Napoleon & Italian Unification in Rome

The French Revolution is where modern history began. 

The Revolution started as a conflict for human rights against a bankrupt and dishonest monarchy. Still, soon the French revolutionaries began to rule by terror. 

Napoleon Bonaparte decided to introduce order by imposing military rule, which produced stability but did nothing for human rights. 

In 1796 the Italian states were crushed by France’s armies, and in 1797 the forces surrounded Rome. Napoleon already considered himself as the successor to the Roman conquerors of the past. 

But while they had brought their loot into Rome, Napoleon was to get his from Rome to Paris. Napoleon appropriated many of Rome’s most excellent ancient statues, including the Apollo Belvedere, the Capitoline Venus, and the Laocoön. Rome was declared a republic. The new regime confiscated Much of the Church’s property. The weak Pope left the city to die in exile. 

Napoleon would mirror the absolute power that Augustus had eighteen hundred years before. 

While in 800 it has been Charlemagne who had traveled to Rome to be crowned emperor by the Pope, now it was the new Pope who traveled to Paris to crown Napoleon. With triumphal arches and even a sewerage system said to be Roman in inspiration, Napoleon attempted to create a new Rome in Paris. 

His looted treasures filled the Louvre.  

Antonio Canova, an Italian sculptor and one of Neoclassicism’s greatest exponents, was forced to develop Napoleon’s large nude statue as a Classical hero (it is now in Apsley House in London). Napoleon formally occupied Rome in 1808 and imprisoned Pope Pius the following year. 

The French dominion achieved very little in Rome. Instead, the burden of heavy recruitment and taxation led the Pope to be welcomed back with much celebration in 1815, when Napoleon’s empire collapsed. 

The Pope delegated Canova to join the peace negotiations in Paris. With the support of the British Government, he secured the return of most of Rome’s treasures. Although some Church property was lost forever, the Papal States were restored to the papacy.

Canova & The Neoclassical Time

Baroque had been the art of the Old Regime. That of the divine-right monarchs, powerful clergy, and landed aristocracy. The French Revolution killed that regime and its art. The Neoclassical art was more in tune with the Enlightenment. It was modeled not on the aristocratic extravagance of Versailles or the Rococo excess, but the democratic simplicity of ancient Greece and Rome.

Archaeological discoveries had roused interest in the classical world. Pompeii, the Roman city buried by a volcano in CE 79, was rediscovered in 1748 and gave Europe its best look ever at Roman daily life, dress, customs, art, and architecture. Books on Roman and Greek life came into vogue. Artists studied ancient art, trying to capture the authentic Greek and Roman style. Ancient became modern, and classical was popular.

The Neoclassical Art became the official style of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. The French thought of themselves as citizens of a “New Rome” and wanted art to match. Baroque and Rococo palaces were stripped of their frescoes and velvety wallpaper. Straight forward arches, columns, and cool colors replaced the elaborate ornamentation. Funded by the spoils of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe, Paris was rebuilt and enhanced with gas lamps and new bridges. Throughout Europe, but especially in Paris, today’s tourists are fooled by classical-looking buildings (such as the Panthéon) that are Neoclassical and only 200 years old.

In America, the US Capitol and many state capitols are Neoclassical. Thomas Jefferson designed his residence, Monticello (of nickel-coin fame), in the Neoclassical style. “Enlightened” people everywhere rejected the elaborate ornamentation of Baroque in favor of austere arches and pure columns.

The Italian Risorgimento 

This was the movement for the Italian unification that culminated in establishing the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. The Risorgimento was an ideological and literary movement that helped to stimulate the Italian people’s national awareness, and it led to the freedom of the Italian states from foreign domination and united them politically.

After Napoleon invaded Italy and conquered its kings and dukes, many started to think. What if Italians could unite and judge themselves like Europe’s many other modern nations? Slowly grew a movement called the Risorgimento — “rising again.”

These liberal nationalists remembered revolutionary France’s ideals. They dreamed of overthrowing the papal autocracy and creating a united Italy. 

Giuseppe Verdi was a great supporter of Italian unification. The composer’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from the opera Nabucco, which is all about how they long to be free and a nation once again, became a nationalist anthem. The Austrians were wondered to see “Viva Verdi!” chalked up on the walls and thought that this act was just a sign that the Italians appreciated his opera. But in a time when using the Italian colors was still dangerous, the letters in Verdi’s name were used as a nationalistic slogan Victor Emmanuel Re (king) di Italia.

The unification started with a secret society called the Carbonari, led by the professional revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini. The Carbonari exchanged secret handshakes, printed flyers, planted bombs, and killed conservative leaders.

The papacy exploited the mood of relief after Napoleon’s excesses to align itself with France and Austria’s reactionary Catholic regimes. The Church stood firm, and outbreaks of disorder in the Papal States in 1831 were crushed when the new reactionary Pope, Gregory XVI (1831-46), called in Austrian troops to support him. However, Gregory’s successor, Pius IX, appeared more open to change, not least in his acceptance of gaslighting and railways. His apparent willingness to promote some form of unity among the Italian states stimulated great enthusiasm. It might be possible, much thought, for Italy to be brought together under his benevolent care.

It was not to be. In early 1848 revolutions spread throughout Italy, from Sicily and Naples in the south to Venice and Milan in the north. To the enormous disappointment of his supporters, Pius abandoned them. The reaction in Rome was such that he was forced to accept a constitutional government in the city. Still, even this was swept away in November, and Pius was forced to flee to Naples. 

In February 1849, his attempts to demand the submission of the rebels’ on pain of excommunication only led to a vote by an elected city assembly to bring the papal rule to an end and declare the Roman Republic. 

Then there arrived, at the head of an unkempt collection of guerrilla troops, Giuseppe Garibaldi, the charismatic revolutionary leaderwho had already been sentenced to death once for his part in an insurrection on behalf of Young Italy. 

He had spent his exile in South America, joining in local revolutions. His luck was to return to Italy in 1848, just when there was a cause adjusted to his talents.

By 1849, however, the revolutions spread throughout Europe were losing their power, and the forces of reaction were gathering strength. Pius IX found an ally in the new French President -later emperor- Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Louis Napoleon was enthusiastic to secure the French clergy’s support and present the restoration of Austrian influence in Italy. He saw his chance to do this by offering military help to Pius to regain his Kingdom. 

A French army was sent to Rome and arrived ready to attack the city in April. Frantic preparations were made in Rome’s defense. Garibaldi and his followers managed to resist some of the West’s French attacks from the Janiculum hill’s higher ground. The street of the Church of San Pietro in Montorio on the hill still seems haunted by the skirmishing which took place here. The city fell, however. 

French troops entered it on 3rd July 1849. Pius returned in 1850, but his survival depended on the French army, which remained in the city. 

The movement for Italian unity was now led by the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia, whose chief minister, Camillo Cavour, supervised removing Austrian control of northern Italy. 

In 1860, the fearless Carbonari general, Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), steamed toward Naples with a thousand of his best soldiers, the “red shirts.” Though hugely outnumbered, they marched on Naples, and the old Spanish-ruled Government folded. Garibaldi sent a one-word telegram to Victor Emmanuel: “Obbedisco” (“I obey”). An assembly of Italian statesmen crowned Victor Emmanuel II “King of Italy.” Only the Pope in Rome held out, protected by French troops. 

By 1861 the Papal States were lost to Italy’s new Kingdom and its monarch Vittorio Emanuele II. The Papal control of Rome, all that was left of its territories, remained uncertain. Pius’ instinct was to show no agreement for the forces of change. Only two months later, under pressure from the Franco-Prussian war, the French retired their army from Rome. Italian troops occupied the city. 

When the city finally fell to the unification forces on 20th September 1870, the Risorgimento was complete. Italy got excited.

The Risorgimento was mainly the work of four men: Garibaldi (the sword), Mazzini (the spark), Cavour (the diplomat), and Victor Emmanuel II (the rallying point). 

Remember the names of these Italian Washingtons and Jeffersons. Throughout Italy, you’ll find streets, squares, and monuments named after them: Via Cavour, Piazza Garibaldi, and the most famous monument, Rome’s giant, white Victor Emmanuel Monument.

Rome, The Profane Capital

Italian troops entered Rome near Michelangelo’s Porta Pia on the 20th September 1870. The Via Pia was renamed Via XX Settembre in memory of the event. Pius refused to recognize the regime that had taken his territory and never set foot outside the Vatican. Rome now needed to be transformed into a modern capital city. 

It is surprising when looking at old maps to see how underpopulated the area within the ancient Aurelian walls remained. In 1871, at 212.000, the population was only over a fifth of what it had been in Classical times. 

Rome was still a city with many shepherds with their herds, with virtually no industry of its own other than simple craftsmanship. It had to be transformed into a capital with ministries, law courts, and a palace for royalty: the Quirinal Palace was confiscated for them from the papacy. 

Émile Zola, in his Rome (1896), speaks of the blood of Augustus rushing to the brain of these last-comers’ (the Italian Government), urging them to a renewed desire to make Rome stately and grand. 

There was a mass of the new building in the western part of the city with luxurious new streets such as the Via Nazionale and the Via Cavour. Another new road, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, ran up through the Campus Martius district to meet a new bridge Ponte Vittorio Emanuele (1911), creating a completely new east-west axis. 

With the population rising fast, to 432,000 by 1891 and 660,000 by 1921, there was necessarily a great deal of speculation scope, primarily through the acquisition and conversion of former Church buildings.

Although the city’s archaeological core, from the Capitol to the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, was made into a preserved zone, the rest of Rome was not so lucky. 

The carving up of the gardens of the Villa Ludovisi, close to the present-day Via del Tritone, caused an international clamor. Large numbers of apartment blocks for the expanding civil service took their place. 

Meanwhile, the Government’s secular identity was affirmed through statues to Cola di Rienzo, by the Capitol; of Giordano Bruno, burned by the Church for heresy in 1600, in the Campo Dei Fiori where the execution took place; and perhaps most provocative of all – a Piazza del Risorgimento (the movement for Italian unity) alongside the walls of the Vatican (1921).

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