Sep 202017

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:

Apr 062014


Today is purportedly the birthday (1483) of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance who is better known simply as Raphael. I say “purportedly” because a few sources give his birth date as 28 March, but this is probably a Julian rather than Gregorian usage.  He is one of those rare people who died (1520) on his birthday at the age of 37.  Despite his short life he produced a very large body of work that put him on a par with the other great masters of the era that form a traditional trinity: Michelangelo and da Vinci.  As he developed his own style his work went through several phases, generally called his Urbino, Florentine, and Roman periods during which time he came under the influence of his older peers.  It is related that when he was painting the frescoes in the papal apartments in the Vatican he sneaked into the Sistine chapel to see the first part of Michelangelo’s ceiling right after the scaffolding was being removed to be repositioned for the next panel.  Michelangelo was reportedly not happy to have him emulate his style, but Raphael incorporated all manner of influences in developing his own.  As with so many great masters, I am going to give you a quick overview of his life, and then focus on his master work, “The School of Athens.”

Raphael was born in the small, but artistically significant, central Italian city of Urbino in the Marche region (on the Adriatic coast), where his father Giovanni Santi was court painter to the Duke. The artistic reputation of the court had been established by Federico III da Montefeltro, a highly successful condottiere (military leader) who had been created Duke of Urbino by the Pope (Urbino being one of the Papal States), and who died the year before Raphael was born.

about 1502-3

Raphael was orphaned at age eleven, but his father’s workshop continued and, probably together with his stepmother, Raphael played a part in managing it from a very early age. In Urbino, he came into contact with the works of Paolo Uccello, previously the court painter (d. 1475), and Luca Signorelli, who until 1498 was based in nearby Città di Castello.  Sources are a little unclear about these early years, but it seems that his father placed him in the workshop of the Umbrian master Pietro Perugino as an apprentice “despite the tears of his mother,” that is, by the age of 8 which is when his mother died. He probably worked as Perugino’s assistant from age 12.  He is listed as a “master” by age 13.  Between 1500 and 1504 he worked on commissions in and around Urbino and was apparently much in demand, especially as a draftsman of cartoons (preliminary drawings) for the masters.


From 1504 to 1508 Raphael spent a good deal of time in various centers in northern Italy, but spent much of it in Florence although he was most likely not a permanent resident. The most striking influence in his work of these years is Leonardo da Vinci, who returned to the city from 1500 to 1506. Raphael’s figures begin to take more dynamic and complex positions, and though as yet his painted subjects are still mostly tranquil, he made drawn studies of fighting nude men, one of the obsessions of the period in Florence. Another drawing is a portrait of a young woman that uses the three-quarter length pyramidal composition of the just-completed “Mona Lisa” but still looks completely like Raphael. He also perfected his own version of Leonardo’s sfumato (toned down) style, to give subtlety to his painting of flesh, and developed the interplay of glances between his groups, which are much less enigmatic than those of da Vinci.

By the end of 1508, he had moved to Rome, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was invited by the new Pope Julius II, perhaps at the suggestion of his architect Donato Bramante, then engaged on St. Peter’s, who came from just outside Urbino and was distantly related to Raphael. Unlike Michelangelo, who had been kept hanging around in Rome for several months after his first summons, Raphael was immediately commissioned by Julius to fresco what was intended to become the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace. This was a much larger and more important commission than any he had received before; he had only painted one altarpiece in Florence itself. Several other artists and their teams of assistants were already at work on different rooms, many painting over recently completed paintings commissioned by Julius’s loathed predecessor, Alexander VI, whose contributions, and arms, Julius was determined to efface from the palace. Michelangelo, meanwhile, had been commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

This first of the famous “Stanze” or “Raphael Rooms” to be painted, now always known as the Stanza della Segnatura  was to make a stunning impact on Roman art, and remains generally regarded as his greatest masterpiece, containing The School of Athens, The Parnassus, and the Disputa. Raphael was then given further rooms to paint, displacing other artists including Perugino and Signorelli. He completed a sequence of three rooms, with paintings on each wall and often the ceilings too, increasingly leaving the work of painting from his detailed drawings to the large and skilled workshop team he had acquired, who added a fourth room, after his death in 1520, probably including only some elements designed by Raphael himself. The death of Julius in 1513 did not interrupt the work at all, as he was succeeded by Raphael’s last Pope, the Medici Pope Leo X, with whom Raphael formed an even closer relationship, and who continued to commission him. Raphael’s friend Cardinal Bibbiena was also one of Leo’s old tutors, and a close friend and adviser.

I visited the Vatican 7 years ago as the culmination of a teaching stint in southern Italy.  A crowd of us, mostly art history students from my university, were herded through the endless rooms and hallways of the Vatican by a professor of art history who I managed to ditch early on in the proceedings.  There was just TOO MUCH to see and gaze at in wonder – ancient maps, art treasures, and artifacts galore.  Then, without warning I walked through an arched doorway and was smack in the midst of the Stanza della Segnatura.  It was as if I were enveloped in Raphael and I was absolutely in awe.  I don’t remember how long I stood there completely mesmerized.  Fool that I am, I was not expecting such majesty.  The School of Athens is a fresco I had, of course, known all my life from books.  To be in its presence was overwhelming.  I cannot do justice to it in words: go and see for yourselves.


The School of Athens is one of a group of four main frescoes on the walls of the Stanza that depict distinct branches of knowledge (given that rooms were intended to house a library). Each theme is identified above by a separate tondo (circular painting) containing a majestic female figure seated in the clouds, with putti (chubby nude babies often mistaken for cherubim) bearing the phrases: “Knowledge of Causes,” “Divine Inspiration,” “Knowledge of Things Divine,” (Disputa) “To Each What Is Due.” Accordingly, the figures on the walls below exemplify Philosophy, Poetry (including Music), Theology, and Law. The traditional title of the main fresco is not Raphael’s, and the subject of the “School” is actually “Philosophy,” and its overhead tondo-label, “Causarum Cognitio” (Knowledge of Causes) echoes Aristotle’s emphasis on wisdom as knowing why, hence knowing the causes.


Indeed, Plato and Aristotle are the central figures in the scene. However all the philosophers depicted sought wisdom through knowledge of first causes. Many lived before Plato and Aristotle, and hardly a third were Athenians. The architecture contains Roman elements, but the general semi-circular setting having Plato and Aristotle at its center is speculated to be alluding to Pythagoras’ iconic circumpunct (circled dot).

Commentators have suggested that nearly every great Greek philosopher can be found within the painting, but determining which are depicted is difficult, since Raphael made no designations outside possible likenesses, and no contemporary documents exist to explain the painting. Compounding the problem, Raphael had to invent a system of iconography to allude to various figures for whom there were no traditional visual types. For example, while the Socrates figure is immediately recognizable from ancient busts, the alleged Epicurus is very different from the standard type for that philosopher. Furthermore, some of the images are actually of contemporary men, such as Michelangelo as Heraclitus.

Art historian Luitpold Dussler counts among those who can be identified with some certainty: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy, Zoroaster, Raphael, Sodoma and Diogenes. Other identifications he holds to be more or less speculative.











It is commonly agreed that this image is a self portrait of Raphael.

Raphael (L)

Raphael (L)

In the center of the fresco, at its architecture’s central vanishing point, are the two undisputed main subjects: Plato on the left and Aristotle, his student, on the right. Both figures hold modern (of the time), bound copies of their books in their left hands, while gesturing with their right. Plato holds Timaeus, Aristotle his Nicomachean Ethics.


Plato is depicted as old, grey, wise looking, and barefoot. By contrast Aristotle, slightly ahead of him, is in mature manhood, handsome, wearing sandals, and adorned with gold. The youth about them seem to look his way. In addition, these two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward along the picture-plane, into the vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plane at right-angles to the picture-plane (hence in strong foreshortening). It is generally thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, for Plato, his Theory of Forms (in the heavens), and for Aristotle, his empiricist views, with an emphasis on concrete particulars (on earth).

Raphael was clearly influenced by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in the course of painting the room. One of the most obvious examples is the image of Michelangelo himself, as Heraclitus, which seems to draw clearly from the Sybils and ignudi of the Sistine ceiling. Other figures in that and later paintings in the room show the same influences, yet are still quite obviously in Raphael’s own style. Michelangelo accused Raphael of plagiarism and years after Raphael’s death, complained in a letter that “everything he knew about art he got from me.”  Raphael’s friend Castiglione coined the term “sprezzatura” to describe Raphael’s frescoes, which he defined as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”

The cuisine of the Marche region where Raphael was born bears a resemblance to other central Italian cooking styles, but, as ever, has certain classic dishes, such as brodetto, a soup made from leftovers from the fish markets thickened with toasted stale bread. Traditionally, it was the daily meal for port workers and is considered a complete meal. There are four types of brodetto corresponding to the different fishing localities in the region: Ancona, Porto Recanati, ‘Fano’ and San Benedetto del Tronto.  The prime ingredient in the local brodetto is the main fish caught from each port. There is also a version called ‘brodetto delle Marche’ which combines the other four and is (sort of) what I offer you here.


©Brodetto delle Marche


2-3 lbs of a mix of firm white fish and crustacea (squid, cuttlefish, shrimp/prawns or langostines, crab claws), cleaned and cut in bite-sized pieces.
1 onion chopped fine
a few strands of saffron
extra virgin olive oil
fish broth (made with trimmings)
white wine
salt and pepper
stale bread slices, toasted lightly, and cut in large pieces


Heat ¼ cup of olive oil in a large, heavy skillet and add the onion and crustacea (but not shrimp if using them). Cook over a low heat for a few minutes and then add the saffron, salt and pepper to taste, and ½ cup of fish broth.  Simmer gently over medium-low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Put the fish and shrimp (if using them) in a plastic bag with a generous amount of flour, seal it, and shake until all the pieces are evenly coated.

Arrange the floured pieces in layers in a large saucepan with the fish that needs the least cooking on top.  Gently pour the contents of the skillet over the fish and add an equal mix of broth and dry white wine to cover.  Simmer gently for about 15 minutes.  Do not stir the soup at this stage otherwise the fish will break apart.

Arrange the toasted bread pieces in large serving bowls and then cover with the soup.

Serves 4