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The French and Rome: 1793-1814

The papacy is ill-equipped to cope with either French revolutionary zeal or Napoleonic empire building. The years of French ascendancy are a long tale of disaster for Rome.

An incident of 1793 sets the tone. A French diplomat in Rome, Nicolas de Basseville, indulges in a provocative display of the tricolour, symbol of French anti-clerical republicanism. A Roman crowd attacks him and he dies the next day. Four years later, when Napoleon reaches as far south as Ancona in an advance on Rome, this incident remains a specific grievance for which France holds the pope responsible - demanding and receiving 300,000 livres as compensation for Basseville's family.


The pope who has to negotiate with Napoleon in 1797 is Pius VI. The price of persuading the French intruder to head north again, agreed in the peace of Tolentino, is a massive indemnity, the removal of many works of art from the Vatican collections and the surrender to France of Bologna, Ferrara and the Romagna.

This reduction of the papal states is only the beginning of Pius's troubles. In the last few days of 1797 a disturbance outside the French embassy in Rome results in the death of a French general. This is made the pretext for a French army to occupy Rome and to seize the pope, who is taken off to captivity in France - where he dies in 1799.


The new pope, Pius VII, is at first conciliatory towards Napoleon. He agrees the concordat of 1801. He travels to Paris in 1804 to officiate at Napoleon's imperial coronation. But by 1808 relations have deteriorated. The pope annoys Napoleon by refusing to sanction the annulment of his brother Jerome's marriage and, perhaps more significantly, by not bringing the ports of the papal states into the Continental System.

The result is that a French army occupies Rome in February 1808. In the following month another section of the papal states (the Marches) is annexed to the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy.


Napoleon follows up these affronts by annexing in 1809 all that remains of the papal states, including the city of Rome, and by announcing that the pope no longer has any form of temporal authority. Pius VII responds by an immediate use of his spiritual authority, excommunicating Napoleon himself and everyone else connected with this outrage. He is immediately arrested and removed to imprisonment in France.

These are the events which bring the entire Italian peninsula under French control by 1809. The situation remains unchanged until after Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig in 1813 - an event followed by Austrian recovery of much of Italy and a subsequent seal of approval at the congress of Vienna.


From republic to royal capital: 1848-1871

After the return of Pius VII to Rome in 1814, the city resumes for the next three decades its dual role as the religious centre of Roman Catholicism and the political centre of the papal states. Both are rudely interrupted by the events of 1848.

Pope Pius IX attempts to make liberal concessions in the administration of Rome in response to the revolutionary turmoil sweeping Europe in 1848. But at the end of the year, following the assassination of his chief minister, he flees to safety in the coastal fortress of Gaeta. After his departure, the radicals have the city to themselves.


A Roman republic is proclaimed in February 1849. This promising event is followed by the arrival of the veteran revolutionaries Mazzini and Garibaldi. Mazzini plays a major part in running the republic during its brief existence and Garibaldi fights magnificently in its defence (against an army sent by the new French republic on behalf of the pope, a measure of how much Italian affairs are intertwined with the broader issues of European politics).

The Roman republic falls to the French forces in early July 1849. Pius IX is restored to his papal throne - turning the clock safely back, in a pattern which becomes common almost everywhere during 1849.


On his return to Rome, Pius IX is just three years into a pontificate of thirty-two years - the longest in history.

His experiences during 1848-9 leave him disinclined to take a positive role in the developments now leading towards a united Italy. Instead his cautious and reactionary policy reduces Rome to the status of a backwater during the next two decades. He survives untroubled in his shrinking papal states (Cavour annexes the Romagna in 1860), because the French leave a garrison to safeguard his rule. But events in 1870 leave him suddenly exposed.


The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war means that the French garrison is hurriedly withdrawn from Rome, in August 1870. The French defeat at Sedan in September is immediately followed by the deposing of the emperor Napoleon III. Nothing now remains to deter the Italian state from seizing the holy city. Troops break in through the Porta Pia on September 20.

In October a plebiscite in Rome and the surrounding Campagna results in a vote for union with the kingdom of Italy. Pius IX refuses to accept this act of force majeure. He remains in his palace, describing himself as a prisoner in the Vatican.


The provisional capital of Italy since 1865 has been Florence, in an attempt to appease those nationalists who resent the usurping of their cause by the northern kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. Now, in 1871, the Italian government moves to the banks of the Tiber. Victor Emmanuel instals himself in the Quirinale Palace. Rome becomes once again, for the first time in thirteen centuries (since the dying gasp of the western empire in the reign of Odoacer), the capital city of a united Italy.

It is unusual among capital cities only in that it contains a powerful figure and a small parcel of land (the pope in the Vatican) beyond national control. This anomaly is not formally resolved until the concordat of 1929.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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