continual preparing, cleansing, and arranging of the sacred vessels, not only for the altar service, but also for washing the Popes hands, napkins, serving-aprons, etc., gave the whole, at times, quite as much the appearance of a domestic gathering as of a religious ceremony. There was nothing serious in the demeanor even of the officiating priests. The officials at the side table talked and lounged as servants would in an anteroom.

The most impressive part of the services was when, during the Pope’s celebration of the mass, he elevated the host. The whole multitude in the vast church knelt, save here and there a Protestant spectator. The sabres of the noble guard rung for a moment on the pavement; then, after a solemn stillness, a breathless silence, the sound of the silver trumpets came from the dome above, the clear notes seeming to float downwards from heaven itself.

To this provision of spiritual bread succeeded, in the evening, the circenses, which were, the day after, thus described in a private letter from a lady:

“The celebrations of the day were finished off by the girandola, or display of fireworks from Monte Pincio. W—— obtained a comfortable place for me, and at half past eight we set off in a little carriage. After being stopped at the corners of several streets by mounted guards, we finally reached the Ripetta, and driving for a little distance on the bank of the river (which was lighted up with bonfires, producing beautiful effects on the water) we had from this point a view of St. Peter’s, which was again illuminated, looking like some temple of fairy-land. We were only permitted to go within a very short distance of the Piazza [del Popolo], so we alighted, and, mingling with the crowd, soon got to the place where our chairs were waiting for us.

“The commencement was announced by the firing of cannon. Then followed the ascent of some beautiful rockets, which burst and descended in showers of fire; then a magnificent volcanic irruption preceded the transformation of the great architectural piece—which [on this occasion] was St. Peter’s, followed by the Fountain of Trevi—into a temple of light. The various changes of form and color were magical, and at each, a signal was given by the cannon. There was not enough wind to carry off the smoke, but as it was lighted up it gave a beauty of its own, though it marred the brilliancy of the whole.

“After a while, a flame of light shot from the Pincian to the base of the obelisk, played around it, and then darted to posts standing about in the piazza, where it lighted the lamps and revealed the crowd in all directions, thus serving the double purpose of a fine finishing off and of lighting up their homeward departure. All was quiet and orderly. The immense mass, estimated at twenty thousand, had enjoyed the fireworks, and, being satisfied, passed away in groups by the three streets which terminate in the Piazza del Popolo. We gained our carriage without trouble or being in any way inconvenienced by the motley crowd about us.”

Of one of the special ceremonies of the church at this period, the same correspondent writes:

“While I was at the window [in the Via Sistina, July 8th] I was attracted by a large crowd about the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. I have since learned that it was a procession to take the picture of the Virgin—a miraculous picture, highly esteemed, having stopped the cholera at one time when it was raging in Rome, —  from that church to the Gesù, in order there to have prayers to the Virgin for peace. It was attended by the cardinal vicar of Rome and thousands of priests and frati, bearing lighted candles. The picture was brilliantly illuminated, and the people from time to time cried out, ‘Ave Maria! Ora pro nobis!’”

On the second Sunday following, July 22d, there was another of these solemn processions, to which the Pope resorted for protection in his danger; in honor, however, of an entirely different madonna.

I quote now from a diary of the time: “First, after a line of guards, came two drummers, rattling away at a singular rate. Then came a long double row of candle-bearing frati; then a brass band, followed by an immense picture of the Madonna and child, swung from a large gilt rod and two upright staffs, borne by priests. The reverse of this picture represented a saint adoring and imploring the Virgin. After this were a few more priests, and then a huge cross, seemingly of logs. It was about sixteen feet high; the foot, pointed as if to go into the ground, rested in a belt socket of the bearer. It was of pasteboard, but the imitation was perfect, both of the bark and of the section, which was about twelve inches in diameter, and also of a few little ivy vines and leaves twining around it. This was followed by another double row of frati, Dominicans.

“Then came another brass band, some more priests, a mitred bishop bearing a small silver crucifix, and then, the great object of the procession, the shrine of the Madonna. It was much like a throne raised upon an altar, borne by sixteen men, and rising in heavily gilt arabesque forms, supported by cherubs, to a large crown which formed its canopy. In this shrine sat an image of the Virgin, arrayed in a dress of white satin, embroidered heavily with gold, low in the neck and with flowing sleeves. She wore also a jeweled crown. The infant Saviour in her arms was somewhat similarly dressed.

“The people had showed some reverence at the other parts of the procession; but when this shrine came by, the crowds that filled the streets knelt on all sides, more than I think I had seen before, offering the profoundest worship to the image.”

“There is to be still another procession, next Sunday” (July 29th), — quoting again the private correspondence already cited, — “to carry back the picture of the Madonna from the church of Il Gesù to that of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Pope having in the mean while presented the miraculous picture with a silver chalice.”

On the 30th, the same writer resumes: “In the evening, about six, W——  went to the church to see the procession. The picture was loaded with votive offerings of gold and silver and precious stones. I don’t know what effect has been produced upon Italian affairs, but at the appearance of the picture the crowd prostrated themselves in humble adoration. I could see from my window the illumination of the church, which presented the appearance of a pyramid of lights and was very beautiful.”

This procession, it seems, was “some forty minutes in passing.” The streets along the route through which it passed were gayly decked with red and yellow tapestries; and at least one private house opposite the church, as well as the campanile of the church itself, was thus illuminated.

During the period of these great July processions, to which far more than to his secular defenders the Pope had confident recourse for protection against the approaching revolution, Garibaldi was pressing his attack upon Messina, the last hold of Francis upon the island of Sicily. On the 30th, the day following this formal and solemn restoration of the miraculous picture to Santa Maria Maggiore, the news reached Rome that Messina was taken, this extraordinary three months’ campaign at an end, and Trinacria redeemed for constitutional liberty and Italy. Our good Checca shook her head, and devoutly said that “we must accept the decrees of Providence;” the padrone sententiously assured us that Garibaldi “would take Naples also in the coming fall, and that he would be in Rome itself ere winter should set in.”

There were few left in Rome then to give an unbiased judgment upon such a prophecy. The American minister was gone. The American church was closed for the summer. The August heats now forced away to the mountains, or to cooler latitudes, the last Americans who yet lingered in Rome. Even the Italian revolution paused again in its advance.

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