The Only Monarch Left in Rome

On the pope’s waning political influence in Mussolini’s Italy.

By Jessica Wärnberg

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

View of Saint Peter's, by Federico Zuccaro, 1603.

View of Saint Peter’s, by Federico Zuccaro, 1603. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program.

When bombs rained on Rome in the summer of 1943, people could scarcely believe their eyes. Men hurriedly raised brick walls around the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius was taken from the Capitoline. The world was at war and Italy with it but, until then, Rome had been spared. Since 1870 the city had been the capital of the Italian nation. Its kings and prime ministers had spent millions of lire writing a new nationalist mythology into its monuments and streets. Yet more than seventy years later, many Romans still saw themselves as the people of a papal city. In 1943 they believed that the presence of the pope in Rome would protect them from attack.

On July 19, the Romans had a brutal wake-up call. In the minds of the American and British Allies, their leader was Benito Mussolini, not Pope Pius XII. Mussolini was a Fascist who had led Italy to war shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany. In any case, the Allies would not give Rome special treatment on account of the Holy See. Even when Mussolini was arrested on July 25, and King Victor Emmanuel III inched toward the Allied side, appeals to protect Rome as a uniquely significant place were treated with circumspection, particularly if they came from the pope. Pius XII, himself a Roman, intervened on behalf of the city, begging President Roosevelt to “save our beloved Rome from devastation.” The president’s aide, the straight-talking Iowan Harry Hopkins, was skeptical, fearing “one hell of a row” if Americans discovered that concessions had been made under pressure from the pope.

In the end, 9,125 bombs fell on Pius’ beloved Rome that day. The Allies aimed for the steel factory, freight yard, and airport, but their bombs could not discriminate. In that single attack, 1,500 civilians would die. The working-class district of San Lorenzo was devastated. It was a cruel irony that the bombs also destroyed the ancient basilica of Saint Lawrence, that deacon whom imperial Roman authorities had cooked alive for his charity to the poor. When Pius XII heard of the tragedy on July 19, he left the safety of the Vatican to bless the survivors and their dead. His bright white cassock became speckled with blood as he climbed “through the smoking rubble of charred houses where more than five hundred victims were strewn.” Standing over a somber-faced crowd, the pope stretched out his arms in blessing, making his body a stark white crucifix.

Pope Pius XII after the bombing of the San Lorenzo quarter, 1943.

Within a week of Pius’ visit to San Lorenzo, Mussolini was locked up in jail. He had been toppled by a vote of his own Fascist Grand Council and arrested swiftly afterward by the king. Hitler was aghast as Rome’s Fascists “melted away like snow in the sun.” It would fall to the Nazis to liberate Mussolini, installing him in a puppet state in Salò on the banks of Lake Garda in the northern region of Lombardy. It would also fall to the Nazis to restore Fascist leadership to Rome. Like Pius, the Italian general Pietro Badoglio attempted to protect the capital, declaring Rome a demilitarized or “open” city in August 1943. Ultimately, his efforts were in vain. The Nazis were soon sweeping southward on a mission code-named Operation Alaric, after the Gothic king who had invaded Rome in 410.

On September 9, Badoglio abandoned the city to its fate, fleeing down the via Tiburtina with the king ahead in a green Fiat. The battle for Rome took place the next day at the Porta San Paolo, where Saint Paul had departed the city to walk to his death. Junior officers and civilians fought Nazi artillery in a struggle that was heroic but futile. “We have no more ammunition. Do what you can for yourselves, boys,” one officer reportedly said. For the first time, the doors of Saint Peter’s Basilica were bolted during the hours of daylight. According to the diary of an American nun, Mother Mary, “Blood ran in the streets.”

Up on via Veneto in the glamorous rooms of the Hotel Excelsior, the Nazi general Kurt Mälzer passed his days drinking, lunching, and cavorting with women. Intoxicated by power, for nine months he would be “absolute master” of Rome’s 1.5 million citizens. Men and women were accosted in the street. Nazis barged through apartment doors. People and supplies were seized, day and night. The cells of the Regina Coeli prison became a squalid waiting room for deportation and, for many, death. Writing from the wreckage, the journalist Paolo Monelli evoked Mälzer’s rule of terror: “He commanded, he forbade, he oppressed.”

In the summer of 1943 Pope Pius XII had rushed to the people. When four bombs fell on the Vatican in November, the people ran to him. Windows had shattered into the cupola of Saint Peter’s; the Vatican radio station was blown to bits. Nazi propaganda swiftly turned the finger on “barbari anglo-americani.” The Roman people knew better than this. A crowd gathered in the square in front of Saint Peter’s, where Pius appeared at the window of his library to hear their cries.

The Germans were still in the city the following spring when Pius emerged on the balcony to a crowd of tens of thousands. Beleaguered by bombing, starvation, and Nazi raids, the people had requested an audience with their pope. According to one woman there, the pope was their only sanctuary and solace as they huddled into the curve of Bernini’s colonnade: “German soldiers [were] patrolling the borderline, almost as if to remind us of how near we were to where that area of peace ended, and the afflicted city began.”


The enduring significance of the pope for the Roman people might have appeared remarkable to outsiders at the time. Like the king, Pius XII and his predecessor, Pius XI, had worked closely with Mussolini. In 1933, when Pius XII was still secretary of state, the two men had negotiated with Hitler to secure a concordat. Yet even before the flight of King Victor Emmanuel III, the German diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker declared, “At the moment the pope is morally king of Rome. To create a papal state under his rule” at that time would have been “easy.” However, it would have been hard to keep the pope in power, for although the pope was still recognized in his role as Holy Father, the expectations, priorities, and principles of the world in which he lived were being transformed. When the Second World War ended, the monarchy born at the Risorgimento died: on June 2, 1946, Italy voted to become a republic with a majority of 54 percent. For men such as the Socialist politician Pietro Nenni, this was a protest against the entire ancien régime. He claimed that he cast his vote “not only against the Quirinal [Palace] but also against the Vatican.”

Whether Nenni liked it or not, however, the papacy lived on. Its existence depended on principles that were not democratic but eternal and divine. With societies in flux, the popes were still respected and beloved by many people in their role as universal pastor. In 1870 the new Italian king, Victor Emmanuel II, had stripped Pius IX of his traditional political power. By 1945 the pope was the only monarch left in Rome.


Excerpted from City of Echoes: A New History of Rome, Its Popes, and Its People by Jessica Wärnberg. Copyright © 2023 by Jessica Wärnberg. Available now from Pegasus Books.