HRH Prince Ferdinando di Savoia, first Duke of Genoa, lived a short life but one filled with promise. He is another one of the “might have beens” that appears in royal history on occasion and during his time he was one of the most respected and admired royal figures in Italy. He was born Prince Ferdinando Maria Alberto Amedeo Filiberto Vincenzo on November 15, 1822 in Florence, the second son of Prince Carlo Alberto of Carignan and Princess Maria Teresa of Tuscany. Only two years later Prince Carlo Alberto was recognized as heir to the throne by King Vittorio Emanuele I of Piedmont-Sardinia. This raised the profile of the young family and soon brought to the forefront the ideas of Prince Carlo Alberto in favor of constitutional monarchy. In 1831 King Carlo Felice died and Prince Carlo Alberto became King of Piedmont-Sardinia and, with his own promotion, he named Prince Ferdinand the Duke of Genoa. Like the other sons of the House of Savoy, Prince Ferdinand grew up being trained to be a soldier and inculcated with the long history the royal family. As a second son, it was expected that he would have a military career.
The Duke of Genoa embarked on such a career, becoming a general in the army and admiral of the Sardinian navy. He gained considerable respect for his role in the First Italian War of Independence (1848-1849) in which he commanded a division of the Piedmontese army. During the course of the conflict his heroism earned him the Gold Medal of Military Valor for his service. He was tall, very similar in appearance to King Carlo Alberto and always led from the front. His soldiers admired him greatly as an intelligent commander and one who would not hesitate to expose himself to danger. Like both of his parents he was also a devoutly religious man as well as a man of high ideals. Many others, evidently, thought the same and agreed with his vision of what a modern monarchy could or should be. In this regard, it is difficult not to underestimate the influence of the British model of constitutional monarchy among the moderate people who were unhappy with their political situation but too traditional to favor something with so poor a record as republicanism. Many people hoped to find success as well as political freedom equal to that of Great Britain by emulating the British model of mixed government with power divided between the people, nobility and monarchy rather than being concentrated at the top.
In 1848, starting in Palermo, the Sicilians rose up in revolt against the House of Bourbon. The nobles of Sicily had, during the Napoleonic Wars, (with British encouragement) forced King Ferdinando III of Sicily and IV of Naples to enact a constitution which gave the Kingdom of Sicily a more British-style government. However, this constitution was later revoked and discontent had spread. On January 11, 1848 rebellion erupted again and in a more violent fashion. The old constitution was restored, establishing a representative government with the central role being given to an elected parliament. Rebel forces took control of almost the whole island (not the Bourbon bastion of Messina) and even talked of establishing a pan-Italian confederation. They also began looking around for an appropriate prince to be the new sovereign of their new constitutional monarchy and, given the leadership shown by King Carlo Alberto in Piedmont-Sardinia, quickly turned to his son the Duke of Genoa. Knowing his temperament and background, the representatives of the British government were pleased with such a choice and encouraged the Duke to accept the offer, with the British ambassador in Turin promising that Britain would immediately recognize Sicilian independence once he did so.
By the summer everyone was well enough convinced and the Sicilian secessionist government voted unanimously to offer the throne to the Duke of Genoa. Since having another king named Ferdinand would have aroused some resentment, it was expected that he would reign as King Alberto Amedeo I of Sicily. However, when the Sicilian delegation came to Turin to make their formal offer, the Duke of Genoa was at the front with his troops and reluctant to leave them. King Ferdinand II of Naples had joined in the war against Austria alongside King Carlo Alberto, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and (for a time) even the Pope, but when he learned that the Duke of Genoa was being considered as his possible replacement on the throne of Sicily, he immediately broke off the alliance and recalled his troops. When the war ended in victory for the Austrians and defeat for the Piedmontese, the Duke of Genoa respectfully declined the offer of the Sicilian throne. Things also began to fall apart back in Sicily where the Neapolitan navy shelled Messina, killing many people, following by a massive campaign by Bourbon troops to retake the island. It took about nine months and was a very bloody affair but finally the rebel government was subdued and their leader forced to flee to the protection of the British on Malta.
That ended any chance of the Duke of Genoa becoming the King of Sicily. However, he proved his worth well enough on the field of battle with the Piedmontese army. At the disastrous battle of Novara, the Duke of Genoa fought like a lion and had four horses shot out from under him. But, in the end, the Piedmontese were defeated and King Carlo Alberto abdicated in favor of his son, King Vittorio Emanuele II. After the war, the Duke of Genoa was put in command of the Piedmontese royal artillery, a branch of the service he set about reorganizing and modernizing. The following year he also achieved some domestic happiness with his marriage to Princess Elizabeth of Saxony, daughter of King Johann and Queen Amalie Auguste of Bavaria. They married on April 22, 1850 in Dresden and the following year had their first child, Princess Margherita, who would go on to one day marry her cousin King Umberto I and become Queen consort of a united Italy. Their second child, Prince Tommaso, was born in 1854 and would go on to preside over the Italian government during the First World War. The Duke of Genoa remained a very respected military figure and when Piedmont-Sardinia joined in the Crimean War alongside the United Kingdom and Imperial France, he was to take command of the reserve corps in the expeditionary force being dispatched to Russia. However, despite being a young man still, he had fallen ill and was growing increasingly frail. He died on February 10, 1855 at the age of only 32 in Turin and was buried in the royal crypt, succeeded by his son Prince Tommaso who became the second Duke of Genoa.