In the prelude to the invasion of the Libyan territories in 1911, the Duke of Sermoneta and a liberal member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Leone Caetani was one of a small number of public opponents to the occupation of the region. Libya’s limited economic and mercantile potential formed the basis of Caetani’s opposition. He questioned the legitimacy of favourable portrayals of the the agricultural and economic potential of the region, but also warned Italians against seeing Islam and Christianity as compatible since he believed they shared the missionary objective of expanding their faith. Caetani considered Islam “the big, the only rival of Christian civilisation”. In a contentious and polarising speech to the Chamber of Deputies in June 1911, he revealed a further factor in his objections: his suspicion that the invasion of the Libyan territories was driven by the interests of the Banco di Roma, which he declared “we all know is the bank in which the Vatican places all of its savings”.


As a result of his opposition, Caetani (L) lost his seat in the Italian Chamber of Deputies in the 1913 elections, but later joined the imperial project by accepting an invitation to serve on a board of advisors for the Ministry of Colonies. As a noted academic of the history of Islam, Caetani became involved in the Commission for the Study of Islamic Issues established in December 1914. One issue the Commission was tasked with dealing with was legitimising the colonial administration’s appropriation of waqf properties. He was later stripped of his Italian citizenship by the fascist regime after emigrating to Canada in the 1920s. Caetani presented a critical analysis of what he believed to be inconsistencies in Islamic sources in Annali dell’Islam (R).

Rome’s building boom in the 1880s was financed largely by the Church, which was becoming a central part of Rome’s expanding economy. Five million lire of donations to the Catholic Church between 1870 and 1914 were invested in the Roman economy. It was during this time that the great Roman financial institution, Banco di Roma, was founded in 1884; an enterprise which was established only with a sizeable investment from the Vatican. Although considered one of the big four banks in Italy by the 1900s (besides Banca Commerciale, Credito Italiano, and Società Bancaria Italiana), Banco di Roma’s location in Rome hindered its economic development. Rome was not yet a major centre of manufacturing industry and commerce. Based in close proximity to Milan, Turin and Genoa, more profitable investments in electrical, chemical and mechanical industries were accessible to the other three banks. Banco di Roma meanwhile was limited to opportunities in central and southern Italy, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. As a result, it experienced frequent crises and inflicted much financial loss onto the Church. Despite this, the relationship between the Pope and banking aristocracy endured, and the bank continued to invest mainly in real estate and building speculation, continuing also to rely heavily on the Church for funding. Investing into economic initiatives abroad became an alternative way to channel the bank’s (and so by extension the Church’s) capital, and for the central government to assert itself in the midst of the great economic and financial prosperity in northern Italy.

The Balkans, the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire, and North Africa were considered as prospects for commercial expansion to be seized upon by the bank. However, the field was not entirely free in much of these regions for the Italian initiative. In the Balkans and in Istanbul for example, British, French, German, and Viennese banks were already established and were vying for influence. In Tripoli, a German finance syndicate was operating successfully in Tripoli by the early 1900s. While French control had precluded the opening of a branch in Tunisia, Banco di Roma established branches in Alexandria in 1905, and Cairo in 1908. In the Libyan territories the bank’s expansion was more rapid. In 1907 the first branch was founded in Tripoli, and by the time of the Italian invasion of the region in 1911, eighteen branches had been established across Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. During the first year of operation alone, branches were opened in Benghazi, Khoms, Zliten, Misrata, Zawara, and Derna.

Banco di Roma branches in Tripoli (L), Benghazi (top R), and Derna (bottom R).

The Vatican was cautiously supportive of the Libyan enterprise. While reluctant to publicly support a war, they were happy to back a peaceful economic penetration of the Turkish provinces, and the investment of the the Church’s capital in the colonial enterprise. Despite fears from senior members of the Church that it could be perceived that the invasion was being pursued in the interests of Banco di Roma, which was widely known to be the bank of the Vatican, Cardinal Vannutelli declared publicly that the invasion was an enterprise of the “civilisation of the Cross in lands subjected to ignominious yoke of the half-moon”. The Vatican’s fears about the need to maintain diplomatic neutrality were unfounded; the invasion seemed to have ignited the patriotism of Italian Catholics, and donations to the Vatican are said to have tripled in its wake.

Enrico Bresciani (named the “The Cecil Rhodes of Tripolitania” by British war journalist Francis McCullagh) was a Italian financier and businessman, who despite his failed economic ventures in Italian Somalia, was entrusted by the director of Banco di Roma with opening a branch in Tripoli. Ottoman law restrictions that prevented foreign ownership of land and businesses were overcome in the first instance by the purchasing of an existing mercantile venture from the Arbib family of Tripoli. The Arbibs were a family of Jewish merchants with joint British-Italian nationality. The commercial ventures and investments the bank pursued were diverse, and included a coastal shipping line, olive oil processing, soap manufacturing, flour milling and esparto grass pressing (at the time Tripoli’s leading export commodity). The bank is reported to have purchased skins, ostrich feathers, eggs, and horses, but often sold them for less than it had paid for them. It purchased a sponge factory and flooded the market with sponges, but failed to compete with existing foreign sponge manufactures operating in the region. The bank established a failed ice factory, and went on to build a flour mill in Benghazi at six times the true building costs, and produced no more than five or six bags of wheat per day. With the Italian Treasury’s support, Bresciani also pursued private, illegal measures, such as acquiring land through mortgage foreclosures or through agents.

Banco di Roma also arranged and funded government backed agricultural and economic surveys of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in the years preceding military invasion. Such examples were two expeditions lead by Ignazio Sanfilippo, who was sent to ascertain the potential of mineral extraction, in particular sulphur mining, in the Libyan desert in June 1910 and February 1911. Although Bresciani had successfully negotiated with the Ottoman officials to allow the scientists into the region, the true purpose of their mission was kept hidden from the Ottoman authorities on both occasions. Sanfilippo would return to Libya on behalf of the fascist government in the late 1920 and early 1930s; this time in search of phosphates to use in fertilisers during the wheat crisis. In this photo taken by Sanfilippo in 1911, local authorities are seen observing the work of the Italian mission.

Much of these seemingly legitimate business ventures were a pretence; the bank’s real work would be in the diplomatic efforts of peaceful economic penetration, at the expense of the Italian government, and the overtaxed Italian population. It was with the support and backing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Italy’s Foreign Minister from 1903 to 1909 was Tommaso Tittoni; a former bank director and the brother of the Vice President of the bank, Romolo Tittoni) that Banco di Roma was able to proceed in these diplomatic efforts. Notables amongst the Turks and Arabs were bought off with monthly salaries and promises of positions (among them Hassuna Karamanli, apparently still disgruntled at the dethroning of his grandfather’s position as the Bey of Tripoli by Ottoman authorities). By all accounts, the institution is likely to have folded entirely had it not been for the continued backing of the Italian government. With the bank in dire straits and entirely dependent on the Treasury to stay afloat, Bresciani began taking measures to quicken the Italian annexation of the territories. He attempted to convince the members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Treasury that what awaited the Italians was waning Ottoman control, and a docile Libyan population. Bresciani became a strong vocal proponent of the demographic colonisation of Libya, propagating the idea that immigration to the colonies was an effective strategy of peaceful penetration. He wrote that he would like to create “modest farmsteads with Italian peasants, hiring the indigenous to work the land”. The problem the bankers and colonial administration had to contend with of course, was that the best lands were not for sale. Tracks of land were purchased illegally in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, but at extortionate rates, and much of this land was quickly resold for a fraction of the bank’s purchase price. It was Bresciani’s attempt at expanding the bank’s real estate investments in the years preceding the Italian invasion that bought it to the brink of bankruptcy. The time for civilisation to be extended to the Libyan territories had been reached.

Banco di Roma laid the groundwork for Italy’s annexation of the Libyan territories. The financiers and banking aristocracy paved the way for the military invasion and occupation, and McCullagh suggests that Bresciani in particular was practically the autocrat of the Italian enterprise in Tripoli. Banco di Roma would later have a monopoly of all governmental work following the invasion. The bank would supply the rafts and bridges used to disembark the troops, they would construct barracks for the soldiers, and provide them with food. The bank was assigned every contract to supply the Italian army, navy and civil government with every innumerable thing that they required in the war effort, and remained the associate of the Italian government in developing the colony. Eugene Staley suggests that the bank’s role as an active instigator of the invasion, and a passive instrument of state policy is a general characteristic of how private investments are used as tools in diplomacy. After taking large risks in anticipation of an occupation of the Libyan territories, and seemingly in support of government policy, Bresciani was able to demand that the government support the bank’s ventures that eventually required a continuation and intensification of policy leading to military invasion.

The original site of the Tripoli branch of Banco di Roma is photographed in recent years (L). While the institution survived the British administration and the reign of King Idris, its name was changed to Umma Bank in November 1969, and it became a nationally owned institution in December 1970 following Gaddafi reforms (R).

Selected bibliography

A Box of Sand: The Italo-Ottoman War 1911-1912 by Charles Stephenson

Banco di Roma’s Mediterranean thrust 1900-1952 by John Consiglio. Article published in Storja, 2001, 74-92.

Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention by Stephanie Malia Hom

Italy’s War for a Desert: Being some experiences of a war correspondent with the Italians in Tripoli by Francis McCullagh

Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: Financing the Vatican, 1850-1950 by John Pollard

Religion as Resistance: Negotiating Authority in Italian Libya by Eileen Ryan

War and the Private Investor: A Study in the Relations of International Politics and International Private Investment by Eugene Staley