God bless Italy

Christopher Clark

  • The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe by David I. Kertzer
    Oxford, 474 pp, £25.00, May 2018, ISBN 978 0 19 882749 8

On the evening of 24 November 1848, Pope Pius IX fled from the city of Rome. At 5 p.m., he took off his Moroccan silk slippers with crosses embroidered on their uppers, put aside the red velvet papal cap and dressed himself in the black cassock and broad-brimmed hat of a country priest. Half an hour later, in a state of great agitation, he left the papal audience chamber in the Quirinale Palace by an internal stairway and tiptoed down to the courtyard, where a carriage was waiting for him. The French ambassador to the Holy See, the duc d’Harcourt, remained alone in the chamber for 45 minutes, speaking in a loud voice so that no one would suspect that the pope had left the building.

At the church of SS Marcellin and Peter, the pope’s coach was met by the Bavarian ambassador, Count Karl von Spaur, who was clutching a pistol in his right hand, in case they were challenged. The fugitive was bustled into a small open carriage and driven out of the city, his face obscured by the brim of his hat and the gathering darkness. Ten miles south, a larger and swifter carriage waited to convey him to the southern border of the Papal States and into the neighbouring Kingdom of Naples. They travelled through the night, so swiftly that at one point the party had to stop to extinguish a fire that had started around the axles of Count Spaur’s carriage. By the afternoon of the following day, Pius IX was safely installed in a modest house inside the walls of Gaeta. He would remain in the Kingdom of Naples until April 1850.

Pius IX’s cloak and dagger flight into exile is one of the signal episodes of modern history. It confirmed the widening rift between the Catholic Church and the movements for political reform and national unification developing in Italy and across Europe. In the city of Rome it marked a turning point, opening the door to the republican experiment of 1849, but also preparing the ground for the reactionary crackdown that followed. It prefigured the collapse of the temporal sovereignty that the popes had wielded in central Italy since 754 AD. And for Pius IX himself, flight and exile was a traumatic experience, whose grip on his personality would tighten over the years. As David Kertzer shows in this subtle and brilliantly told account, the exile of Pius IX was an event that shaped modern Europe.

The revolution that broke out in Rome in the spring of 1848 had begun not with protests, but with jubilation. Little was known of Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti when he acceded to the papal throne after a hurried two-day conclave on 16 June 1846, but he profited from the general relief at the death of his predecessor, the stern and reactionary Gregory XVI. The old pope had died at the age of eighty; the new man, who adopted the name Pius IX, was 54, with a warm personality and a cheerful, winning manner. Whereas Gregory had begun his reign in 1831 with a campaign of violent repression, Pius’s first official act was to proclaim a blanket amnesty for the political prisoners languishing in the jails of the Papal States.

The response took everyone, including the pope, by surprise. When the amnesty was announced, it created euphoria in the city. Crowds formed in the summer twilight, chanting ‘Viva Pio Nono!’ Contemporary witnesses speak of joy, delirium and intoxication. It was, one clerical observer recalled, as if a ray of divine love had suddenly descended. There were extraordinary scenes in the Piazza del Quirinale – the square in front of the papal palace. News got round the city that the pope had come out onto his balcony to bless a band of young men bearing torches. Thousands converged on the square hoping for another blessing, and just before 11 the pope appeared again with his hands raised in greeting, to deafening cheers and then silence as the people fell to their knees en masse to receive his blessing. Some time later, an even greater crowd assembled and for the third time that night the pope bestowed a benediction on his people.

This was papal government in a new key: charismatic and eloquent. And it was quickly apparent that the pope was warming to his role, that he ‘liked to please’, as one commentator put it. In ‘his strong desire to make his subjects happy and content’, the Neapolitan envoy to Rome reported, ‘His Holiness does not show his indifference to popular approval.’ Reformist initiatives plucked straight from liberal wish lists brought further adulation. There was judicial and prison reform; a committee was appointed to consider the construction of railways (something Gregory XVI had refused to countenance); tariffs on staple grains were reduced to alleviate the distress of the poor; plans were announced for gas lighting in the capital (another of Gregory’s pet hates); censorship restrictions were relaxed; laymen joined priests in key administrative and deliberative bodies; a civil guard manned by Roman taxpayers was created. Stirred by the rise of nationalist sentiment, Pius IX even became, in January 1848, the first pope to pronounce the words ‘God bless Italy!’ in public.

These events unfolded against a background of increasing tumult across Europe. In 1846, an attempted insurrection by the Polish nobility in Galicia triggered a series of massacres, as Polish and Ruthenian peasants rose up against their landlords. Hunger riots were reported in Germany and France. During the following year, deepening political and confessional tensions in Switzerland culminated in the Sonderbund War, in the course of which a coalition of liberal and largely Protestant cantons forced a reformed Swiss nation-state on their Catholic, conservative opponents. A movement of liberal protest swept across France, while in the German states, parliaments and diets challenged territorial executives and insisted on liberal reform. And then in 1848, political unrest spread across the entire continent, from Palermo to Norway, from Portugal to Wallachia and Moldavia. It was the only truly European revolution there has ever been. Political shockwaves travelled up and down the Italian peninsula as insurrections broke out in Milan, Venice, Turin, Florence and many lesser cities.

This stirring background music exposed the danger latent in the pope’s relationship with the crowd. Did he really have a choice whether or not to bestow his blessing when thirty thousand citizens gathered in front of his palace at two in the morning? This was the nub of the problem, because over the succeeding weeks and months, the enthusiasm for Pius IX began to acquire unwelcome political connotations. The cry ‘Long live Pius IX!’ soon morphed into ‘Long live Pius IX, king of Italy!’ and to this was soon added ‘Death to the Austrians!’ or even ‘Death to the Pope’s evil advisers!’ Then, on the evening of Tuesday, 7 September 1847, the crowds who had converged on the residence of the Tuscan legation to cheer Duke Leopold II of Tuscany subsequently made their way to the Piedmontese legation to cheer Charles Albert, the king of Sardinia-Piedmont, and finally, with their spirits fired up, marched into the Piazza Venezia, where the Austrian legation was situated. As the foreign overlords of Lombardy and Venetia and the conservative Catholic hegemon on the Italian peninsula, the Austrians were objects of obsessive hatred for Italian liberals, patriots and democrats. The sight of Roman crowds chanting ‘Death to the Austrians’ and ‘Long live Italian unity!’ rang alarm bells in Vienna.

From Pius IX’s perspective, these were profoundly unsettling developments. There were quite narrow limits to the reforms he was willing to concede: how could the divinely appointed monarch of what was in essence a theocracy share real power over the great affairs of state with laymen and popular assemblies? There could be no question of the pope’s supporting a campaign of any kind against the Austrians, on whose support and regional clout his security depended. He was not immune to the patriotic emotion of his fellow Italians, but the dream of a politically united Italy was, in his eyes, a chimera and a trap. And as the liberals and radicals in Rome became more confident and articulate, his misgivings deepened. ‘God bless Italy!’ he cried to a crowd outside his palace on 10 January 1848. But then he added: ‘Do not ask of me that which I cannot, I must not, I wish not to do.’ ‘The Italians,’ wrote the American journalist Margaret Fuller, to whom we owe one of the most evocative and insightful eyewitness accounts of the events in Rome, ‘deliver themselves, with all the vivacity of their temperament, to perpetual hurrahs, vivas, rockets and torchlit processions. I often think how grave and sad the pope must feel, as he sits alone and hears all this noise of expectation.’

In 1848, as the revolution took hold across Europe, the weakness of the pope’s position was drastically exposed. Metternich, Austrian chancellor, godfather of the continental status quo, was forced to flee Vienna. Revolutionaries seized power in Venice and Milan, forcing the Austrians to pull back their forces. Even the papal army was out of control: in early April, a general dispatched to secure the northern border of the Papal States decided on his own initiative to cross into Lombardy and support the struggle of the Milanese insurgents. The geopolitical foundations of papal sovereignty appeared to be subsiding.

It became harder to plaster over contradictions in the pope’s position. In Rome, support for the campaign to drive the Austrians out of northern Italy was almost universal. When news arrived of the insurrections in Lombardy and Venetia, crowds flooded into the Piazza Venezia and attacked the Austrian legation, leaning ladders against the wall and tearing off the Reichsadler, the coat of arms bearing the image of the Austrian two-headed eagle. But how could the pope commit himself to war against Austria? In a harsh statement of 29 April, he broke decisively with the national movement, condemning those ‘enemies of the Catholic religion’ who were spreading the ‘calumny’ that he supported the policy of opposing Austria by force of arms. The dream of a pope who could be all things to all Italians was suddenly over. This allocution, Kertzer writes, ‘marked the end of the myth of the liberal, patriotic Pio Nono that had flourished since shortly after his ascension to St Peter’s throne’. Now the pope stood exposed as a friend of the Austrians and ‘the retrograde champion of the existing regimes’.

By the summer of 1848, a determined and articulate liberal political leadership had emerged in Rome, anchored in a network of clubs whose members included refugees from other parts of Italy. Under a new liberal constitution extracted from the pope, elections took place for the lower house of a bicameral legislature. Committing an error that has recurred many times in modern European history, the pope viewed the two chambers as merely advisory bodies, failing to grasp that the deputies in both houses saw themselves as embodying a new form of government that would eventually displace priestly rule. The deadlock between pope and government hardened, the mood soured further and the last embers of the love-feast of 1846 were extinguished. ‘Italy was so happy in loving him,’ Fuller wrote. ‘But it is all over. He is the modern Lot’s wife and now no more a living soul, but a cold pillar of the past.’

Pius IX had been thinking for some time about escaping. Exile was a repeated theme in the history of the papal office and Pius himself had fled from political unrest before, in 1831, during an uprising in Spoleto, when he was archbishop there. Then too his refuge had been the Kingdom of Naples, where he sat out the troubles while the Austrians restored order in his diocese. This time there was no shortage of possible destinations. To host an exiled pope was an honour worth striving for. Spain was keen to ferry him to one of the Balearic islands, and a French frigate weighed anchor off Civitavecchia in case he needed a lift to Marseille. The British sent their new paddle-wheel war steamer, Bulldog, to Italy and the Americans promised a ship, should he want one. But it was only in November that Pius made up his mind to leave.

The trigger was the assassination of his friend and confidant Pellegrino Rossi, an intriguing figure, whose biography reminds us how European Europeans were before the ascendancy of the nation-state. Educated in Pisa and Bologna, Rossi supported the Napoleonic regime in Naples and escaped to France when it fell in 1815; he worked in Geneva for some years, where he became a champion of Swiss constitutional reform, and then took the chair of political economy at the Collège de France. In 1845 the Guizot government in Paris appointed him as its ambassador to the Papal States. When that government fell, along with the French monarchy, in February 1848, Rossi’s posting came to an end, but he stayed on, first as friend and adviser to the pope and then as the most energetic minister in the papal administration.

Focused on technical solutions and administrative reforms, Rossi represented precisely the pragmatic and moderate politics that wins few friends in an environment polarised by conflict. On 15 November, as he walked up the stairs at the Chancellery Palace on his way to give a speech to parliament, an assailant plunged a dagger into his neck. The news of his violent death sent the crowds into a frenzy of celebration. ‘Blessed be the hand that stabbed the tyrant!’ they sang as they marched through the city, holding aloft Italian tricolour flags and a pole from which dangled the bloodstained knife of the assassin. Over the next few nights, crowds attacked the Quirinale Palace and a priest seen looking down from a window was shot through the chest. It was definitely time to go.

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The departure of the pope set the scene for one of the most engrossing and piquant episodes of the mid-century revolutions. The Roman Republic established on 9 February 1849 was a strikingly humane and moderate polity. The new constitution abolished the death penalty (the first constitution in world history to do so) and stipulated a general freedom of religion, though the new leaders also guaranteed the pope his continuing right to govern the Catholic Church. Freedom of the press was instituted and provision made for secular education. But there was something unreal about the whole project. As people with money fled the capital, the republic was forced to subsist on debased republican coinage and inflated banknotes elegantly inscribed with eagles, fasces and cannonballs. If money was scarce, celebrity was not. The luminaries of the worldwide Italian insurrectionary networks descended on Rome. Giuseppe Mazzini arrived from London via France and Switzerland on 5 March – it was his first visit to the city. Giuseppe Garibaldi turned up seven weeks later with a detachment of legionaries. These larger than life personalities endowed the public life of the republic with an almost spiritual charisma. There was an ethereal, priestly grace about Mazzini, described as the ‘apostle of the revolution’ by one enthusiast. And for those of less austere taste, there was the Dolce & Gabbana extravagance of Garibaldi, who entered Rome on a white horse, wearing a red jacket and a small black felt hat, his chestnut hair falling in tousled tresses to his broad shoulders. Never far from Garibaldi was his companion Andrea Aguyar, the son of slaves from Uruguay, who had committed his life to the Italian revolutionary from the moment they met in Montevideo in 1843. Aguyar sported a red tunic, a jauntily tilted beret and blue trousers with green stripes. He got about on a glossy jet black charger. When Garibaldi and Aguyar rode out together, as they often did, they never failed to cause a sensation.

If these men aroused intense emotions, it was because they resonated with a romantic culture in which secular, spiritual and religious motifs were entangled. The Barnabite monk turned revolutionary Ugo Bassi, who encountered Garibaldi outside Rome in April 1849, described him as ‘the hero most worthy of poetry of any I can ever hope to meet in my entire life’. ‘Our souls,’ he wrote, ‘have been conjoined, as if we had been sisters in heaven before finding ourselves living on earth.’ Bassi remained chaplain to the legionaries and spiritual adviser to the fiercely anticlerical Garibaldi until his execution by an Austrian firing squad four months later. Like the Catholic Church, the Roman Republic had its saints and would soon harvest its share of martyrs.

Kertzer is especially illuminating on the geopolitical dimension of the pope’s exile and the jockeying among the powers to control the terms under which the restoration of papal government should take place. Having no forces of his own, Pius requested military intervention from Austria, France, Naples and Spain. All four agreed to dispatch troops, but none was more exercised by this task than France. That France must intervene in some way was clear, the prime minister, Odilon Barrot, told the French National Assembly. ‘The right to maintain our legitimate influence in Italy, the desire to help ensure that the people of Rome obtain a good government founded on liberal institutions’ required that it dispatch forces without delay. But even if one accepted the logic of this argument, which many deputies did not, how was a French army in Italy supposed to ensure that the consequence was ‘a good government founded on liberal institutions’? This would only happen if the pope agreed to make concessions. But herein lay the problem: Pius’s commitment to reform had always been tightly circumscribed and the trauma of his flight into exile had hardened his politics and his personality. With extraordinary stubbornness he insisted that his restoration must be a restoration in the most literal sense. As the exponents of a French policy that claimed to be safeguarding liberal institutions on behalf of a reactionary pope, French policymakers – one of them was Alexis de Tocqueville – had to learn to live with the contradictions.

In the last part of his book, Kertzer chronicles the counter-revolution in the Papal States, vividly evoking the unexpectedly bitter and lethal struggle to subdue the city and the repressions that attended the restoration of papal government. Fleeing republican leaders were captured and executed by the Austrians. Priests who had attended the republican wounded in Roman hospitals during the siege found themselves shut away in the prisons of the Inquisition. In all, three thousand political prisoners were jailed. Any teachers and professors suspected of republican sympathies were dismissed and many of the new consultative organs were disbanded or purged of non-clerical personnel. The restored papal regime was not a pragmatic, centrist constitutional monarchy of the kind that emerged in states like Piedmont, Denmark, Saxony and Prussia after 1848. It was an unmaking of the liberal revolution, an attempt to turn back the wheels of time. Kertzer illustrates this with a poignant example: in the early days of his reign, Pius IX aroused notice across Europe by slackening the restrictions on the Roman Jews, who until 1846 had remained cloistered in their ghetto in the Rione Sant-Angelo on the banks of the Tiber. Many Jews took advantage of the new dispensation to live or open shops in other areas of the city. But after the pope’s return, the right to leave was revoked and the Jews were forced back within their ancient walls. Only in 1870, when papal Rome fell to the armies of the Kingdom of Italy, was the Roman ghetto definitively abolished.

Kertzer writes lucidly, navigating the crowded scenery of his tale with great deftness. His narrative achieves momentum without sacrificing reflective depth, and makes spaces for the many stories spun by the protagonists themselves as they reasoned their way into and out of the predicaments they faced. The sunshine of authorial attention and sympathy falls almost equally on all the principals (with the possible exception of the vulpine Cardinal Antonelli, chief architect of the papal counter-revolution, who is, it must be said, exceptionally difficult to like).

At the same time, at its heart this is a deeply republican account. I don’t mean that it is biased against the papal counter-revolution – who could possibly prefer the squalor, police harassment and mental stagnancy of 1850s Rome to the exuberance, liberality and flair of the republic? Rather, it is republican in its hermeneutic horizon. For Kertzer, as he makes clear at the close of the book, this is a story about the brief triumph of liberal modernity over the forces of an obscurantist theocracy whose present-day avatars still menace the liberal democratic project.

The problem with this view is not that it’s wrong – it isn’t – but that it narrows the field of vision. History dealt harshly with the papal monarchy. In 1860, with the region already in open revolt against papal rule, the armies of Sardinia-Piedmont conquered the eastern two-thirds of the Papal States and absorbed them into the Kingdom of Italy, proclaimed the following year. Europe looked on and acquiesced. A rump territory around Rome remained under papal control, but this too was taken, along with the city itself, by the Italians in 1870. The pope lost his temporal domains, save for the 44 hectares of the Vatican. Like other states that failed to digest the meaning of the revolutions of 1848 – Hanover and Naples, for example – the Papal States were expunged, unmourned, from the map of Europe.

But even as his temporal domain shrivelled, Pius IX, as priest and spiritual leader, presided over a remarkable revival of Catholic moral authority in Europe and the wider world. In 1850, he became the first pope to launch a semi-official newspaper, the Civiltà Cattolica, still in operation today. His decision, in 1854, to raise the Immaculate Conception of Mary to the status of Catholic doctrine reflected his sensitivity to the devotional culture of more humble Catholics. His charismatic gifts were undiminished and he continued to receive and address delegations of pilgrims and admirers, whose numbers sharply increased in the era of steamships and railways. He became the first pope whose speeches were printed for general consumption. His image, endlessly reproduced in cheap colour lithographs, could be seen in millions of Catholic homes. This pope was a polarising figure, to be sure: in the Syllabus of Errors of 1864, he aligned the Church with a trenchant rejection of the liberal version of modernity. But his success in galvanising Catholic opinion and building a transnational community whose depth and extent exceeded anything achieved by his predecessors can scarcely be denied. For all his flaws, Pius IX was one of the most media-savvy figures of the 19th century.

One could object that his successes were achieved in the name of a worldview that was essentially unmodern in its attachment to mystery and miracle, and its insistence on the pope’s absolute authority in matters of doctrine. But the point, if we are talking about the ‘emergence of modern Europe’, is surely that the culture wars that raged across the latter part of the 19th century between the Church and its secular-liberal-Protestant opponents shaped the evolving political culture of the continent in myriad ways. The Catholic parties that emerged in many European countries helped to mobilise poor urban and rural voters, drawing them by degrees into the secular calculus of modern interest politics. In the 20th century, the Catholic matrix that Pius IX had renewed and rebuilt survived the debacle of the nation-state. Divesting itself of its earlier affiliations with authoritarianism, political Catholicism became, along with social democracy, one of the supporting pillars of the postwar order in Europe. Perhaps that is what Pope John Paul II was getting at in 2000 when he combined the beatification of Pope Pius IX with that of Pope John XXIII, convenor of the Second Vatican Council and hero of the liberals.