Papacy's Fortunate Loss; Seeking Beauty in Rome

Church Celebrates End of Temporal Power

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 23, 2010 ( Was it the best of times or the worst of times? As Rome celebrated Monday its 140th anniversary as the capital of Italy, the Church and the city came together to forget old wounds and look to an ever brighter future.

On Sept. 20, 1870, the forces of the Risorgimento, the movement to unify the Italian states, were bombarding the northeastern gate of Rome, the Porta Pia. Inside the walls, the papal forces defended what had been the realm of the pontiff for over 1,000 years. As king of Rome, the pope had beautified the city, given it aqueducts, trains, museums, and hospitals, and had made the Eternal City one of the great sites of the world.

But the papal kingdom was only a small part of the mosaic of the Italian peninsula. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the republic of Venice and many other unstable pieces formed the political landscape of Italy. France and Austria claimed large pieces of Northern Italy while the southern region was under control of the Spain Bourbon kings. In the middle of these superpowers stood the Papal States.

Italians, weary of foreign rule, began to reclaim their peninsula. Region by region, Italians reconquered their own land and history, until 1866 when the only territory remaining outside the Italian fold was Rome.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, the inveterate freedom fighter whose exploits would win critical lands and excite the imagination of the Italians, refused to rest until he had taken Rome. In June 1862, he coined the slogan “Roma o Morte” Rome or Death!

Garibaldi made two attempts to capture Rome with a small band of volunteers, despite the refusal of the Italian government to support him. After the second attempt, where he was wounded, Garibaldi was imprisoned by the Italian state. Garibaldi wanted nothing less than the removal of the pope. «The papacy,” he said, “being the most harmful of all secret societies, ought to be abolished.»

Ironically Garibaldi would be absent when Rome finally fell. Abandoned by the French garrison recalled to the front of the Franco-Prussian war, Rome was left with a paltry 13,000 defenders against the 50,000-strong Italian army.

Italy tried to negotiate a peaceful entry, hoping to avoid the world scandal of attacking the papacy, but Rome would not surrender.

The Italian army arrived at the gates of Rome, on Sept. 19, 1870, and began the siege. On Sept. 20, three hours of cannon fire tore open the Porta Pia, the elegant gate designed by Michelangelo for Pope Pius IV in 1565, and the Italian army entered the city. Pope Pius IX’s orders were to lay down arms as soon as the city was breached, so as to protect the population of Rome. He escaped, smuggled out of the Quirinal palace into the Vatican walls where he died eight years later.

But this sad day opened another new era of the Church, always aware that her “kingdom was not of this world.” All the Church needed was, in the words of St. Francis, “enough body to keep the soul together.» Seventy-nine years later, papal sovereignty over the Vatican area was recognized and Italy and the Holy See made peace.

No longer responsible for upkeep, administration and protection of the city, the papacy could turn more completely to its role as universal pastor.

On the 100th anniversary of the capture of Rome, Pope Paul VI sent Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua, his vicar for Rome, to Porta Pia to celebrate the «providential» significance of the loss of temporal power. This year Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, as prefect of the Pontifical Council for Culture, addressed Rome’s mayor and distinguished scholars on the Capitoline Hill, perhaps the most historically significant of the seven hills of Rome.

Concerts, parades and special openings proclaimed Rome’s joy at becoming capital of Italy. The flag of Italy and Rome lined the streets and a colossal floral arrangement reading “Roma Capitale” delighted the tourists in Piazza Venezia.

Two seldom visited museums are featuring special exhibits to commemorate Rome’s first years as the capital. The Museo Barracco on Corso Vittorio emmanuele 166A will recall the story “Giovanni Barracco: Patriot and Collector,” one of the first members of the neo-Italian parliament in 1870. A passionate collector of antiquities, he amassed hundreds of objects celebrating Italy’s ancient past, donating them to the fledgling state at his death.

The Museo di Roma next to Piazza Navona recounts “The Risorgimento in Color: Painters, Patriots and Painter Patriots in the XIX century,” highlighting several Italian artists who also fought to liberate their nation. 

A large part of the exhibition is dedicated to Blessed Pope Pius IX with images of the good works and important events of his pontificate. The declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the rediscovery of Augustus Prima Porta, are but a few images that pay respectful homage to this great Pope.

I write this piece today as an Italian and a Catholic, with the mixed feeling of sadness over the defeat of the Pope but also the realization that the unification of Italy with Rome as its capital has allowed both states to flourish. There was tragic loss of life as brothers fought one another, as well as the humiliation of 78-year-old Pope Pius IX hounded out of his home, stripped of his sovereignty and exiled within the walls of the Vatican. But at the same time it was an age of heroic efforts of the men and women of Italy to claim their country, met by the bravery of those defending the See of St. Peter. People lived their nationality and faith with acute awareness: Each was a precious gift to be defended. In an age where faith and country are taken for granted, this time of heroes evokes a certain nostalgia.

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Images of an ideal

The history of Western art has long been preoccupied by the ideal of beauty. Treatise after treatise described what makes something beautiful in art and how artists should attain these ideals. The sculptors of ancient Greece, Michelangelo, Ingres and Bernini were all held to standards of beauty and Caravaggio was sharply criticized for abandoning it.

True beauty in art required virtue, a standard of nobility that raised the subject from the mundane and exalted it. Artists were told time and time again, to take nature as a guide but to perfect it, so as to produce the most refined works.

Never was this more true than in the rendering of female beauty. In Greece as the personification of Love or in Renaissance Italy as the archetypical mother, art has lavished attention for millennia on the concept of female beauty. 

In this day and age however, the ideal of female beauty is no longer described by the brush of a Raphael or the chisel of a Praxiteles, but by the lens of a camera and the tailoring of a fashion designer. Where art once tried to portray the highest ideal of woman for its own sake, the new “ideal” tends to be driven by market and media, less concerned with ideal and more worried about short-term gain. Many young women today, instead of seeing the modest and refined female images of the golden age of art, are confronted with increasingly tawdry role models.

An interesting initiative sponsored by the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums together with Pure Fashion and Ave Maria Radio, returns art to the service of promoting beauty, goodness and truth, three inseparable components of the Ideal. “Feminine Beauty in the Arts,” is a mother-daughter pilgrimage scheduled for Dec. 27, 2010, to Jan. 3, 2010.

This week-long event brings together mothers and daughters in the context of the stunning Vatican Museums to talk about self-image, female beauty and the challenges of womanhood in the modern day. Author, speaker and talk-show host Teresa Tomeo will discuss the confusing and sometimes harmful messages that the media send to women.

In the context of Rome’s rich histor
y of great female saints, Brenda Sharman, founder of Pure Fashion, an organization aimed at helping young women rediscover modesty in dress without missing out on the fun of fashion, will talk about the Catholic idea of female beauty.

I am very proud to say that I will have an opportunity to address this pilgrimage, illustrating the history of feminine beauty in art, both through the monuments of the city of Rome and the artwork of the Vatican Collections.

Father Mark Haydu, the International Director of the Vatican Patrons of the Arts, will open the door of the Vatican galleries to provide a very special environment for these reflections. He chose the date carefully, hoping to bring mothers and daughters together at the moment when the world celebrates the most important birth in history, that of Christ.

At the heart of the Church, amid Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pietà and his heroines of the Sistine Chapel, “Feminine Beauty in the Arts” hopes to recapture the Christian ideal of womanhood and surprise young women with the Church’s remarkable view of the many facets of feminine genius.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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