Written by Leonardo Rossi
The body matters. The corpses of religious leaders and charismatic figures have been charged with powerful – and sometimes contradictory – meanings. Human remains of illustrious people are for some groups monuments of devotional memory while, for others, they are irritating symbols that need to be hidden or destroyed. In this post, I will deal with the disputed body of Pius IX (1792-1878), the last pope-king and probably the first pontiff to become a worldwide celebrity in the nineteenth century.
The reasons for the dispute
To understand why his corpse was contested post-mortem, we must step back and take a look at the last years of the pope’s life. In 1870, the Italian army of Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy invaded the remaining domains of the Papal States, including Rome, and ended the millennial secular power of the popes. Pius IX reacted by declaring himself a “prisoner of the Vatican,” he did not recognize the newborn Italian kingdom and, for the rest of his days (he died eight years later), remained within the borders of the smallest state in the world.
The problem of the body
Despite his aversion to the Italian kingdom, the pontiff had indicated in his will the desire to be buried not in the monumental basilica of St Peter, in the Vatican, but in St Lawrence outside the Walls, a church on Roman soil. But how to transport the corpse of a former pope-king to an enemy state? The Vatican authorities preferred to temporarily keep the body of Pius IX in St Peter and waited over three years before moving his coffin. In the late spring of 1881, the diplomats of the two states arranged the event. It was supposed to be a private ceremony, celebrated in secrecy and at night, without the presence of the faithful or protesters. The fixed date was the night between 12 and 13 July 141 years ago. In the end, however, things turned out differently.
An announced tragedy
A few days earlier, news of the transfer went viral. In Rome, there was no talk of anything else, and the cardinal vicar officially ordered members of Catholic societies not to organize public demonstrations. In agreement with the Vatican curia, two senior representatives of the Roman laity warned the police headquarters that immense popular participation in the ceremony could be expected and lead to clashes between intransigent Catholics and anticlericals. The commissioner alerted the highest offices of the government, asking for more soldiers in the streets to ensure safety. They underestimated the danger: for them, Pius IX was a ghost of the past. They committed a severe error of assessment. On the afternoon of 12 July, St Peter’s Square was already crowded with faithful and onlookers who patiently awaited the coffin of Pius IX: it was the sign of a foretold tragedy.
Partisan versions and fake news ante litteram
The world learned about the Roman events thanks to the news reported in the main newspapers the day after. The Italian government and the Vatican quickly sent their version to the foreign embassies and the leading press agencies, blaming each other. Catholics accused the Italian Kingdom of doing nothing to protect the illustrious pontiff’s body and guarantee the faithful’s safety. In their opinion, the goal of the state was to dismantle religious freedoms, reduce Catholicism to a persecuted sect and force the current pope (Leo XIII) to stay inside the Vatican walls. The liberals, on the other hand, spoke of non-compliance with the agreements and an illicit public procession. The civil authorities had authorized no demonstrations, but the Catholics ignored the pacts and provoked political opponents through chants and anthems against united Italy. They were neither martyrs nor persecuted as they liked to describe themselves, but disturbers of public order. If it is difficult to reconstruct the events of that night from the partisan sources, we can grasp from these the importance that the body of Pius IX had for the two different groups.
The veneration of the corpse
During his long pontificate, Pius IX showed himself to the faithful as the good shepherd, willing to suffer martyrdom for the salvation of the faith and the Church. Already in life, he had been considered a ‘living saint’ and his fama sanctitatis increased after his death. The Catholic press published dozens of witness accounts of miracles and healings attributed to his intercession. The devotional images and relics of him were flying off the rack, and the people asked for the opening of an immediate beatification process. For the 100,000 Catholics who accompanied the coffin of Pius IX from the Vatican to St Lawrence, being present meant publicly demonstrating their loyalty to the deceased pontiff and their hope of obtaining graces from his miraculous body. Armed with devotional candles, they invaded the streets of Rome, addressing prayers and supplications to the pope and protecting his body from opponents’ attacks. Losing his body meant losing a powerful relic and the symbol of a longed-for triumph of the Church over its enemies.
Throw the body into the Tiber
Shouting the slogan “throw the remains of the ‘Pork Pope’ into the river,” about thirty radical anticlericals tried to grab the coffin of Pius IX and throw it from Ponte Sant’Angelo into the Tiber. The intervention of the police stopped assault, but the opponents reattempted several times that night, hoping to destroy his body. Why this fury against a corpse? Pius IX had expressed his opposition to the creation of the Italian Kingdom, and considered it a violation of the legitimate status quo. After the conquest of Rome, his position became even more intransigent, and until his death, he attacked the new government and modern society. For the unionists – and more generally for groups linked to Freemasonry, anticlericals and non-Catholic liberals – he had been the main enemy and, despite his death, his legacy continued to influence Italian Catholics. Symbolically, destroying his body meant destroying his ideas, wiping out oppositions against the changes and modernity. Furthermore, they recognized his corpse as a devotional catalyst still capable of conditioning Italian society.
The symbolic body
The events that occurred during the transfer of the human remains of Pius IX demonstrate the centrality of his body. Admired by the faithful and mistreated by opponents, he continued to embody powerful meaning years after his death. After the eventful night, Catholics from all over the world sent financial donations to Rome for the construction of a new and sumptuous mausoleum to celebrate the “martyr pope.” From then on, believers went on pilgrimage to St Lawrence to honour his sacred remains. Still nowadays, Pius IX rests in the lower crypt of the basilica and, after his beatification (3 September 2000), his ‘uncorrupted’ body is publicly displayed. Faithful consider it a relic worthy of devotion, tourists a curious remnant of the past, and scholars an important material source to investigate.