Wednesday, December 14, 2011
King Umberto I
Toward that end the young Prince Umberto served as a captain in the army of Piedmont-Sardinia (the highest rated amongst the Italian states) in the Italian Wars for Independence. Promotions followed and he fought at the battle of Solferino in 1859 and led a division at the battle of Custoza in 1866. That engagement was a bitter blow for the Piedmontese, being defeated by a significantly smaller Austrian army, however, Prince Umberto acquitted himself well. Near Villafranca, he and his men were attacked by the Austrian cavalry (which was famous across Europe) and the Prince had his men form square and repelled every charge with the Prince himself remaining with his troops at all times, exposed to constant danger. In the aftermath of the battle, he helped to form the rear-guard, covering the retreat of the Piedmontese army and won numerous decorations for his courage and gallantry.
Prince Umberto, like his father before him and his son after him, had it impressed upon him at an early age that his duty was to make Italy a great nation and to lead the Italian people to a place of prosperity and greatness befitting their glorious ancient history. The House of Savoy had embraced enemies, alienated friends and risked all in this one mission; to see the unification of Italy and to make the Italian nation a great and powerful kingdom. Prince Umberto would never forget this and his duty to his people and his country always came first. His father had succeeded in the first step, uniting the country and becoming the first King of Italy, and it would be up to Prince Umberto to carry on that legacy and take the nation his father had given him to greater heights. This was firmly in his mind when his father died and he became King Umberto I of Italy on January 9, 1878. Whereas his father had not changed his name when he became King, Umberto specifically chose to reign as King Umberto I rather than “King Umberto IV” using the older Savoy numbering. He did not want to appear as a Piedmontese monarch ruling Italy but as the first King Umberto of an Italian kingdom with a new Italian Royal Family.
King Umberto I became known as the “Good King” or “Umberto the Good” by the common people because of the care and concern he showed them. When Verona and Venice suffered massive flooding in 1882 the King went himself to direct the efforts to minimize the disaster and gave generously from his own funds to aid those displaced. When a massive earthquake struck Ischia the following year the King again intervened, ordering rescue operations to continue five days longer than planned which resulted in many lives being saved. Again, he went himself to lend a hand even though the area remained quite dangerous. He showed similar compassion in 1884 when a cholera epidemic struck southern Italy and by all of these and similar actions was beloved by the Italian people. In securing the dynasty and uniting the country, the reign of Umberto I was an early success. The only ones not satisfied were the radical leftists who opposed the rise to prominence of more conservative elements in government, the most notable being Francesco Crispi.
In 1897 the King survived another assassination attempt, by another anarchist, near Rome. The following year came the one most controversial event of his reign. Riots, first over the price of bread but whipped up by leftist agitators, broke out in Milan and the city was placed under martial law. As the situation began to get out of control, General Fiorenzo Bava-Beccaris ordered his artillery to fire on the crowd, killing about a hundred people and wounding many more but putting an immediate stop to the rioting. Many were shocked by this and many people (mostly revolutionaries anyway) were outraged when King Umberto I decorated the general afterwards. This incident has been used to paint the King in a very negative light and it was an unfortunate incident undoubtedly. However, the King only recognized the general for taking decisive action to restore law and order and safeguard lives and property against the already violent crowd of rioters in the streets. It was not an award for butchery but for putting a swift end to an ugly situation that was threatening to become worse. The Socialist Party had been behind the outbreak of violence which included, incidentally, a young radical named Benito Mussolini.
In 1900, in what would be the last major foreign policy act of his reign, King Umberto dispatched Italian troops to China as part of the Eight Nation Alliance to suppress the Boxer Rebellion. The Kingdom of Italy would gain a concession in China as a result but Umberto I would never know this. On July 29, 1900 King “Umberto the Good” was driving in Monza when he was shot four times and killed by an Italian-American anarchist named Gaetano Bresci, an act of revenge, the man claimed for the suppression of the riot in Milan. The public mourned heavily for the King they remembered fondly for his good humor and generosity. On August 9, 1900 he was laid to rest in the Pantheon in Rome next to his father.