The Villa Spada: Lara Marlowe on the Irish Embassy in Rome and the echoes of 1849

Villa was site of battle to defend republican ideals

Italian republican volunteers led by Giuseppe Garibaldi fought French troops who had been dispatched to Rome to restore the power of Pope Pius IX throughout the month of June 1849.

Four months earlier, an elected assembly had proclaimed Rome a republic. Fearing the contagion of rebellion, conservative powers across Europe sent soldiers to defend the papacy. It would take 22 years for the movement known as the Risorgimento to consolidate the unification of Italy.

Garibaldi chose 24-year-old Luciano Manara to command the battalion of plumed and booted Lombard Bersaglieri who defended his headquarters at the Villa Spada.

In an etching from the 1905 book Garibaldi and His Time, Bersaglieri armed with muskets and sabres prop up Manara, who is mortally wounded, while comrades continue shooting at the French through the door and windows of the grand salon of the Villa Spada. Today, the splendid 17th-century mansion on Gianicolo Hill overlooking Rome houses the Irish Embassy and ambassador’s residence.

The French broke through Garibaldi’s last line of defence at noon on June 30th. The Villa Spada was badly damaged, but its core structure remained. A truce was agreed to evacuate the dead and wounded and the assembly of the republic declared an end to resistance. Garibaldi, his Brazilian-born wife Anita and many soldiers refused to surrender and retreated northwards, to fight another day.

“The Villa Spada was one of the first buildings purchased abroad by the independent Irish state, to serve as embassy to the Holy See,” says Patricia O’Brien, Ireland’s ambassador to Italy. “It was a sign of the importance of relations with the Vatican at the time. But our foreign policy evolved. We have drawn closer to Italy, which is influential in the EU and is the Union’s third largest economy.” The government in 2012 chose to reassign the Villa as Ireland’s bilateral embassy to Italy.

Paolo Serpi, who has just left Dublin after four years as Italy’s ambassador to Ireland, sees a parallel between the legendary Luciano Manara and Patrick Sarsfield, the first Earl of Lucan and a leading figure in the Jacobite army during the 1689 to 1691 Williamite War in Ireland.

Unlike England, Scotland and Wales, Serpi says, Hibernia was never part of the Roman Empire, so it never developed a deeply entrenched military tradition. That made Sarsfield, who proved his valour on the battlefield at Limerick, particularly remarkable, he says.

Lucan House, Sarsfield’s home, is now the residence of Italy’s ambassador to Ireland. “The Irish ambassador in the Villa Spada and the Italian ambassador in Lucan House are custodians of these incredible military legends,” Serpi says. Though Ireland and Italy are geographically positioned in opposite, northwest and southeast corners of the EU, he adds, “We are very similar in character and traditions. We are common engines of Europe, and our embassies reflect this.”

It is not unusual for Italian officials to express emotion when they are received by Irish ambassadors in the very room where Manara was shot. “There is a sacral atmosphere. If you know history, you feel it,” says Serpi.

Probably by chance, Ireland’s embassy in Rome is located a mere 325 metres from the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, where Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O’Donnell, the Earl of Tyrconnell – the last two living Gaelic lords of Ulster – and up to nine family members were buried between 1608 and 1623. The Spanish royal family took pity on the exiled Gaelic aristocracy and ensured they received dignified burials. Hugh O’Neill’s marble floor slab is etched in Latin and calls him Hugonis Principis Onelli. His bones, it signals, lie beneath the church floor.

The church is still run by Spanish Franciscans and is attached to the adjacent Spanish Academy and Embassy of Spain. It is a place of pilgrimage for Irish visitors. “Every time my parents visited from Ireland, they would go to the Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio, because my father is an O’Neill and my mother is an O’Donnell,” says Lorcan O’Neill, the owner of a contemporary art gallery in Rome.

In the Flight of the Earls, the O’Neills and O’Donnells trudged for eight months across Europe, including the alps. They arrived in Rome exhausted by the journey and succumbed to disease carried by mosquitos that breed in the Tiber.

San Pietro in Montorio was damaged in the Battle of the Villa Spada. A rusty French cannonball is affixed to a marble plaque outside the church, “In memory,” it says, “of the heroic resistance of the Roman republic”.