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A Great Romantic

A new introduction to Sant’ Ilario by F. Marion Crawford, in memory of Gerald Russello.

F.M. Crawford (Public Domain)

Cluny Media is proud to dedicate new hardcover editions of Francis Marion Crawford’s Saracinesca tetralogy to the memory and life in letters of Gerald Russello, editor of The University Bookman, Cluny advisor, and frequent TAC contributor. A graduate of Regis, Georgetown, and NYU Law who had clerkships and a tour of duty at the SEC on his C.V., he was a respected partner at a white-shoe Manhattan law firm who somehow found time to edit, to write, and to read more than full-time pundits and professors.

Crawford’s novels are set in the dying days of the Papal States and Italy during the Risorgimento. Gerald was a son of Sicily, a man of faith, a brilliant mind, and an encouraging friend to all who knew him. Gerald’s Sicilian faith is all anyone needs: Go to confession. Say the rosary. Hear Mass as often as you can. The saints are God’s friends, so ask them for help. Gerald helped to keep alive the legacy of Russell Kirk, Orestes Brownson, and Christopher Dawson. In his memory, Cluny Media hopes to keep alive the literary achievements of Francis Marion Crawford. Like Gerald, he was a man of many talents and limitless energy. When he died on Good Friday in 1909, his last words were “I enter serenely into eternity.” Requiescas in pace, Geralde.


As Garibaldi menaced the Eternal City with his revolutionary army, foreigners in Rome put out their national flags in a bid for immunity, which gave the city a festive appearance incongruous with the anxious popular mood. A large banner over the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva appealed to the highest sovereign for protection: “The ancient war against the Church is renewed. We, O Romans, will oppose it with our arms—prayer!”

On their path to Rome, the Piedmontese were met by armed resistance from the Papalini, the Zouaves serving Pope Pius IX. Their ranks were filled by Catholic gentlemen, many forgoing pay, from “the oldest and noblest families in Europe, who marched cheerfully in the ranks shoulder to shoulder with devout peasants and working men from Tyrol, Bavaria, Ireland, and other Catholic countries,” writes Mary Fraser, sister of novelist Francis Marion Crawford. A great Romantic, Crawford found the last days of the Papal States irresistible as the raw material for his Roman tetralogy following the Saracinesca family.

Another great Romantic, Russell Kirk, never visited Rome without Crawford’s two-volume history of the city. In Ave Roma Immortalis, Crawford gives the historical context for the opening scenes of his novel Sant’ Ilario:

On by the Borgo Santo Spirito, opposite the old church of the Peni­tentiaries, stands the Palazzo Serristori, memorable in the revolutionary movement of 1867. It was then the barracks of the Papal Zouaves—the brave foreign legion enlisted under Pius the Ninth, in which men of all nations were enrolled under officers of the best blood in Europe, hated more especially by the revolutionaries because they were foreigners, and because their existence, therefore, showed a foreign sympathy with the temporal power, which was a denial of the revolutionary theory which asserted the Papacy to be without friends in Europe. Wholesale murder by explosives was in its infancy then as a fine art; but the spirit was willing, and a plot was formed to blow up the castle of Sant’ Angelo and the barracks of the Zouaves. The castle escaped because one of the conspirators lost heart and revealed the treachery; but the Palazzo Serristori was partially destroyed. The explosion shattered one corner of the building. It was said that the fuse burned faster than had been intended, so that the catastrophe came too soon. At all events, when it happened, about dark, only the musicians of the band were destroyed, and few of the regiment were in the building at all, so that about thirty lives were sacrificed, where the intention had been to destroy many hundreds. In the more sane condition of Europe today, it seems to us amazing that Pius the Ninth should have been generally blamed for signing the death warrant of the two atrocious villains who did the deed, and for allowing them to be executed.

The explosion at the Serristori barracks creates a collision between members of the Saracinesca and Montevarchi families with collateral damage across several characters in Roman society.


Anastase Gouache is Rome’s favorite society artist. At the end of Saracinesca, the boyish Gouache puts down his paints and picks up his musket as a newly enlisted Zouave. “When Gouache put on the gray jacket, the red sash and the yellow gaiters, he became a man.” He is content within the martial routine and esprit de corps of the Zouaves until his peace is shattered by every Frenchman’s weakness: a beautiful young woman.

The delicate Donna Faustina Montevarchi is 18 years old and a rec­ent graduate of the convent school of the Sacro Cuore atop the Spanish Steps. There she acquired “the French language, a slight knowledge of music, a very limited acquaintance with the history of her own country, a ready memory for prayers and litanies—and her manners. Manners among the Italians are called education.”

Here is the challenge for any Roman novelist; every landmark has layers of true history threatening to outshine your fiction. These were the golden days of the Society when St. Madeleine Sophie Barat’s mission and example drew over 3,000 young women into religious life. In the convent next to the Sacro Cuore at the time of Crawford’s novel, Pauline Perdrau, a young postulant of the Society of the Sacred Heart, sought permission to paint the Blessed Virgin Mary in a chapel niche. Perdrau finished her fresco in 1844 to polite nods from her sisters and perhaps some snickering. Their rudeness would have been confessable if the fresco had been better. Painted wet, it was too brightly colored, even ugly. When Pius IX visited the chapel, against the wishes of the Mother Superior, he asked to see the painting concealed behind a curtain. The passage of time had dried the wet fresco and (perhaps through the intercession of a higher artist) softened the colors. The pontiff was delighted. “Truly she is Mater Admirabilis!” It is the custom to place a replica of the painting in all the Sacred Heart schools around the world. In Perdrau’s painting as in heaven, Our Lady patiently bears all things, even schools that have forgotten her Son.

The Montevarchi are a rich noble family living in the old patriarchal style in Rome. Their married adult children live in perfect obedience in different wings of the palazzo. “Don Lotario’s request that his wife might have a sitting-room of her own was looked upon as an attempt at a domestic revolution, and the privilege was only obtained at last through the formidable intervention of the Duke of Agincourt, the Duchessa’s own father.” All meals were served on silver plates “from motives of economy, for the simple reason that metal did not break.”

Prince Montevarchi’s thrift masks his avarice. In a perversion of generosity, he is greedy for his daughters and desires to marry them off to rich suitors. For Faustina, he hopes for a match with a young man from an old family. Only a Frangipani or Colonna will do. For the boisterous Flavia, he despairs until the unexpected appearance of another Saracinesca in Rome. Formerly a rural innkeeper, the physically formidable Marchese di San Giacinto explains his relationship to the elderly Prince Saracinesca:

My great-grandfather was two years older than yours. You know he never meant to marry, and resigned the title to his younger brother, who had children already. He took a wife in his old age, and my grandfather was the son born to him. That is why you are so much older than I, though we are of the same generation in the order of descent.

In other words, if his great-grandfather had not resigned his title in perpetuity, the humble, rough-cut San Giacinto would sit as Prince Saracinesca in Rome. With a little legal pruning and grafting, the entire family tree of the Saracinesca would have been altered. St. Ignatius of Loyola cautions that Satan “begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul and ends by suggesting his own.” As Montevarchi ponders the meaning of justice, he receives an evil suggestion from the Tempter.

The Montevarchi maintain a private library filled with antiquarian treasures and family archives. The private libraries of Roman nobles have long been priceless resources for historians and researchers. The anti-papal German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius wrote his multi-volume history of Rome (destined for the Index Librorum Prohibitorum) in the private libraries of the Colonna, Gaetani, Orsini, and Chigi families. One can measure the distance between the Rome of the 19th and 21st centuries in Gregorovius’s diary entry: “The Jesuits have made their first attack; I must be prepared for the consequences.”

From behind the dusty shelves of the Montevarchi library creeps one of Crawford’s great antagonists, Arnold Meschini. “He studied law and had practised for some time, when he had suddenly abandoned his profession in order to accept the ill-paid post of librarian.” Common courtesy assumed that he simply had a fanatic’s love of medieval lore, genealogy, and calligraphy. These were all means to an end for Meschini. He loves money and has acquired an unusual talent for forgery.

Aquinas teaches that suspicion denotes evil thinking based on slight indications while St. Madeleine Sophie Barat warns of the small infidelities that lead away from beatitude:

In speaking of infidelities, I do not mean faults that the weakness of our nature causes…but those that close our hearts and keep our Lord at a distance; those little voluntary infidelities to which we easily give in: a light that we do not wish to follow, an inspiration that we resist…

While Anastase and Faustina meet secretly at Sunday Mass, and San Giacinto pursues Faustina with the directness of a man accustomed to achieving his goals, Prince Sant Ilario and his wife Corona are led by a series of small confusions and miscommunications into dangerous suspicion. They have wealth, honor, and beauty, but a rupture in their love for each other threatens body and soul. Only an act of heroic sacrifice can repair the wound.

“Every wedding is a society wedding; it is on the well-being of the family that society depends,” writes Monsignor Ronald Knox in Bridegroom and Bride. In Sant’ Ilario, Francis Marion Crawford shows the many ways to fight for God, for Country, and for Family.


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