Modern Rome is an eclectic mix of influences: Partly dominated by the history of the Vatican and later as capital of the reunited Italy.
In 1798 French troops marched into Rome and Pius seventh (1800-1823) signed an agreement with the invaders. He took part in Napoleon’s coronation but in this occasion the new Emperor was careful to avoid the “error” made by Charlemagne and took the crown in order to crown himself. Charlemagne’s investiture by Pope Leo some 1000 years earlier had allowed the existence of an ambiguous divine right of the Pope to crown (or not). This time the ambiguity was avoided.
Getting to Modern Rome
Relations between the French and the Papacy soon became strained and Pope Pius was imprisoned (1809-1814) whilst a new Roman republic was proclaimed. On his return to Rome in 1814 the Pope revived the Jesuit order which had stood the Papacy in good stead during the Counter Reformation three hundred years earlier.
No sooner were the earthly powers of the Papacy restored that they were put under new pressure from the Risorgimento movement of Italian unification. Some forty years later Pope Pius ninth, aided by French troops, was successfully fighting against the revolutionary fighters of Mazzini and Garibaldi. Shortly after the Pope pronounced his famous dogma of Papal Infallibility in order to defend his own power against king Victor Emanuel II who in 1861 demanded that Rome should become the capital of the new kingdom.
Rome becomes capital of a united Italy
The outset of the Franco-Prussian war forced the retreat of the French troops in Rome and it wasn’t long before the city fell. Garibaldi’s troops staged a symbolic taking of Rome at Porta Pia, one of the gates of Rome, on the 20th September 1870. In 1871 Rome became capital of the new kingdom and the Pope shut himself within the Vatican walls in protest.
It is hardly surprising that during the 19th century few changes of substance were made to the city. The architect Valadier stands out for his work at the turn of the century until 1820 at the beautiful Piazza del Popolo square, the main entrance to Rome from the north, and at the Pincio gardens of Villa Borghese which overlook the square. Piazza del Popolo is the only example of neo-classical architecture in Rome.
The unification of Italy and the elevation of Rome’s status to capital of the new kingdom brought some urban readjustment. New residential areas were built to accommodate the rapidly increasing population whilst at the same time new seats of power and control, such as the Palazzo di Giustizia law courts, were built in order to govern the country. Some of the major streets of Rome, including Via Nazionale and Via Veneto date back to this period.
So, with the unification of Italy and the making of Rome into capital city of the new kingdom, Pope Pius ninth became captive within the walls of the Vatican. A sort of captivity which only came to an end at the end of the 1920’s when Pope Pius eleventh (1939-1958) signed the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini in 1929. By virtue of this Treaty the Vatican State’s independence was recognised and the church was paid millions in compensation for the loss of its temporal possessions.
The Fascist regime
The Fascist era, which began in 1922 with the march on Rome, was deeply inspired by the former greatness of the Roman Empire. For example, the Fascist and Nazi salutes were direct copies of the ancient Roman salute. Pursual of this greatness had many facets. Mussolini started an active foreign policy, mimicking that of the other great states of Europe which in the previous century had already carved a part of the world for themselves. The invasion of Abyssinia in 1936 was rather bodged and anachronistic, earning Mussolini and the Italians little more than expulsion from the League of Nations.
On the home front great efforts were placed into modernising the country and lavish sums were spent on bringing Rome to the level of other prestigious cities such as London and Paris. Making the trains run on time was and continues to be the a Holy Grail.
Without dwelling further on the consequences of the foreign policy, the implication for Rome was that large areas were redeveloped as an expression of the new (Fascist) era. A neo-imperialist classical architecture all of its own was devised and a great many buildings were built according to this style such as the Foro Italico sports complex on the north side of Rome. Perhaps the marble monolith which stands in front of the Foro Italico, tipped in gold and boldly sporting the name of its maker “MUSSOLINI DUX”, is more poignant. For an even grander (perhaps even pompous?) scale we have to go to the south side of the city: In view of a Universal Exhibition to be held in Rome in 1942 a whole new area called EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma) was developed. If anything the visitor should take the opportunity to visit the modernist Square Colosseum which was completed just in time to witness the fall of Fascism.
The Roads of Rome
In terms of roads it is worth mentioning the via dei Fori Imperiali which stretches from the Capitol, cuts through the Forum and reaches the colossal roundabout of the Colosseum. This was planned and built as the stage for Mussolini’s triumphal marches, which were few and far between. The archaeologists still scream to have it shut and dug up to offer up a unified, gigantic Forum, but perhaps the modern tourist would find it difficult to understand and digest the full significance of these extra broken walls and columns.
We should also remember the Via della Conciliazione, a long avenue which stretches from the Tiber river straight to St. Peter’s square, directly connecting the majestic basilica with the city. This was planned and built following the Lateran Treaty and in spite of its impressive visual effect one can’t help but feel it is excessively harsh, perhaps as it echoes the destruction of the small alleys and medieval buildings of the Borgo which existed there before hand.
Mussolini’s antics and unacceptable foreign policies, usually delivered from a window overlooking the Piazza Venezia by the Capitol hill lead him to enter the second world war. He then proceeded to lose it, lose power, be captured, be freed, be recaptured and finally be assassinated (shot, hung upside down and mutilated) by the jubilant partisans. Within a few years the king was deposed by referendum and the Italian Republic as we know it now was born on 18th June 1946. One of the charges laid against the king was his failure to have prevented that fateful march on Rome in September 1922.
Dawn of the Italian Republic
In all of this the Pope, Pius XII (1939-1958), didn’t end up looking so good either. He was heavily criticised for having failed to speak out against the atrocities being committed against the Jews by Nazi Germany and was even accused of collusion with them (Pope John Paul II asked for pardon more recently). In 1950 Pope Pius proclaimed the dogma of the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. In 1951 he was criticised again (although probably not by his Catholic followers), for restating the doctrine according to which the life of an infant should not be sacrificed to save a mother in labour.
Since then, a number of happier events have placed Rome in the public eye. These include the signing of the Treaty of Rome (foundation of the European Union) in 1957, the Olympic games in 1960, the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, the World Cup in 1990 and the Holy Year of 2000. However the role of Rome within the national and international contexts is clearly a bureaucratic and administrative one, whilst economy and trade is clearly in the hands of northern cities such as Turin and Milan. Urban planning and development is also lacking and was perhaps last undertaken during the Fascist era. Certainly the Holy Year of 2000 was an important enough occasion to warrant the wholesale restoration of the city and opening of several sites which had hitherto been closed to the public.
So what should one mention about Rome that has not been covered in this brief account? Certainly the traffic and the football. The former has no remedy other than to prohibit cars on given days of the week, introducing alternate number plate days, shutting off access to the centre and so on. In terms of football, Rome has two clubs: Roma and Lazio. Roma was a creation of the Fascist era during which it was decided to amalgamate several different minor clubs. Lazio on the other hand is the slightly more gentrified club, founded over a hundred years ago.
Oh yes, the politics…. Difficult to describe really. I suppose everybody knows that Italy has had more governments since the war than hot dinners. In spite of this the ruling parties were essentially a remix of themselves in a continual, successful, effort to keep the Communist party out of power. The Bizantine nature of it all hit international fame with the election to office of a famous prostitute called Cicciolina – her proposal was an act of political defiance by the radical party and her election was a clear gauge of popular mood. Then the system blew apart. As the Berlin wall came down as a backdrop, magistrates were undoing the dreadful system of back-handers and corruption.
The system that emerged, the so-called “second republic” is on the face of it slowly turning into a two-party first-past-the-post system, but the number of minor parties making up the left and right alignments is for ever alarmingly large and unstable.