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Pope Pius IX Escapes from the Quirinal: November 24, 1848

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.


Pope Pius IX’s refusal to declare war on Austria had turned the Liberals of Rome utterly against him. They now sought his downfall. Secret societies in the city stirred up the common people to demand nothing less than a secular, constitutional government for the Papal States. And the more the pope tried to appease the Liberals, the more they demanded of him. Even the pope’s chief ministers, led by a layman, Count Mamiani, demanded that the pope not only declare war on Austria but also abandon his temporal power altogether.


As the months passed, street violence, stirred up by secret societies, increased in Rome. The civil guard was in the hands of the Liberals, while Count Mamiani only wasted government money and did nothing about the violence. When Mamiani at last resigned, the pope appointed Count Pellegrino Rossi as chief minister. Rossi took over the leadership of the mostly lay ministry on September 16, 1848.


The 61-year-old Count Rossi was a famous man. A Liberal who favored constitutional monarchy, he had published well-known works on politics, had written up a constitution for Switzerland, and served as professor of constitutional law at the University of Paris. King Louis Philippe’s chief minister, Guizot, had made Rossi French ambassador to Rome. After the fall of Louis Philippe, Rossi entered private life.


Blessed Pope Pius IX
Blessed Pope Pius IX

Rossi believed that the world of his day was moving toward representative government and political liberty, but he thought this had to happen gradually. As prime minister, Rossi was intent on protecting the pope’s political authority; and the pope, who had confidence in Rossi, entrusted to him the task of writing up a plan for a new constitution for the Papal States.


Liberal republicans, however, hated Count Rossi because he defended constitutional monarchy and was able to prevent riots in Rome. At last, the secret societies in Rome, Turin, and Florence condemned him to death.


On November 15, 1848, Rossi was to attend a meeting of Rome’s legislative assembly to present his plan for a new constitutional order. After being warned that if he attended the meeting, an attempt would be made on his life, he replied, “I defend the cause of the pope, and the cause of the pope is the cause of God. I must and will go.” That day, November 15, as he entered the assembly hall, someone struck him with a cane. Turning toward his attacker, Rossi was set upon by another assailant, who drove a dagger into his neck. Though members of the Civic Guard were in the courtyard, no one attempted to arrest the count’s killer.


“Count Rossi died a martyr to duty,” said Pope Pius when he heard the news of his minister’s death.


The blow struck at Rossi was a signal to the secret societies to rise against the papal government. The day following Rossi’s murder, Pius found himself besieged within the Quirinal by an unruly mob joined by members of the civic guard and the army. The pope’s Swiss Guard was able to hold back the mob for a time; but just when the crowds began to disperse, about a thousand members of the Civic Guard, the police, and other soldiers marched onto the palace’s piazza. To the music of pipes and drums, the soldiers drew up in formation and, on command, opened fire on the palace. Soon cannon were brought to bear on the Quirinal; and the pope, knowing resistance was useless, agreed to negotiate with revolutionaries.


The Quirinal in Rome in the mid-eighteenth century
The Quirinal in Rome in the mid-eighteenth century

Pius was forced to appoint a Liberal ministry, but he refused to abdicate. He had no authority to do so, he said, for his temporal power came from God. But Pius refused to put up any resistance to the Liberals. “My course at this moment, when I am deprived of all support and all material power, can have but one object,” he said—“to avoid the useless shedding of a single drop of fraternal blood in my behalf.” As a prisoner, he took no further part in the new government, saying he remained “absolutely a stranger to its acts.” He forbade the government to pass any laws in his name.


Pope Pius knew that if he remained in Rome he would simply become a pawn of the revolutionaries who controlled the city. On the evening of November 24, 1848, a well-laid plan was put into effect. With the aid of the French minister, the Bavarian ambassador, and his own personal attendant, Pius escaped from the Quirinal, disguised as a common priest. At last he passed through the gates of Rome and entered a carriage that was to take him to Gaeta, where the king of the Two Sicilies had promised him a refuge.


Jolting in the carriage along the rough roads of his domains, still threatened with danger, the pope drew a small metal object from his breast. It was a pyx containing the Body of Christ—the very same pyx Pius VII had carried when he went into exile from Rome. After pressing the pyx to his lips, the pope turned to those who accompanied him in his flight. “Be calm,” he said, “God is with us. I carry the Blessed Sacrament on my person.”



An Opera That Sings of Italian Nationalism


The well-known Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, was an ardent partisan of Italian independence from foreign control and the unification of all Italian speakers under a common government. His nationalism is expressed in an opera he composed in 1848, La Battaglia di Legnano, a work (unlike other Verdi operas) not often performed today. The opera saw its first performance in January 1849. Here is the overture of La Battaglia di Legnano.



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