Fortunately, for now at any rate, things have quieted down a lot, and what were once painful current events have softened into dim memories marked by almost unnoticed monuments; the oddly tapering column you see is one of these, and the story is a fascinating one.
In a little parking area along the NE side of the Basilica of St. Mary Major next to the via dell' Esquilino, where construction workers restoring the church seem to take their cigarette breaks, the inquisitive visitor will bump up against this red granite column topped by a cross, placed on a plain square base with inscriptions dedicating it to the Blessed Virgin.
A quick glance, and it's one of countless religious monuments in town. A closer look, and you will notice that this is no column at all, but a representation of a cannon — of a 16c type known as a culverin, probably because of its long and slender snakelike shape — with a cross in its mouth, and the four arms of the cross ending in fleurs-de‑lis, the badge of royal France: sure enough, there's a story behind it all; two of them in fact.
France and the Papacy have had a long history of antagonism and ambivalent relations, in which the Popes have tried to bend the independent-minded French to their will, and French rulers in turn have tried to direct the Papacy in various ways: by deceit and pressure under Philip the Fair, who got the church to condemn the Templars; by geographical control when they succeeded in moving the hierarchy to Avignon; by infiltration under Louis XIV, who threatened an independent church and eventually succeeded in placing a series of weak men on the throne of Peter (not a bad thing, actually: some of them were quite saintly); by sheer bullying, with Napoleon kidnapping Pius VI and keeping him under house arrest until he died; finally, by withdrawing their support, thus allowing the founders of modern Italy to depose them from secular power. The peculiar monument you see here is a record of one of the phases in this struggle.
In 1589, the last Catholic king of France in the direct line was assassinated, and, nominally at least, the nearest heir of the collateral line became king as Henri IV. Since, however, that line had become Protestant, it took several years of civil war and finally his conversion to Catholicism to make the nation accept him as legitimate; he was a reasonable man, and is reported to have said that Paris, after all, was worth going to Mass for: the mass was on July 25, 1593 at St‑Denis.
Pope Clement VIII, after what must surely have at first been relief considering the advances of Protestantism thruout Europe, pressed his church's advantage in the matter of the French king's conversion (for an excellent and surprisingly balanced article on the whole business, see the Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. Henry IV) but ultimately, in September 1595, the latter completed his return to the fold of the Roman Church: France was once again Catholic.
Here is where our monument gets built, although its history is fuzzy. One of the many people involved in the complex negotiations surrounding the conversion of Henri IV was Charles d'Anisson, a French cleric who was prior of the Antonines. On his own initiative apparently, he had this commemoration of his successful efforts, of the Pope's absolution of the French king for having been a Protestant, erected in front of the mother church of his order in Rome, S. Antonio all' Esquilino.a This must have rankled the French, but what could they do?
Act Two. In 1662, when Louis XIV was 24 years old and starting to consolidate his throne, an escalating series of street brawls between the servants and staff of his ambassador Charles de Blanchefort de Créquy and some of Pope Alexander VII's Corsican guards provided an ideal pretext for the French king to reassert France against the power of the Lateran: he demanded an apology and policy concessions; he threatened; he mobilized troops; the Pope caved in.
Among the many unpleasant reparations to which the pontiff was made to agree, was the construction of a pyramid in Rome, with an abject inscription witnessing to the iniquity of the Pope's soldiers. That such a pyramid was actually built is certain: it was of black marble. What happened to it and when is much less certain, at least to me. If you follow all the links on this page, you will read that it was demolished in 1668, and that it was seen in 1721.
As for Anisson's culverin, relations between Rome and France improved in the 18c: in 1745 Benedict XIV removed the inscription on it that commemorated the subservience of Henri IV, and replaced it by others on the travertine base, so generic in their bland piety that despite being prepped for all of this when I finally saw them, I neither recorded nor photographed them; they are unrelated, at any rate, to anything you've read here. When the spayed monument was moved to this neglected corner in 1880, the process was complete; of the thousands of visitors to St. Mary Major every year, I don't think a dozen come to look.
Ascertaining the history of these two monuments and the events surrounding them is a difficult task because even now the matter remains emotionally charged and authors are not impartial. For the time being, I have not managed to access the primary sources; but three later redactions of various aspects of this Franco-Papal flap are online. Navigate carefully between them though and you'll get a good idea of it all. In chronological order:
For a very French view, see the Souvenirs of the Marquise de Créquy (ca. 1839) although it is very hard to say who wrote them and just how factual they are.
For a very Roman view, see Rodolfo Lanciani's account in Pagan and Christian Rome (1892), pp36‑37.
A detailed account of the events of 1662‑1664 by a French writer, published in 1911 by The Catholic Publication Society of New York, was once online, but with the continuing shrinkage of the Web, the page has now disappeared. Fortunately, the text is public domain and I made a backup copy, so you can still read it, part of a biographical sketch of Pope Alexander VII.
S. Antonio all' Esquilino:
The church still exists, fronting onto the N side of the via Carlo Alberto about 100 meters SE of S. Maria Maggiore, but the column has since moved around a bit, as old stones will: the details are given by Lanciani.
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Page updated: 5 Apr 07