As the centenary of Ireland’s Easter 1916 Rising approaches, no doubt with all sorts of moving, surprising, challenging, thought-provoking events encouraging reflexion on a century’s accretion of meaning, as so often, my thoughts return to Rome.
I like to think that Rome’s ever-presence in my frame of reference is charming. It certainly draws on my very patriotic Irish father’s interest in drawing Ireland-Rome connexions (including a family legend of a long-ago Spencer who fled to Rome with a chest of treasure, never to be seen again).
It definitely evokes my sense of childhood wonder at seeing a dramatically equestrian Anita Garibaldi (my childhood idol — she had a horse and a gun!), zinging with energy, a fleeting moment seemingly captured in bronze atop Gianicolo (way back in 1976).
More recently, teaching a course on the place of Rome in the Western imagination, a course which is getting a reboot as a seminar module at Birmingham in 2014/15, I thought about how to capture a strand in the Garibaldini era in a way that might entrance students with no expertise in 19thC Italian history. To this end, I finally made the half hour or so walk up from Testaccio to the still new-ish Risorgimento/Garibaldi museum at the Porta San Pancrazio.
There’s much to admire in the confluence of an evocatively restored building (the arch itself is the museum, marooned though it now is, divorced from its portal quality in the Aurelian Wall, and in fact something of a traffic island opposite the delicious Antico Arco restaurant). The Museum offers an exhibition that benefits from the mass-media world just dawning as Italy was struggling into 19th century nationhood. For example, some well-deployed video reenactments with “talking heads” bring key figures movingly and evocatively to life.
A real highlight for me, however, was the large room where using sound and light effects, and two large models of the fields of battle as the French troops attacked, I finally understood the ebb and flow of the contest as it demolished and bloodied Rome’s western flank (read a 1910 account of Garibaldi and the politics/military action, here). And this brings me back to Irish connexions.
The Museum eloquently documents the pan-European nature of the volunteers flooding to Garibaldi’s banner, but where was the Irish support? Conspicuous by its absence. There is therefore a delicious irony being played out in one of the key sites from the last stand on Gianicolo: Villa Spada.
Just uphill from the Acqua Paola, with its mesmerising panorama across Rome, just along the road from the monumental Ossuary commemorating Garibaldi’s fallen, and memorably proclaiming the famous cry, “Roma o morte!”, sits Villa Spada. Unassumingly set back from the road, the Villa is now home to the Irish Embassy (and was formerly home to Ireland’s embassy to the Vatican). The ‘casino’ was formerly known as the Villa Nobili — following construction in 1639 for Vincenzo Nobili (on which early phase, see here).
It was also the site of a bloody and destructive turning point in the conflict in 1849, when Rome’s walls were breached and the tide finally turned against the new republic, and flowed in the French troops’ favour. The casino was the site of the last stand by Luciano Manara’s Bersaglieri. Famously, Manara, looking out a window which still provides that prospect, took a fatal shot (see here for a vivid account).
I was lucky enough to have a tour of Villa Spada in February, courtesy of Ireland’s excellent cultural attaché. The restored villa is a jewel, but at present few requests come in associated with interest in its Garibaldi era role; a serendipitous role to be sure, down to topography and the dynamics of the fighting, but nevertheless a significant one from an Irish perspective if one is interested in the currents of history.
Perhaps there is special irony in one reason why the Irish did not heed the revolutionary call to arms from Garibaldi and the Italian Republicans: the papal connexion which Villa Spada also embodies for Ireland, complete with its changing political gaze from Vatican to National embassy hinting at the shifting patterns in Ireland’s modern relationship with the Holy See.
Spooling back to the 19th century, however, the picture is a little different. The anti-Catholic Penal Laws (dating to 1695) remained in force in Ireland until 1829 (the so-called ‘Catholic Emancipation’), and in the 1850/60s, recruitment committees for a Papal defence army (the ‘Irish Battalion) had great success (with strong clerical backing) in Ireland.
Indeed, the papal states, without a ‘national’ army, spent much of the mid-19thC drumming up military support from Catholics across Europe. One might have thought that the republican call to arms would have been stronger than the papal call outside narrowly religious circles, given Irish history and the often surprisingly inclusive nature of early Irish republicanism, but this is where local politics bite. The vibe from Britain remained resolutely anti-Catholic (and therefore might be seen to be pro-Garibaldi et al.); Palmerston’s government in Britain was in favour of pretty much anything that destabilised France (and Austria), and while France was militarily supporting the Vatican, British support for Garibaldi and the dream of a strong and united Italy (a new European power would change international relations dramatically) was inevitably part of the mix.
So Irish Catholics tended to support the Papal states in the conflict (Don H. Doyle’s colourful NYT opinion piece is worth a read, see also an 1864 NYT account). What still intrigues me, however (even after reading Mary Jane Cryan’s entertaining study of The Irish and English in Italy’s Risorgimento, and Anne O’Connor’s 2010 article “That Dangerous Serpent”, where the contradictions are nicely summed up on p. 412 [subscription access only]), is that Irish Protestants, dissenters and the albeit increasingly squeezed Irish secular republican movement didn’t heed the Italian republican call.
Clearly, there was some grand “doublethink” in play on the part of Westminster politicians — and it’s unsurprising that Irish republicans of all flavours were able to make perhaps disingenuous capital of the contradiction: if Italy deserved unification and self-determination as a nation, why not Ireland? The question was indeed posed bluntly in The Nation: ‘If Italy is to be for the Italians, why not Ireland for the Irish?’ (11 August 1860). But Italians too must take some blame (if one wants to characterise it in that way) for the disconnect between what might have been kindred states at a crucial moment in nation-formation; Mazzini, Gioberti, Cavour — none came out in favour of Irish independence.
Mazzini nevertheless had positive connexions with the more politically secular side of the Young Ireland movement, and was in sympathy with key figures (see Michael Huggins’ recent article), but not with the wider and more variegated spectrum of Irish republicanism.
My own personal coda to the Spencer/Rome/Garibaldi story is that I spend part of the year in Testaccio, whose Monte dei Cocci is not only part of my academic landscape (as a classicist, most of my work draws on Rome and its topography) but was also the site of one of the Roman batteries during that bloody conflict in 1849. When I look homewards from the Gianicolo passeggiata, I am also gazing across the centuries to a dialogic point in a conflict which had significant ramifications for the brand of nationalism that still, something over a century later, coloured my childhood in Dublin.