December 25, 2004
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 Pius struggled to persuade other European countries to invade Italy and restore the papal lands. For the next six decades, popes portrayed themselves as captives of the Italian government, trapped in the confines of the Vatican.
In his book, "Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes' Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State" (Houghton Mifflin), anthropologist and historian David I. Kertzer offers a gripping account of this little-known story.
The saga pits Pius IX against Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy, who was forced by Italian patriots to take Rome, a city the king didn't want. In a recent interview, Kertzer, 56, a professor at Brown University, talked about the 19th-century drama of Italian unification.
Q. What kind of characters were Pope Pius IX and Victor Emmanuel II?
A. 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 [Italian patriot Giuseppe] 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.
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.
Q. Pius IX, Leo XIII and the popes for the next six decades portrayed themselves as prisoners of the Vatican. Were 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.
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.
Q. 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.
Q. 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 Pope John Paul II?
A. You 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 26 years. The result in both cases is that almost all the cardinals appointing the successors were appointed by that pope.