I have not spent much time in Gaeta, about 60 miles north of Naples. I recall that it has fine beaches and a picturesque waterfront. It is also an important military naval port. As the northernmost coastal city in the old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples), Gaeta does have some interesting episodes connected with it. It is probably most familiar for the fact that it was the site of the last stand by the Bourbon army against the Italian forces of Victor Emanuel II. After leaving Naples, the last defenders of the Neapolitan Bourbon dynasty took refuge in the fortress of Gaeta (photo) and withstood a siege and withering bombardment that lasted from November 1860 to February 1861, at the end of which they surrendered, and the modern nation-state of Italy was born. (See, also, the entry on Maria Sophia of Bourbon.)
But there is another episode, not too many years before that and also connected with the political movement to unify Italy. In the "What-If" game of history —always as delightful as it is irrelevant— the unification of northern and southern Italy into a single state perhaps did not have to unfold the way it did. What if King Ferdinand II of Naples had sent forces in 1848 to join the northern armies in the First War of Italian Unification, a campaign to liberate parts of northern Italy from Austria? That might have brought about an Italian confederation of sorts with no invasion of the south necessary at all a decade later.
Actually, Ferdinand did, indeed, send an army to join the battle against Austria, but he recalled it. There are a number of reasons for that, foremost of which is that he knew that an Italian confederation would be setting up the eventual invasion of the Papal States, the large chunk of church land in central Italy that effectively stood in the way of unifying the peninsula. Ferdinand was not prepared to be part of that eventual invasion. Also, Pope Pius IX had refused to commit Papal forces and moral support to the campaign against the Catholic nation of Austria. (Obviously, the Pope also realized that a united Italy would sooner or later mean the end of the Papal States and the 1000-year-old "temporal power" of the Vatican.) Thus, Ferdinand withdrew the forces of Naples from the war, and the north went it alone in 1848 and took a beating.
(Again in the
What-If game, Ferdinand's son, Francis II,
took the throne of Naples a decade later and refused a
similar chance to form a coalition with King Victor
Emanuel of Savoy, who proposed an Italian peninsula
shared by two separate states, north and south, plus a
smaller version of the Church State. That was the last
chance to obviate Garibaldi's invasion of the Kingdom
of the Two Sicilies.)
Part of the broad revolutionary conflicts that swept Italy —indeed, much of Europe— in 1848 was the proclamation of the Roman Republic. It was the result of a successful uprising, fomented by Mazzini's Young Italy movement, to overthrow the Pope (not as the head of the faith, but as the king of the Papal States). The Republic lasted, officially, from February 9 to July 3, 1849 but Pope Pius IX had left Rome in November of the previous year to escape possible violence against his person. (Republican agitators had already murdered the Pope's Prime Minister). The Pope went to Gaeta, where he was under the protection of the king of Naples. From his refuge in Gaeta, Pius IX called on the Catholic nations of Europe to help restore him to his See and to restore the temporal power of the Church, which the Republicans had declared defunct in one of their first proclamations.
That is precisely what happened. A broad coalition of Neapolitan, French, Austrian, and even Spanish troops (who landed at Gaeta) surrounded the Roman Republic, and not even the resourceful Garibaldi (involved in the defense of the city) could hold out against all that. The fighting was furious, but the outcome was never in doubt. The Pope returned to Rome in April of 1850 where he and his state would be protected by French troops until 1870 when Rome finally succumbed to the forces of the new Italy.
The Church of
San Francesco in Gaeta was built (on the site of an
earlier monastery) by Ferdinand II to honor the brief
presence of the Pope in Gaeta. As well, the San
Martino museum in Naples has on display a painting by
the Flemish artist, Frans Vervloet showing "The Pope
Greeting the Multitudes in Gaeta". For a short time,
then, Gaeta was the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.
to top of this page