Wednesday, December 14, 2011

King Vittorio Emanuele II

The man who would be the last King of Piedmont-Sardinia was known by the people of that late country, even early on, as the “Honest King” for his sincere devotion to their welfare. After going on to become the first King of Italy he became known to subsequent generations of Italians as the “Father of the Fatherland” and be celebrated and memorialized by one of the most immense and grandiose monuments ever to grace the fatal hills of Rome. Yet, this monarch who was so praised by the other courts of Europe was also, to some extent, snubbed by them and this monarch who the Pope remembered as “an honest man” was also dubbed by the Catholic press as “the Robber King”. There are few monarchs who have been simultaneously so praised and vilified as King Victor Emmanuel II. He was born on March 14, 1820 to King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia and Queen Maria Theresa of Austria. Part of his youth he spent in Florence where he gained a love of politics, sports and the military. The military would dominate much of his life as such service was a sacred tradition in the House of Savoy.

Victor Emmanuel II grew up on stories about the past exploits of his family. The Savoy who defended Rhodes as a Knight of Malta, the Savoy who was one of the greatest generals of Emperor Charles V, those who were blessed by the Church, went on Crusade, preserved the Shroud of Turin and so on and so forth. He was also very aware of strong differences in opinion amongst his forebears. Carlo Felice (Charles Felix) had been conservative and very attached to the sacred nature of monarchy. King Charles Albert was more liberal and, unlike his predecessors, despised the Austrians as much as they him, even to the point that they tried to thwart his succession. Victor Emmanuel II inherited many of the same internal conflicts endured by his father, a devout Catholic and firm believer in monarchy yet one whose nationalist and liberal sentiments were echoed by the “Young Italy” movement. Yet that movement ultimately made itself the enemy of the King and became radically republican. In his own time, Victor Emmanuel II would be expected to walk this same tight rope between enemies on both sides.

At the time similar conflicts were playing out all across Italy. A good illustration was when, in 1848, the people were incited to demand a constitution. King Charles Albert agreed to grant it and appeared on the balcony, waving the tricolor flag alongside his sons Victor Emmanuel and Ferdinand to the jubilant cheers of the crowd while all sang the ‘Hymn of Pius IX’ as the “liberal reformer” Pope who spoke openly of the “Italian nation” was at that time the most popular Italian of all. Things would soon change. Piedmont-Sardinia was spared further turmoil by giving in to the liberals but other states would not and when Austria sent troops to prop up their relatives in other of the minor Italian states, Piedmont-Sardinia went to war against Austria in the name of Italian independence (just as the King had earlier offered to do when Austrian troops violated the Papal States). The result was a crushing Austrian victory and King Charles Albert left the battlefield and the throne, abdicating in favor of his son who became King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia.

In 1842, as Duke of Savoy, he had married his cousin Adelaide of Austria, daughter of the Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, a small and pretty woman, very religious and very charitable. Victor Emmanuel was often far from an ideal husband but before her tragic death in 1855 she gave him eight children, her end coming from childbirth. She had, so to speak, died ‘in the line of duty’. Meanwhile, after becoming King in 1849, following the defeat at Novara, he obtained an armistice from the Austrians but never lost sight of his primary goal; not so much the unification of Italy under his own rule but rather of the independence of Italy from foreign powers so that the day might come when the peninsula was no longer a battlefield for French and Austrian armies. The first effort had ended in failure, due not only to the Austrian army but, truth be told, also to republicans who undermined the effort as it stood to preserve the existing monarchies of Italy. Independence efforts were put off for a decade.

Tensions remained high, especially so when Piedmont-Sardinia was the only constitutional monarchy on the Italian peninsula. They were most hated by local reactionaries for this reason but also by the radical revolutionaries who feared they would cut out their support by delivering the liberties they promised but doing so within the framework of a monarchy rather than a republic. Yet, this was when Victor Emmanuel II became known as the “Honest King” for being alone among his fellows in standing by the promises all had made to ensure constitutional government. As his popularity grew so did the jealousy of his enemies. He was a pleasure-loving man but not an irreligious one and commented that of all the accusations his enemies threw against him the one that hurt most was that he was anti-clerical. Over time he continued to reference God and the Church in official papers and speeches even when the audience did not react favorably to such references. He favored the plan put forward by the philosopher Gioberti that Italian unification should come about by an alliance of Rome and Turin in a confederation of the Italian states. The Prime Minister, Count Camillo Cavour, argued that it was useless to even try to negotiate with the Holy See and after efforts to make concessions failed the King began to sway to his point of view. That view was likely reinforced when the works of Gioberti were condemned and his book placed on the Index of Forbidden Works.

So, finding scant support amongst the princely states, Victor Emmanuel II turned to an alliance with Great Britain and France. He was anxious to restore the lost glory from the defeat by Austria and was assured by Cavour that joining with Britain and France in their war against Russia (on behalf of Turkey) in the Crimea was the way to do it. The British constitutional monarchy had long been a model for Piedmont-Sardinia, providing liberty enough to maintain a content public but with a strong-enough monarchy to ensure security and an orderly society. France was more worrisome but most came to believe that only an alliance with France would enable Piedmont-Sardinia to eject the Austrian army from the Italian peninsula. So it was that the northern Italian kingdom joined a war in southern Russia despite having no tangible reason to do so. Russia had not offended or harmed them in any way but if it would win the favor of Britain and France, off to the Crimea they would go.

In the end, it took even more to secure the friendship of France, including great personal sacrifices for Victor Emmanuel II; Savoy, Nice and most painful of all his daughter in a marriage to a totally unsuitable Bonaparte relative of French Emperor Napoleon III. Freedom “from the Alps to the Adriatic” was what Napoleon promised but when France and Piedmont-Sardinia marched off to war against Austria, with the moral support of much of Europe since Austria had first invaded, the bloodshed soon turned Napoleon III into a fair weather friend. In the resulting treaty only Lombardy came under the Savoy crown with Austria retaining Venetia. Still, this was seen as a victory and deputations arrived from the central Italian duchies and even the Papal States requesting that Piedmont-Sardinia take them under their wing. King Victor Emmanuel II received them politely and was sympathetic but ultimately had to refuse them. He hoped that diplomacy might yet bring about a union of the existing Italian states to the exclusion of all foreign powers.

Toward that end, his hopes rose upon the death of the King of the Two-Sicilies and the accession to the throne of Francesco (Francis) II. The late Ferdinand II had refused an alliance with the Savoy, and was hostile to Sardinia to the bitter end, but with a new king, Victor Emmanuel II hoped things might be different and he offered an alliance again to King Francis II, uniting the Italian states between them with Sardinia responsible for the north and Sicily for the south. However, Francis II, one of those upright men who have often faced disastrous consequences for holding to their principles rather than practicality, refused the offer of friendship. With the Pope now refusing any sort of unity at all and the rejection of Francis II any hope that Italian independence could be achieved by a union of the existing monarchies evaporated. The only remaining choices were a revolutionary republic, as represented by the likes of Giuseppe Mazzini, or a constitutional monarchy as represented by King Victor Emmanuel II.

The moderates clung to him, in the words of the celebrated poet Alessandro Manzoni, “I see in the character of the king the intervention of Providence. He is exactly the sovereign that circumstances require to accomplish the resurrection of Italy”. And this was no rabid revolutionary but a man who had renounced his youthful rebelliousness for an austere Catholicism and who devoted much of his literary talents to writing, with religious guidance, on Catholic morality. Yet, whether the King liked it or not, events were unfolding rapidly and there was little he could do to control them for long. Immediately after the war, the professional revolutionary and ardent republican Giuseppe Garibaldi was preparing to march on Rome, overthrow the Papal States and force the area to join the slowly uniting Italy. Turin was in an uproar and the King summoned Garibaldi to order him to desist from such brash aggression. Garibaldi, though an ardent republican who had no use for kings, admired Victor Emmanuel II as a man and agreed to stand down. The King had also had a falling out with Cavour but still felt compelled to appoint him as his representative to a congress of the European nations gathering to deal with all the turmoil in Italy in early 1860. The King thought Cavour too rash and Cavour thought his monarch too deliberate. Nonetheless, an accord was reached and Cavour was back in power as head of the government.

The congress was never called as no country was willing to go out on a limb to restore the central Italian princes who had abandoned their thrones. Even the Church garnered little but moral support. Austria was under threat from France and Prussia, the anti-clerical party in France was strong and growing in anger over Papal support for the royalist cause. Belgium was divided on the issue and Spain and Portugal were both ruled by monarchs the Church had recently opposed, even if never officially. The issue of the Papal States soon dominated the “problem” of Italy. The liberals who had once applauded Pope Pius IX now vilified him and after being driven from Rome by a short-lived republic, the Pope had become an ardent reactionary. Only a tiny minority in Italy ever questioned the goodness and piety of the Pontiff but, given his shifting record, many were increasingly willing to question his ability as a monarch. The King and Pontiff exchanged many eloquent letters, each extremely polite and respectful toward the other but neither achieving any progress. The King professed that he took his duties seriously as a Catholic prince but that he also had a duty to safeguard the independence of Italy and, as he pointed out in one such letter, he did so, “following the impulse given from the Vatican” which was a thinly-veiled reference to the rather contradictory policy of the Holy See concerning Italy.

The Pope had righteous principle on his side but little else and it did not present a pleasant picture to the world that so saintly a man as Pius IX was only able to maintain his rule by the presence of, first, Austrian and later French bayonets. The Pope replied, politely and with great refinement, that the annexation of those parts of the Papal States outside Rome were beneath the dignity of so great a king and son of so august and ancient a Catholic royal house as the Savoy. His greatest concern, the Pontiff said, was for the soul of the King which would surely be lost if he persisted in challenging the temporal rule of the Church over central Italy. In short, there could be absolutely no compromise on the subject. Either Italian unity and independence would be abandoned or the theocracy must be destroyed. There could be no other option. Both men were convinced that right was on their side and neither could be moved from their positions even an inch. Conflict was inevitable.

The central Italian states were annexed by Piedmont-Sardinia after referendums which the nationalists hailed as positive proof of popular support and which the Church condemned as totally fraudulent. In truth, and this would continue for a long time in Church-State relations in Italy, the nationalists were probably correct since the Church, which was not about to abide by the referendum, forbid anyone from participating. Today this seems harsh but the Papal position was perfectly understandable. In the Papal States, moral law was secular law. To work on Sunday, miss monthly confession or get too friendly before marriage was not only immoral but illegal; in fact it was illegal *because* it was immoral. Things like moral law, right and wrong, or the legitimacy of papal rule could not be subject to popular opinion. It would have negated what the Papal States stood for (the beginning of an issue that remains problematic for the Church even today). So, the Pope could not recognize the results of the referendum which were unanimously in favor of union with Italy because all of those loyal to the Pope obediently refrained from voting.

King Victor Emmanuel II immediately wrote to the Pope, defending his position and asking the Pope to accept his religious sincerity and to work with him to reconcile their differences. Six days later the Pope publicly excommunicated the King, while still, in his written reply, asking God to bless the King. Such was Pius IX. The King was, naturally, deeply troubled by all this, as were all Italians who were, despite political differences, overwhelmingly Catholic. None could fail to admire the courage of the Pontiff and yet, when he claimed it as his sacred duty to uphold the temporal power, they remembered how he had once granted a constitution and the laity in government and other liberal reforms only to revoke them all later. This lack of consistency allowed the nationalists to pick the version of Pius IX that most pleased them and blame the harsher version on wicked advisors from whom the Pontiff must be rescued and so also be relieved of the “burdens” of temporal rule. There were also plenty of priests and bishops throughout Italy who continued to administer the sacraments despite the blanket excommunication on the King, his government, his army and any who cooperated with him, obeyed him or recognized his authority. Italy was not only split by being forced to choose between “nation” and “religion” but the Church was as well.

The King continued to go to mass, be given communion and so on. He also continued to write to the Pope explaining to him that his position would be unchanged, his authority and inviolability would be guaranteed and that the only difference would be that Italian troops would protect him instead of Austrian or French ones. Each time the Pope responded with two words, “not possible”. Meanwhile the King, who never liked being away from Piedmont, toured his new domain to a rapturous welcome with his record of success having won over most of the liberals as well as the moderates. Only the clerical faction and the most ardent republican revolutionaries remained opposed to the idea of a united Kingdom of Italy under Victor Emmanuel II. The clerical faction was mostly powerless as they refused to participate in the political process and the republicans had diverted their attention southward to the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies where Garibaldi turned his attentions after being dissuaded from attacking Rome by Victor Emmanuel II.

The southern Bourbon bastion was gripped by crisis. The Swiss mercenaries who made up the backbone of the military had mutinied and been bloodily suppressed. The uncle of King Francis II had even joined the nationalists after his nephew had refused to go along with the liberal movement and turned down two offers of friendship from Piedmont-Sardinia. There had even been an effort, talked about in Naples, Rome and Vienna to form a ‘Holy League’ to oppose Piedmont-Sardinia by bringing in Spanish troops (the only other monarchy where the Bourbon dynasty still ruled). However, Spain refused on the grounds that such an effort would be too unpopular and dangerous. This is not surprising given that the Church had backed the Carlist faction in trying to overthrow Queen Isabella II and bitter divisions remained in Spanish society. Those loyal to the Queen were sympathetic to the liberals, not Francis II or the Pope and the Queen would not dare weaken her army at home and risk being overthrown herself by the Carlists who remained a force to be reckoned with no matter how religious and reactionary (both good things) she herself was seen as being by the liberals in Spain.

Thus Naples was already rife with revolutionary conspiracies when Garibaldi and his red-shirt republicans invaded Sicily and quickly overran the island. Count Cavour supported the expedition which brought down a storm of outrage on Turin. The King had been reluctant to have Cavour back and when he did, made it clear that Cavour would be responsible for his own actions. Cavour refused to back down. They had twice offered Naples an alliance and been twice refused so they felt no great guilt in viewing King Francis II as their unofficial enemy. The King had and would continue to have stringent disagreements with Garibaldi (who certainly felt no great loyalty toward him) yet he could not help but admire the man who showed such audacity, devotion to his nation and strict adherence to his principles -even if those principles made him opposed to the very concept of monarchy. In Naples King Francis II belatedly offered a constitutional government but it was too little, too late. His ministers resigned, most of his military forces melted away and with Sardinian ships looking on, Garibaldi crossed to the mainland (despite the King asking him not to) and occupied Naples, proclaiming a provisional government.

At the end of the year King Victor Emmanuel II decided to intervene directly and Piedmontese troops began investing the port city of Gaeta on November 6. The French had guarded Gaeta by sea but finally their support was withdrawn, yet King Francis II and his lovely Bavarian Queen resisted with great heroism that inspired everyone, friend and foe alike, at the last stand of the Bourbons in Italy. On February 13, 1861 the fortress city finally surrendered. The Two-Sicilies were annexed and, after the usual plebiscites, on March 17, 1861 Victor Emmanuel II was declared the first King of Italy by the first national government based in Turin. However, one final step remained toward full unification and, in some ways, it would be the most difficult. That was the Eternal City of Rome, all that remained of the Papal States and that held up only by the presence of French troops. Napoleon III had shifted positions again, fearing a potential rival rather than a strong ally and was being influenced by his devout and virtuous Spanish wife the Empress Eugenie. Despite their many differences, the French had actually given military support to the House of Savoy in the past and King Victor Emmanuel II wanted no conflict with them. As long as the French army remained in Rome the city every Italian looked to as their capital would remain out of reach of the new kingdom.

Garibaldi felt no such hesitation and tried twice to conquer the city only to be defeated by the French and the Papal army of international volunteers who had made their way to Rome to defend the theocracy, cheering Pius IX as the ‘Pope-King’. In the meantime, in 1866 King Victor Emmanuel II allied with Prussia in another war against Austria. The Prussians effectively used the Italians as a red flag to arouse Austria and then claim self-defense and drive the Austrians from their place of preeminence in Germany. It was not a pleasant affair for Italy but, in the end, Veneto was at long last added to the Italian nation. All that remained was Rome and, in a way, it would be Prussia that proved instrumental in removing that obstacle as well. In 1870 the Prussians provoked France into launching a foolhardy attack and used that to rally the German states in a war against Napoleon III that would result in the creation of the modern Germany.

The French troops were hurriedly pulled out of Rome at this crisis at which point Italy moved to take the city, claiming (rather lamely) to be responding to ‘riots and disorder’. As he had done before, the Pope deployed his army but then tried to prevent them from actually fighting. He knew it was hopeless, yet he wanted some symbolic shots to be fired to show that he was being conquered and not going along with the takeover willingly. However, some of his forces resisted anyway but the poorly maintained force of volunteers from around the world were brushed aside by the Italian army with little difficulty. Rome was taken and, after a brief stay in Florence, the Italian government moved there to make the Eternal City their capital. The Pope withdrew behind the walls of the Vatican, declaring himself a prisoner and refusing to recognize the Kingdom of Italy in any way. It was the start of a stand-off that would last well into the next century.

King Victor Emmanuel II was undoubtedly an ambitious man, yet he was reticent to be seen as a conqueror and had held back at almost every step on the road to unification. He was, however, willing to take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves even while he was troubled about it. For instance, once Rome had fallen the King was reluctant to even visit the city and the first time he did, informally, was after the Tiber flooded, causing great suffering, and he came with a few courtiers to survey the damage and help in any way he could. Later, when he made his formal entry into Rome, he did not want to take up residence in the Quirinal Palace which had formerly belonged to the Pope. He finally did some time after it became clear that no accommodation would be reached. The King felt the offer of his government had been more than generous; guarantees of independence for the Church, exclusive use of Church property, control over all of Rome within the Leonine Wall and a substantial annual pension. When the Pope refused this offer, many admired his principled stand but others, especially in the increasingly anti-clerical government, saw the Pope as unreasonable and lost interest in even trying to come to any agreement and adopted the attitude that the radicals had been right all along about the Church being on the side of their foreign enemies.

When the King came to open the first national parliament in Rome his speech was largely dominated by assurances to the Church, a “free Church in a free State” was the catch phrase of the time. Other than that, he remarked on the historic nature of their meeting that, for the first time since the era of the Roman Empire, the people of Italy were united under one monarch, led by one government in Rome and that no foreign armies stood on Italian soil. They had fought long and hard to see this accomplished and the King wished to embark on a period of rejuvenation after this ordeal and having made Italy united to focus on making Italy prosperous and a member of the community of great European powers. It was a period of seemingly limitless possibilities for Italy and her new Royal Family. In 1870, with some difficulty, the King persuaded his son to accept the offer of the throne of Spain from the provisional government there. To rescue Spain from disorder and anarchy and restore her to benevolent power seemed, to Victor Emmanuel II, a glorious and worthy undertaking for a Savoy prince. He would have been wiser to have listened to his advisors who all warned against it. Queen Isabella II had been overthrown for being too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives. Spain was torn by more factions and more pretenders to the throne than any country in Europe. The liberal moderates called for a Savoy but the conservatives supported the line of Isabella II, the Carlists supported the line of her uncle and there were republicans who wanted a President. However, the Duke of Aosta was accepted as King Amadeus I of Spain though it would prove to be a doomed enterprise.

As King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II toured the country, noting improvements and infrastructure projects that would have to be made. He also accepted friendly visits from princes from Great Britain, Prussia and even Austria. To the surprise of many he was invited to Vienna to be the special guest of Emperor Francis Joseph. The two former enemies met and embraced as friends in a touching moment of reconciliation between two ancient royal houses that had once been the closest of allies. Going on to Prussia the public gave him a rousing welcome and he won over the princes and people alike with his simple manners, good humor and friendly nature. When he told the Kaiser that, were he not bound to follow the advice of his ministers, he would have made war on Germany at the side of his old ally France but was of course now glad to be good friends, Kaiser Wilhelm I thanked him for his honesty. When these monarchs returned the visit of the King there was another touching moment on the part of the gentlemanly Emperor Francis Joseph. He could not come to Rome for fear of offending the Pope, nor could he meet the King at Florence or Naples for fear of offending his relatives so he decided on Venice, which had been his own domain but which showed the bigger man he was in putting the past behind him.

Even toward the end of his life the King kept up his formidable schedule. Some eyebrows were raised in 1869 when he married a commoner-turned-countess named Rosa Vercellana. According to some, he did this while in a fever and later regretted it but nonetheless continued to regard her as his wife for the rest of his years and had two children by her. He was famously punctual, familiar and informal though he could manage proper regal dignity when the occasion demanded. His good nature made him generous with the endless petitioners who came to him for help, despite his very meager allowance, and he was often taken advantage of by fraudsters, but it never dissuaded him. He left debts rather than a fortune behind him which his son, King Umberto I, insisted on paying himself though a grateful nation offered to cover it. The King never refused a favor and even the Pope once asked him for one though he continued to officially refuse to recognize the King or the new country. Victor Emmanuel II had even offered to abdicate if it would spare the Pontiff pain but the Pope, unlike many others then or since, was not so petty a man as to hold a grudge.

When the King, for whom it was always a sacrifice being away from his beloved Piedmont, fell deathly ill in the damp climate of Rome, the Pope lifted his excommunication and sent a priest to administer the last rites, saying his first thought had been to go himself. Few knew that the King and the Pontiff had resumed their secret correspondence in their final years. When word reached the Vatican Palace that the King had died, the Pope was heard to say, “He died like a Christian, a Sovereign and an honest man”. He died on January 9, 1878 surrounded by such of his family as could arrive in time, after being confessed and given the Sacrament by his chaplain, with permission from the Vatican. A great monument was built in his honor and praise poured in from all quarters. There was a great deal of exaggeration at times, to be expected from a nation still young and exuberant but his status as the first King of Italy and “Father of the Fatherland” cannot be denied. All patriotic Italians, not only the monarchists, should remember that and reflect on the man and monarch who brought about the necessary unity and guiding hand to create their country.

1 comment:

  1. Not mentioned in the article was the fact that the King, Cavour and Garibaldi (as well as Mazzini) were friends of the Jewish people and ended all restirctions on Jewish communities when the areas they lived in were incorporated into the Italian Kingdom. Under this king there was a Jewish Prime Minister of Italy, Luigi Luzzati of a well respected Venetian family. In these regards the House of Savoy can take much pride.