The siege of Rome, defended by Mazzini and Garibaldi
When the Republic was proclaimed in Rome, Pope Pius IX asked Catholic countries to invade his former states and reinstate him. After long discussions, the armies of Austria, France, Spain and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies attacked the republic from all sides. The Austrians were kept under check by a month long resistance in the fortified port of Ancona, on the Adriatic coast. In April the Roman army and the Italian volunteers led by Garibaldi repelled a first attack on Rome by the French army of General Oudinot, routing it and capturing several hundred prisoners. The head of the Roman Republican Triumvirate, Giuseppe Mazzini, who believed in republican fraternity and the possibility of an agreement, stopped Garibaldi and freed all prisoners. The French Government began negotiations to gain time, sending for the purpose a diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, better known as the man who led the piercing of the Suez canal two decades later. In the meantime Garibaldi defeated and pushed back the Neapolitan army in May, while the Spanish landing force remained inactive south of Rome.
The French left wing opposition (the Montagnards, radical republicans and democratic socialists, led by Alexandre Ledru Rollin) fought against the Roman expedition, as hoped for by Mazzini. The Montagne, however, was defeated in the parliamentary elections in May by the Party of Order, despite winning 200 seats. The President of the Republic, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, pushed forward, breaking the truce, and on 3 June the French army, massively reinforced with more troops and artillery, again attacked Rome and laid siege to it. In response the Montagne attempted an uprising in Paris but was defeated and crushed. To escape repression Ledru Rollin went into exile in London and returned only in 1870 after the fall of the Second Empire and the restoration of the Republic.
The Italian republican volunteers inspired by Garibaldi resisted strenuously and counterattacked despite all odds for almost a month against a superior professional army. They initially hoped that the French political situation could change and then sought to prove that the Italians would fight until the end for independence and freedom. As the commander of the Lombard Bersaglieri Luciano Manara put it, “we must die to conclude [the revolutions of] 1848 in a serious manner”. The Constitutional Assembly decided to stop resistance on 30 June after the City walls had been breached and two further successive lines of defense had been lost, while the French were bombing the City from the Gianicolo hillside. Before disbanding, the Assembly proclaimed a democratic constitution which was taken as a basis for the Italian Republican constitution one century later. Garibaldi took his volunteers up north, pursued by the armies of half of Europe, trying in vain to reach Venice besieged by the Austrians. Mazzini had to join Ledru Rollin in his London exile, while Manara, Mameli (Garibaldi’s chief of staff and author of the Italian national anthem) and many other young volunteers lay dead on the Gianicolo.
The emotional intensity of the struggle inspired medals and siege coinage, both authentic and imaginary, official and satirical, all animated by powerful memories of several millennia, of the original Roman Republic, the Gauls, the French and the origins of Christianity.
The coins minted by the defenders of Ancona during the siege of their city (one baiocco copper pieces) bear the symbol of the French Revolution and the Roman Republic of 1798-99, a rough depiction of fasci surmounted by the red cap of liberty. An imaginary French 20 baiocchi square siege coin for Rome, probably minted privately in Paris by anti-bonapartists, celebrated the defenders (Pro defensione reipublicae roman, 1849). It included a symbol of the city, the mythical she-wolf feeding the baby twins Romolus and Remus, founders of Rome. The 40 baiocchi coin of the same series, not illustrated here, also celebrated the resistance led by the Triumvirs Mazzini, Armellini and Saffi. The republican eagle, copied from an ancient sculpture which is a bas-relief at the entrance of the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Rome, was instead reproduced on the crescent collar worn by the officers of the National Guard of the Roman Republic, here illustrated.
French official governmental medals tried to counteract the growing fame of Garibaldi with the mediocre General Nicolas Oudinot, commander in chief of the Expedition (Oudinotius gallorum exercitui praefectus), who had attacked Rome in a disastrous manner, without preparation, declaring that “Italians don’t fight”. Official medals claimed that he had conquered the city preserving the safety of its citizens and of its monuments, oppressed by seditious factions of foreigners, and returned it to the loving authority of the Pope. Rome was depicted as a passive seated woman, wearing a crown of city walls but holding a Papal tiara in her hands, with a foot trampling on the ancient sources of authority (SPQR, the Senate and the People of Rome), the Basilica of St Peter in the background. A protective female allegory of France with a dagger in one hand was sending away a winged fury with the head of Medusa surrounded by snakes, representing republican sedition.
Two other unofficial medals tell the opposite story, from the democratic side. In a copper medal, entitled “the glories of Italy”, alongside Mazzini and Garibaldi from Liguria are listed other prominent defenders of republicanism: the President of the Republic of Venice Manin, the Neapolitan general Pepe, commander of the defense of Venice, the Roman general Avezzana and the popular Roman leader Ciceruacchio. Underneath, in a display of antiquarian memories, French cannons bomb the Capitoline hill as if the siege represented that of the Gallic Senones who besieged and invaded Rome in 387 CE. The medal also recalls the episodes of the sacred geese of Juno that had alerted the Romans of a surprise night attack by the Gauls and the scale used to determine the weight in gold of the ransom that the Romans had to pay to free the city. In response to a request for leniency by the defeated Romans, the Senon chieftain Brennus added the weight of his sword in an act of disdain, uttering the words “vae victis”. On the obverse the medal shows the name of Oudinot (whose title related to Reggio was obtained by his father as a marshal of Napoleon I) under a Cardinal’s hat surmounted by a French rooster and flanked by the empty headcoverings of monks, to symbolize the submission of the French army to the interests of the Roman church.
The last medal, in a white metal, typical of the French political medals of the 1848-49 revolution, also lambasts the French as barbarian heirs to Brennus’ destruction. Saint Peter, holding the keys to the city, flanked by the she-wolf, is standing on top of the fortifications, in front of the Basilica in the Vatican, under French bombardment, and sending his malediction “French dogs, and you idiotic Brennus [Oudinot], and you, unPious Pope [Pius IX], curses be upon you”.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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