When, on Sept. 20, 1870, Italian troops finally broke through Rome's walls and claimed the city as part of the new Italian state, Pius proclaimed himself a "prisoner of the Vatican...

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When, on Sept. 20, 1870, Italian troops finally broke through Rome’s walls and claimed the city as part of the new Italian state, Pius proclaimed himself a “prisoner of the Vatican.” Denouncing the “usurper” state, he retreated into the Vatican complex and, spurning the government’s entreaties, refused to come out.

Since the mid-20th century, Italy and the Vatican have been inextricably linked. Tourists visit Vatican City, which at 100 acres is the world’s smallest sovereign state, while sightseeing in Rome. And the popular image of Italy today is of a Catholic country with a special and close bond to the pope, who has throughout most of the history of Christianity made his home on the left bank of the Tiber, the river that bisects Rome.

But in his riveting and fast-paced history, “Prisoner of the Vatican,” David I. Kertzer uses historical documents only recently released by the Vatican to tell the startling story of how late-19th-century popes plotted against the unification of Italy and its sovereignty. Such was the animosity between the pope and the fledgling Italian state, which began its rocky road to unification in 1859, that by the late 1880s Pope Leo XIII was actively enticing France, Germany and Austria to invade Italy and seize power from the fragile Italian monarchy and the state’s semi-independent, elected officials.

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“Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes’ Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State”


by David I. Kertzer

Houghton Mifflin, 357 pp., $26



Kertzer, a Brown University professor of social science, anthropology and Italian studies, sets the tone of his extraordinary story with its first sentence: “Modern Italy, it could be said, was founded over the dead body of Pope Pius IX.” And in his epilogue, Kertzer, who has written other books on the intersection of religious and political history, notes that Sept. 20, 1870, the day the Vatican lost Rome to a secular government led by politicians and a king, “was the date the Middle Ages was finally laid to rest. Europe’s last theocratic government was ended.”

In between those bookends, Kertzer describes intrigue, spying, disinformation and public-relations campaigns worthy of any contemporary spy novel. There are scenes that today seem remarkable, such as when Victor Emmanuel II’s army of northern Italians and nationalists shot cannonballs through the walls of Rome to seize it from the Vatican. And Kertzer recounts official edicts from the pope forbidding Catholics to believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of religion. Indeed, the pope forbade Catholics to vote in elections, since that implied a separation of church and state. The pope officially did not allow Catholics to vote in state elections until 1919.

Until Victor Emmanuel II unified what is now modern Italy in 1870, Italy had been a patchwork of smaller sovereign states. Cutting like a great sword through the center of the Italian peninsula were The Papal States, a rich swath of land that swept from Rome north to Bologna. These lands were owned by the Catholic Church and ruled by the pope. It is no wonder that when secular revolutionaries such as Giuseppe Mazzini, the new nation’s political theorist, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the unification’s military hero, inspired the secular nationalism that caused the overthrow of The Papal States, the pope was greatly displeased. Pius IX was suddenly a monarch with very little territory. Losing Rome to Victor Emmanuel’s army was the final insult to his temporal authority.

A stubborn, proud man, Pius IX was blind to the changing political world around him. He refused to acknowledge the new Italian state or the fact that a large segment of the population was disillusioned with the Catholic Church. In a public-relations campaign rivaling any in history, Pius IX became a self-styled “prisoner of the Vatican,” essentially putting himself under house arrest within the walls of the Vatican for the rest of his life. Yet his campaign to portray himself the victim of the new Italian state did not succeed. During his funeral procession through the streets of Rome in 1881, hostile anti-clerical crowds nearly dumped his coffin in the river.

Coming Up



David I. Kertzer




The author of “Prisoner

of the Vatican: The Popes’ Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State” will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University Congregational United Church of Christ, 4515

16th Ave. N.E., Seattle, as part of the Seattle Spirituality Reading Series. $3 donation suggested; for more information contact the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).


And to the dismay of Pius IX and his successor Leo XIII, even the politically aggressive Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Prussia, declined to make war against Italy in the late 19th century to save the honor of the Pope. The church did not make peace with the Italian government until 1929, when the Vatican agreed to recognize the legitimacy of Mussolini’s fascist government.

Kertzer is a vivid writer with a talent for bringing out dramatic details and a thorough historian, and this book is filled with footnotes for those who may challenge his often shocking facts. For most readers, this book will be a fascinating look at a segment of Italian history that apparently is still so discomfiting that Italian schoolbooks rarely mention it. And for all readers, Kertzer’s portrayal of the power struggle between religious and secular institutions will strike a disquieting chord in the context of today’s world.

Robin Updike is a freelance arts writer and an Internet editor.