Prisoner of the Vatican

The Popes' Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State

Based on a wealth of documents long buried in the Vatican archives, Prisoner of the Vatican tells the story of the Church's secret attempt to block the unification of Italy and seize control - not in ancient times, but in the late nineteenth century. For more than fifty years, the pope was a self-imposed prisoner within the Vatican walls, planning to flee Italy, to return only as the restored ruler of Rome and the Papal States. The scheme to dismantle the newborn Italian nation involved not only the cardinals and the Curia but also attempts to exploit the rivalries among France, Germany, Austria, Spain, and England. Kertzer brings to light an untold drama played out among fascinating characters: Pope Pius IX, the most important pontiff in modern history; King Victor Emmanuel, working behind the backs of his own ministers; the dashing national hero Garibaldi; France's ill-starred Napoleon III, and many more. During this time, Italy was besieged from within and without, and Church history changed forever when the pope was declared infallible for the first time. Prisoner of the Vatican looks deep into the workings of the Church in its final bid to regain the pope's temporal power. Kertzer sweeps readers along with riveting, revelatory panache. No one who reads his new book will ever think of Italy, or the Vatican, in quite the same way again.

Praise for Prisoner of the Vatican:

"Pius IX was a great pope and a fascinating figure in the enduring tension between Church and state. Noone has written more persuasively about him than David Kertzer."
- Denis Mack Smith, Oxford University

"Like all great chronicles, David Kertzer's is the history of a conspiracy. And like all great historians, Kertzer tells four tales: the official tale, the untold tale, the tale of events that almost never happened, and the tale still unbelievable after a hundred years. The rise of Italy, with Rome as its capital, seemed a fantasy in the 19th century. The collapse of Papal power vis-à-vis the forces of nationalism seemed even more farfetched. Working with hitherto unseen documents in the Vatican Library, Kertzer once again proves himself a truly compelling historian in the mold of Sallust and Thucydides. His unforgettable narrative reminds us that, when surveying events of the past, all the bewildered historian can do is probe and probe again the two most compelling forces of human history: intrigue and blunder. The Pope, we learn, was a champion of both."
- André Aciman, author of Out of Egypt: A Memoir and of False Papers

"David Kertzer's work on the modern papacy grows in importance. His careful scholarship and lucid writing make the human character of this religious institution quite clear. A service to the truth, which is, of course, a service to true religion."
- James Carroll, author of Secret Father and Constantine's Sword

"[R]eads like exciting fiction. And it has astounding contemporary relevance. David Kertzer has done it again!"
- Alfred Uhry, playwright, "Driving Miss Daisy"

In Prisoner of the Vatican, David Kertzer, a remarkable story teller as evidenced in The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and The Popes Against the Jews, gives us a thrilling, eye-opening account of a lost period in modern history, the fifty year stalemate in the 19th century between the papacy and the monarchy for control of Rome. The old phrase 'This town ain't big enough for both of us' has never had more resonance. To read of the Pope's willingness to destroy the recently unified nation of Italy simply to maintain the Church's power and keep its brethren in the Middle Ages is a chilling and timely warning of what happens when religious power becomes synonymous with political power. If you love Italy, if you love Rome, this book is essential reading.
- John Guare, playwright, "Six Degrees of Separation"

After losing control of Rome and much of central Italy to the newly unified Italian state in 1870, Pope Pius IX and his successor Leo XIII each made secret plans to go into exile, to stir up support for the papal cause, and to return triumphant to Rome on the heels of an invading army sent by a sympathetic power. But exile where? And when exactly should the pope flee? And not least, what power or coalition of powers would have been willing to reconquer the Papal States? David Kertzer brings fresh research and lively exposition to this complex and crucial chapter in the inseparable histories of modern Italy and the modern papacy. In the end, the failure of this plot to materialize obviously spared the Italian kingdom but also, in Kertzer's view, preserved the papacy's spiritual prestige.
- Lester K. Little, Director, American Academy in Rome

Using new diplomatic and internal documents from Vatican and other European state archives, David Kertzer vividly describes an unstable world in which dispossessed popes could not imagine serving the Catholic Church without an earthly kingdom, in which a newborn Italian government contended with extremists on the left and the right to preserve a fractious unity, and in which European nations competed amid the clash of monarchism, republicanism, socialism, and denominational rivalries. Kertzer narrates the geopolitical campaigns of two of the longest reigning popes in history, Pius IX and Leo XIII (the latter's tenure recently surpassed by John Paul II), whose papacies were beset by feelings of besiegement and by an ecclesiastical struggle between "intransigents" and "reconcilers" that echoes down to the present day. Anyone interested in modern church, Italian, or European history will have to read this important book.
- Philip A. Cunningham, Director, Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, and Adjuct Professor of Theology, Boston College

This book is a gift to everyone who welcomes the emergence of buried history, and a boon to anyone who has ever wondered about the origins of the wonderful, tenuously unified place called modern Italy.
- Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains

This masterful investigation by David Kertzer yields a tangled web of intrigue, duplicity, plots and counterplots, war and violence, naive faith and human fallibility...It is an engrossing account of a fascinating moment in history and the people who played that moment out.
- Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action

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International Editions

  • Italian Edition, Rizzoli, 2005