An Exile at Home

Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius IX; drawing by David Levine

David Kertzer has written a number of important books on modern Italy, including The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2015.* In 1997 he published The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the first modern account of the abduction of a young Jewish boy by Catholic authorities in Bologna in 1858. A Christian maid in the family had baptized the boy because, she claimed, he was ill and might die. Pope Pius IX took him into his care, and he was never returned to his parents. The case provoked an international controversy: liberals and Protestants all over Europe and the United States attacked the pope as the symbol of everything reactionary and backward in the Catholic Church. Edgardo became a priest and lived to the age of eighty-eight, a pious and devoted Catholic who was deeply grateful to Pius IX, his spiritual foster father. By the time Pius IX approved the kidnapping, the daily management of papal affairs lay with Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, a rigorous reactionary.

Kertzer’s new book, The Pope Who Would Be King, tells the remarkable story of Pius IX’s first four years as pope. With an astonishing richness of evidence he recreates the world of the Italian states and the papacy between 1846 and 1850. These were the years in which Pius IX became the reformer pope, the hope of liberals and the poverty-stricken, downtrodden subjects of the Papal States, of moderate Catholics and Italian patriots. The Papal States, which included most of present-day Lazio, Marche, Umbria, Romagna, and parts of Emilia, were the result of the spread of papal governance across a large part of the Italian peninsula during the Middle Ages. The popes ruled these territories as the inheritance of centuries of late feudal conflict, in which they waged war as worldly princes. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Papal States had become notorious for backwardness, poor government, and corruption. The unexpected election in 1846 of a young reformer as pope raised the possibility that they might become the kingdom around which the long-dreamed-of unification of Italy could be achieved.

Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, the future Pius IX, was born on May 13, 1792, in Ancona, the fourth son of a count. Handsome, charming, and extremely intelligent, he rose rapidly in the church hierarchy: he was consecrated as archbishop of Spoleto in 1827 at the young age of thirty-five and saved his diocese from the use of force to subdue the revolution of 1830. He sold his own possessions to raise money for the poor and used his influence to save the life of the young prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, later the emperor of France. His achievements in Spoleto led to his promotion to the bishopric of Imola and to the rank of cardinal. He read the literature of the Risorgimento (the…


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