The Middle East policy of the Italian government
For centuries the interests of the Latin Catholics living in the Ottoman Empire – this year is the 100th anniversary of its fall, a fate decided by the victors in the First World War – had been protected at the Sublime Porte by the representative of France. This right originally had its basis in the “Capitulations,” agreements of a politico-commercial nature that soon opened up to the protection of individuals or individual communities residing in the Empire. Only in 1740 did the Sultan grant France a capitular regime, which also provided for the protection of all Latin Catholics – designated simply as “Franks” – belonging to every nationality and, in particular, the traditional custodians of the Holy Places. This privilege was substantially reconfirmed, but only on condition that it did not prejudice the interests of the other European countries in the Ottoman Empire recognized by article 62 of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878.
This position of pre-eminence and prestige accorded, or rather reconfirmed, by the Sublime Porte to the French representatives was perceived by the Italian political leadership – in the years in which Italy, recently unified, was trying to enter the sphere of the European nations and to find its own space and influence in questions of international politics – with ill-concealed annoyance. The conquest of Tunisia in 1881 by the French reinforced in Italians a feeling of hostility toward their transalpine cousins.
France, as expected, was expanding in the Mediterranean, to the detriment of Italy, in territories that were not only close to its natural borders, but also densely inhabited by Italian citizens. According to the Italian ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Obizzo Malaspina, the Italians living in the Ottoman Empire in 1902 numbered about 25,000; by the end of the 19th century this number would have increased by about 10,000. Most of them lived in Istanbul, in the Genoese quarter of Galata-Pera (about 14,000), and in the other port cities of Smyrna (present-day Izmir), Salonica and Adana.