On this date in 1870 the 12th battalion of the Bersaglieri stormed Rome through a breach created by Italian artillery in the Aurelian Walls near Porta Pia leading to the capture of Rome and end of the temporal power of the pope, thus completing the unification of Italy. The unification of Italy, known in Italian as the Risorgimento, was a long, drawn out affair facing numerous obstacles along the way. Capturing Rome and making it the capital of the new Italian state was the final piece of the puzzle.
Rome was a crucial prize for all kinds of reasons. For starters, Rome was of deep symbolic importance because of its historic role as a capital city dating back to the ancient Roman empire. Second, it had been the seat of the papacy (off and on) for many centuries, and both the pope and the papal states had wielded enormous political, military, and economic power throughout Europe. The fall of Rome marked the end of this power. Third, the unification of Italy up to that point had been dominated by the north, notably Piedmont, so that the initially unified kingdom of Italy (1861) under Victor Emmanuel II, former king of Sardinia, was a severely fractured nation with ongoing political hostilities and divisions between southern and northern states (that continues to this day). Creating Rome as the capital of the newly formed nation was expected to soften the dominance of the north because of its strategic geographic location (midway between south and north).
During the Second Italian War of Independence (1859), much of the territory of the Papal States had been conquered by the Piedmontese Army, and the newly unified kingdom of Italy was created when the first Italian Parliament met in Turin. On 27 March 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. In addition, a French garrison was maintained in the city by Napoleon III of France in support of Pope Pius IX, who was determined not to hand over temporal power it had in the Papal States. In July 1870, at the very last moment of the Church’s rule over Rome, the First Vatican Council was held in the city – affirming the doctrine of papal infallibility
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 (1866), 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 III.
It was only after the surrender of Napoleon III 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 Prussians, 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 Prussian 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 pretty much vanished.
King Victor Emmanuel II sent Conte Gustavo Ponza di San Martino to Pius IX with a personal letter offering a face-saving proposal that would have allowed the peaceful entry of the Italian Army into Rome, under the guise of protecting the pope. Along with the letter, the count carried a document setting out ten articles to serve as the basis for an agreement between Italy and the Holy See.
The Pope would retain the inviolability and prerogatives attaching to him as a sovereign. The Leonine City (surrounding the Vatican) would remain “under the full jurisdiction and sovereignty of the Pontiff”. The Italian state would guarantee the pope’s freedom to communicate with the Catholic world, as well as diplomatic immunity both for the nuncios and envoys in foreign lands and for the foreign diplomats at the Holy See. The government would supply a permanent annual fund for the pope and the cardinals, equal to the amount currently assigned to them by the budget of the pontifical state, and would assume all papal civil servants and soldiers onto the state payroll, with full pensions as long as they were Italian.
The pope met San Martino on 10th September 1870 and violently responded, “Fine loyalty! You are all a set of vipers, of whited sepulchres, and wanting in faith. . . . I am no prophet, nor son of a prophet, but I tell you, you will never enter Rome!”
The Italian army, commanded by General Raffaele Cadorna, crossed the papal frontier on 11 September 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 the Lazio, 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 around 50,000 Italians.
The Italian army reached the Aurelian Walls on 19th September 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 20th September, after a cannonade of three hours had breached the Aurelian Walls at Porta Pia (Breccia di 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.
The Leonine City, excluding the Vatican, seat of the Pope, was occupied by Italian soldiers on September 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 (September 20). Subsequently, in numerous Italian cities the name Venti Settembre was given to the main road leading to the local Cathedral. A monument was erected in 1932 in front of Porta Pia to commemorate the event at the same time as the National Museum of the Bersaglieri corps was moved to Porta Pia, where it remains to this day.
By rights I should give you trippa alla romana – a Roman tripe dish I have enjoyed in a little restaurant by the Tiber, but instead I’ll give you another absolutely classic Roman dish, corda alla vaccinara (butcher’s oxtail), an oxtail stew laden with celery. The oxtail is parboiled and then simmered with large amounts of celery (there should be 1.5 kilos of celery for every kilo of oxtail), carrots, and aromatic herbs. Tomatoes and red wine are added, and then the mixture is cooked further with a soffritto of onions, garlic, prosciutto, pancetta and some other ingredients. During the final phase of cooking, a bouquet garni of bay leaves, celery stalks, and cloves is put in the pot for flavoring. The oxtail should be cooked such a long time that the meat easily separates from the bones. It is seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper and garnished with pine nuts.
Coda is usually prepared to taste sweet-and-sour, usually using raisins, or sometimes candied fruit or a small amount of grated bittersweet chocolate. Coda is generally prepared in advance and reheated. Leftovers can be used as a sauce for rigatoni, which is then named rigatoni al sugo di coda.
Here’s an exact recipe if you need one: