France Paves the Way

The Rights of Man Reach Rome

When Rome was an empire, she twice spread cultures that had originated elsewhere. After conquering Greece, she spread Greek art, architecture, literature, and philosophy around her vast empire. And after she became Christian, her rulers worked to convert the entire Roman Empire to Christianity.

In the modern period, however, it was especially France that was doing the spreading of ideas, and they hit Rome hard especially in the nineteenth century. These ideas were articulated in the French Enlightenment and advanced in practice by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s armies. Napoleon actually invaded and seized large parts of northern Italy and took Rome as well. He gave himself the title King of Italy and gave his infant son the title King of Rome. His rule did not last, but it stimulated a number of Italians to think that it was time to unite and liberalize Italy, as the Frenchman had begun to do.

The policies of the French Revolution and of Napoleon led to sharp conflict with the Catholic Church both in France and in Rome. In France, the revolutionary government sponsored a new, atheistic “religion,” the “Cult of Reason,” and it even celebrated festivals in in which French churches–including Notre Dame–were transformed into modern “Temples of Reason.” Other evidence of the conflict between the Church and the new order is that Napoleon twice deposed a pope. After the French had invaded Italy and declared a Republic in Rome in 1798, Pius VI was taken prisoner and hauled around Italy and then off to France, where he died in 1799.

Such was the turbulence of the times that Napoleon took Rome a second time, and this time his troops deposed Pope Pius VII. He too was taken to France, but he outlived Napoleon’s regime and returned to Rome after Napoleon’s fall from power.

Tomb of Pope Pius VII in St. Peter's Basilica

The Tomb of Pope Pius VII in St. Peter’s Basilica (the only work in St. Peter’s by a non-Catholic) (Photo Wikimedia)

One can hardly realize it just from looking at the tombs of these two popes, both of which are in St. Peter’s, but they are both tied in important ways to the struggle to liberalize and modernize Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. We will consider this struggle also when we discuss Puccini’s opera Tosca, whose two male heroes risk their lives to support the liberal and anticlerical cause advanced by Napoleon.

A good look at the painting below will show that a big celebration is taking place in St. Peter’s Square, but it is not a canonization or other such Catholic event. It is rather a Roman version of the Fête de la Fédération which has since become Bastile Day, a celebration of the violent overthrow of the old order. This festival in Rome was staged to celebrate the institution of the French-imposed Roman Republic, which overthrew the power of the popes, at least for a time, and set an example Italian revolutionaries would emulate later. Holding a large secular festival in St. Peter’s Square may not have constituted cultural cancellation, but it was at least an attempt at cultural overshadowing. A new altar was added to the Piazza for the festival, not one to God but to the Fatherland.

Felice Giani's La festa della Federazione

Felice Giani, La festa della Federazione, 1799; in the Museum of Rome (Photo from

The Fathers of Modern Italy