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  • The Capture of Rome, September 20 1870

    Beatriz Camino

    The Capture of Rome, September 20 1870

    The Capture of Rome, also known as the Presa di Roma, put an end to the process of the Italian unification, the Risorgimento. This event led to the defeat of the Papal States and the unification of the Italian Peninsula (with the exception of San Marino) under King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy. It also led to the establishment of Rome as the capital of Italy.


    Back in the Second Italian War of Independence (1859), King Victor Emmanuel II conquered most of the Papal States and later proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy on 17 March 1861. However, this new kingdom did not include the region of Rome, which was still part of the Papal States, and Venetia, which was ruled by Austria.

    A few days after the proclamation of the new state, on March 27, the new Italian Parliament declared Rome the capital of Italy even though it had no control over the city. In fact, at that moment Emperor Napoleon III maintained a French garrison in the city to support Pope Pius IX, who had no intention of handing over power in the Papal States.

    When the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, Napoleon was forced to recall his garrison from the city in order to defend France. Moreover, he was concerned that the presence of French troops might serve as a pretext for Italy to ally with Prussia, as it had already done in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. The situation took a turn when Napoleon surrendered at the Battle of Sedan (1870) and was forced into exile. Soon after the Emperor's deposal, the Prussians decided to march to Paris. As the provisional government of the new French Republic was using its remaining forces to defend the capital, it did not have the means nor the will to protect the pope’s position. As a result, Pius IX, whose power was at risk, held the First Vatican Council, which affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility and primacy.

    The Capture of Rome

    In September 1870, King Victor Emmanuel II sent Conte Gustavo Ponza di San Martino to the Pope with a letter in which he proposed a peaceful entry of the army into Rome and ensured Pius’ protection. San Martino also handed him a document which set out ten articles meant to serve as the basis for an agreement between Italy and the Holy See. According to these articles, the Pope would retain his inviolability and Rome would remain under his jurisdiction. However, Pius tore the letter into pieces and refused to accept the proposal.

    On September 11 an army of 50,000 Italians advanced toward Rome still hoping for a peaceful entry. A few days later, on September 19, they reached the Aurelian Walls of the city and placed it under siege. Still, the Pope would not surrender the city until his troops had put up enough resistance. On September 20, the Italians breached the walls after a three-hour cannonade and entered the city. Soon afterwards, the Act of Capitulation was signed, by which all of Rome, except the Leonine city, would be under the control of the Italian army. A white flag was hoisted from St. Peter’s Basilica and the papal forces were escorted to St. Peter’s square. 


    With the aim of legitimizing the annexation of Rome, a plebiscite was held in Rome on October 2 1870, where the overwhelming majority voted in favour of the union. On October 9, a royal decree established the incorporation of the city and the region of Lazio into the Kingdom of Italy. Moreover, the government had the intention of giving Pius sovereignty over the Leonine City, but the pope still did not agree as he was not willing to give up his claims for a broader territory. On 13 May 1871, the Law of Guarantees, which granted the Pope extensive prerogatives, was passed. Even though the Catholic countries were satisfied with this measure, the Pope refused to accept it and considered himself a “prisoner in the Vatican”. For nearly 60 years after the capture of Rome, the status of the Pope became known as the “Roman question”, a matter that was settled with the signing of the Lateral Pacts in 1929.

    Nowadays, the capture of Rome is memorialized throughout the country in the via XX Settembre, which is usually the street that leads to the cathedral.


    Vatican Gold - Vatican - Pius IX - 1866 RomaPius IX SCUDO 1853 A VIII SILVER 63/70 Papal coin for sale1861 Italy – 1st International Exposition in Florence Italy

    KINGDOM OF ITALY VICTOR EMMANUEL II UNA LIRA 1861 STEMMA SABAUDO TURIN VERY RARE (RR) italian coinKingdom of Italy Victor Emmanuel II 5 LIRE 1872 Rome SILVER 45/70 VERY RARE (RR) Italian coin for saleKingdom of Italy Victor Emmanuel II 5 LIRE 1862 Naples SILVER RARE (R) italian coin


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