Thursday, September 27, 2012

How Rome Finally Fell

 This piece first appeared on Novel Adventures January 19, 2012.

Helmet of the Bersaglieri
On the morning of September 20, 1870, an elite military corps known as Bersaglieri broke through Rome’s famed Aurealian Wall at the Porta Pia for the final showdown between the Kingdom of Italy and the pope’s army. Clad in their signature feather-encrusted helmets, this crack team of marksmen defeated the papal army, despite losing 49 men to the pope’s 18.

Established in 1836, the Bersaglieri are known for being larger than life characters and exceptionally fit. They are outstanding marksmen (and, today, a few women). Intended originally to be a highly mobile unit that could get into and out of places quickly, they even carried folding bicycles as part of their gear during World War I.

World War I Bersaglieri with bicycles
Thus, the Bersaglieri were the natural military unit to breach the Porta Pia. Designed by Michelangelo, this gate on the north-eastern part of the city wall was commissioned by Pope Pius IV as part of his urban renewal project in the mid-1500s. Porta Pia opened onto a new street, Via Pia: both gate and street named for the pope himself. For centuries, the gate protected the city from unwanted entry.

It was another Pope Pius, the Ninth, who headed the Holy See when the Bersaglieri broke through the wall. The struggle for unification had been waging for about fifty years at that point. Most of the peninsula had been unified as the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, with Victor Emanuel II as the king. A parliament had met that year in Turin, declaring Rome as the capitol of the new kingdom. But because Rome was under papal control, the government couldn’t enter the new capitol.

The pope had been able to retain power in large part because French troops protected Rome. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, however, Napoleon III recalled those troops to France in August 1870, leaving the pope vulnerable.

Hoping to finally capture Rome without bloodshed, King Victor Emanuel sent an envoy to the Holy See on September 10 with a letter offering protection to the pope and outlining political solutions to a variety of sticky issues.The pope was enraged. He scared off the envoy, declaring, “You will never enter Rome.”

Porta PIa with Bersaglieri Monmument
The next day, on September 11, the Italian army entered papal lands and began its march toward Rome. It moved slowly in hopes that a peaceful solution could be found. On September 19, the army numbering 50,000 reached the Porta Pia. Inside, 13,000 Swiss Guards and volunteers waited for the attack.

The next morning, the attack began, and after three hours, the Italian troops broke through the wall. The Bersaglieri entered the city and overpowered the papal army. On September 21, all of the papal lands were firmly in the hands of the Italians.

The Via Pia was rechristened Via XX Settembre in honor of the anniversary, and throughout Italy, cities and towns have established their own Via XX Settembre. Today, the Porta Pia houses a museum honoring the Bersaglieri.

The Bersaglieri have continued to distinguish themselves since their establishment, in World Wars I and II and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the breach of Porta Pia remains their finest hour. In parades they don’t march they jog. Even the band, the black feathers on their helmets floating in the breeze.

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