Capture of Rome

The Capture of Rome (Italian: Presa di Roma), on 20 September 1870 was the final event of the long process of Italian unification known as the Risorgimento,[1] marking both the final defeat of the Papal States under Pope Pius IX and the unification of the Italian peninsula under King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy.

Capture of Rome
Presa di Roma
Part of the wars of Italian Unification

The Breach of Porta Pia
Date20 September 1870

Italian victory

Rome and Latium annexed to the Kingdom of Italy
 Kingdom of Italy  Papal States
Commanders and leaders
Victor Emmanuel II
Raffaele Cadorna
Pius IX
Hermann Kanzler
50,000 13,157
Casualties and losses
49 killed 19 killed
This article is part of a series on
Vatican City

The capture of Rome ended the approximate 1,116-year reign (AD 754 to 1870) of the Papal States under the Holy See and is today widely memorialized throughout Italy with the Via XX Settembre street name in virtually every town of any size.


Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour[2] died soon after the proclamation of her unity, leaving to his successors the solution of the knotty Venetian and Roman problems. The Austrians were still in Venetia and the pope was still in Rome. Cavour had firmly believed that without Rome as the capital, Italy's unification would be incomplete; for the historic position of the Eternal City, with its immortal memories, was such that Italians could not allow another power to possess it.[3] "To go to Rome", said his successor, Ricasoli, "is not merely a right; it is an inexorable necessity." In regard to the future relations between church and state, Cavour's famous dictum was, "A free Church in a free State"; by which he meant that the former should be entirely free to exercise her spiritual powers and leave politics entirely to the latter.[3]

Second Italian War of Independence

During the Second Italian War of Independence, much of the Papal States had been conquered by the Piedmontese Army, and the new unified Kingdom of Italy was created in March 1861, when the first Italian Parliament met in Turin. On 27 March 1861, the Parliament declared Rome the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. However, the Italian government could not take its seat in Rome because it did not control the territory. In addition, a French garrison was maintained in the city by Emperor Napoleon III in support of Pope Pius IX, who was determined not to hand over temporal power in the States of the Church.

In July 1870, at the very last moment of the Church's rule over Rome, the First Vatican Council was held in the city affirming the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Franco-Prussian War

In July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War began. In early August, Napoleon III recalled his garrison from Rome. The French not only needed the troops to defend their homeland, but there was also real concern in Paris that Italy might use the French presence in Rome as a pretext to go to war with France. In the earlier Austro-Prussian War, Italy had allied with Prussia and Italian public opinion favoured the Prussian side at the start of the war. The removal of the French garrison eased tensions between Italy and France. Italy remained neutral in the Franco-Prussian War.

With the French garrison gone, widespread public demonstrations demanded that the Italian government take Rome. But Rome remained under French protection on paper, therefore an attack would still have been regarded as an act of war against the French Empire. Furthermore, although Prussia was at war with France, it had gone to war in an uneasy alliance with the Catholic South German states that it had fought against (alongside Italy) just four years earlier. Although Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck was no friend of the papacy, he knew any war that put Prussia and the Holy See in opposing alliances would almost certainly have upset the delicate pan-German coalition, and with it his own carefully laid-out plans for national unification. For both Prussia and Italy, any misstep that caused the breakup of the pan-German coalition brought with it the risk of Austro-Hungarian intervention in a wider European conflict.

Above all else, Bismarck made every diplomatic effort to keep Prussia's conflicts of the 1860s and 1870s localized and prevent them from spiraling out of control into a general European war. Therefore, not only was Prussia unable to offer any sort of alliance with Italy against France, but actually had to make diplomatic efforts to maintain Italian neutrality and keep the peace on the Italian peninsula, at least until the potential of a conflict there becoming intertwined with her own war with France had passed. Moreover, the French Army was still regarded as the strongest in Europe - and until events elsewhere took their course, the Italians were unwilling to provoke Napoleon.

It was only after the surrender of Napoleon and his army at the Battle of Sedan the situation changed radically. The French Emperor was deposed and forced into exile. The best French units had been captured by the Germans, who quickly followed up their success at Sedan by marching on Paris. Faced with a pressing need to defend its capital with its remaining forces, the new French government was clearly not in a military position to retaliate against Italy. In any event, the new government was far less sympathetic to the Holy See and did not possess the political will to protect the Pope's position.

Finally, with the French government on a more democratic footing and the seemingly harsh German peace terms becoming public knowledge, Italian public opinion shifted sharply away from the German side in favour of France. With that development, the prospect of a conflict on the Italian peninsula provoking foreign intervention all but vanished.

Peaceful overture to Pius IX

King Victor Emmanuel II sent Count Gustavo Ponza di San Martino to Pius IX with a personal letter offering a face-saving proposal that would have allowed the peaceful entry of the Italian Army into Rome, under the guise of protecting the pope. Along with the letter, the count carried a document that Lanza had prepared, setting out ten articles to serve as the basis for an agreement between Italy and the Holy See.

The Pope would retain the inviolability and prerogatives attaching to him as a sovereign. The Leonine City would remain "under the full jurisdiction and sovereignty of the Pontiff". The Italian state would guarantee the pope's freedom to communicate with the Catholic world, as well as diplomatic immunity both for the nuncios and envoys in foreign lands and for the foreign diplomats at the Holy See. The government would supply a permanent annual fund for the pope and the cardinals, equal to the amount currently assigned to them by the budget of the pontifical state, and would assume all papal civil servants and soldiers onto the state payroll, with full pensions as long as they were Italian.[4]

According to Raffaele De Cesare:

The Pope’s reception of San Martino [10 September 1870] was unfriendly. Pius IX allowed violent outbursts to escape him. Throwing the King’s letter upon the table he exclaimed, "Fine loyalty! You are all a set of vipers, of whited sepulchres, and wanting in faith." He was perhaps alluding to other letters received from the King. After, growing calmer, he exclaimed: "I am no prophet, nor son of a prophet,[5] but I tell you, you will never enter Rome!" San Martino was so mortified that he left the next day.[6]

Pius IX flees Rome

Several times during his pontificate, Pius IX considered leaving Rome. Early in his papacy, secretive citizen organizations sprung up across Rome (such as the "Circolo Romano" under the direction of Ciceruacchio) and advocated for the establishment of a popularly elected constitutional Italian government, the entire removal of the ministry from positions of temporal governmental authority, and for the immediate declaration of war against Austria for maintaining its foreign military occupation force in Italy.

On February 8, 1848, large, organized street riots against the temporal rule by the Papal States began, and by March 14, 1848, Pius IX found himself obliged to acknowledge an independent Italian constitution, but in his later allocution of April 29, Pius IX solemnly proclaimed that, as the "Father of Christendom", he could never advocate for an Italian military campaign against the Austrian occupation of Italy.

As the frequency of popular protests against the Papal States increased across the Italian peninsula, and Pius IX was forcefully denounced as a traitor to Italy, his prime minister Pellegrino Rossi was stabbed to death while ascending the steps of the Palazzo della Cancelleria. On the following day, the pope himself was besieged by a large crowd of outraged protesters assembling at the Quirinal Palace. Palma, a papal prelate, who was standing at a window, was shot, and Pius IX then decided to flee Rome and concede his temporal rule to an Italian constitutional republic.

With the assistance of Bavarian ambassador Count Spaur and French ambassador Duc d'Harcourt, Pope Pius IX escaped from the Quirinal Palace on November 24, 1848 in disguise (differing accounts had Pius IX dressed as a simple priest wearing tinted eyeglasses, a carriage footman, or as a woman) and hastily fled to Gaeta where he was joined by many of the cardinals. On February 9, 1849, democratic revolutionaries of the new Italian republic seized Rome and abolished the temporal power of the papacy. Pope Pius IX later appealed to the Catholic leaders of France, Austria, Spain, and Naples to restore the Papal States and on June 29, 1849, French troops under General Charles Oudinot restored the Papal States. On 12 April 1850, Pius IX returned to Rome, no longer a political liberal supporting constitutional republics.

A later occurrence was in 1862, when Giuseppe Garibaldi was in Sicily gathering volunteers for a campaign to take Rome under the slogan Roma o Morte (Rome or Death). On 26 July 1862, before Garibaldi and his volunteers were stopped by Royal Italian Army on The Day of Aspromont:

Pius IX confided his fears to Lord Odo Russell, the British Minister in Rome, and asked whether he would be granted political asylum in England after the Italian troops had marched in. Odo Russell assured him that he would be granted asylum if the need arose, but said that he was sure that the Pope's fears were unfounded.[7]

Two other instances occurred after the Capture of Rome and the suspension of the First Vatican Council. These were confided by Otto von Bismarck to Moritz Busch:

As a matter of fact, he [Pius IX] has already asked whether we could grant him asylum. I have no objection to it—Cologne or Fulda. It would be passing strange, but after all not so inexplicable, and it would be very useful to us to be recognised by Catholics as what we really are, that is to say, the sole power now existing that is capable of protecting the head of their Church. [...] But the King [William I] will not consent. He is terribly afraid. He thinks all Prussia would be perverted and he himself would be obliged to become a Catholic. I told him, however, that if the Pope begged for asylum he could not refuse it. He would have to grant it as ruler of ten million Catholic subjects who would desire to see the head of their Church protected.[8]

Rumours have already been circulated on various occasions to the effect that the Pope intends to leave Rome. According to the latest of these the Council, which was adjourned in the summer, will be reopened at another place, some persons mentioning Malta and others Trient. [... ] Doubtless the main object of this gathering will be to elicit from the assembled fathers a strong declaration in favour of the necessity of the Temporal Power. Obviously a secondary object of this Parliament of Bishops, convoked away from Rome, would be to demonstrate to Europe that the Vatican does not enjoy the necessary liberty, although the Act of Guarantee proves that the Italian Government, in its desire for reconciliation and its readiness to meet the wishes of the Curia, has actually done everything that lies in its power.[9]

Rome captured by Raffaele Cadorna

The Italian army, commanded by General Raffaele Cadorna, crossed the papal frontier on 11 September and advanced toward Rome, moving slowly in the hope that a peaceful entry could be negotiated. The Papal garrisons had retreated from Orvieto, Viterbo, Alatri, Frosinone and other strongholds in Lazio, Pius IX himself being convinced of the inevitability of a surrender.[10] When the Italian Army approached the Aurelian Walls that defended the city, the papal force was commanded by General Hermann Kanzler, and was composed of the Swiss Guards and a few "zouaves"volunteers from France, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, and other countriesfor a total of 13,157 men against some 50,000 Italians.[11]

The Italian army reached the Aurelian Walls on 19 September and placed Rome under a state of siege. Pius IX decided that the surrender of the city would be granted only after his troops had put up enough resistance to make it plain that the take-over was not freely accepted. On 20 September, after a cannonade of three hours had breached the Aurelian Walls at Porta Pia (Breccia di Porta Pia), the crack Piedmontese infantry corps of Bersaglieri entered Rome. In the event 49 Italian soldiers and 19 Papal Zouaves died. Rome and the region of Lazio were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy after a plebiscite on 2 October.

The Leonine City, excluding the Vatican, seat of the Pope, was occupied by Italian soldiers on 21 September. The Italian government had intended to let the Pope keep the Leonine City, but the Pope would not agree to give up his claims to a broader territory and claimed that since his army had been disbanded, apart from a few guards, he was unable to ensure public order even in such a small territory.[12]

The Via Pia, the road departing from Porta Pia, was rechristened Via XX Settembre (September 20). Subsequently, in numerous Italian cities the name Venti Settembre was given to the main road leading to the local cathedral.

Writer Edmondo De Amicis took part in the capture of Rome as an officer in the Italian army.

"Roman Question": Mussolini's Lateran Pacts

During the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century, the Papal States resisted incorporation into the new nation, even as all the other Italian countries, except for San Marino, joined it; Camillo Cavour's dream of proclaiming the Kingdom of Italy from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica did not come to pass. The nascent Kingdom of Italy invaded and occupied Romagna (the eastern portion of the Papal States) in 1860, leaving only Latium in the Pope's domains. Latium, including Rome itself, was annexed during the capture of Rome. For nearly sixty years, relations between the Papacy and the Italian government were hostile, and the status of the Pope became known as the "Roman Question".

Negotiations for the settlement of the Roman Question began in 1926 between the government of Italy and the Holy See, and culminated in the agreements of the Lateran Pacts, signed—the Treaty says—for King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy by Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister and Head of Government, and for Pope Pius XI by Pietro Gasparri, Cardinal Secretary of State, on February 11, 1929. The agreements were signed in the Lateran Palace, from which they take their name. They culminated in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, where the Holy See renounced its claims over most of the city of Rome in return for Italy's recognition of the Vatican State.

On 20 September 2000, an item in the Catholic publication Avvenire stated:

che nel 1970, proprio il 20 settembre, Paolo VI inviò a Porta Pia il cardinale vicario, Angelo Dell'Acqua, a celebrare il significato "provvidenziale" di quella perdita del potere temporale. Da allora, almeno da allora, è anche festa cattolica, Porta Pia!

transl.: that in 1970, precisely on 20 September 1970, Pope Paul VI sent Cardinal Angelo Dell'Acqua, his vicar for Rome, to Porta Pia to celebrate the "providential" significance of the loss of the temporal power. Since then, at least since then, Porta Pia has also been a Catholic celebration!

See also


  1. See Timeline of Italian unification.
  2. Schapiro, J. Salwyn, Ph.D., Modern and Contemporary European History (1815-1921) (Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1921, Revised Edition), p. 208
  3. Schapiro, J. Salwyn, Ph.D., Modern and Contemporary European History (1815-1921) (Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1921, Revised Edition), p. 218
  4. David I. Kertzer. Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes' Secret Plot To Capture Rome From The New Italian State. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006. p. 45.
  5. These words are derived from the Biblical Book of Amos 7:14 where the Prophet defies the emmissary of the King of Israel s:Bible, King James, Amos#Chapter 7
  6. De Cesare, 1909, p. 444.
  7. Jasper Ridley, "Garibaldi", Viking Press, New York (1976) p. 535
  8. Moritz Busch Bismarck: Some secret pages of his history, Vol. I, Macmillan (1898) p. 220, entry for 8 November 1870
  9. Moritz Busch Bismarck: Some secret pages of his history, Vol. II, Macmillan (1898) pp. 43–44, entry for 3 March 1872
  10. Rendina, Enciclopedia di Roma, p. 985
  11. De Cesare, 1909, p. 443
  12. For the Vatican during the Savoyard Era 1870–1929, see also "prisoner in the Vatican" and the Roman Question.


  • De Cesare, Raffaele. (1909).The Last Days of Papal Rome. London: Archibald Constable & Co.
  • Rendina, Claudio (2000). Enciclopedia di Roma. Rome: Newton Compton.
  • Schapiro, J. Salwyn, Ph.D., Modern and Contemporary European History (1815-1921) (Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1921, Revised Edition)

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