1849 in Rome

Soldati della Repubblica romana che giocano a carte nel chiostro del convento di San Silvestro, acquerello e tempera, [1849] (Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea, Roma)

After centuries of passive inaction, the year 1849 marked the time when Rome’s people began to question the role of the papacy and the clergy in the political life of the city. Although the rebellion was triggered by political circles in the north of the papal state, it was reinforced in Rome by the creation of the Roman Constituent Assembly, following a popular election on January 21st 1849. In addition, the work of an underground network of political activists, who took advantage of the early concessions granted by Pope Pius IX, had a tremendous social impact.

When the Roman Republic was proclaimed, and both the pope and the aristocracy hastily fled Rome, the government reforms were increasingly accepted by the people. By the time the French troops approached Janiculum Hill, the population of Rome had fully embraced the new republic.

The people living in the neighborhoods under siege responded to the French attacks with genuine composure, a resilient spirit of acceptance undeterred by the scarcity and rising prices of goods and the stable rate of petty crimes. It is particularly significant that the French were disappointed by the Romans’ support for the newly formed Republic rather than the Pope.

On July 3rd 1849 the crowd had gathered under Capitol Hill to listen as the text of the Constitution, which had been approved only three days earlier, was read. The people’s consensual silence at the final acclamation of the Republic demonstrated that five months of governance, the sheer number of dead in its name, and the dignity of the institutions and its leaders, established the strongest connection between the people and its political representatives.


Proclamazione della Repubblica romana, litografia colorata a mano di Pietro Barabino, in “Storia della rivoluzione romana per Biagio Miraglia da Strongoli”, Genova, 1850 (Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea, Roma)


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On January 10, 1849 the Theater Argentina in Rome performed Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth. The composer attended the event. He was in Rome to prepare the premiere of The Battle of Legnano, his latest opera, which opened on January 27 in the same theater.

Reading this news announcement, one can imagine a vibrant city with the opera season in full swing, highly anticipated by a sophisticated international public, eager to gauge the success of the celebrity composer.

Arguably, it was Verdi’s opera, filled with patriotic sentiment to further contribute to a climate of uncertainty, that was shaped by recent events in November (the assassination of Pellegrino Rossi and Pope Pius IX’s quick departure from Rome) and an unclear direction towards the future.

The elections of January 21 were imminent; for the first time the elections were free and every man could vote. Finally it was possible to convene in associations and to establish an independent press. Through the activism of the republicans who had come from north Italy to Rome, for the first time it was possible to steer the political debates and elections towards democracy. This was happening in a city accustomed for centuries – except for a feeble attempt in the late 18th century – to year-round routines marked by religious ceremonies, festivals, and visits of monarchs. Occasionally there was discontent among the people, but this was suppressed by traditions of strong national pride combined with some degree of indolence.

Between November and December major changes were visible: high-ranking dignitaries of the Church and all its diplomats had abandoned the city and followed the pope to Gaeta; the clergy kept warily at a distance; the aristocracy, mindful of what resembled communism (this is how it was defined by Michelangelo Caetani, one of them) turned inward; the small middle class was torn between quiet inaction and the temptation to embrace radical politics; and the military were on guard. And the populace? Ciceruacchio, who between 1946-1948 had managed to recruit large crowds in support of the pope’s reforms, lost to exile his favorite interlocutor, the pope, and had no choice but to give in to more sophisticated political minds such as Sterbini, the prince of Canino, and Mamiani, who had the necessary tools to carry out the plan of secularization and modernization of Roman society and infrastructure. The goal was to limit the power of the pope to the spiritual sphere, and to prevent, once and for, all the highly discredited clergy from holding any position of political secular power.

Therefore, while the year 1949 began in a political vacuum, it was soon filled by representatives of the people elected on January 21 by popular vote and through an assembly who convened on February 5.

The limits of the pope’s reform plan became clear at this point: if under the liberal pope the reform was successful in politicizing the masses, in 1849 it had to give way to the theorists of the republican unification who had been elected mainly in the northern part of the state.

As the city prepared for the great shift of 1849, which was marked by the proclamation of the Republic on 9 February 1849, the previous plan of liberalization was losing ground. Nor could the pope’s reforms expect to be adequate to face the political challenges ahead: to define and establish the new republican institutions and to manage the complex relations with Catholic political powers who wanted to restore the pope’s throne.

In fact, on this specific point, the newly appointed Assembly, while in the process of forming a new government and drafting the new constitution, made the determination to invest with executive power a triumvirate and appointed – through a supplementary council – Giuseppe Mazzini. As a result, on March 6th Mazzini, emerged as the new leader and headed to Rome.

Mazzini was the unwavering leading visionary of Italian unification. By promoting a unified Italy, he also wanted to assert the idea of a new Europe, freed from the tyranny of the great empires, reorganized by the will of the nations, and inspired by the principle of brotherhood among countries.

As utopian as Mazzini’s views sounded at the time, they had already begun to spread as early as 1831 through his movement called Giovine Italia (Young Italy). In 1849 newspapers, and writers such as De Boni, Mameli, and Dall’Ongaro, disseminated Mazzini’s vision with their full endorsement.

In Mazzini’s global plan, Rome was an entity larger than the city. In his view, Rome was a universal destination shared by all patriotic spirits.

Possibly he wanted to see Rome represent – on a secular level – what it had represented for centuries on a spiritual level: a center where a civil religion which – like Christianity in the previous centuries – could spread the gospel of liberation for all mankind.

It is fair to wonder how much of this message could reach the Roman population. Probably not too much. Yet, this does not mean that the Romans (as well as the foreigners living in Rome and those constantly moving to the city) could not sense, at least to some degree, the part they were expected to play. The fact that they had been consulted in the election of their representatives, was rewarding for them and made them feel like relevant players in the process of political renewal of the city.

Alas, with the French military preparing to attack the newly formed republic, Mazzini’s educational mission was soon forced to switch to a military defense campaign. Rome had been attacked by the French also in 1799, and direct witnesses reported that those mindful of this event and the French occupation that followed felt galvanized by the new defense.

At the same time, the victory of Garibaldi and his troops on April 30 undoubtedly inspired the people, if not to mobilize large crowds, at least to provide moral support for the defense of the newly created institutions. In fact, the French had underestimated the Romans, mistakenly expecting that they would embrace the French against those who had imposed on them a new political order.

The siege of Rome by the French caused substantial food shortages and consequently a higher cost of living in the city. In addition, the urban economy, highly dependent on the presence of the pope and his court, experienced a dramatic drop of income due to a declining tourism business, even more so after April 30. Yet, none of these aggravations persuaded the Romans to switch side.

In fact, on June 3rd, when the bombing began and Mazzini’s hope of forming the republic vanished, it was mostly the people of Trastevere who upheld the resistance and fought by the city walls in defense not only of the new political system but also their own houses and lives. The Trastevere neighborhood, located at the foothill of Mount Janiculum, was the most exposed and vulnerable area in the whole city to the cannonballs of the French troops. The reporters of the time, especially Roncalli, dutifully logged the high number of human lives the Roman population lost to the escalating French fire in this neighborhood.

Yet, we learn from these same reporters, as well as from direct witnesses, how the seriously aggravating circumstances imposed by the war did not affect the population’s attitudes and habits, other than by making them less cheerful.

In fact, after celebrating the carnival and observing Easter, genuinely honoring their religious traditions, the Romans did not give up strolling on the Via del Corso, attending theatrical shows, dining and drinking in taverns.

Even on June 29, a day before the final collapse of the Republic, the patron saint day was celebrated with thousands of candles lit on the dome of the Basilica of Saint Peter: against the backdrop of the black night sky enlivened by lightning, it was an extraordinary sight, according to the sources.

Going about in their daily lives, as if nothing had happened, is the least we could expect in a city that was not famous for being heroic. Nevertheless, this was a population that for over two thousand years stood resilient in the face of adversity, always retaining its dignity and drive to be true to itself.

Once the conflict was over and social order was forcefully reinstated in Rome and throughout the Papal State, it took almost a year for Pius IX to re-establish the throne that the French military secured for him. And it took him even longer to regain the obedience of his subjects, if not their trust and respect.

As the French troops left Rome, along with the fading hope to keep the Constitution that the Pope had granted in 1848, arrests, trials, political persecutions and exiles followed; the Romans, at least the most resolute ones, released their anger by carrying out stabbing attacks on the occasional French soldier encountered on the street, or by ambushing police chiefs.

Gradually, and through countless adverse conditions, the conspiracy reorganized, but without ever obtaining great results. The movement for renewal could never achieve the vibrant spirit of 1849, which had been crushed together with the constitutional charter that had become the best manifestation of its revolutionary spirit.

 (Giuseppe Monsagrati)