Prisoner of the Vatican
Publishers Weekly (starred review), September 1st, 2004
"Modern Italy was founded... over the dead body of Pope Pius IX," writes Kertzer, author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (also a National Book Award finalist), in this riveting and fast-paced chronicle of the rise of the Italian state and the Vatican's forgotten battle against the nationalists to retain power over Rome. In 1870, Victor Emmanuel II, king of a newly united Italy, sought an agreement with Pius IX in which the pope would rule the Tiber's right bank while the king would govern the left bank. When the pope rejected this arrangement, Italian troops seized power in Rome and Pius IX sought refuge in the Vatican palaces, declaring himself a prisoner. Led by Garibaldi and aided by Catholic France, the nationalists gained control in 1878, and so angered were nationalists at Pius IX that in 1881 protesters almost succeeded in dumping his corpse into the Tiber. The animosity between the pope and the state continued until 1929, when Mussolini and the Vatican signed a concordat in which the Vatican recognized the legitimacy of the Italian state and the Vatican was granted the rights of a sovereign state. Kertzer, given access to newly opened Vatican archives, tells a first-rate tale of the political intrigues and corrupt characters of a newly emerging nation, offers history writing at its best, and provides insight into a little-known chapter in religious and political history. 16 pages of b&w photos, 5 maps. Agent, Ted Chichak. (Nov. 15)
Kirkus (starred review), September 1st, 2004
Contrary to history books, the Middle Ages didn't end with the Renaissance in Italy. They lasted until Septeember 20, 1870, when "Europe's last theocratic government was ended."
So writes Kertzer (History/Brown Univ.; The Popes Against the Jews, 2001, etc.) in this rousing tale of clerical skullduggery and topsy-turvy politics, laced with plenty of cross-border intrigue. Pope Pius IX had made no secret of his hatred for democracy, nationalism, and other moderninzing political forces sweeping Europe in the mid-19th century, and for good reason: a united secular Italy, the dream of Garibaldi and his red-shirted legions, could mean only that papal power would wane, and Pius counted as a great blasphemy the modern notion that "Church and state should be separate or that the papacy could survive and even flourish without owning its own land."
Even if the Savoyard king opposing Pius was unimpressive ("Lazy and pig-headed, he had little sense of his own limits, which were considerable"), and even if Italy, "a patchwork of states and duchies propped up by foreign forces," was ill-equipped for unification, the leaders of the Vatican sensed that they were on the losing side of history and that the increasingly whittled-away Papal States were not long for the world. Thus a campaign of intrigues, some involving assassination attempts on revolutionary and monarchical leaders, some seeking the intervention of France and Austria, the two leading Catholic powers of the time, against the Italian government. Even as such efforts failed, the Vatican promulgated a new doctrine--that of papal infallibility. Vatican scheming against the Italian state continued even after Pius's death, writes Kertzer, and it was not until after WWI that a successor pope lifted the ban against Catholics' serving in parliament or even voting. Whereupon the Vatican, eager now to battle socialism, forged a pact with Mussolini, granting it sovereign-nation status and requiring that Catholicism be Italy's sole and official religion.
An insightful airing of dirty cassocks within papal politics, from a masterful, controversial scholar.
America: The National Catholic Weekly, November 8th, 2004
In light of the present worldwide prestige of the papacy, it comes as a shock to realize that less than a century and a quarter ago an anticlerical mob tried to interrupt Pope Pius IX’s funeral procession, determined to throw the pope’s corpse into the Tiber. And it seems like ancient history to recall that Pius IX and the four popes who followed him, from 1870 to 1929, all styled themselves “prisoner of the Vatican” and refused to leave its confines in protest against the new Italian state that had taken from them the Papal States and the city of Rome. All of them, Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI (until he signed the Lateran treaties) denounced in decreasingly hostile terms the new Italian state. They endorsed Pius IX’s argument that the anticlerical state had stolen what he called the Patrimony of St. Peter, and they hoped that their denunciations, their disapprovals and their forbidding of Catholics to participate in national elections (up to 1919) would bring the Italian state down.
But in fact, as David Kertzer demonstrates in this lively narrative, the popes had no material force at hand and could rely only on their spiritual suasion of Catholics, both in Italy and abroad, to achieve their aim of restoring the papal territories to their control. One way of doing this was to apply diplomatic pressure on foreign powers, to play the game of diplomacy, pitting one state against another, hoping to use the allegiance of the Catholics in those states (France, Germany and Austria) and their fear of one another in the increasingly dangerous world of alliances and imperialistic ventures that eventually erupted into World War I.
Author of the rightfully acclaimed The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the story of the shameful abduction of a young Jewish boy by Pius IX, and the polemically anti-papal The Popes Against the Jews, Kertzer in this work concentrates on the pontificates of Pius IX (1846-78) and Leo XIII (1878-1903). He uses a wide array of sources, including abundant documentation from his research in the Vatican archives. His narrative is filled with telling anecdotes and colorful descriptions of the various characters involved in the struggle, including the leaders of Italian unification, the Italian monarchs, the anticlerical Italian politicians, foreign diplomats and both intransigent and accommodating cardinals and bishops - not all clerics supported the popes in their aims.
The pontificate of Pius IX is well known. Hailed as the liberal pope at his accession in 1846, he turned intransigent after the 1848 revolution in Rome forced him into exile, and he returned to Rome with a decades-long condemnation of what he termed the modern world. He lost the Papal States to the forces of Italian unification but was protected in Rome by the troops of French Emperor Napoleon III until those troops had to be pulled out to defend France against the Prussians in 1870, just after the First Vatican Council had proclaimed papal infallibility. Pius hoped that the European Catholics would pressure their governments to restore Rome to him. Roman anticlericals, free now from papal control, agitated against the Pope. Just as eagerly, papal supporters rallied to his defense, intensifying the continuing clerical/anticlerical conflict.
What is not as well known are the papal politics of Pius’s successor, Leo XIII. On this Kertzer’s narrative sheds new light. Appearing as a more progressive pontiff, Leo seemed at first to signal a change from Pius’s intransigent policies, but then he began to vacillate between Vatican die-hard opponents of any concessions to the Italian state and bishops who wanted compromise, so that their faithful, as well as themselves, could become Italian patriots. When he selected as his secretary of state the intransigent Mariano Rampolla, it was a sign that the die-hards had won. Rampolla and the nuncios then began to play the diplomatic game to win concessions. Their chief tactic was to threaten to have the pope go into exile as a means of pressuring foreign governments to back the restoration of the papal territories. Germany, France and Austria all feared that the Catholics in their domains would force their governments to war with Italy to prevent the ignominy of a papal exile. At the same time, each of the European powers saw the opportunity of taking advantage of an Italian state weakened by conflict over such a papal exile. But it was not a consistent game. The shifting fortunes of the various nations with one another, in the rivalry of international politics and of alliances, led the states to change policies from time to time. And the papal diplomats were not above considering conspiring with Italian republicans to overthrow the Savoy monarchy and establish an Italian federal republic, in which the papal lands could once again be restored.
With the death of Leo in 1903, the papal diplomatic initiative was pushed into the background as the new pope, Pius X, became more concerned with doctrinal matters, and his successors, Benedict XV and Pius XI, gave up the hope of a restoration of papal temporal power, finally acknowledging the loss of papal lands in the Lateran Pacts of 1929. The increasing growth of papal prestige after 1929 became proof that the Italian anticlericals were right: the papacy did not need its former territories to be independent; and if Rome is no longer under papal political control, it is, if nothing else, the cultural center of the Catholic, and hence, papal, world. José M. Sánchez
José M. Sánchez, a professor of history at St. Louis University, is the author of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust.
The Tampa Tribune, November 14th, 2004
Book Reveals Pope's Plot To Seize Rome From New Italian State.
By MARK F. LEWIS Special To The Tampa Tribune.
PRISONER OF THE VATICAN: The Pope's Secret Plot To Capture Rome From The New Italian State. By David I. Kertzer . Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages. $26.
For anyone viewing the current status of the Vatican being peacefully surrounded by Italy, it might be difficult to imagine that this situation was anything but harmonious from the latter half of the 19th century to more than 50 years later.
Using recently uncovered documents, David I. Kertzer, author of "The Popes Against The Jews," has written a fascinating history of the early days of Italian unification and the conflicts that arose between its secular government and the jurisdiction of the Holy See.
The historical time line begins in September, 1870, when Italian troops entered the city of Rome and took its secular control out of the hands of Pope Pius IX. The new government then took the highly charged ceremonial step of moving the capital there from Florence the next year. These events began a 59-year period during which no pope left the confines of the Vatican , a circumstance that gave rise to the book's title, an appellation that the pope used to gain sympathy for his plight.
Aware of the political and public relations nightmare that would ensue if the pope was removed from the city, King Victor Emmanuel II proposed a compromise, suggesting that Rome be split into two domains separated by the Tiber River.
This seemingly reasonable suggestion was rejected by the pope. Less than 10 years after publishing "Quanta Cura" and the "Syllabus of Errors," which established in print the infallibility of his rule and prevented Catholics from participating in the political process, the pope viewed this state of affairs as a "battle between God's forces and those of the Devil."
Instead of trying to work with the new secular leadership, he turned for support to Catholics in other European countries and their secular rulers. It was during this time that he also first considered the possibility of leaving Rome: "Nothing would more dramatically destabilize the new Italian State than the pope's living in exile, calling on the world's leaders to restore him to his rightful home."
The presence of two "sovereigns" living within a mile of each other in Rome caused many awkward diplomatic situations for foreign leaders who wanted to visit the city. The pope's continuous threats to leave Rome, which were carried forth by Pius' successor, Leo XIII, kept Europe on edge for many years.
Using the Vatican 's meticulous records, Kertzer shows the extent to which inquiries were made to foreign governments about both refuge for the pope and aid in his quest to be returned to power in Rome.
Ironically, it was Mussolini who ended the tension in February, 1929, and in July of that year, the pope was "freed" from the Vatican walls.
The book's subtitle may overstate the severity of the pope's plans, yet "Prisoner Of The Vatican" unearths a story that wasn't previously well- known: "The most basic fact of the creation of modern Italy - that its greatest foe was the pope himself - is one that cannot easily be mentioned."
Mark F. Lewis is a prosecutor at the Hillsborough state attorney's office.
Booklist, November 15th, 2004
Another illuminating papal chronicle from the author of The Popes against the Jews (2001). When the Papal States were conquered and Italy was first unified as a nation in 1861, the pope, and consequently the Roman Catholic Church, lost land, influence, and power. Basing his research on recently recovered Vatican documents, Kertzer recounts how both Pope Pius IX and his successor, Pope Leo XIII, colluded with other members of the clergy and with rival European powers in an unsuccessful effort to dismantle the new Italian State and seize Rome. Proclaiming himself a "prisoner of the Vatican" in 1870, Pius IX undertook what would become for himself and subsequent pontiffs a 59-year exile within the confines of the Vatican . Populated with a colorful cast of authentic historical figures, this fascinating slice of papal and Italian history will intrigue and enlighten both scholars and the merely curious.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved.
OnMilwaukee.com, December 3rd, 2004
By Bobby Tanzilo.
Know an Italophile or history buff? Either will love David Kertzer's new book, "Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes' Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State." Kertzer, a respected scholar, explains how the young Italy of the late 19th century was embroiled in a public and secret battle with the Vatican over the fate of Rome. Not dry history, "Prisoner of the Vatican" is a lively, page-turning read.
Providence Journal, December 12th, 2004
Papacy power play. Brown professor follows the decline of the Papal States in 19th-century Italy.
By Tony Lewis.
The story of Italy's unification in the late 19th century usually focuses on the romantic figure of Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose statue graces many a park up and down the peninsula. Less well-known is Victor Emmanuel, the new country's first king, who lies buried in the Pantheon in the very heart of Rome.
But what is hardy recognized at all, according to Brown social science Prof. David I. Kertzer, is the extent to which the Papacy worked to defeat Italy's unification movement, and the lengths to which the Vatican went to regain territory absorbed into the new country.
In Prisoner of the Vatican, Kertzer -- author of The Popes against the Jews (2001) and 1997 National Book Award finalist for The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara -- illuminates one of history's darker corners, and with a flair for the dramatic that turns this detailed work into a suspenseful and even captivating read.
Thanks to access to secret Vatican archives, Kertzer is able to provide something like a day-by-day account of the political and military maneuvering that led to the collapse of the Papal States -- a broad swath of central Italy under the pope's control for centuries -- and the surrender of Rome to the king's forces in 1870. Eschewing compromise and entirely tone deaf to the zeitgeist, Pope Pius IX saw the Church's dominions gradually contract around him until he could describe himself as "a prisoner of the Vatican."
There's little question that the pope miscalculated on several levels. Playing an all-or-nothing game, he rejected repeated offers from his reluctant enemy, Victor Emmanuel, and sought to enlist the support of foreign countries -- Catholic France and Austria, in particular -- against the fledgling Italian state. When these ploys failed, Pius and then his successor, Leo XIII, threatened to flee Italy and live in exile.
Kertzer's approach is both micro- and macroscopic. On the one hand, he presents his cast of characters in sweeping, even theatrical, detail, and yet dwells at length on the international ramifications of the Vatican's chess game, its belief that "nothing would more dramatically destabilize the new Italian state than the pope's living in exile, calling on the world's leaders to return him to his rightful home."
Throughout, there are illuminating and fascinating portraits, of the Jesuits, of the anticlerical Garibaldi, of Pius himself, the reactionary who insisted for the first time on papal infallibility. And of idiosyncratic events, like Pius' tumultuous funeral procession, which almost saw his coffin tossed into the Tiber, and the dedication of the statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome's Campo dei Fiori in 1889, where Bruno had been burned at the stake by the Inquisition hundreds of years earlier.
Aside from some superficial comments on modern Italy that appear as parting shots in the Epilogue, Prisoner of the Vatican combines meticulous scholarship with lively writing and brings welcome attention on a neglected corner of history.
Tony Lewis is a frequent reviewer in Dartmouth.
Newark Star-Ledger, December 12th, 2004
Speaking Volumes: The war against unity.
Modern Italy was unified in 1870 when the national government annexed Rome and the Papal States despite protests from Pope Pius IX. The new nation almost didn’t survive, as the pope struggled to get other European countries to invade Italy to restore the papal lands. For the following six decades, the popes portrayed themselves as captives of the Italian government, trapped in the confines of the Vatican.
In “Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes’ Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State” (Houghton Mifflin, $26), anthropologist and historian David I. Kertzer writes a gripping account of this almost-unknown story. The saga pits Pius IX against Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy, who was forced by Italian patriots like Giuseppe Garibaldi to take Rome, a city he didn’t want. With new Vatican documents, Kertzer draws a vivid picture of Pius IX as he tries to keep his temporal power, and explores the dramas and follies of Italian unification.
Kertzer, 56, was born in New York City and earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from Brandeis University. A professor of social sciences, anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, he is the author of “The Popes Against the Jews,” “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” and four earlier books. Kertzer is researching a book in Bologna, Italy, on Mussolini and the Vatican. He spoke to New York-based freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone.
What kind of characters were Pope Pius IX and Victor Emmanuel II?
They were both larger-than-life figures. Pius IX was probably the most important pope in modern history, a deeply religious figure who could be gregarious and affable, but who had a terrible temper and believed that he spoke God’s will. Pius believed that God ordained him to be both pope and king of the Papal States. He was pitted against Victor Emmanuel II, who was the Savoyard king. The king was very impolitic and fancied himself a great military leader, when he was really a disastrous one. Some say he was in the right place at the right time. Victor Emmanuel was afraid of the pope and did not want to be in Rome when the pope was there. The king was reluctant to take Rome, but was pressured by the Italian nationalists, who thought you couldn’t have Italy without Rome as its capital. Victor Emmanuel didn’t speak Italian that well. He spoke French and the Piedmontese dialect. He also never wanted southern Italy as part of his kingdom, but Garibaldi forced him to take it in. Garibaldi himself viewed the papacy as a cancer on humanity to be extirpated. This look at Italian unification is not a story that most people seem to know, even in the general outlines. I am always amazed at people’s reaction: “Gee, I didn’t know that Italy was formed in a pitched battle with the pope.”
What were the threats to Italian unification?
There was good reason to believe that Italy wouldn’t last. Many other European countries considered the likelihood that the country would disintegrate. At the same time, the popes were working overtime to undo Italian unification. That is something that is unknown today. The new Italian government had a great fear that the pope would flee Rome. They realized that this would be the greatest blow to their ability to continue, and that other countries would attack them to restore the pope to power. If some other country had been disposed to take the pope in, he would have left.
Pius IX, Leo XIII and the popes for the next six decades portrayed themselves as prisoners of the Vatican. Where they really prisoners?
For 59 years, the popes would not recognize the legitimacy of the Italian state. Part of it was the posture that they could not set foot on Italian soil, because it was the soil of the usurper. There was nobody keeping the pope in. The Italians said that he was free to leave. The government never took the position that they would keep the popes from leaving.
A lot of the newly available papal materials portray the 19th-century popes in an unflattering light. Why was the Vatican so open with its archives?
The Vatican deserves a lot of credit. To a considerable extent, they are very open about their history and are very serious about it. They keep meticulous records, even on things that in retrospect seem embarrassing. Not everybody at the Vatican is happy with what I’ve written with access to the Vatican archives, but those people in the positions with the most influence realize that it is important to be studying this history.
What does your training as an anthropologist bring to your studies of Italian history?
For one thing, anthropologists are really interested in understanding worldviews and getting in the skulls of the people they are working with, and not to cast judgments on them from their own ethnocentric perspectives. I think people in the (Roman Catholic) church will see that the church was treated with respect and that there was an attempt to see things from the church’s point of view. Pius behaved the way he did because it was what he believed in, and that it was God’s will.
Do you see any parallels between the 1878 College of Cardinals that elevated Pope Leo XIII during the unification crisis and the eventual election of a successor to the ailing Pope John II?
You really have to be a real Vaticanologist to follow the ins and outs of what is going on in the Vatican now. First of all, the difference is that back in the 1870s, the majority of cardinals were Italian. The Italians could determine everything. Today that is no longer the case.
There are some important similarities. Pope Pius IX was pope for 35 years, the longest of any pope in history. The current pope, John Paul II, has been pope for 25 years. The result in both cases is that almost all the cardinals appointing the successors were appointed by that pope. In that sense, the conclave to appoint a successor to John Paul will be similar to that of Pius. In 1878, there were 64 cardinals. There are now double that. John Paul has picked almost all the cardinals and has picked conservative cardinals.
From the book.
On Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of Italy:
Barrel-chested, sporting a handlebar mustache and a furry patch of beard on his chin and intimidating those around him with his bluster, Victor Emmanuel II came from a lineage that was related by marriage and descent to all of the kings and dukes in Italy he had overthrown. Uninhibited and often crude, eccentric, and disorganized, the monarch was not one for diplomatic niceties. He was used to saying what he meant – and in fact likely to voice whatever came into his head – much to the discomfort of his aides. He mixed a certain joviality with the haughtiness befitting a Savoyard king. Lazy and pig-headed, he had little sense of his own limits, which were considerable. Yet behind his much vaunted military bearing lurked a basic timidness and awkwardness, an inchoate recognition of his social inadequacy.
Boston.com, January 2nd, 2005
Church vs. state
By Andrew M. Greeley
Prisoner of the Vatican : The Popes’ Secret Plot to Capture Rome From the New Italian State . By David I. Kertzer . Houghton Mifflin, 357 pp., illustrated, $26.
On Sept. 20, 1870 , the pope ceased to be head of the Papal States . In fact the Papal States had disappeared. The army of the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel , had entered the Eternal City and in effect deposed the pope as the temporal ruler of Rome , wiping out a rule that in some fashion had lasted for 1,500 years. David I. Kertzer ’s “Prisoner of the Vatican ” is a narrative history of the events before the fall of Rome to the House of Savoy and the two decades thereafter. The story Kertzer tells is even-handed. It is propaganda neither for Pius IX nor Emmanuel . Author of “The Popes Against the Jews,” Kertzer might not seem to be disposed to be fair to the papacy. Nevertheless he has succeeded in writing a fair and fascinating book.
I was surprised by three elements in the story.
Many of the European leaders who might have come to the pope’s aid did not do so because they disapproved so strongly of the definition of papal infallibility. The precision that entered the document before it was voted on (in matters of faith and morals for the whole church and as head of the whole church) never seemed to catch up with the European elites.
The leaders of the new Italy were willing to give the pope all the land west of the Tiber , the so-called Leonine City , as his personal domain -- a Vatican City solution with a much larger slice of land. Pius IX turned them down. So he and his successors were “prisoners of the Vatican ” until the Lateran Treaty of 1929.
Finally the pope and his cardinals seemed to have been confident for many years that just as invaders were expelled at other times in history, this dubious Italian monarchy would be turned out too.
Most Catholic historians today would say that the loss of the temporal power over Italy was a blessing in disguise. Few Catholics would be eager to seek the return of the Papal States , Kertzer observes in conclusion: “Today there is no doubt in Rome who is the most powerful leader. One man alone…is seen as embodying society’s deepest aspirations, a man whose every act is the object of adulatory front-page coverage in the press, even of the left.”
The pope seemed to lose in 1870 and vicious anti-clericals like Garibaldi seemed to have won. Yet the papacy, by giving up power, however unwillingly, actually became more powerful. It is a puzzle the next pope should ponder when he considers whether to continue the authoritative centralism of the present style of papal governance.
There is a major problem with the book, however. Its subtitle is “The Popes’ Secret Plot to Capture Rome From the New Italian State.” The press release that accompanied my review copy emphasizes the “plot.” In the first 271 pages there is nary a word about the plot. Then the last chapter is entitled “The Pope’s Secret Plan.” However, I can’t find the words “a plot” anywhere in the chapter. Nor is any real plot described. Leo XIII , Pius IX ’s successor, did frequently discuss with his cardinals the possibility of going into exile and perhaps finding support for the restoration of temporal power from another country. These discussions were secrets to neither the Italian government nor to other European countries or anyone who read newspapers in Italy . Nothing ever came of these discussions. The pope stayed in Rome . Whether his conversations with the cardinals and his attempt to find support from other European countries (a lost cause) could be fairly called a plot is problematic at best. Even the author does not call it a plot in this brief chapter, which seems to be a last-minute addition to the book.
Some might suspect that the subtitle and the chapter are the result of a plot by the publisher to sex up the book with a little “papal conspiracy.” Perhaps books that beat up on the papacy sell better than those that don’t. If this is what happened it is a shame. Such a publisher’s plot would deface what otherwise is fair and balanced history.
Andrew M. Greeley, a priest, is on the staff of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and the Sociology Department at the University of Arizona. He is the author of “The Making of the Popes 1978” and a novel “White Smoke.”
The Seattle Times, January 9th, 2005
“Prisoner of the Vatican”: A pope’s last stand and the birth of the new Italy
By Robin Updike
When, on Sept. 20, 1870, Italian troops finally broke through Rome’s walls and claimed the city as part of the new Italian state, Pius proclaimed himself a “prisoner of the Vatican.” Denouncing the “usurper” state, he retreated into the Vatican complex and, spurning the government’s entreaties, refused to come out.
Since the mid-20th century, Italy and the Vatican have been inextricably linked. Tourists visit Vatican City, which at 100 acres is the world’s smallest sovereign state, while sightseeing in Rome. And the popular image of Italy today is of a Catholic country with a special and close bond to the pope, who has throughout most of the history of Christianity made his home on the left bank of the Tiber, the river that bisects Rome.
But in his riveting and fast-paced history, “Prisoner of the Vatican,” David I. Kertzer uses historical documents only recently released by the Vatican to tell the startling story of how late-19th-century popes plotted against the unification of Italy and its sovereignty. Such was the animosity between the pope and the fledgling Italian state, which began its rocky road to unification in 1859, that by the late 1880s Pope Leo XIII was actively enticing France, Germany and Austria to invade Italy and seize power from the fragile Italian monarchy and the state’s semi-independent, elected officials.
Kertzer, a Brown University professor of social science, anthropology and Italian studies, sets the tone of his extraordinary story with its first sentence: “Modern Italy, it could be said, was founded over the dead body of Pope Pius IX.” And in his epilogue, Kertzer, who has written other books on the intersection of religious and political history, notes that Sept. 20, 1870, the day the Vatican lost Rome to a secular government led by politicians and a king, “was the date the Middle Ages was finally laid to rest. Europe’s last theocratic government was ended.”
In between those bookends, Kertzer describes intrigue, spying, disinformation and public-relations campaigns worthy of any contemporary spy novel. There are scenes that today seem remarkable, such as when Victor Emmanuel II’s army of northern Italians and nationalists shot cannonballs through the walls of Rome to seize it from the Vatican. And Kertzer recounts official edicts from the pope forbidding Catholics to believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of religion. Indeed, the pope forbade Catholics to vote in elections, since that implied a separation of church and state. The pope officially did not allow Catholics to vote in state elections until 1919.
Until Victor Emmanuel II unified what is now modern Italy in 1870, Italy had been a patchwork of smaller sovereign states. Cutting like a great sword through the center of the Italian peninsula were The Papal States, a rich swath of land that swept from Rome north to Bologna. These lands were owned by the Catholic Church and ruled by the pope. It is no wonder that when secular revolutionaries such as Giuseppe Mazzini, the new nation’s political theorist, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the unification’s military hero, inspired the secular nationalism that caused the overthrow of The Papal States, the pope was greatly displeased. Pius IX was suddenly a monarch with very little territory. Losing Rome to Victor Emmanuel’s army was the final insult to his temporal authority.
A stubborn, proud man, Pius IX was blind to the changing political world around him. He refused to acknowledge the new Italian state or the fact that a large segment of the population was disillusioned with the Catholic Church. In a public-relations campaign rivaling any in history, Pius IX became a self-styled “prisoner of the Vatican,” essentially putting himself under house arrest within the walls of the Vatican for the rest of his life. Yet his campaign to portray himself the victim of the new Italian state did not succeed. During his funeral procession through the streets of Rome in 1881, hostile anti-clerical crowds nearly dumped his coffin in the river.
And to the dismay of Pius IX and his successor Leo XIII, even the politically aggressive Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Prussia, declined to make war against Italy in the late 19th century to save the honor of the Pope. The church did not make peace with the Italian government until 1929, when the Vatican agreed to recognize the legitimacy of Mussolini’s fascist government.
Kertzer is a vivid writer with a talent for bringing out dramatic details and a thorough historian, and this book is filled with footnotes for those who may challenge his often shocking facts. For most readers, this book will be a fascinating look at a segment of Italian history that apparently is still so discomfiting that Italian schoolbooks rarely mention it. And for all readers, Kertzer’s portrayal of the power struggle between religious and secular institutions will strike a disquieting chord in the context of today’s world.
RobinUpdike is a freelance arts writer and an Internet editor.