Deep change in Italy was set off by Napoleon when he invaded the north in 1796. Napoleonic ideas never found a following among the illiterate peasantry who made up most of the Italian population, which certainly had no say in how it was governed. But Buonaparte could challenge the authority of royalty and the Papacy and not look like a foreign intruder, because, on the simplest level, he was of Italian blood—or could plausibly claim to be, since his native Corsica had been Italian territory right up to the moment Genoa sold it to France, less than three decades before, in 1768.
At this time, there was no sense in which Rome could have been called the political “capital” of Italy, except that the Papacy was based there. Italian politics had no capital. The whole country was crippled by what it called campanilismo, the bewildering profusion of municipalities, local centers of power. A traveler descending the river Po had to traverse no fewer than twenty-two customs barriers, submitting to search and the payment of imposts at each stop. No common currency existed: in Piedmont one paid in lire, in Naples with ducati, in the Papal States with scudi, in Sicily with oncie. Exchange rates fluctuated, often at the whim of whoever was manning the customs and excise barriers. Merely to say “sono italiano” was to invite mirth or, more likely, incomprehension. One was Roman, Neapolitan, Sicilian—not Italian. But Florentines despised Venetians, who loathed Neapolitans, who felt nothing in common with Abruzzesi, who looked down their noses at Sicilians, who resented any imputation that they might be from the mainland across the Strait of Messina.
The result was that, although the tiny minority of Italian highbrows and literati were able to feel various cultural bonds in common—such as sharing the homeland of Dante or Michelangelo—this was much less of an option for the illiterate or the culturally indifferent who made up most of the population. Moreover, the situation placed great importance on local dialects, which were immensely varied, and whose differences all but guaranteed cultural disunity. So, understandably, the Code Napoleon, the uniform legal system the conqueror sought to impose on Italy, though attractive to a few educated Italians longing for good, responsible government, was met with disdain by the masses, who did not believe that such a government could exist. Besides, they had become used to and even protective of the patchwork of ill-framed laws that defined their civic lives.
Nevertheless, Napoleon went right ahead with his plans. On taking charge of a conquered Italy, he proceeded to depose all its kings except those of Sardinia and Sicily, whose kingdoms, protected by the British navy, were able to keep their independence. He was determined to cancel the powers of the great landowners and the Catholic Church, which, working together, provided the utmost resistance to his rule. To the impotent horror of Italian conservatives, Napoleon evicted the pope from Rome and took over the temporal power of the Church, dissolving the Papal States as a political entity. At a stroke of his pen, he reduced the number of Italian states to three—Piedmont, Naples, and his own conquered territory, including the former Papal States, which he renamed the Cisalpine Republic. Little by little, French revolutionary ideas began to take hold in Italy.
But they hardly had the time to fix themselves there. Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and with his fall the Congress of Vienna immediately set about reassigning the states of Italy to their former rulers. The Bourbon monarchs reclaimed Naples and Sicily (the so-called Kingdom of the Two Sicilies). Austria recovered her former possession Lombardy, and was given Venetia as well. The Grand Duke Ferdinand III, brother to the Austrian emperor, was restored to his dominion over Tuscany. And, most important of all, the central states of Italy reverted to the Papacy. Meanwhile, that formidable exponent of counter-revolutionary tactics, Prince Metternich of Austria, who had some seventy thousand men within the “quadrilateral” of central Lombardy, made a military alliance with Naples, whose object was to maintain indefinitely Austria’s “right” to interfere in Italy. For him the very term “Italy” had no meaning; it was, he memorably said, merely a “geographic expression.”
Thus Italy was, if anything, even more disunited than she had been before Napoleon’s invasion. It was a situation bitterly lamented by her writers and intellectuals, including the poet Leopardi (1798–1837):
I see the walls and arches, O my Italy,
The columns and the images, the solitary
Towers of our ancestors,
But this I do not see:
The glorious laurels and the swords they bore
In ancient times.…
Who brought her down to this?—and what is worse,
Both her arms are bound about with chains…
Weep, for you have good cause, my Italy.
By the early nineteenth century, Rome was swarming with foreign artists; despite Napoleon’s invasion, the city had come to be regarded, once again, as the world’s school. Several of these expatriates rivaled the native Italians not only in reputation, but in the demand for their work: if you could not secure a piece by Canova, for instance, a very good neoclassical sculpture by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844) was an acceptable replacement and could well be available.
Thorvaldsen, who spent most of his working life in Rome, first went there on a scholarship in 1797 after entering the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts at the precocious age of eleven.
It was not always easy, at first sight, to distinguish Thorvaldsen’s mature work from Canova’s. The subjects were much the same, drawn from Homeric poetry and Grecian antiquity in general: Thorvaldsen’s over-life-sized Jason with the Golden Fleece (1803–28) produced many similar commissions—Ganymede, Hebe, Apollo, and so on. He was also a prolific and fluent portrait sculptor—Byron’s letters reveal how eagerly he was waiting for Thorvaldsen to complete his bust and that of his adored Venetian mistress. Canova’s sculptures had more surface polish, and Thorvaldsen’s tended to be matte, but this difference was sometimes reduced or even abolished by overenergetic cleaning. Most of his major sculptures found their way to his native Copenhagen, where, emulating the example of Canova’s museum at Possagno, he endowed his city with a large and comprehensive collection of his own work. Nobody could have accused this Dane of a hampering modesty: one of his larger self-portrait sculptures represented him as Thor, the thunder god.
Not the least aspect of Thorvaldsen’s sojourn in Rome was his support of other expatriate artists, mainly from the North, whose work he thought significant. He was particularly attracted to the work of the so-called Nazarenes, a group of young Germans who had set themselves up in Rome—a nickname they were given by more skeptical Germans in Rome for their demonstrative piety. He bought their work in some quantity, forming the city’s most important collection of modern works of art in Rome. The Nazarenes’ chief figures were Joseph Anton Koch, Peter Cornelius, Wilhelm Schadow, and their leader, Friedrich Overbeck (1789–1869). The chief literary influence on his and his friends’ work was an essay by the German cultural ecstatic Wilhelm Wackenroder,Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-Loving Monk. In it, as the title suggests, art was discussed as a holy activity akin to prayer, leading to an unshaken belief in divine nature. Other artists and writers might feel they were part of the great movement toward the secularization of culture which was under way throughout Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, but Overbeck and his friends in Rome did not, and wished only to oppose and reverse it. They felt their duty was to create a revival of religious art in Germany and, spreading outward from there, throughout Europe. Religion, Overbeck came to believe, was the true foundation of art. Merely secular painting was culturally impotent. This was the basis of the revulsion he felt at the wholly secular, classicizing teaching methods of the Vienna Academy, which he attended from 1806 to 1809. But the starting place for this belief’s assimilation into visual culture, he concluded, would have to be Rome, that mighty capital of past religious imagery. Other young artists he came to know at the academy felt the same, and just as warmly; among them were Ludwig Vogel, Franz Hottinger, and Franz Pforr.
Together they formed a small confraternity they called the Lukasbruder, or Brothers in Saint Luke—the Apostle Luke, said to have painted the Virgin Mary from life, being the patron saint of artists.
The past artists they most admired and sought to imitate were Italians of the early Renaissance, particularly Masaccio and Fra Angelico. These, the “Lukes” believed, were more sincere and naïvely truthful in their responses to Nature and to religious faith than any painters of the Baroque or neoclassical persuasion. Baroque artists were coarsened by the rhetoric of their style; neoclassical ones, by an excessive refinement and the traces of paganism. It was hardly surprising that the ideas of the “Lukes” would presently cross to England and find strong echoes in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
“Art is to me,” declared Overbeck, “what the harp was to David. I use it on every occasion to utter psalms in praise of the Lord.” But what had become of this sacred impulse, once so general among painters? It had irreversibly declined, wrote Franz Pforr in Vienna. Not all the art that was being made in Rome was “sacred” or even Christian-religious in its general themes. Neoclassicism itself worked against so narrow a definition of the artist’s role in Rome, and it tended to contradict exclusively religious, or even primarily moral, readings of art and its functions—simply by holding up pre-Christian themes as desirable ones. In times gone by, “few men can have had so strong an influence upon morality and virtue” as artists. But now, in these fallen times, it had declined and could only be brought back with difficulty.
When we consider the ends for which [art] is now used, one can only deplore that its decay is so very general. Formerly the artist tried to charm the spectator into devotion by representing pious objects, and to induce him to emulate the noble actions he depicted; and now? A nude Venus with her Adonis, a Diana in her bath—toward what good end can such representations point?
Both Pforr and Overbeck found the classical past, as promoted at the academies, not only irrelevant to the present but even slightly disgusting to a good Christian soul. “Why do we seek subjects so distant from our interests,” Pforr demanded, “why not instead those that concern us? In the old Israelite stories we find more material than anywhere else.” Overbeck was saying the same, in more high-flown accents of faith.
It seemed to them that there was only one place where such desires could be satisfied, where a young German could complete his religious and artistic education; Rome, just by virtue of being a religious capital, would provide the balance the young Germans sought between stylistic tradition and living faith. Overbeck and Pforr longed to immerse themselves in it, not for the ancient marbles (they had seen quite enough of the academy’s plaster casts of those) but for the accumulated deposit of Christian belief the city represented. The very name of Rome spoke to pious young Germans like these with an intensity and promise that no other place could offer. They were determined to move there. And so, in May 1810, Overbeck and Pforr, along with Hottinger and Vogel, leftVienna for the Holy City. They entered Rome a month later, scarcely stopping to look at anything on the way.
The city at the time was still occupied by the French, who had closed and secularized a number of its religious institutions. One of these was the Irish-Franciscan monastery of Sant’Isidoro, up on the Pincio, above Piazza del Popolo. The Napoleonic occupation had driven its monks out, and the four youngsters, with minimal bargaining, got a lease on rooms there. Wackenroder had written about the monastic ideal of an artist’s life, and where better to live it than in a real, if admittedly disused and rented, monastery? The pattern of activity was to work all day in one’s cell and then meet up in the refectory at evening, to argue, confess, and carouse. Many bottles of Frascati were consumed and then smashed. Soon the group became known as the Fratelli di Sant’Isidoro, a nickname given special point by their way of dressing in cowl-like hats and monkish habits; the street where the monastery stood became the Via degli Artisti.
Their group was quite short-lived. Seeing themselves as missionaries, bent on converting the “heathens” of art, they sought to establish the primacy of religious art as it once had been, before art lost its purity to secularism and academic thinking. Fra Angelico, early Raphael, and such Northern masters as Dürer and Jan van Eyck: these were their heroes and touchstones. Later, Overbeck would produce a large painting for a German client, The Triumph of Religion in the Arts, accompanied by a lengthy written explanation of how “true art” had petered out with the Renaissance, featuring some sixty portrait-heads of approved artists. Other young Germans would presently join this Roman nucleus of the Nazarenes. One was Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872), son of a German history painter, who applied to Overbeck for admittance to the group, was accepted, and wrote his delighted thanks: “You have judged me worthy to join your glorious ranks as a brother. Thus take me into your arms! My being is now tied to yours!”
Some of these artists, including Carolsfeld, were deeply influenced by the German practice, strong among the expatriates in Rome, of painting what they called “friendship pictures,” portraits of themselves and their German friends far from their native homes but locked in the fealty of common interest, a mutual loyalty sanctified by its enactment in the Holy City. One eloquent example among many was Wilhelm Schadow’s Self-Portrait with Brother Ridolfo Schadow and Bertel Thorvaldsen (1815).
Wilhelm and Ridolfo were the two sons of the eminent Berlin sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764–1850), who, as a friend of Canova’s, had made the decisive pilgrimage to Rome and converted to Catholicism in 1785. Going to Rome themselves, the brothers swore to each other that “they would rather stay dead in Rome than return unknown to their home city.” Wilhelm’s painting shows the taking of this oath. On the right, Wilhelm, with his palette and brushes, solemnly shakes hands with Ridolfo, who is holding his stonecarver’s hammer. Between them, the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen, rests his left hand in comradely style on Wilhelm’s shoulder, his firm gaze fixed on Ridolfo. Between the Dane and the young German, linking the figures in the group, is the marble carving which won Ridolfo his early reputation in Rome, the Sandal-binderin, or Girl Fastening her Sandal. It had been much admired for its truth and sincerity by Overbeck and other Nazarenes.
Overbeck refused to paint or even look at the female nude. To do so, he thought, was immoral. This shifted the terms of allegory; an earlier artist might have painted “Italy” as a splendid naked nymph, but Overbeck would not. The painting that most expressed the Nazarenes’ feelings about Italy was probably the pair of fully clothed figures by Overbeck depicting the cultural union of Italy and Germany. Blonde Maria and dark Shulamit. The left-hand figure, crowned with a wreath of olive and bending attentively toward her companion, is “Italia,” and the landscape behind her is that of Italy: rolling hills, a rural casa colonica. The one on the right, who bends eagerly forward, holds Italia’s hand, and whispers lessons about painting and morals to her, is “Germania,” with her rosebud chaplet, her plaited braids, and the German city-on-the-hill with its medieval spire in the background.
Overbeck firmly maintained what he held to be his duties as an artistic and moral teacher. Basically, he believed that nothing good had happened since the Renaissance—he must have viewed the monuments of Baroque Rome with horror—and so he missed out on the powerful spirituality of the newer art made by such Italians as Bernini in the seventeenth century. But he did not have much opportunity to do public art in Rome. His biggest commission came from Pius IX: it was a scene of Christ Evading His Pursuers on the Mountain near Nazareth, an allegory of the imprisonment of Pius VII by Napoleon, painted on one of the ceilings of Palazzo del Quirinale—a devout but insipid work at which few visitors, if any, look today. The Nazarenes certainly left an impression on Roman art, but it did not prove to be deep or lasting; meanwhile, the cultural energies of Italy had shifted almost entirely to the sphere of politics and its contentions. Pius IX, in particular, was so preoccupied with trying to hold on to his domains in the Papal States that he had little time for being an art patron. But in Germany, Overbeck’s influence, and that of the Nazarenes in general, was widespread.
Interestingly, it also spilled into one area of French painting. The French had rarely been influenced by stylistic events in Germany, but in a city bustling with so many foreign artists, it was bound to happen and did, because of one major French artist who was resident there. The oldest of the various foreign academies in Rome was that of France; it had been instituted in 1666, under Louis XIV, impelled by Colbert and Charles Le Brun. In a very short time it had acquired great prestige, and its pensionnaires (the painters, sculptors, and musicians whose talent, officially recognized by the Prix de Rome, had been rewarded with a stipend from the French government and a spell on its premises) were considered to have made an important start to their public careers. In 1806, the brilliantly talented young painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was awarded a pension from the academy and settled in Rome. The academy had been located in Palazzo Mancini, in Via del Corso, but in 1803 one of the great sites of Rome became available to the French government, which bought it: the Villa Medici, at the head of the Spanish Steps. This became Ingres’s studio and home for much of the rest of his life. The nineteenth century was an exceptionally rich period in the history of the French Academy in Rome. Among its pensionnaires, apart from Ingres, were the architects Baltard and Garnier, the sculptor Carpeaux, the composers Berlioz, Bizet, and Debussy. Ingres worked there as a pensionnaire, staunchly defending the classical tradition that surrounded him in Rome, from 1806 to 1820, and after a return to Paris he came back to Rome again in 1835, now as the director of the academy in the Villa Medici. In this position, as the grand cham of French art teaching, the paladin of the classical style, he exerted an incalculable influence on thought and practice in French art. He was not a man prone to self-doubt, and one of the pictures he was proudest of was his first official commission in Rome since the fall of Napoleon in 1815—Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter (1820). It depicts the moment at which Christ entrusted the future of his newly formed church to the first of the line of future popes, Saint Peter, who kneels at his feet and looks up at him; Christ, too, is looking up, but to his Father in Heaven, while with his left hand he points to the keys in Peter’s hands, the power to open or close the doors of salvation, which he has just passed on to his successor. Everything about this image, but especially its almost stonily firm construction and its powerful sense of hierarchy, points to the origins of at least some of Ingres’s ideas in Nazarene painting—hardly a surprise, since the monastery where Overbeck and Cornelius had been working was next door to the Villa Medici.
All this artistic flourishing took place against a turbulent political landscape. Especially post-Napoleon, Italy was considered so hopelessly divided that it could barely have been called a single country at all. “We have no flag, no political name, and no rank among European nations,” lamented one of the patriots whose efforts would eventually bring its unification about, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72), who had been born and raised in Genoa, then under the rule of the French Empire, being part of the Ligurian Republic.
We have no common center,…no common market. We are dismembered into eight states—Lombardy, Parma, Tuscany, Modena, Lucca, the popedom, Piedmont, and the kingdom of Naples—all independent, without any alliance, with no unity of aim and no organized connection between them.… There are eight different systems of currency; of weights and measures; of civil, commercial, and penal legislation; of administrative organization; and of police restrictions. They all divide us and make us foreign to each other as much as possible.
As Mazzini was coming of age, there was a slowly growing current in the direction of change. What growing numbers of Italians—liberals, intellectuals, dissenting patriots, anti-imperialists who resented the rule of Austria—looked toward and longed for was arisorgimento, or “resurgence,” that would unify Italy as an independent country, free of Austrian influence. Of course, Italy never had been unified; it was always a patchwork of post-medieval entities, its dominant unit being the Papal States, whose size, wealth, and centrality gave enormous political power to the pope as a temporal ruler.
At first, the main revolutionary action came from a secret society called the Carbonari, or Charcoal Burners. They were originally centered in Naples, from about 1806 onward, and they were hailed as brethren by all Italians of a radical disposition, as well as by such foreigners as Lord Byron, who called them his “cronies” and generously gave them rooms in his residence in Ravenna in 1821. “My lower apartments are full of their bayonets, fusils, cartridges, and what not. I suppose that they consider me as a depot, to be sacrificed, in case of accidents. It is no great matter, supposing that Italy could be liberated, who or what is sacrificed. It is a grand object—the very poetry of politics. Only think—a free Italy! Why, there has been nothing like it since the days of Augustus.”
The Carbonari were fiercely persecuted: to be caught meant jail or death, and often these amounted to the same thing, since the usual jail was the dreaded Spielberg Fortress in Moravia, by all accounts the most miserable sort of place imaginable. (One unfortunate Italian writer named Silvio Pellico, arrested in 1820 for a trivial offense, wrote a book about his treatment there, Le mie prigioni [My Prisons, 1832], which was said to have damaged Austria more than a lost battle.) But sometimes they were executed right away in Italy, with hardly more than the semblance of a proper trial.
This was the fate of two such dissidents in November 1825, Angelo Targhini and Leonida Montanari. They had long been cooking up plots against the papal government of Leo XII Sermattei della Genga (reigned 1823–29), being fiercely opposed to the continuation of that pope’s absolute power in the Papal States. One can hardly blame them. Leo XII was one of the vilest reactionaries ever to occupy the Fisherman’s Chair. Not only did he insist that all court proceedings of the Papal States be conducted in Latin by ordained priests; he forbade Jews, especially those in Rome, to own property, and ordered that they sell their possessions without delay and attend Christian catechism. Their only recourse was to emigrate from the political control of the Church—to nonpapal states, such as Lombardy or Tuscany. All charitable institutions in the Papal States were put under direct Church supervision, as were all libraries and, of course, schools. The pope’s neurotically suspicious dread of enemies only made the enmities, and his reaction against them, worse. If a dressmaker designed low-cut or in any way revealing dresses, she would be excommunicated. If her clients wore them, the same applied. Papal fear of unorthodoxy led to a system of denunciation, torture, and arbitrary arrest for imagined doctrinal crime beside which the excesses of the Inquisition paled. And it often ended in death for the suspects.
So it was with the unfortunate Targhini and Montanari, whose paths in Rome had crossed with that of a papal double agent named Spontini. On finding out Spontini’s real mission, which was to entrap Carbonari, Targhini enticed him onto a dark Roman street and stabbed him in the chest. The blow was not fatal, but in the denunciations that followed it, both Targhini and Montanari were condemned to death. Papal law decreed their beheading. They declared their innocence and impenitence right up to the last moment.
The pope, as monarch of the Papal States, had his very own boia or executioner—a functionary named Mastro Titta, who later (without the least trace of remorse) wrote his memoirs. Targhini and Montanari were beheaded on Piazza del Popolo in November 1825.
The Carbonari had unofficial enemies, too. The Sanfedisti, a secret society supported by nobles and peasants alike, took an oath “not to spare anyone belonging to the notorious gang of liberals, regardless of his birth, lineage, or fortune … and to spill the blood of the infamous liberals to the last drop, regardless of sex or rank.” The Sanfedisti were an Italian equivalent of such hysterically rightist Spanish terror organizations as the Exterminating Angels. But their membership came nowhere near that of the Carbonari, of whom there were claimed to be between 300,000 and 1 million. The loathed sbirri, or political police, could not field a fraction of that. Nevertheless, Mazzini, who had joined the Carbonari in 1830, estimated that his home district of Lombardy contained 300 police agents, 872 gendarmes, 1,233 police guards, and a swarm of semi-official delators, all of whom reported back to Vienna. In 1830, while in his mid-twenties, he was arrested and locked up without trial for conspiring against the Piedmontese state. When his father protested to the governor of Genoa, he was told, “Your son is a man of some talent, and he is too fond of walking by himself at night deep in thought. What on earth has he to think about at his age? We do not like young people to think unless we know the subject of their thoughts.” Mazzini was then clapped behind bars in the Savona Fortress.
He was freed in 1831, but offered the unappetizing prospect of what amounted to permanent house arrest in a provincial town. Instead, he chose exile, moving to Marseilles, where he started a society called La Giovane Italia (Young Italy), whose political program was based on the creation of a free Italian republic by the merger of several states. It had some success in the next few years, claiming sixty thousand adherents by 1833—not enough to convert all Italy, but certainly enough to perturb the government of Savoy, which ruthlessly clamped down on the young movement, sending twelve of its members to the gallows. Mazzini’s best friend, Jacopo Ruffini, killed himself. Mazzini, tried and convicted in absentia, was forced into exile in London; from there he sent out a stream of letters and pamphlets to other countries—Germany, Poland, Switzerland—urging the creation of independence movements by national youth. He even tried to foment one among army cadets in Turkey, known, prophetically, as the “Young Turks.” From their ranks, Kemal Atatürk, the future Westernizer of Turkey, would eventually arise.
Mazzini theorized and argued incessantly, but he never led a militant revolt. His hopes for a continuous ignition of riots proved delusive. Every insurrection failed. Austrian police power was too strong. Centralization on Austria was so extreme that, at one point in the 1840s, worn-out police boots had to be sent to Vienna to be repaired. Nevertheless, through the 1830s and 1840s, brush fires of dissent kept flaring up across Europe, demanding local constitutional rather than Austrian colonial rule. Their emblematic focus was Italy. In 1846, a Roman pamphleteer complained about unrestrained police power. “The police can imprison a man, banish him, confine him to a district, rob him of office, forbid him to carry arms or to leave his house at night. They open his letters in the post and make no effort to conceal it. They can invade his house, close shops, cafés, and inns, and fine us at their pleasure.” In Rome, political suspects (and it took very little to qualify as one) were confined to their houses from sundown to morning. They were also obliged to take the sacrament of confession once a month, and of course what they told the priest under the seal of the confessional was routinely disclosed to the authorities as part of the “special surveillance of the class called thinkers.” Most foreign books were proscribed or placed on the Index, the banned reading list; even private reading groups on economic theory were banned, and old or dying persons were refused absolution by their priests unless they betrayed their friends and relatives.
The Italian liberals and nationalists struck back as best they could, sometimes with ingenuity; thus, in January 1848, the protestors staged a civil-disobedience strike in Lombardy, which consisted of citizens collectively refusing to smoke or play the state lottery; this caused grievous embarrassment to Austria through loss of income, both the lottery and the tobacco industry being state monopolies. Pro-constitutional revolts and demonstrations broke out in Tuscany, Naples, Sicily, and Milan. But serious, open conflict did not come until the appearance of Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Garibaldi had been born and raised in Nice (Nizza), then a part of the Kingdom of Savoy, with a large Italian-speaking population. He took naturally to the sea and was working as a merchant-marine captain when, laid over for a few days in 1833 in the Russian port city of Taganrog, he made the acquaintance of a political exile from Italy, Giovanni Battista Cuneo. Cuneo, a follower of Mazzini, was a member of the illicit Giovane Italia, and he soon converted the young Garibaldi. From now on, the sea captain would be dedicated to the vision of an Italy free from Austrian control. It made him feel, he said, “as Columbus must have done when he first caught sight of land.”
He met Mazzini in Italy, joined the Carbonari, and rather prematurely agitated for insurrection in Piedmont. This merely made him a marked man—one more malcontent on the police lists. A Genoese court tried him in absentia. He fled from Italy to Marseilles. From there, Garibaldi wandered.
His peregrinations took him to Brazil, where he fell in with a republican uprising over meat taxation. The Brazilian gauchos, who regarded themselves as the backbone of the country, had come to resent bitterly the high taxes imposed on the sale ofcharque,Brazilian dried and salted beef, a staple food. Feelings ran so high that a minor civil war known as the Guerra dos Farrapos, the “War of Tatters,” broke out; the farrapos were the rebels, and Garibaldi, scenting an invigorating conflict in the making, joined them in 1839. During the war, Garibaldi met and fell in love with a very brave and spirited woman, Ana Ribeiro da Silva, known as “Anita,” who fought right next to him in a series of engagements. It is said, though it is not certain, that Anita invented what became the Garibaldian uniform of red shirt, poncho, and wide beret—the red cloth coming from a factory in Montevideo, Uruguay, which had originally been contracted to sell it to the cattle slaughterhouses of Argentina. Some believe that this gaucho outfit was the origin of the use of red as a sign of revolution, which would later pass to Russia and the Bolsheviks.
In 1842, the pair sailed on his ship to Montevideo, where they raised an “Italian Legion” to support the Uruguayan liberals in a civil war against the conservative caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas. But the situation in Italy moved steadily to the forefront of his concerns; revolution was in the air all over Europe, he was Italian and not South American, and his duties as an insurgent were owed to Italy, not Uruguay.
Garibaldi’s mind was made up by the mistaken news that the recently elected pope, Pius IX, was apparently a liberal and sympathetic to reform. This was given credibility by the fact that, in 1846, the pope had granted amnesty to all political prisoners in the Papal States.
In 1847, Garibaldi wrote a letter to the papal offices offering “to shed our blood in defense of Pius IX’s work of redemption.” The next year, he sailed back to Italy with sixty men, a fraction of his legion. He offered their support to the king of Sardinia-Piedmont, Charles Albert, who had just granted a constitution to Piedmont, but soon he was to transfer his allegiance to the more promising Milanese, who in March, after five days of struggle against the Austrian occupation, had expelled the Austrians from their city. Venice, too, rose against its Austrian overlords and proclaimed a republic. Likewise, the Papal States—to the horror of Pius IX—declared for republicanism.
Now Garibaldi, encouraged by the ever-premature Mazzini, moved down to Rome with the hope of taking military charge of it. In November, Pius IX fled south from Rome to Gaeta. But this was not a victory for Garibaldi. Louis-Napoleon, the future Napoleon III, was determined to restore the pope and his temporal power, thus safeguarding the Papal States. He dispatched an army to throw Garibaldi out of Rome. At first, this force, though larger than Garibaldi’s, failed at the very gates of the city, in April 1849. But then French reinforcements arrived, and after a four-week siege, they forced Garibaldi and the republican army into retreat. Under a hastily negotiated truce, he led his men—by now around four thousand in number—out of Rome, on July 2, 1849. His idea was to keep up the pressure on Rome, guerrilla-style, from strongholds in the Apennines. “Wherever we are,” he announced with impressive defiance, “there Rome will be.” When this did not work, the refugee army began heading for Venice, but most of its strength was eroded on the way; by the time its remnants reached San Marino, only 250 men were left, and the ever-courageous Anita had died near Comacchio on the retreat. Her death could only make her widowed husband more determined for victory than ever, although some years passed before he had another chance.
Meanwhile, the French army entered Rome and re-established the military and political power of the pope. After brief sojourns in New York (1850), Peru (1851), and even Australia (1852), Garibaldi bought land on the Italian island of Caprera, north of Sardinia, and settled down to farm. This was merely an interlude. In 1859, he was made general in a war of independence launched by Sardinia against the Austrian government, leading a force of “Alpine Hunters” to harass the Austrians in the mountains.
He won Sardinia’s independence in 1860, the year Piedmont was able to assimilate several northern duchies—those of Tuscany, Modena, Parma, and the Romagna. The next in line, in the sights of Italian nationalists, was to be the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, comprising southern mainland Italy (its center, Naples) and the island of Sicily itself, ruled by the Neapolitans. Garibaldi by now was quite resolved that the only hope for unification would be monarchy under Vittorio Emanuele.1
From Genoa, he planned an attack on Sicily and Naples, with the backing of Prime Minister Cavour, to be carried out with the covert support of the British. In May 1860, an expedition on two steamships set sail from near Genoa, carrying a thousand volunteers under Garibaldi’s command.
The expeditionary force, under the name of I Mille (Italian for “The Thousand,” volunteers drawn mainly from Lombardy and Venetia, otherwise known as the “Red Shirts”), landed at Marsala, in western Sicily, where Garibaldi announced that he was setting up a dictatorship over all Sicily in Vittorio Emanuele’s name. The Mille won their first battle, against a two-thousand-man detachment of the Neapolitan army, at Calatafimi, in mid-May. Now Sicilians, previously uncommitted, began to join them—there were even desertions en masse from the Neapolitan army. Soon the Mille had increased to about four thousand men. Garibaldi laid siege to Palermo, Sicily’s capital, and at the end of May his forces took the city. Other victories followed—Milazzo, Messina. By the end of September, resistance to Garibaldi in the Mezzogiorno had all but collapsed; Garibaldi’s troops had crossed the narrow strait to the Italian mainland and occupied Calabria, against the advice of Cavour but to the delight of Vittorio Emanuele II. Louis-Napoleon’s forces, which had been propping up the papal territories, now let the Piedmontese army come through from the north to lend decisive support to Gari-baldi. Francis II, king of the Two Sicilies, was forced to leave his throne in Naples, transfer to the fortress of Gaeta, and eventually to seek exile in friendly Austria. In October 1860, a plebiscite formally confirmed the annexation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to that of Sardinia, at which point it collapsed. The new Kingdom of Italy—an entity which at that point excluded Rome—was established in March 1861, with Vittorio Emanuele II as its king, proclaimed in Turin by the first Italian Parliament; Garibaldi handed over authority for southern Italy to the new king. He retired to his farm on the island of Caprera, a national hero, and declared himself ready to leave the rest of the work of unification to Vittorio Emanuele.
This did not happen, because many, in some places most, southern Italians refused to acquiesce to rule by Piedmont. More than half the national army of 120,000 men had to be sent, an army of occupation in all but name, to the Two Sicilies to repress the discontents of former Bourbon subjects. The strong Catholicism of southern peasants supported every kind of opposition to the new regime. At first the southern clergy supported the papal officials against Vittorio Emanuele—they were particularly incensed by new laws nationalizing church property. They angrily resented all efforts to strip the Papacy of its temporal possessions. When their efforts to frustrate the new policies failed, they resorted to encouraging “brigandage,” which southerners merely saw as an expression of their territorial rights. Priests in their sermons openly referred to the brigands of the Mezzogiorno as their brothers. They preached that the Virgin would be bound to perform the miracle of driving the Piedmontese and their “usurping king” back where they belonged, to the north.
Many of the discontented southerners managed to take ship for America. The brigands who stayed mutated, in large part, into the Mafia, which could never have become such a strongly self-protective society without the repressions of Vittorio Emanuele II and the Piedmontese. The defiance of such repression was summed up in the practice of omertà, “manliness,” or the code of silence—keeping one’s mouth shut, never blabbing to strangers or, especially, to the sbirri or political cops, and above all never testifying to higher authority in court against anyone who was accused of anything at all. Cala Ulloa, the Bourbon who acted as “Prime Minister” of the Neapolitan government in exile, spoke in 1863 of the “rigorous and pitiless enforcement of martial law.” The Piedmontese, however, “have kept Naples under martial law for six months; and Neapolitans are treated by them not as people fighting for their independence, but as slaves who have revolted against their masters.”
Moreover, the pope in Rome would not get out of the way of unification. He was determined to hold on to the Papal States and viewed any effort to absorb them into a united single country of Italy as an atrocious trespass on his God-given rights. Garibaldi, however, living on his island, was determined to take Rome. So was Cavour, who in a speech in 1861 declared: “Rome is the only city in Italy with more than merely local memories.… Rome, Rome alone must be the capital of Italy.… We must go to Rome, but on two conditions: we must go there in agreement with France, and the true independence of the Pontiff must not be lessened. We must go to Rome, but civil authority must not extend its power over the spiritual order.”
By now there seemed to be only three possible solutions to what had come to be known as the “Roman Question.” Either the whole territory of what had been the Holy See would be reconquered by foreign troops and held for the pope, as they had been before 1849; or the pope’s total loss of these dominions would be agreed upon; or a small amount of the former papal territory surrounding Rome would be assigned to the pope and protected by foreign troops. This last, with France as occupying guarantor, was now the case. The first was clearly impossible, and the second would never have met with Pio Nono’s agreement.
In 1862, Garibaldi and his Red Shirts tried to assail Rome, but were beaten back before their march really got under way, although Gari-baldi himself was shot in the foot. In 1864, the “September Convention” extracted an agreement from Napoleon III to withdraw his troops from Rome within two years. However, the people of Rome did not, as the republicans expected, rise against the pope. Instead, they fortified the French and papal armies. As a result, Garibaldi and the Red Shirts were beaten back at the Battle of Mentana, in 1867, in which six hundred Italian volunteers died. Once again, a march on Rome had been defeated. But the cause of Italian unification was not. In 1870, war broke out between France and Prussia, and the French armies were defeated at Sedan. This meant that the French forces had to be withdrawn from Rome, and in September 1870 the troops of Italy marched in and took their place. At long last, Rome became the capital of an Italy united under its new king, Vittorio Emanuele II.
Few Italians and no one outside of Italy seem to have regarded the new king as any kind of political genius. “Lazy, uncouth, jealous, petty, and boisterous,” was a commonly echoed judgment, and British Foreign Minister George Villiers opined, “Vittorio Emanuele is an imbecile; he is a dishonest man who tells lies to everyone, he will end up losing his crown and ruining both Italy and his dynasty.” He was certainly philoprogenitive. In addition to the eight children he had by his cousin Maria Adelaide of Habsburg (1822–55), he had several by various mistresses, two by his maîtresse en titre, or chief mistress, Rosa Teresa Guerrieri, two by Laura Bon, two by Virginia Rho, and various daughters by others less remarked. He was a decent patriotic man who seems to have deserved his popular nickname of il re galantuomo, “the gentleman king,” but he left little trace of wit or thought behind him.
He did, however, strongly believe that Italy ought to be one country, with himself as its king, wily architect of unification Cavour as its prime minister, and the Papal States—along with the temporal, if not the spiritual power of their ruler, Pius IX—reduced to a cipher.
It would be idle to suppose that such political events were directly reflected in Italian culture, particularly in painting in Rome; it was mainly writers who got stirred by them. However, there was a rhyme, though not a causal connection, between what happened in nineteenth-century Italian painting (some areas of it, at least) and what was brewing in politics. But what was happening in art, for a change, did not start in Rome.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of ten or so artists formed in Tuscany. Their meeting place was the Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence, and their shared interest was in landscape. They were all opposed to the formal teachings of the Florentine Accademia delle Belle Arti and, in a general way, they supported Italian unification, as most young artists naturally did—Italian unification symbolized Italian freedom, a freedom they wanted every part of. After 1799, when Napoleon invaded Tuscany and expelled AustrianGrand Duke Ferdinand III, the official style of art in Florence was neoclassical in the French manner: David and later Ingres (who worked and taught in Florence from 1820 to 1824) were its models, and its seat was the academy. The chief ornament of this institution, who specialized in imperial commemoration, was the laborious history painter Pietro Benvenuti (1769–1844), whose biggest work for Napoleon was a painting of his victory at Jena in 1806, The Oath of the Saxons (1812). But younger artists were not so interested in replicating these neoclassical “machines.” Gradually, the conviction grew among them that what counted more was direct truth to tone, expressed in chiaroscuro—the relations of light and darkness, described in tonal relationships of increasing clarity and simplicity, as seen in quite ordinary things. Because the painters—whose major figure was Telemaco Signorini (1835–1901)—expressed these relationships in terms of broad strokes and patches, they became christened (by a hostile critic, of course) Macchiaioli, or Splotchers.
It would be wrong to think of these young artists as provincials. They were not displaced Impressionists, but different kinds of painters entirely. Some of them visited Paris and were well aware of Impressionist developments; they also drew some of their impetus from photography, which in the 1860s was coming strongly into its own as a source for both urban and landscape painting. (The Florentine photographic firm of Alinari Brothers, which supplied mementos and records to the once again increasing flow of tourists, saw its first developments in the 1860s.) Signorini went to Paris in 1868, ’74, ’78, ’81, ’83, and ’84, partly to visit other painters (he counted Degas among his particular friends), and displayed a quite precocious modernity after a trip to Ireland with his paintingLeith (1881), which is dominated by a huge theatrical poster glued to the wall of a general store—Pop Art long before its time. Nevertheless, there is nothing to suggest that he or any of the other Macchiaioli were impelled by political feelings to paint what was local or modern into their views of Italy. Some of them did enlist to fight for their belief in Italian unification; and Silvestro Lega (1826–95) painted squads of unification sharpshooters leading captives to imprisonment in Garibaldi’s war against the Austrians in 1859. For the most part, though, politics came second to art.
The longest-lived and most prolific of the Macchiaioli was Giovanni Fattori (1825–1908). More than eight hundred oil paintings by him are known, most painted after 1861, and they all show a consistent, stubborn attachment to nature. But they have very little to say on Rome itself: Fattori’s chief subject was rural, the landscape of the Maremma, to the north of the city. This was yet another instance of how far-reaching and vivid changes, even convulsions, in a society’s political opinions may produce very little direct reactions in what its painters do.
But it is sometimes otherwise in architecture. Vittorio Emanuele II, the gentleman king, died in 1878 and was succeeded by his son, Umberto I. Spurred by Umberto’s filial piety—an emotion not always so easy to tell apart, especially in Italy, from costly and displaced narcissism—the Italians now proceeded to plan and build the largest and most stupefyingly pompous memorial ever dedicated to a national leader in Western Europe. It is all the more remarkable because the late nineteenth century was a period of almost complete barrenness for Roman architecture. Apart from the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, practically nothing that was built in Rome in the latter half of the nineteenth century repays more than cursory inspection. This monument is by far the largest act of architectural commemoration ever accorded to an Italian ruler, or indeed to an Italian of any kind, since the days of Julius Caesar. Nothing raised in memory of Dante, Michelangelo, Christopher Columbus, or any other world-changing Italian comes even close to competing with it in size or visibility. There are not many parts of Rome from which it cannot be seen, and few over which its white mass does not appear to loom—a singular disproportion, given the personal mediocrity of the man it so crushingly celebrates.
It is 443 feet wide and 230 feet high, chopped and gouged with utter ruthlessness and a complete disregard for context into the flank of what had so long been regarded as one of Rome’s most sacred ancient spots, heavy with history—the hill on which the Capitol stood, surmounted by Michelangelo’s piazza with its statue of Marcus Aurelius, gazing down upon Piazza Venezia. Visually, it completely obliterates everything else on that hill. It is safe to say that, a hundred years later, it would have been quite impossible to clear the space for even a chicken coop there against the protests of conservationists, but the question hardly mattered then. The late nineteenth century was not the late twentieth and, in any case, Italians then had a more exalted idea of the importance of their own recent history than they do now.
Dozens of medieval buildings, and even some ancient churches, were accordingly flattened to make room for this cyclopean monster. Work on it began in 1884 and continued long past the death of its architect, Giuseppe Sacconi, in 1905; it was inaugurated in 1911 but not deemed completed until 1935. By then, Benito Mussolini—a man of pronounced architectural enthusiasms—was the absolute ruler of Italy, but Il Duce seems not to have interfered with Sacconi’s almost insanely florid designs. They perfectly illustrateAlexander Pope’s line on the new-rich lord’s estate: “Lo, what great heaps of littleness abound!” The building contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, complete with eternal flame, a body selected from a dozen equally anonymous and unrecognizable ones at the war’s end by a bereaved Italian mother from Gradisca d’Isonzo. It also houses the Museum of Italian Unification, full of the clutter of busts, documents, maps, and weapons that one would expect to see there. School parties visit it from time to time, and some of the more energetic tourists manage the climb to the curved colonnade that crowns the enormous edifice, but it is not one of the more crowded institutions of the city—or one of the more beautiful, as some of its nicknames remind you. It has been variously known as themacchina scrivere, “the typewriter,” for its resemblance to a vintage writing machine; as the zuppa inglese, “English soup,” the common name for a cream-and-cake trifle; and the torta nuziale, or wedding cake; as the “false teeth,” an allusion to its ever-dazzling whiteness; and, most popular of all, as the pisciatoio nazionale, or national urinal.
Not only is the national urinal the largest structure in Rome, its materials are absurdly conspicuous. Nothing can make it fit in. The general color of Roman buildings is ivory to buff to terra-cotta: the warm hues of tufa, brick, travertine, and other local materials. The stone of which the Vittoriano was made is not local at all. It is botticino, a corpse-white marble imported by rail and wagon, at great expense, from geologically distant Brescia. Neither in design nor in material does the typewriter look Roman, and in point of fact it is not. It is Greco-Teutonic. Its architect was certainly Italian, but his inspiration was the German architect Leopold von Klenze (1784–1864)—the obsessive and more than slightly bizarre neoclassicist who was court architect to Ludwig I of Bavaria. The origins of its style are political, and they lie within the Triple Alliance of the 1880s. In this treaty between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, which lasted until the outbreak of World War I, each Great Power member promised to support the others if one was attacked. The general Italian public was unenthusiastic about this. After all, Austria had been the proven enemy of Italian independence: it had shown itself to be a fiercely colonialist power.
Nevertheless, the white-column Greek-revival style of Klenze spread across Europe. Not only did he do the Glyptothek (sculpture museum) and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, but he was commissioned by Nicholas I of Russia to design the New Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, and by Ludwig I’s son Otto to make designs for the reconstruction of Athens, including the restoration of the Acropolis, so catastrophically damaged in 1687, when a stray Venetian mortar shell blew up the Parthenon, which was being used as an ordnance dump by the Turks.
Klenze provided a convenient—in fact, a virtually mandatory—template for a neoclassical building that sought to prove Italian links to the classical past. One of his favorite buildings was the second-century-B.C.E. Hellenistic altar at the Greek colony of Pergamon (modern Bergama) in Turkey, with its huge stone frieze of the Battle of the Giants, which had been torn asunder and looted by German archaeologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and shipped, section by damaged section, to Berlin. It consisted of a lower podium, which carried a 113-meter (371-foot) sculptural frieze of the battle between the gods and giants described in Hesiod’s Theogony; on top of this massive base was an open colonnade.2 The distant descendant of this weighty and magnificently decoratedbuilding was the speaking tribune Albert Speer designed for Adolf Hitler, facing the Zeppelin Field at Nuremberg (which mercifully lacks Nazi versions of the mighty Pergamene sculptures).
One of Klenze’s adaptations of this Pergamon scheme was the U-shaped Ruhmeshalle (1850) in Munich, where he had built other Hellenic-style buildings in a lifelong effort to satisfy the insatiable Grecomania of his monarch. From this, with added memories of the Pergamon altar itself, Sacconi derived his design for the Vittoriano, which was even bigger than the Pergamon altar—some seventy feet longer in plan. Its main difference in layout from both the Pergamene original and Klenze’s Ruhmeshalle is that its crowning colonnade is curved on a concave arc, not straight. It is liberally, indeed fulsomely, endowed with sculpture: not only a ten-meter figure of the Emanuele on horseback,3 not only two victory goddesses driving quadrigae, but dozens of white bas-reliefs in botticinosymbolizing the various districts and cities of Italy now united by the great political event, together with swags, cartouches, eagles, and other celebratory props. They remind the visitor how many skilled sculptors were working in Italy at the turn of the century, and how forgotten they all are—a lesson for today. Who now remembers those once-noted regional sculptors—Emilio Bisi, who did Lombardy; Italo Griselli (Tuscany), or Silvio Sbricoli (Abruzzo)—all contributed to what Sacconi called “the Valhalla of the Gentleman King”? The answer, alas, is nobody, just as nobody will remember most of our own contemporary art when it ceases to be contemporary.
The Vittoriano is also an anti-monument. It celebrates the first king of a united Italy, but, by implication, it marks the end of the temporal power of the Papacy. The last pope to wield this power, in its full measure, was Pius IX, and he was also the longest-reigning pope in the history of the Catholic Church: elected in 1846, he occupied the Fisherman’s Chair until his death in 1878. Few popes came anywhere near this record, and none equaled it; they were usually men in their sixties when their reigns began.
Born Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, Pius IX began his papal incumbency as a liberal—or so many Catholics thought. Thus he showed sympathy—though not too much of it—for nationalist feeling in Italy, as long as it did not threaten the papacy or its holdings; he encouraged the drafting of a constitutional framework for Rome, and freed a number of political prisoners who were under indictment from his predecessor, the ultraconservative Gregory XVI.
But such sentiments were not to last. Like many another powerful figure in that mid-century of vehement anti-clericalism, he began as a (relative) progressive, to the dismay and suspicion of the neighboring Austro-Hungarians. Though he did not encourage Protestantism, at least he did not denounce its faithful, and even allowed them to worship according to their own rites in the Holy City. He showed a serious interest in social reform within his own fief, Rome, where he began a program of street lighting and even established the first railroad, sometimes riding in public view in his own papal carriage—that ancestor of the modern “Popemobile.” He even went to America before his election and was the first pope to have crossed the Atlantic, also visiting some of the South American republics as an assistant to the apostolic nuncio—a gesture that would pay dividends in the later American loyalty to Roman Catholicism. The figures speak: in 1846, there were some seven hundred Catholic priests in North America; by 1878, the country had six thousand.
Nevertheless, before long he began a shift that would take him far to the right. Political feelings in Italy and across Europe in 1848, the “year of revolutions,” were too heated for him to do otherwise. There was nothing opportunistic about this. He genuinely felt the world was slipping away from the stability of the Faith, and felt impelled by conscience to oppose it. In France, there had been an uprising of the workers followed by the abdication of Louis-Philippe—who died the next year—and the election of Louis-Napoleon as president of the Republic. Revolution in Vienna had forced the resignation of Metternich. In Prague, Czech nationalist revolts were repressed by Austrian troops. Sardinia declared war on Austria. The nationalist Lajos Kossuth rose to power in Hungary.
Most pregnant with direct menace from the pope’s viewpoint, however, revolt broke out in Rome. Pius IX’s premier, the liberal Pellegrino Rossi, chief minister for the Papal States, was murdered in November on the stairs of the Vatican’s exquisite Palazzo della Cancelleria, supposedly by medical students who had practiced on a corpse laid out for dissection in order to find exactly the right spot to strike for the jugular vein. The usually reliable Swiss Guards laid down their halberds, leaving the pope essentially unprotected in a Europe of growing nationalism—a barely credible thought, but a fact nonetheless, to which the pope responded by going into exile. Garbed as an ordinary priest, he fled south to Gaeta, a fief of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, under the aegis of Ferdinand II.
The pope’s departure ignited general rejoicing in Rome: a Roman Republic was proclaimed early in 1849, and huge firework displays lit up Saint Peter’s Square on, of all blasphemous dates, Good Friday. Looting and vandalism of papal property followed. Pius responded from the safe distance of Gaeta by excommunicating everyone who had been involved in these outrages and by affirming his devotion to the Madonna, who, he believed, had saved his life. More to the practical point, the new French president, Louis-Napoleon, who had assured Pius of his unwavering support, sent French troops to Rome and crushed the embryo republic. They would remain there, as a peacekeeping force in support of Pius IX, for twenty years, causing a steady simmer of resentment among Italian nationalists, both in Rome and outside it.
It is sometimes thought that Pio Nono’s pursuit of dogma was aimed to combat and reduce the effectiveness of non-Catholic belief. But it was not—not chiefly, anyway. Its main target was “liberal” opinions held within the Church itself. Nobody who was not a scrupulous Catholic already was likely to care deeply about a detailed, nitpicking document like the Syllabus of Errors, or to regard it as anything but a long list of ecclesiastical complaint and, indeed, desperation. Rather, it was a charter for what came to be called “ultramontanism.”
Ultramontanism, meaning literally “adherence to ideas promoted on the other side of the Alps,” referred to the geographical location of Rome as against the rest of the Catholic Church, and particularly in contrast to “Gallicanism,” or things happening in France, which denoted non-Roman practices of other churches and the (in Pius’ view) woeful tendency, verging on sinfulness, to give more importance to the traditions and opinions of national governments, national churches, and local hierarchy than to Rome. The ultramontane Catholic was strict, reflexively obedient, and in all things a dogmatist: an unwavering follower of Pio Nono. To him (or her), the views of national governments did not matter a straw compared with the eternal Truth embodied in papal policy. Thus it would not count if some national government—Ireland’s, say, or Germany’s—wished, under a grant of Catholic emancipation, to veto some episcopal appointment if it thought the candidate politically undesirable; a more flexible church could put up with that. Not now. Not any more. In particular, the astonishingly ill-timed Syllabus of Errors was aimed at what Pio Nono and the papal curia saw as the baleful and enduring effects of the French Revolution, which had happened half a century before.
What were these “errors”? About eighty were listed. Some were of the most fundamental kind. It was an “error” (number 55) to think that “the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” It was an “error” to think that “the marriage tie is not indissoluble” and that civil authority had the right to grant divorces (number 67). It was an “error” to suppose that people who came to reside in some Catholic countries had the right to “enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship,” and that was as true for Baptists as for Mohammedans or, for that matter, fire worshippers. It was an “error” to hold that the Church lacked the power of “defining dogmatically” that its religion was the only true religion, or that it needed the “permission and assent of the civil government” to exercise its authority. And so on, for many clauses and many pages. The capstone was undoubtedly the last, number 80, which in simple purblind majesty pronounced that there was no way in which the Roman pontiff “can, and ought to, reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”
It is not often that one can say an official document gets everything wrong, but the Syllabus of Errors came as close to that exalted state as anything set forth by the Catholic Church since the death of Luther. To call it antediluvian is to understate its impact. It set Catholic orthodoxy in antagonistic relation not only to the cautiously growing liberalism of the Zeitgeist, but also with the contrary findings of science and recent philosophy from which it would take the Church generations to recover. Indeed, some would say, in light of the notorious conservatism of the present Pope Benedict XVI, whose habit is to attribute “virtual infallibility” to all papal utterances, that it has not recovered yet, and that the harm done by the syllabus was permanent.
Inevitably, many Catholic moderates saw it as a blow against the Church’s “ablest and most eloquent defenders,” who now, in the words of Odo Russell, the English government’s representative in Rome, could “no longer speak in [the Church’s defense] without being accused of heresy.… Silence and blind obedience must henceforth be their only rule of life.” Many believed the pope had placed himself “at the head of a vast ecclesiastical conspiracy against the principles of modern society,” which was indeed true. The French government, whose troops alone stood between the pope and the forces of the Risorgimento, banned the syllabus. “If we do not succeed in checking this senseless Romanism,” wrote Archbishop Dupanloup of Orléans, “the Church will be outlawed in Europe for half a century.”
People embrace religions with special fervor when they yearn for clear ideological security, and the effect of Pio Nono’s definiteness was to make the Church more popular, not less, not only in Italy but in the rest of Europe, and in both North and South America. Religious bodies, both clerical and lay, expanded; the missionary scope of the Church, in Africa and Asia, increased. Pio Nono created over two hundred new bishoprics. The life of the Church in France, where it had been devastated by the Revolution, dramatically revived, producing the long outburst of faith and worship that led to a rash of church building and the growth of such popular Marian miracle cults as that of the healing spring at Lourdes. Given the choice, many people prefer forthright expressions of faith, however irrational and superstitious they may seem, to the qualified utterances of more cautious moral theology, and this received full scope from the papacy of Pius IX, whose syllabus condemned rationalism, socialism, and liberalism of all kinds. A lot of people hated him, but he was still an enormously popular pope. You knew where you stood with him when you were making the sign of the cross.
This helps explain the otherwise puzzling enthusiasm among Catholics for Pio Nono’s views and teachings on the subject of the Virgin Mary, Christ’s mother, and the prestige her cult enjoyed in Catholic worship during his reign. Little attention was paid to her, or her myth, by the early church. There is ample evidence for the historical existence of Christ. For that of his supposedly virgin mother, though, there is practically none. Obviously Jesus had a mother of some kind, but we know next to nothing about her, and her cult in the Catholic Church—including her much-invoked and incessantly lauded virginity, in all its stark unlikeliness—is an accretion for which there is no real Biblical sanction. “Mariolatry,” the cult of the Virgin, is basically a variant—though a much-inflated one—of ancient cults of the Mythic Mother that long preceded Christianity. She first appears, in art, in third-century-C.E. catacomb pictures of the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi. These represent an effort to Christianize an existing pagan deity—Cybele, who had been worshipped originally in Asia Minor, but whose cult as the mother of the gods was brought to Rome in the early third century B.C.E. By imperial times, it had grown into a yearly celebration, linked to that of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, who had her own temple on the Campus Martius. From there it was only a short step to the worship of Mary as the real mother of the god Jesus. This was reinforced by the supposed discovery in the Holy Land of an actual portrait of Mary painted by the Apostle Luke, patron saint of artists. This precious artifact, the so-called Hodegetria, was probably destroyed by the Turks in the 1453 Siege of Constantinople, where a special church, the Hodegon, had been built for it. (There were no physical relics of the Virgin Mary, since according to doctrine she had been “assumed” in her entirety into Heaven, so the Hodegetria was the closest thing to a sacred relic of her the Church possessed. Copies were made of it, one of which is in the Pantheon in Rome.)
Five years after the Syllabus of Errors was published, at the end of 1869, Pio Nono convened the assembly of bishops known as the First Vatican Council. Its purpose was to defeat the “Gallicists” by centralizing power and authority in the hands of the pope and the papal curia, and in this it was spectacularly successful. The big question being decided was papal infallibility. Could the pope, speaking ex cathedra (“from the throne,” meaning with the full official weight of his position, on vital matters of dogma), actually err? Or would God intervene to prevent him from doing so? When the votes were counted, God was clearly in favor of “inerrancy,” though not without a lot of heavy politicking from the pope and his curia. Pio Nono bullied the bishops relentlessly. Some 350 of the eight hundred or so bishops attending the council meetings were financially dependent on the Vatican, and they were told in no uncertain terms that any dissent from Pius IX’s line would bring a complete cutoff of funds. There was no secret balloting. One French delegate, Bishop Félix Dupanloup, confided to his journal, “I’m not going to the council any more.… The falsity, vanity, and continual lying force me to keep my distance.” The modern Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who was appointed official theologian for theSecond Vatican Council in 1962, thought that the First Council “was so severely compromised” that its infallibility doctrine was null. “Painful and embarrassing as it may be to admit, this council resembled a well-organized and manipulated party congress rather than a free gathering of Christian people.” Kung would argue that the pope got infallibility translated into dogma for four reasons. “Pius IX had a sense of divine mission which he carried to extremes; he engaged in double dealing; he was mentally disturbed;4 and he misused his office.” Ludicrously but unsurprisingly, the Church in 1979 banned the impeccably scholarly Kung from ever teaching theology in its name.
It says much about Pio Nono’s priorities that, having forced through the vote on papal infallibility, he should only have made one other infallible utterance, and that it concerned the Virgin Mary. This was in 1854, when he defined the dogma of the “immaculate conception”—the belief that Mary, as perfect mother of the Redeemer, had been conceived without the burden of “original sin.” That inheritance of collective guilt for the fall of Adam and Eve, which the sacrament of baptism was believed to lift from every human soul, had never been laid upon her; she was a completely innocent being, as befitted the mother of God. Needless to say, this was pure fantasy, as statements about those of whom so little is known are apt to be. Nevertheless, it became, and remains, Catholic dogma, and a column commemorating it was raised in Piazza di Spagna. Later, Pius XII, another committed Mariolater, would go further and define, as dogma, the belief that Mary had been saved from earthly corruption by being “assumed,” taken up body and soul, into Heaven. Perhaps she was, but so far the sight of those pristine blue robes in outer space has eluded the world’s observatories. (One assumes the robes would be there; the image of a naked virgin in perpetual orbit is hardly thinkable.)
The life and actions of Pius IX confront the church historian with an apparent paradox, for, despite his innate and growing conservatism, Pius IX’s papacy marks the beginning of a modern church: he successfully negotiated the difficult passage of the Church away from temporal power toward purely spiritual dominion, and did so without loss of institutional dignity. For this he was hated in some quarters—during his burial services, a rabble of Italian nationalists tried, but failed, to seize his body and throw it in the Tiber. (This was by no means the first time that such violent disrespect had been thrust on a dead pope. Long before, when papal elections had been more nakedly in the hands of rival factions, the badly decayed corpse of Pope Formosus [reigned 891–96] was disinterred and pulled from his coffin; the fingers with which he had given so many blessings were chopped off; he was dragged through the streets, pelted with ordure, and flung in the river; not content with this, the Roman mob threw his successor, Stephen VII, into prison and strangled him there.)
No such violence was inflicted on Pio Nono. He had enemies, of course, but was still much beloved and badly missed by most Italians, and by non-Italian Catholics as well. There had been a strong popular move to persuade him to institute constitutional government in the Papal States, but it had come to nothing—Pius held out for the unconditional restoration of papal rule. If there was one principle on which his secular power was set, it was that constitutional government would never be allowed in the papato,the “popedom” or in the Papal States. Pius’ personal following was such that he could do whatever he wanted. He died “in the odor of sanctity,” as the phrase went, leaving behind him an incalculably more popularized church.
In some ways, the man who did most as pope to carry on Pio Nono’s legacy was his successor’s successor, Pius X, a realist who recognized that further recriminations between the Church and the Italian state were going to produce very little for either side. He stopped publicly calling the state a usurper of the Church’s rights (though what he privately thought of the matter is unknown). Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto (1835–1914) was a man of humble origins, one of ten children fathered by a village postman in the Veneto. By no stretch of the imagination could he have been called an intellectual, but this proved not to matter much, and may even have been an advantage: he had a sure instinct for religious populism, and used it to the full. He saw himself as a “pastoral pope,” in direct contact with his flock. He was, in fact, a sincerely charitable man; when a disastrous earthquake hit Messina in 1908, he opened the doors of the Vatican to its homeless victims, putting the secular government of Italy to shame. Perhaps his most famous saying was “I was born poor, I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.”
Pius X’s special mission, as he saw it, was to expand the living church by recruiting the devotion of children, through participation in the sacraments. In a pastoral letter written as patriarch of Venice, he complained, “God has been driven out of public life through the separation of Church and State, now that doubt has been raised to a system.… He has even been driven out of the family, which is no longer considered sacred in its origins.” The remedy for this was divine obedience. “When we speak of the Vicar of Christ, we must not quibble. We must obey; we must not … evaluate his judgments, or criticize his directions, lest we do injury to Jesus Christ himself. Society is sick.… The one hope, the one remedy, is the Pope.” He wanted Catholic doctrine to impose conformity on the Church, and he would have nothing to do with “modernism,” meaning any kind of synthesis between late-nineteenth-century currents of thought and the supposedly immutable teachings of the traditional church. The only theology eligible to be taught in Catholic schools and seminaries was that of the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Hence he would not back the nascent Catholic Action movement, a society of lay Catholics attempting to propagate Catholic influence on society, because even that suggested too much independence by the faithful. Theological debate within the Church was stifled until the reign of Pius XII, when it began to make a shy and tentative reappearance.
In the past, children had been ten to twelve before making their First Communion and lisping out the record of their tiny sins to the priest in the confessional. Pius X decreed the lowering of this age to nine or even seven, thus replicating the traditional boast of the Jesuits, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” Boys at their First Communion must wear sashes and rosettes; girls, white dresses and veils. It was a very popular “reform,” increasing the sacramental theater of childish faith and pleasing all devout parents. It also increased the frequency with which Catholics went to Confession, a necessary prelude to Holy Communion.
Pius X, like his namesake Pio Nono, saw no reason to accommodate simple faith to scientific theories, or to Biblical interpretation. He made his views, and the conservative policy of his church, clear in 1907 in an encyclical letter, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, and the decree Lamentabili, and the effects of his conservatism would be felt by the Church for some fifty years, right through the papacy of Pius XII. The use of the Index of Forbidden Books now became common, indeed general, throughout the teaching and administration of the Church. All in all, Pius X’s papacy spelled hard times for Catholic intellectual life. The threat of excommunication hung menacingly over it. “Liberal Catholics are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Therefore the true priest is bound to unmask them. The Church is by its very nature an unequal society. The hierarchy alone moves and controls.… The duty of the multitude is to carry out in a submissive spirit the orders of those in control.”
Pius X urged his flock to “be proud” of being called “papists, retrogrades, and intransigents.” He refused to accept France’s 1905 Law of Separation between church and state—which eventually deprived the French Catholic Church of all government funding, and ended with an official diplomatic break between the French government and the Vatican. His chief intellectual foe within the Church was Father Alfred Loisy, principal theologian at the Institut Catholique in Paris, whose widely circulated book The Gospel and the Church argued that the findings of radical Biblical criticism dissolved the Protestant threat to faith by dismissing Biblical literalism as merely naïve, because they implied that there was no getting back behind the tradition of the Church to an “unmediated” Christ.
He did, however, spell certain liturgical reforms which the Church needed. Italian church music had been invaded by opera, stressing bravura passages and ensemble instrumentation. Pius would have none of this secular stuff, and in 1903 he called for a return to the ancient tradition of plainsong and the classical polyphony of the Counter-Reformation, especially in the Kyriale, Graduale, and Antiphonary. Pius favored a return to Gregorian chant. He also explicitly forbade women to sing in church choirs.
This was all very well, and he backed it up with a program of restoration of dilapidated churches—always a problem in the Eternal City, which by now was beginning to seem not very eternal—that did little but good.
Initially, he even forbade Italian Catholics to vote, on the grounds that the Italian state, being secular, had made the pope a “prisoner in the Vatican,” and that to vote at all for a secular state which had confiscated the enormous papal domains would be to acquiesce in it. But later, when it became obvious that neither Victor Emmanuel nor any elected Italian politicians who valued their votes were going to tolerate backsliding on the issue, this was relaxed. From now on, the size of the papal domains would remain tiny—although the numerical size of the Catholic Church would be enormous, and ever-growing.
This softening on the voting issue did not imply a softening in papal doctrine. In 1907, Pius X formally condemned some sixty-five propositions regarding the nature of the Church and the divinity of Christ as wrong and heretical, and soon afterward compelled all priests to take a sacred oath against modernism in general. “Modernism” was an extremely wide-ranging term. As understood by Pius X and his curia, it meant any effort to square the ideas of more recent philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, with the traditional teachings of the Church. Such attempts were viewed with horror by theological traditionalists like Pius X, because they implied that the Church’s teachings on faith and morals were neither eternal nor immutable. Gradually the battle lines between church orthodoxy and modernism were firming up.
1 Victor Emmanuel II (1820–78), eldest son of Charles Albert of Sardinia and Maria Theresa of Austria, had assumed the throne of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1849, following the abdication of his defeated father.
2 The narrative of gods versus giants probably symbolized the Pergamene conception of its own dynasty defending the Hellenic ethos against “barbarian” invaders from the North.
3 There are photos of the sculptors who worked on the project crammed, rather uncomfortably, around bottles of vermouth inside the cavernous belly of the horse, like tipsy Greeks approaching Troy.
4 “Mentally disturbed” is perhaps too strong, though the pope did suffer from a well-attested and much-discussed affliction: epilepsy.