The citizens, as they grew accustomed to the bombardment, greeted each projectile with the cry : ‘Ecco un Pio Nono !’ — ‘There goes another Pio Nono !’ Women and children of the Trastevere were seen to pick up live shells and throw them into the Tiber…. (Trevelyan, 196)
The siege came in basically two parts: June 4 through June 21, and June 22 through June 30. In the first, night raids from both sides attempted to breach enemy defenses, but for the most part came to little. Against all odds, Garibaldi’s defenders were holding on to places like the Casa Giacometti and the Vascello, still outside the walls. But the walls themselves were under a fierce bombardment and would go at any moment. Still, even on the night of June 21, a few men from the Unione regiment heard a French troop advancing, and, first firing at them point-blank, drove them off in bayonet combat. Garibaldi, meanwhile, headquartered in the Villa Savorelli, wrote to his Anita, safe, he thought, in Nice (she never received this letter since she had already decided to join him once again, and was en route, pregnant, to Rome):
My dear Anita, I know that thou hast been and maybe still art ill. I wish to see thy handwriting and my mother’s, and then I shall feel easy.
Cardinal Oudinot’s Gallic-friars content themselves with cannonading us, and we are too much accustomed to it to care. Here the women and children run after the balls and
shells and struggle for their possession.
We are fighting on the Janiculum and this people is worthy of its past greatness. Here they live, die, suffer amputation to the cry, ‘Viva la Repubblica !’ One hour of our life in
Rome is worth a century of common existence. (quoted in Trevelyan, 205)
Even as he was writing this letter, however, the French had already begun to breach the central bastions holding the walls. Wearied troops guarding the Casa Barberini awoke to find French troops already in their midst, panicked, and fled. Within minutes, Casa Barberini and the Central Bastion were in French hands. Though many thought he should have tried to retake these crucial positions, Garibaldi chose instead to fortify a defense line along the inner Aurelian wall. Those who feared that the Janiculum could not but fall that night were surprised to find that it still held. This was not the end of the issue, however, because Mazzini and Roselli, seeing the enemy on the walls, ordered Garibaldi to attack and retake the outer positions. This led to another quarrel between Garibaldi and his commanders, though in this he was supported not only by his own officers (they knew another suicidal attack would fail, so weary and dispirited were their troops by now), but also by the war minister, General Avezzana.
Thus began the second part of the siege, the defense of the ancient Aurelian wall. It lasted nine days, much to the defenders’ surprise. For all knew that Rome was lost. Yet the defenders seemed to fight even harder at this point. To explain this apparent contradiction, Trevelyan observes:
But the Italian character has in it something beyond the reasonable, and, when all was lost, the idea of perishing with the murdered Republic seemed to fortify the morale and brace the nerves of the tired men, whose conduct became now more uniformly heroic than it had been during the fortnight past, when it was still possible to indulge a shadowy hope. An English army might have held the bastions from which the Italians fled on the night of June 21-22, but an English army might well have capitulated if those bastions had been lost, seeing that there was no force in the wide world to come to their relief...If the Englishman does not know when he is beaten, the Italian sometimes knows it and does not care. (209)
Thus the final battles went—the French bombarding the defenses and the city with a rain of cannon balls while sappers crept through trenches to breach the walls—the Italian defenders fighting with their last reserves of strength and valor to hold off the inevitable. With the Villa Savorelli perilous, Garibaldi had now moved his headquarters to the Villa Spada, just behind the infantry stationed along the inside of the Aurelian Wall, and in front of the last Roman batteries firing from the platform of San Pietro in Montorio and the nearby Pino Hill. Before long, the Villa Spada itself, fired upon from both inside and outside the walls, was riddled with holes torn by cannon fire. The roof of San Pietro in Montorio collapsed, while most of the gunners on Pino Hill were killed or wounded. Still the defenders kept rebuilding the defenses as they collapsed, while the wounded, as soon as they were bandaged up, returned to their posts undaunted. This was what Mazzini, when he ordered that the defense should continue, had intended: rather than a final episode of ignominious flight, the last chapter of Rome’s defense would be dominated by death-defying courage and heroism.
As if to underline this message, on June 26, Anita Garibaldi, pregnant and disguised, appeared at the Villa Spada unannounced. Garibaldi, when he saw her, cried out and embraced her. Though he would have forbid her to come if he had known of her plan, he was overjoyed to see his companion in battle. She, and her death at the end of it, would become a major part of the legendary retreat from Rome that would follow in a few days.
Meantime, the French concentrated much of their fire on the Vascello, battering it day and night with cannon balls. Almost alone, its defenders under Giacomo Medici were holding off the final assault on the Porta San Pancrazio and full entry into the city. They continued to do so even after the main portion of the structure collapsed from the bombardment, and French infantry stormed the walls. At the same time, artillery shelled not only the main defenses of the Janiculum, but fired, as diversionary tactics from the main assault, on other sacred areas of the city. In addition to the destruction in Trastevere, considerable areas around the Piazza di Spagna were hit. Protests by foreign consuls about this attack on an international heritage fell on deaf ears. So did the dispatches of Margaret Fuller, who, already on May 27, had written about the bombardment that had started and the far worse she feared would come:
I shall not go till the last moment; my only fear is of France. I cannot think in any case there would be found men willing to damn themselves to latest posterity by bombarding Rome. Other cities they may treat thus, careless of destroying the innocent and helpless, the babe and old grandsire who cannot war against them. But Rome, precious inheritance of mankind—will they run the risk of marring her shrined treasures? Would they dare do it?
Two of the balls that struck St. Peter’s have been sent to Pius IX by his children, who find themselves so much less “beloved” than were the Austrians…(Letter XXX)
When the siege was over, Fuller wrote more about that later, fiercer bombardment—“The house where I lived was filled as early as the 20th [of June] with persons obliged to fly from the Piazza di Gesu, where the fiery rain fell thickest” and the terror felt by civilians:
The night of the 28th the effect was truly fearful, as they whizzed and burst near me. As many as thirty fell upon or near the Hotel de Russie, where Mr. Cass has his temporary abode. The roof of the studio in the pavilion, tenanted by Mr. Stermer, well known to the visitors of Rome for his highly-finished cabinet pictures, was torn to pieces. I sat alone in my much exposed apartment, thinking, “If one strikes me, I only hope it will kill me at once, and that God will transport my soul to some sphere where virtue and love are not tyrannized over by egotism and brute force, as in this.” (Letter XXXIII. Rome, July 6.)
Fuller’s fear was increased by the fact that her husband, Marchese Ossoli, had been put in charge of northern defenses near the Porta Popolo, another scene of fierce bombardments meant to panic Roman citizens.
In the face of all this, and the growing certainty that only days were left before the French would successfully breach the Aurelian Wall, Garibaldi and Mazzini engaged in yet another quarrel around June 27. As he had done before, the general urged that the government, with the army, should leave the capital and carry on the war in the mountains of central Italy or in the south (Scirocco maintains that Garibaldi’s plan, rejected by Gen. Roselli, was to lead about 1,000 troops in an attack on the French from the rear.). But Mazzini and his advisers insisted that the defense of the walls should continue to the bitter end. At this point, Garibaldi gave in to a rare emotional outburst, abandoned his command, and led his Legion away from the walls and into the city. Only the pleading of officers like Luciano Manara finally persuaded him to return. The return of Garibaldi and his Legion was made all the more dramatic that day by the donning of red shirts by the entire group. It was just in time for the final French assault.
On the night of June 29-30, after the Feast of St. Peter and Paul had been celebrated in the city with candles and fireworks, the last assault began. The French, trained in this sort of combat, methodically took over each point of resistance: the Casa Merluzzo bastion, now almost decimated, the Porta San Pancrazio, the almost demolished Villa Spada, all defended by the Italians fighting in hand-to-hand combat in the pitch-black night. Among those to die in these fierce battles was the young Bersaglieri named Morosini, an almost angelic 18-year-old often compared to St. Francis by his companions. Even the French, who captured him, were impressed by his demeanor, prompting General Oudinot to write to his mother about the noble way in which her son had died. Garibaldi fought like a man possessed, leaping to action as soon as he heard that the “ultima prova” had begun. Seeing his Italians fleeing before the French onslaught, he gathered a few men and stopped the French advance, inspiring the rest to return to the fighting once more. Emilio Dandolo saw his chief “spring forward with his drawn sword, shouting a popular hymn.” Unsparing of himself, he employed his sword to devastating effect, leading what became a grisly battle of Frenchmen and Italians fighting to the death in hand-to-hand combat over ground littered with dead bodies.
At dawn, the Italians still held on to what was left of the Aurelian Wall and a nearby road, but the French had captured almost all the rest. From their close-in positions, they could now launch their most furious cannonade. On the other side, the Italian cannons were now a mere memory, most lying broken among numerous dead bodies. Aware now that the city would fall in moments, Garibaldi recalled Medici and his defenders still holding out in the Vascello, and ordered them into the city. Though a few positions remained, including the Villa Spada defended by the Lombard Bersaglieri, it was clear that the end was near. Emilio Dandolo was inside the Spada for this last defense, and describes the terror of being in the interior of a place pounded by cannon ricocheting from the walls, the floor slippery with blood. He also described the death of his leader, Luciano Manara:
…he was standing at an open window, looking through his telescope at some of the enemy who were in the act of planting a cannon, when a shot from a carabine passed through his body. “I am a dead man,” he said, falling; “I commend my children to you.” (223)
Shortly after, Luciano Manara, having taken the last sacrament, again pleaded for his children to be raised “in the love of religion, and of their country.” Then to a weeping Dandolo he said his final words: “Does it indeed pain you so much that I die?” then added, “It grieves me also.” And finally, giving Dandolo his prized ring: “I will embrace your brother for you.” (Trevelyan, 224-25 )
There would be one final charge, by Garibaldi and his Legionnaires, against the advancing French positions, but it was futile in the end. Just before a truce was agreed to around noon, Garibaldi was called to the Capitol to discuss surrender. He agreed to leave his post for one hour and entered the Assembly covered in dust and blood, grieving at the news he had just heard, that his comrade Aguiar was dead. The Assembly wanted his advice on three options: surrender; die fighting in the streets; or take their government and army into the mountains. Garibaldi opted for the plan he had long urged, to take the government and army into the mountains. “Wherever we go, there will be Rome,” he said. Having given his opinion, he rode quickly back to the Janiculum. The Assembly debated, with Mazzini arguing for Garibaldi’s proposal. But only a few opted for such a course; the rest of the Assembly resolved to “cease from a defense that has become impossible, and remain at its post.” Protesting, Mazzini refused to take part in a surrender, and resigned. The Assembly then gave Garibaldi and Roselli “plenary powers in the territories of the Roman Republic,” a grant Garibaldi considered in force even years later. The agreed-upon date for the French entry into Rome was July 3.
Meantime, Garibaldi prepared to organize his army for retreat. Some 4,000 men, many against the wishes of mothers and lovers, would take the wild march with him. Many would desert, many would be captured, many would die, but their chief, amazingly, would escape to fight again. Among those to join him were the Swiss Gustav Hoffstetter, again risking his life for a country not his own, and, of course, Anita Garibaldi, who insisted, despite her husband's entreaties to return to Nice, that she was coming on that fatal march, her last.
Margaret Fuller, hanging on in what she had recently called “Undaunted Rome,” was one of those who watched the July 2 departure of Garibaldi, Anita with hair cropped and dressed in male garb, and the ragtag army of patriots that followed him out of Rome, to be hunted by armies of French, Austrians, Spanish, Tuscans, and Neapolitans seeking, above all, to kill him and destroy the last vestiges of resistance in Italy. It is the most moving description of a departing army I know of:
Toward the evening of Monday, the 2d of July, it was known that the French were preparing to cross the river and take possession of all the city. I went into the Corso with some friends; it was filled with citizens and military. The carriage was stopped by the crowd near the Doria palace; the lancers of Garibaldi galloped along in full career. I longed for Sir Walter Scott to be on earth again, and see them; all are light, athletic, resolute figures, many of the forms of the finest manly beauty of the South, all sparkling with its genius and ennobled by the resolute spirit, ready to dare, to do, to die. We followed them to the piazza of St. John Lateran. Never have I seen a sight so beautiful, so romantic, so sad…The sun was setting, the crescent moon rising, the flower of the Italian youth were marshalling in that solemn place. They had been driven from every other spot where they had offered their hearts as bulwarks of Italian independence; in this last strong-hold they had sacrificed hecatombs of their best and bravest in that cause; they must now go or remain prisoners and slaves. Where go, they knew not; for except distant Hungary there is not now a spot which would receive them, or where they can act as honor commands. They had all put on the beautiful dress of the Garibaldi legion, the tunic of bright red cloth, the Greek cap, or else round hat with Puritan plume. Their long hair was blown back from resolute faces; all looked full of courage. They had counted the cost before they entered on this perilous struggle; they had weighed life and all its material advantages against liberty, and made their election; they turned not back, nor flinched, at this bitter crisis. I saw the wounded, all that could go, laden upon their baggage cars; some were already pale and fainting, still they wished to go. I saw many youths, born to rich inheritance, carrying in a handkerchief all their worldly goods. The women were ready; their eyes too were resolved, if sad. The wife of Garibaldi followed him on horseback. He himself was distinguished by the white tunic; his look was entirely that of a hero of the Middle Ages—his face still young, for the excitements of his life, though so many, have all been youthful, and there is no fatigue upon his brow or cheek. Fall or stand, one sees in him a man engaged in the career for which he is adapted by nature. He went upon the parapet, and looked upon the road with a spy-glass, and, no obstruction being in sight, he turned his face for a moment back upon Rome, then led the way through the gate. Hard was the heart, stony and seared the eye, that had no tear for that moment. (Letter XXXIII, July 6, 1849)
What ensued, besides the inglorious entry into Rome of the French and the return of Pio Nono, was the legendary retreat of Garibaldi and his band of 4,000, now commemorated, in dozens of towns and villages where they found shelter, with statues of the hero of two worlds. An entire adventure in itself, it could be read as a modern thriller, complete with hairsbreadth escapes, tragic betrayals, and the rare courage of those who aided Garibaldi, his dwindling band, and his dying wife, usually at the risk of their own lives. Suffice it to say here that by 1850, Garibaldi was in New York, Mazzini was back in England, and Italians would have to wait another decade before one of them would, at long last, light the fire to end foreign rule in Italy. As for the Roman Republic, which had glowed so brightly, if briefly, in that Roman Spring, it would not be seen again for nearly one hundred years.