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Monday, January 6, 2014

When Rome was French

It could be an item from Ripley's Believe It Or Not:  There was a time when Rome was French.  Not French in spirit.  Not French in culture.  Not French in tradition.  But French in the sense that Rome was French property and decisions with regard to religion, governance, social welfare, and urban planning were made by the French. 

Rome's French period began in 1798, when the French revolutionary army, taking advantage of the weak defenses of the sprawling Papal States, entered the city along via Flaminia, through the Porta del Popolo, down the via del Corso, and up the capital steps, where the "Republic" was declared.  Under what was known as the "repubblica per ridere" (The Ridiculous Republic, or, more literally, the Laughable Republic), the Pope was deported, enemies of the regime were executed in Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and increases in the price of bread led to riots in the streets. 
He loved Rome--or perhaps the idea of Rome--but he would never see the city.  The painting is in the Museo Napoleonico

Villa Medici, inhabited by the French since 1803
The Republic, such as it was, lasted only as long--about two years--as the French military was there to support it.  Yet even after 1800, as Napoleon's forces took control of much of Italy (though not yet Rome), the city remained under French sway.  The Pope was restored, though dependent on Napoleon for his post; a French ambassador arrived, taking up lodgings in the Corsini Palace; the French Academy took over the Villa Medici (1803); and wealthy French flowed into the city, preening from their fancy carriages on the via del Corso, irritating the Romans, who jeered and threw things.

Castel Sant'Angelo, where French troops were
This period of (relative) accommodation ended in 1808, when the French army--the army of Napoleon, not the Revolution--entered the city and found quarters in Castel Sant'Angelo.  The Pope withdrew to the Quirinal Palace, a virtual prisoner.  Things got worse for the Romans on June 10, 1809, when Rome was officially absorbed into the French Empire as an imperial city.  Napoleon--who would never visit Rome--was thrilled by the prospect of joining the Eternal City with the French jewel, Paris.  The proclamation was read on the Capitoline Hill--"Napoleon the Great wants only the glory of giving you, after so many centuries of oblivion, a fate more worthy of your ancient destiny"--and an elaborate procession followed, with stops at Piazza Venezia, Piazza Colonna and, further along the via del Corso, Piazza del Popolo. 

The Quirinal Palace, where a captive Pope
excommunicated Napoleon, among others.
Romans failed to appreciate their new status, as did Pope Pius VI, who from the Quirinal Palace issued a general excommunication of those who cooperated with the takeover of the Papal States--an order that obviously included Napoleon.  Angry at the pontiff's intransigence--he had thought that
the Pope would be willing to compromise in exchange for protection--he had Pius kidnapped and removed from the city to Savona.  The attack on the Church continued with the removal of the stations of the cross from the Coliseum, the deportation of hundreds of clerics, and the closing down of the Papal welfare state, which had supported thousands of Romans unable (or sometimes unwilling) to work. 

The French under Napoleon were reformers, standard-bearers of the Enlightenment, and they made every effort to bring their modernizing perspective to a Rome that clung to its medieval ways with tenacity.  Like Mussolini, the French disliked and feared Rome's physical complexity.  They believed that its narrow, winding streets--perhaps especially the warrens of Trastevere--and its nameless streets and numberless houses--reinforced the insularity and hostility of the population, including the Trasteverini.  The French were not in power long enough to do much in the way of urban renewal, but they did manage to number the houses and install street signage and street lights, as well as prohibit concealed weapons in a violent city where nearly every man carried a knife. 

The ban on concealed weapons was not popular with the Romans, nor was military conscription, the forcing of able-bodied men to work on public projects, depots for the storage of vagrants, or efforts to suppress the lottery (Romans loved to gamble).  The new "scientific" guillotine was introduced in 1813, and torture was outlawed. 

Giuseppe Valadier's Casina, on the Pincio

The French were planners, too.  By 1810 there were plans for an enormous imperial palace, one that would have dwarfed the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II.  There were plans to turn the Lateran Palace into a hospice for beggars, to create open piazzas around Trajan's column, the Pantheon, and the Trevi fountain, and to cut new boulevards in the city.  Mussolini would have understood. 

Imagine the Tevere, navigable for large vessels,
all the way to Perugia.  The French did. 

There was a plan to open the Tevere to large vessels, all the way to Perugia, and another to create an enormous garden from the Pincian Hill to the Tevere. 

The Verano cemetery
Perhaps for health reasons, the French planned to build two cemeteries as part of an effort to bury the dead outside the city walls. 

Of all these plans, few came to fruition.  The Pincian/Tevere garden was in the works when the French departed, and one element in that larger plans remains to this day: the Casina by Italian architect Giuseppe Valadier.  The Verano cemetery, located adjacent to the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le mura, was another French achievement.   

Canova's Pauline (Napoleon's sister), in
the Borghese Museum
The French made contributions to the arts.  Their enlightenment ideology included an interest in archaeology, and some progress was made in that area, notably in the Coliseum and at the Temple of Jupiter.  In the fall of 1809, the brilliant sculptor Antonio Canova was called back to Rome from his native Possagno to head the city's arts program.  One of his most famous works, the Venus Victrix, for which Napoleon's beautiful sister Pauline was the model, is on view in the Borghese Museum.  (Pauline eventually bought a villa--now the French embassy--just inside the walls at Porta Pia.)

The unassuming Pasquino, where
Romans expressed their dislike of the French.
As we have seen, the Romans were not pleased to be governed by the French.  As historian Susan Vandiver Nicassio writes in Imperial City: Rome Under Napoleon, "Napoleon loved Rome like a bridegroom; Rome did not love Napoleon.  The affair progressed from courtship to rape and ended, as such affairs must end, in mutual destruction."  What could the Romans do?  The Pasquino--the statue near Piazza Navona on which generations of Romans had posted their views and complaints--was covered with denunciations of the emperor and his infant son, crowned King of Rome in 1810 ("the little bastard has been crowned").  Napoleon, baffled by the Pasquino tradition of dissent, announced that "Rome has become a theatre for defamation, a headquarters for libel."  Although one would imagine that the populace would have been grateful when the French authorities decided to allow "carnival" to take place as scheduled, Romans chose to express their dislike of the occupation by refusing to participate (refusing to party!). 

It would all be over soon.  French influence in the city was dramatically reduced in 1812, when Napoleon's armies ran into trouble in Russia.  In May of 1814, Pope Pius VII entered Rome in triumph over the Ponte Milvio, the same route into the city taken by the French revolutionary forces some 16 years before.  The Romans got their city back. 

The Museo Napoleonico

Lucien, Napoleon's brother, lived in Rome from 1804 to 1808, and he returned to the city after his sibling's fall.  One of Lucien's descendants founded the Museo Napoleonico.  The museum is at Piazza di Ponte Umberto I, 1, just north of Piazza Navona. 


This account is based on Susan Vandiver Nicassio's informative and entertaining history, Imperial City: Rome Under Napoleon (The University of Chicago Press, 2005).  It is available from the publisher and on (paper and Kindle). 


Marco said...

Interesting article! However, I'm afraid that the correct Italian for 'Laughable Republic' would be "Repubblica Ridicola" and not "Repubblica per ridere".

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

The term "Repubblica per ridere" isn't mine--it's Nicassio's. Her translation of the term is Ridiculous Republic. Bill

max wiz said...

You guys are awesome! I love the work you're doing with your blog - there's so much love, fun, passion & research in it...
Re-the French in Rome: in his Immagine di Roma (Laterza, 1975) architect and city planner Ludovico Quaroni devotes an entire section (pp.277-94) to this period. He quotes in full a report that Count Camille de Tournon-Simiane sent to the French home secretary to describe the situation in Rome and his city planning proposals. An interesting reading (though written in an old-fashioned Italian), its very last page reads almost as a WPA project for an underdeveloped area - since that was the condition of the Roman citizens in the early 1810s.
un abbraccio,