As I began visiting different Italian cities, I noticed that there are a few street and piazza names that seem to crop up again and again. Via/Piazza Garibaldi. Via/Piazza Cavour, Via Mazzini, Via XX Settembre. These are all related to the historical period referred to as the Risorgimento, or ‘resurgence’, during which the various states of the Italian peninsula, many of which were under foreign control, were united into the Italian Kingdom. I will do future posts on different aspects of the Risorgimento and also try to understand why it happened. But that’s for another day.
The street name that I’ve seen the most is Via XX Settembre, which I always tend to mistakenly pronounce “Via Ex Ex Settembre”. However, it is in fact Via Venti Settembre. It’s hard to miss due to the prominent Roman numerals. It is usually the name of a major road leading to a church or cathedral, though in smaller towns it can just as easy be the name of a side street from a piazza.
The date refers to September 20th, 1870. In order to understand its significance, we have to step back a bit. By 1870, most of the Italian peninsula was now under the control of the new Italian Kingdom, with its capital at Florence. However, the most significant city, the one destined to be the future capital, was still under the control of the Pope. Of course, we’re talking about the Eternal City: Rome. Defending it was a French garrison, placed there by the president/emperor Napoleon III (French government in this period was still in transition). The Italian Government had tried in vain to persuade the Pope to surrender the city and had given him certain guarantees of his independence from state interference.
However, the Pope, Pius IX, consistently refused. Whilst he had the support of the French, he had little to worry about, since the Italians would not risk an outright confrontation with the more powerful French Republic. All they had to do was bide their time. Eventually, the moment arrived. Facing war with Prussia, Napoleon III recalled all his forces from Rome. This left the Pope having to rely on his small Swiss Guard and various mercenaries. They were now no match for a determined Italian march on Rome.
On 19 September 1870, an Italian army of 50,000 men advanced on Rome, reaching the Aurelian Walls. The Pope, who by now realised the game was up, decided to nevertheless put up some resistance. The Italians, who had hoped to negotiated a peaceful entrance, resorted to bombarding the walls. The inevitable now happened, and, on 20 September, the first troops entered Rome.
With the Pope having surrendered, the capital of Italy was transferred from Florence to Rome. This completed the unification of Italy and had long been a goal of the Italians ever since the first stirrings of the Risorgimento. The great Giuseppe Garibaldi had once cried ‘Roma o Morte’ (Rome or Death!). In honour of this special day on which that dream was realised, the name Via XX Settembre was given to streets in towns all over Italy.