In my last post, about WWII Rome, I mentioned Italy’s king of the time. It’s odd to think that Italy had a king not so long ago — indeed, when my father first arrived there, before WWII.
The first king of the unified Italy (which is itself a long story!) was Victor Emmanuel II. He reigned from 1861 to 1878. Before the unification of Italy, he was merely the King of Sardinia. But his political maneuvering during the wars of Italian Unification paid off when he was declared the King of Italy.
Visitors to Rome will know this king because of the massive, white marble Victor Emmanuel II monument that towers over Rome’s historic center, known as the “Vittoriano” (but also more derisory nicknamed “The Wedding Cake” or “The Typewriter”). Love it or hate it (I tend to the latter), the Vittoriano is Rome’s most visible landmark as it lavishes Piazza Venezia with its glory.
The center of the monument features an enormous equestrian statue of the king, pictured at the top of this post. Climb the stairs to get a closer view. His tomb, however, is in the very heart of Rome, in the Pantheon.
His son, Umberto I, became king in January 1878. This king began expansion into Eritrea and Somalia. He also pursued an alliance with Germany and the Austia-Hungary — setting up the framework for the tragedies that would occur during reign of his own son. Umberto I’s support for the brutal suppression of food riots in Milan led to his unpopularity and ultimately his assassination in 1900.
Umberto I was the last king to be buried in the Pantheon.
Victor Emmanuel III, was the reigning king for most of WWII. In fact, he assumed the throne in July 1900; meaning he also reigned during WWI. This man was king when Mussolini rose to power; he personally made the decision to enter WWII on the side of the Germans; and, after the fall of Mussolini, resisted entering into an armistice with the Allies. Then, when threatened with German invasion of Italy, he fled Rome. To add insult to injury, the AWOL king referred to the Allied forces who had rushed to defend Italy as “cowards.”
Needless to say, Victor Emmanuel III became very, very unpopular… enough to instigate a referendum to abolish the Italian monarchy and more political maneuvering.
In response to the referendum, Victor Emmanuel III abdicated on May 9, 1946 in favor of his son, Umberto II. This was in fact a last-ditch attempt to preserve the monarchy. It was unsuccessful: Umberto II reigned for only 34 days, from May 9 to June 12, 1946. The monarchy was abolished. Umberto II spent the rest of his life in exile and died in Geneva on 1983.
The male descendants of the House of Savoy were banned from setting foot on Italian soil under the Italian Constitution. In 2002, however, that provision was repealed after several members of the royal family signed a statement renouncing all claims to the now-defunct throne and recognizing the Republic as the only lawful government of Italy.
Despite history, the topic of the royal family was still a rather touchy subject when I was growing up in Rome (Rome had voted in favor of the monarchy in the 1946 referendum). For some of you who are long-time visitors to Rome, you may remember that there used to be pro-monarchy volunteers, clad in dashing cloaks (I also remember black hats with white feathers) standing guard in front of the royal tombs in the Pantheon. But, I don’t recall having seen them at the Pantheon the last few times I was there. The volunteers have a nice website and Facebook page, though!