Wednesday, July 27, 2011

150 Years Of Italy

It's formal name is the Altar of the Nation, completed in 1905 to celebrate King Victor Emmanuel of Savoy, King of Turin and Sardinia's unification of Italy. It's known locally as the "typewriter" or "wedding cake" or more formally the Vittoriano and when it was built it was the object of much scandal as it covered up portions of the Roman Forum which is still not properly excavated to this day between the Vittoriano and the Colosseum.

I am quite fond of the wedding cake though I must confess until my wife expressed a desire I had never climbed to the top, whence I discovered the views are quite tremendous.

When my wife was briefly unwell during our recent visit to Rome I took advantage of her bed ridden state to take the scooter to the Vittoriano to check out a museum dedicated to my favorite period of history, the Risorgimento. Unlike the Renaissance, the Risorgimento celebrates the unification of the Italian peninsula bringing together the Italian speaking peoples for the first time since the Roman Empire collapsed 1400 years previously. The figure most usually associated with the Risorgimento is Giuseppe Garibaldi, born in Nice (Nizza) then an Italian city, subsequently ceded to France in exchange for non interference in the unification process as Turin went to war with the several Italian states in 1861.

Ironically Garibaldi lost his home to the cause to which he devoted his entire life. He nearly lost his life at the Battle of Aspromonte when Italian troops of all people, opened fire on him and wounded him as he attempted to speed up the conclusion of reunification by attacking Rome, the last hold out in the unification process. 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the first steps to unification and Italy has been celebrating wildly. Fireworks and displays all over the place with uncharacteristic displays of the national colors including the Prefecture (the federal building) in Terni.

The Museum of the Risorgimento in the Vittoriano has more than two dozen rooms devoted to the subject of Italian unification. I was in heaven as I got to see and come close to touching the artifacts I had read about so long ago.

Giuseppe Mazzini, the "other Giuseppe" after whom streets and piazzas are named all over Italy was the devil incarnate in the 19th century. He never veered from his vision of Italy as a democratic republic and when the King of Turin thrust aside his friend Garibaldi and anointed himself King of Italy Mazzini remained steadfastly opposed to unification as a royal accomplishment. He spent most of his life in exile and died in Italy under an assumed name, still in hiding as the ultimate revolutionary.

Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour was the man who made unification possible. His death mask was made in 1861, as he died a few months after the new Italian state was created. He was the King of Turin and Sardinia's Prime Minister and was the architect of the French treaties and concessions that made the drive to unify possible. His name is posted on streets everywhere as well, though these republican days they tend to drop his title of count.

Their arch enemy was Pope Pius the Ninth, elected Pope just before the European-wide uprisings against monarchies and Empires of 1848. Pius IX was a reformer and a supporter of unification originally but after Mazzini and Garibaldi forced him into exile in the Kingdom of Naples and created their all too brief Roman Republic he turned hard core, reinstated the death penalty and had his spies and Swiss mercenaries hunt down the rebels and hang them.

The opera Tosca is set in this period and the evils of the Papal police state are nicely summed up in the character of the police chief Scarpia. On a slightly less melodramatic note the museum displayed the complex handcuffs used by Papal Gendarmes.

ThIs sign was posted in the Papal jail for the condemned to read:

"In the venerable church of San Nicolo in Arcione to serve the needs of souls seeking purgatory the Holy Sacrament will be displayed for those condemned to death today from 20:00 hours to midnight and tomorrow morning until the sentences have been carried out. Those who visit the church will gain a plenary indulgence." A decidedly peculiar interpretation of the fifth comandment!

The Italians were coming though. They took the duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany in short order but the French ordered the new Italian army not to invade Rome. Garibaldi and his thousand Red Shirts came north from their landing in Sicily and Kingdom of Naples went into the history books with it's Spanish Bourbon King whose turn it was for exile. Only the Pope held out in Rome defended by his Swiss mercenaries and the French Army.

Rome was Pius's curse. SPQR-Senatus PopulusQue Romanum- "The Senate and People of Rome" a phrase still used on the Eternal City's shield.The new Italian state moved it's capital to Florence in 1865, but it was explicitly a temporary move.Everyone knew Rome was going to be the new state's capital and Garibaldi's impatience notwithstanding everyone knew it was only a matter of time. Even Pius seemed to understand that. Had he been in any other city they might have left him alone as he carried a lot of moral authority and no one wanted the nascent state to start out by declaring war on the Holy Father. So he sat in Rome surrounded by the remains of the Papal States (more or less the modern region of Lazio) where he tried to figure what to do next. Also in 1865 he abolished the Papal currency, the Scudo (worth the unimaginably large sum of 5,400 Italian Lire) and the Baiocco and the Soldo both fractions of a Scudo and replaced them with his own Lire on par with the Italian currency, under the guise of streamlining the old complex currency and going decimal.

In the Vatican stamp collection there is on display a set of the last set of stamps designed for the Papal States, in late1869. They were never printed as an explanatory note on the display points out rather plaintively, owing to the "noted events of September 1870" as though The End is still too painful to say out loud. The end was indeed drawing near and it was precipitated by the Franco-Prussian War when the newly unified German states flexed their muscles and pasted the French laying siege to Paris. Napoleon III hastily recalled his troops and the Italians moved in. The Swiss fought hard in their prim white uniforms but the Italians soon surrounded the city. Pius refused to sue for peace and the Italians finally forced a breach at Porta Pia.

On September 20th 1870 Pius IX ordered a white flag flown from the dome of St Peter's and Italy had it's historic capital at last. Milan and Venice were reunited with the Italian state but Trento remained part of the Austro -Hungarian Empire until the end of World War One. That was when Italy snagged Bolzano and South Tirol on the grounds they were on the winning side and the mountains made a natural frontier and thus the German speaking province has been Italian ever since. Mussolini absorbed parts Yugoslavia into Italy and when he declared war in 1940 took back Garibaldi's home town of Nice and made it Italian again for three years. Modern Italy's boundaries were finalized in 1954 whenYugoslavia's claims to Trieste were rejected and Italy finally lost its toe hold on the Venetian cities on the Dalmatian coast.

The Vittoriano was completed and the unknown soldier was laid to rest there in 1905, in the film clip I photographed above.

The Popes who never left the Vatican after the defeat of 1870 finally signed the Lateran Pacts in 1929 giving Mussolini's government the international legitimacy he craved, also giving reparations to the pope for his lost territories while recognizing the independent state of the Vatican City. In retune Italy made Catholicism the official state religion and taught catechism in the schools.

A deal that I'm sure has Mazzini spinning in his grave. He got the last laugh though, when in a plebiscite after World War Two when Italians rejected the the House of Savoia by the slimmest of margins and voted in a democratic Republic.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Chuck and the Pheebs said...

Good stuff, man.

We tend to look at history through the lens of our own experience, and since Americans purportedly separate church and state - we miss the politics which helped form Italy a few generations ago.

We see the Vatican as an uber-church, not as a state.

Thanks for sharing.

case lemn said...

I was there two years ago and i was impressed. Unfortunately i had no time to visit it very well because i was there for only two days, but i hope to visit it again very soon. I recommend this place, it is very nice.