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Capture of Rome came in September, 149 years ago


Casting off Papal reign was a milestone event in Italian unification

By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
Though in Italy there are no national legal holidays in September, there is a very significant date in September that marks a special event in Italian history. It was actually on Sept. 20 that the “capture of Rome” took place, which was the final event of the long process of Italian unification known as the Risorgimento, marking both the final defeat of the Papal States under Pope Pius IX and the unification of the Italian peninsula under King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy. The capture of Rome on Sept. 20, 1870, ended the approximate 1,116-year Papal reign under the Holy See that started 754 AD.
It all began during the Second Italian War of Independence when much of the Papal States had been conquered by the Piedmontese Army, and the new unified Kingdom of Italy was created in March 1861, when the first Italian Parliament met in Turin. On March 27, 1861, the Parliament declared Rome the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. However, the Italian government could not take its seat in Rome because it did not control the territory. Unfortunately for Italy, Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, the leading figure in the Italian reunification movement, died soon after the proclamation of Italy’s unification, leaving to his successors the solution of the knotty Venetian and Roman problems. The Austrians were still in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and the pope was still in Rome. Cavour had firmly believed that without Rome as the capital, Italy’s unification would be sadly incomplete; for the historic position of the Eternal City, with its immortal memories, was such that Italians could not allow another power to possess it.
“To go to Rome,” said his successor, Ricasoli, “is not merely a right; it is an inexorable necessity.” In regard to the future relations between church and state, Cavour’s famous dictum was, “A free church in a free state,” by which he meant that the former should be entirely free to exercise her spiritual powers and leave politics entirely to the latter. In addition, a French garrison was maintained in the city by Emperor Napoleon III in support of Pope Pius IX, who was determined not to hand over temporal power. In July 1870, at the very last moment of the church’s rule over Rome, the First Vatican Council was held in the city which affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility. Rome was still out of Italy’s reach.
Then in July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War began. In early August, Napoleon III recalled his garrison from Rome. The French not only needed the troops to defend their homeland, but there was also real concern in Paris that Italy might use the French presence in Rome as a pretext to go to war with France. In the earlier Austro-Prussian War, Italy had allied with Prussia and Italian public opinion favored the Prussian side at the start of the war. The removal of the French garrison eased tensions between Italy and France. Italy remained neutral in the Franco-Prussian War.
With the French garrison gone, widespread public demonstrations demanded that the Italian government take Rome. But Rome remained under French protection on paper, therefore an attack would still have been regarded as an act of war against the French Empire. Furthermore, although Prussia was at war with France, it had gone to war in an uneasy alliance with the Catholic South German states that it had fought against alongside Italy just four years earlier. Although Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck was no friend of the papacy, he knew any war that put Prussia and the Holy See in opposing alliances would almost certainly have upset the delicate pan-German coalition, and with it his own carefully laid-out plans for national unification. For both Prussia and Italy, any misstep that caused the breakup of the pan-German coalition brought with it the risk of Austro-Hungarian intervention in a wider European conflict.
Above all else, Bismarck made every diplomatic effort to keep Prussia’s conflicts of the 1860s and 1870s localized and prevent them from spiraling out of control into a general European war. Therefore, not only was Prussia unable to offer any sort of alliance with Italy against France, but actually had to make diplomatic efforts to maintain Italian neutrality and keep the peace on the Italian peninsula, at least until the potential of a conflict there becoming intertwined with her own war with France had passed. Moreover, the French Army was still regarded as the strongest in Europe — and until events elsewhere took their course, the Italians were unwilling to provoke Napoleon.
It was only after the surrender of Napoleon and his army at the Battle of Sedan the situation changed radically. The French Emperor was deposed and forced into exile. The best French units had been captured by the Germans, who quickly followed up their success at Sedan by marching on Paris. Faced with a pressing need to defend its capital with its remaining forces, the new French government was clearly not in a military position to retaliate against Italy. In any event, the new government was far less sympathetic to the Holy See and did not possess the political will to protect the Pope’s position.
Finally, with the French government on a more democratic footing and the seemingly harsh German peace terms becoming public knowledge, Italian public opinion shifted sharply away from the German side in favor of France. With that development, the prospect of a conflict on the Italian peninsula provoking foreign intervention all but vanished.
The Italian army, commanded by General Raffaele Cadorna, crossed the papal frontier on Sept. 11, 1870, and advanced toward Rome, moving slowly in the hope that a peaceful entry could be negotiated. The Papal garrisons had retreated from Orvieto, Viterbo, Alatri, Frosinone and other strongholds in Latium, Pius IX himself being convinced of the inevitability of a surrender. When the Italian Army approached the Aurelian Walls that defended the city, the papal force was commanded by General Hermann Kanzler, and was composed of the Swiss Guards and a few “Zouaves,” volunteers from France, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, and other countries for a total of 13,157 men against some 50,000 Italians.
The Italian army reached the Aurelian Walls on Sept. 19 and placed Rome under a state of siege. Pius IX decided that the surrender of the city would be granted only after his troops had put up enough resistance to make it plain that the take-over was not freely accepted. On Sept. 20, after a cannonade of three hours had breached the Aurelian Walls at Porta Pia the crack Piedmontese infantry corps of Bersaglieri entered Rome. In the event 49 Italian soldiers and 19 Papal Zouaves died. Rome and the region of Lazio were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy after a plebiscite on Oct. 2.
The Leonine City, excluding the Vatican, seat of the Pope, was occupied by Italian soldiers on Sept. 21. The Italian government had intended to let the Pope keep the Leonine City, but the Pope would not agree to give up his claims to a broader territory and claimed that since his army had been disbanded, apart from a few guards, he was unable to ensure public order even in such a small territory.
The Via Pia, the road departing from Porta Pia, was rechristened Via XX Settembre (Sept. 20). Subsequently, in numerous Italian cities the name XX Settembre was given to the main road leading to the local cathedral.
The unification of Italy had now come full circle, but now for nearly sixty years, relations between the Papacy and the Italian government were hostile, and the status of the Pope became known as the “Roman Question”.

Negotiations for the settlement of the Roman Question began in 1926 between the government of Italy and the Holy See, and culminated in the agreements of the Lateran Pacts, signed — the Treaty says — for King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy by Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister and Head of Government, and for Pope Pius XI by Pietro Gasparri, Cardinal Secretary of State, on February 11, 1929. The agreements were signed in the Lateran Palace, from which they take their name. They culminated in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, where the Holy See renounced its claims over most of the City of Rome in return for Italy’s recognition of the Vatican State.
On September 20, 2000, an item in the Catholic publication Avvenire stated:
che nel 1970, proprio il 20 settembre, Paolo VI inviò a Porta Pia il cardinale vicario, Angelo Dell’Acqua, a celebrare il significato “provvidenziale” di quella perdita del potere temporale. Da allora, almeno da allora, è anche festa cattolica, Porta Pia!
… that in 1970, precisely on 20 Sept. 1970, Pope Paul VI sent Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua, his vicar for Rome, to Porta Pia to celebrate the “providential” significance of the loss of the temporal power. Since then, at least since then, Porta Pia has also been a Catholic celebration! IAH

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