This article by Hiram Motherwell, was originally published in the American publication, “Harper’s Monthly Magazine” in July, 1928. It provides fascinating source material for both scholars and postal historians alike at a tumultuous period in Italian history…

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A few hundred feet from the Porta Pia, in the wall which the Emperor Aurelian built to protect Rome from the barbarians, are three marble tablets marking the spot where, on September 20, 1870, the cannon of King Victor Emanuel 11 breached the fortification permitting his army to enter and occupy the city in the name of the new Italian nation. Every year thereafter for more than half a century, on the anniversary of the event, the national government and the municipality of Rome held formal commemorative services before these tablets.

Last year no such ceremony was observed. The few persons who gathered about the spot were individuals – cautious, even furtive suspect members of the proscribed Masonic orders. This break with official tradition was Mussolini’s announcement to the world that his government intends if possible to heal the breach which has existed between Church and State – or, as it is more commonly phrased, to “solve the Roman Question.”

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Prime Minister. Undated photograph.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Prime Minister. Undated photograph.

Long before he came to power Mussolini publicly proclaimed the necessity of a restoration of cordial relations with the Church. Even in the days when he was suspected of republicanism, and even of a kind of “national Bolshevism,” he asserted in parliament that it was absurd that a state should remain at enmity with the church which ninety-five per cent of its citizens regarded as divinely authorized. Promptly after his accession to power he took several steps to make evident his government’s regard for the Church and its appreciation of the part of religion in the national life. He restored to the schoolrooms the Crucifix which previous laical governments had removed; he restored religious instruction as a regular (instead of merely supplem   entary) part of the curriculum of the public schools, and placed it again in clerical hands; he increased the stipends paid by the government to the parish priests as an offset to the seizure of Church property by the government in 1860 and 1870; and (while not interfering with the free exercise of other cults) reaffirmed the Catholic faith as the national religion of Italy.

Then for fully three years he carried on unofficial and informal “conversations” (never publicly authorized) with the Vatican, mainly through the intermediation of a Jesuit priest, Father Tacchi-Venturi. Finally, some eight or ten months ago, it was discreetly made known simultaneously through the official press of the government and of the Vatican that an informal understanding had been reached on some of the more difficult points, providing a basis of discussion for any future negotiations.

Here, for the moment, the matter rests. It is premature to say, as newspapers have on occasion announced, that “the Roman Question is virtually solved,” or to predict that it will be solved in the near future. All that can safely be said is that these informal conversations have provisionally cleared away most of the difficulties which formerly made the Roman Question, as was commonly said, “insoluble.”


Much of the popular difficulty in understanding the present situation is due to a misconception of what the Roman Question is. It does not arise out of any claim on the part of the Vatican for the restoration to it of the territories which it ruled politically before 1860 or 1870. The Roman Question is not a territorial question in the ordinary sense of the term. Rather, it is a question of the quality of the relation which should subsist between the Holy See and the secular power in general, and the Kingdom of Italy in particular.

Pope Pius IX

Pope Pius IX

On the morning of September 20, 1870, when the Italian armies were at the gates of Rome, Pius IX ordered his generals not to resist attack, but not to surrender the city except in face of an overt act of war. This gesture was not, as is sometimes supposed, intended to convey that the spiritual arm may not fight the secular with its own weapons. The armies of Pope Pius had actively resisted the King’s troops when they invaded Romagna in 1860. Neither in 1870 nor at any other time has the Vatican acknowledged that it is intrinsically improper for the Pope to have, and to use, armies, police, and the other paraphernalia of civil authority. In this case Pius of course saw the hopelessness of military resistance and wished to avoid bloodshed. The reason for his refusal to surrender the city before it was attacked was that this act might be interpreted as a voluntary renunciation of his rights. He wished to make it evident to the world that his position as temporal sovereign had been taken from him by force and without his consent.

It would have been difficult for any Pope to acknowledge that the Holy See cannot rightfully exercise temporal sovereignty. The States of the Church – a broad belt of territory stretching from Rome to Ancona and cutting the Italian peninsula in two – had been definitely under the political sovereignty of the Roman pontiffs since they had been consolidated by the “fighting Pope,” Julius II, in the early sixteenth century, and for centuries before that the claim of the popes to political jurisdiction over Rome and adjacent territories had been more or less formally recognized. Pius IX could hardly be expected to acknowledge that his predecessors had ruled unlawfully.

The settlement contained in the Law of Guarantees of 1871 was, from the government’s point of view, extremely generous toward “Italy’s distinguished guest.” It granted the Pontiff free and unrestricted enjoyment of the Vatican Palace and adjoining edifices; of the Chancellery in the Corso Vittorio Emanuele; and of the villa of Castel Gandolfo on the shore of Lake Albano.¹ Although all ecclesiastical edifices were declared national property, the Church was granted unrestricted use and administration of them for purposes of worship. The government further granted a large annual sum to the Pontiff to compensate him for his loss of direct revenue from the territory seized.

But as is well known, Pius IX refused to accept the Law of Guarantees, or to admit that the Italian government was rightfully and lawfully in possession of Rome. He asserted that the Law was a “unilateral instrument” imposed by one of the parties to the controversy, not agreed to by both, hence without juridical validity. He refused to touch the money which the government offered, and which ever since has regularly figured in the government budget, only to be paid back into the treasury as unclaimed after the legal five-year period. He refused to set foot on the soil which, he asserted, had been illegally seized, for by so doing he would be accepting the protection of the Italian government and thus acknowledging its sovereignty.

The Pope has thus remained a “voluntary prisoner” in the Vatican Palace. Within its confines he maintains, so far as convenient, the appurtenances of worldly sovereignty – an army in the form of the Swiss Guard,²  a personal escort in the Noble Guard, and what might be called a police force in the Palatine Guard. His public functions have their full quota of court ceremonial. And he continues to grant patents of nobility. (Not a few Americans hold Papal titles.) In short, temporal sovereignty is not only asserted, but, in a symbolic way, maintained.

It may be that in the mind of Pius IX the restoration to Papal sovereignty of the city and province of Rome was an essential act of restitution on which he must insist. For many years the “black,” or Vatican party, reflected the Vatican’s attitude toward the new government. They went about in mourning on every September 20 and draped their windows in black. Socially, they refused to mingle with the “governmentals,” and it was the supreme social error to invite a “black” and an “Italian” to the same dinner party. Even to-day young ladies of the “black” set affect distinct fashions and a distinct code of etiquette.

But conditions have changed greatly since the time of Pius IX. The popes do not pretend, and the Vatican has never formally maintained, that the dignity of the Holy See is dependent upon the exercise of political power over certain specified territories. What is essential, in the Vatican’s view, is the recognition of the Pope’s sovereign status. The Pope may be a sovereign almost without territory, so long as it is recognized that he is a sovereign. The claim is based upon practical necessity, as will be shown later. But primarily it is a claim for the regularization of an anomalous legal situation. The Pope might, conceivably, renounce all temporal claims. But he cannot, in the Vatican’s view, be deposed by an act of violence and a unilateral decree from the position which the entire world for centuries acknowledged as pertaining to the Pontiff by right.

The City of Rome was taken from the Pope by an act of war – Pius IX insisted on putting this into the record. There has never been a treaty of peace agreed to by both parties. In strict technicality, the relation between the Vatican and the Italian government is still that of a state of war. On what terms the two parties shall mutually agree to end this state of war is the nub of the Roman Question.