Pope Pius IX Loses Rome: The Porta Pia Is Breached and the Papal Zouaves Lay Down Their Weapons

September 14, 2023

Bersaglieri at the capture of Porta Pia, by Michele Cammarano

At 5.15 a.m. on 20 September 1870, the observatory of Santa Maria Maggiore warned the Ministry of War that the enemy batteries had attacked Porta Pia which, because of its position, constituted the most vulnerable point of the city. . . . As he talked to the diplomatic corps . . Cardinal Antonelli arrived with a despatch in his hand: it brought news that a breach had been opened. . . . ‘The Rubicon has been crossed: fiat voluntas tua in coelo et in terra,’ murmured Pius IX. Then, turning to the diplomats, he said, “Sirs, I give the order to surrender. Abandoned by all, I had to succumb sooner or later. I must not shed blood uselessly. You are my witnesses, Sirs, that the foreigner enters here only by force.’ . . .The order given to the Zouaves, who asked to be allowed to fight to the end, was to limit resistance to only what was necessary to show to the world that the Pope had not renounced his rights but only that he was giving in to violence.

Cropped photograph of the breach in the Aurelian Walls (right), opened by Italian artillery fire during the Capture of Rome.

All along the walls surrounding the eternal city, in the seemingly endless silence which preceded the attack, there arose the last song of loyalty of the Zouaves: Flottez an vent, triomphantes bannières, Gloire à vous tous, chevaliers de Saint Pierre! ‘Flutter in the wind, oh triumphant banners, Glory to you all, knights of St. Peter.’

Breaching the Porta Pia by Carlo Ademollo.

As the smoke cleared, Captain Berger sang a verse of this song, standing on the debris of the place where the breach in Porta Pia had been opened, holding his sword by its blade and with the handle lifted toward heaven as if he were offering a sacrifice to God—that of an extremely unsuccessful resistance. The white banner was already flying above St. Peter.

Roberto de Mattei, Pius IX, trans. John Laughland (Leominster, Herefordshire, U.K.: Gracewing, 2004), 73–75.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 895


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