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The Rise & Demise of the Italian Monarchy: Part 1, The Rise

If you follow world affairs, you’re surely acquainted with Italy’s modern-day political scene that so frequently makes the news. With a host of colourful characters, ever-changing leadership, and a constant stream of tabloid-worthy drama, it’s hard to imagine Italy as anything but a circus of democracy. 

Interestingly enough, Italy has only been a republic since the mid-20th Century. It might surprise you to know that Italy was ruled by a monarchy from the country’s unification in 1861 until the referendum that ended royal rule in 1946.

In this first segment of a two-part series, we’ll talk about how the unification of Italy led to the establishment of its constitutional monarchy. In part two, we’ll go into the events that culminated in its abolishment and the birth of Italy as a republic that is celebrated as Festa della Repubblica on June 2.

The House of Savoy and the Risorgimento: How Royalty and Revolution Came Together to Unify Italy

Royalty: Nothing New in Italy

It might seem odd, but royalty is nothing new in Italy. 

Prior to the country’s unification in 1861, Italy was a patchwork of kingdoms, dominions, territories, and states ruled by an assortment of royal dynasties, noble families, and aristocrats, the result of centuries of foreign domination and conflict. 

While the state of the nation was fragmented, political power was concentrated in the hands of a small elite, setting the stage for revolution. Well, not revolution in the sense of a sudden, violent overthrowing of the existing political order. The revolution that led up to the unification of Italy was a complex political and social movement that took place over some decades. In Italian, this movement is called the Risorgimento.

Royalty and Revolution: An Entwinement

In the early 19th Century, revolutionary groups began forming across the Italian peninsula and in Sicily, spreading their vision of a unified country for the good of all citizens. Considered dangerous rebels by the ruling powers, revolutionaries such as Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Cavour believed that unification would boost economic development, foster modernization, and create a powerful presence on the world stage, in addition to the obvious benefits of more stable and equitable governance, much-needed social progress, and a greatly-increased ability to defend against foreign threats.

As you can probably imagine, the ruling classes were not keen on change and, for the most part, did their best to extinguish the shift toward democracy. The patriots faced huge obstacles and a great many setbacks in their quest to mobilize a nationwide effort. Commitment and desire were there but the movement lacked a galvanizing force. The republicans needed an ally. 

And this is where the monarchy becomes a key player in the Risorgimento.

The House of Savoy: Revolutionary Super Glue

The revolutionaries knew they needed someone influential on their side, someone from the top echelon of the existing powers. They viewed the Pope as an enemy, so he was obviously out. The patriots turned to royalty to provide them with the Super Glue they needed for unification, and they found it in the House of Savoy.

A royal dynasty that ruled the Kingdom of Sardinia at the time the Risorgimento was brewing, the House of Savoy originated in the 11th century as a noble family in the region of Savoy, located in the western Alps of modern-day France. The family gained power and expanded its dominion through strategic marriages, critical alliances, military conquests, and shrewd diplomacy. By the early 18th Century, with the territories of Savoy, Nice, Piedmont, and Sardinia under its belt, the House of Savoy had reached vast proportions and substantial power.

With the support of the House of Savoy, a constitutional monarchy became the pragmatic solution to Italy’s unification dilemma, something of a middle-ground between the absolute power of old regimes and the instability of a newly-formed republic. The Savoys had already been on a path to modernization in the years leading up to unification thanks to the progressive leadership of rulers such as Charles Albert and his son, Victor Emmanuel II (who would become Italy’s first king after unification). 

The royal family provided the unifying force that could transcend regional differences and give the new nation a common symbol of identity. The stability and continuity of the dynasty would be extremely important in the aftermath of the long and tumultuous process of unification.

Victor Emmanuel II, First King of a Unified Italy

It was Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy who became the lynchpin in the revolutionary process. During the diplomatic maneuvering immediately before unification, his support for nationalism and Piedmont’s prime minister, Count Cavour, was crucial to reaching one the most essential goals of the patriots’ plan: uniting the north.

While Cavour and Victor Emmanuel were busy in the north, Garibaldi was bashing it out in the south in a series of important military campaigns. Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily with his band of Redshirts, in which he succeeded in ousting the Bourbon rulers, was a pivotal moment in the unification effort.

The proclamation that Italy had been united into a kingdom was made in Turin on March 17, 1861, with Victor Emmanuel II as its king. (The unification would continue for some time, with Rome and the Papal States finally coming into the fold in 1870.)

As much as Garibaldi was (and still is) seen as the symbol of the Risorgimento and Italy’s struggle for unity, Victor Emmanuel was the symbol of national unity in the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy. 

A respected figure among the various groups that had worked so hard to bring about unification, Victor Emmanuel had a reputation not only as an outstanding military leader but also as a capable, wise, and moderate ruler committed to the constitutional principles of liberalism and progressivism. 

The Monarchy in Italy: Progress Until the Turn of the Century

As the first king of unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel II ruled for only seventeen years but enacted considerable change. He worked to promote economic development, liberal reforms, and political stability. He also sought to assert the country’s status as a major European power, expanded its defenses, and played a key role in foreign policy.

Italy’s first monarch was followed by his son, Umberto I, who took the throne in 1878. Umberto’s reign was marked by economic growth, social reforms, and an expansion of Italy’s colonial empire, as well as the exquisite presence and keen involvement of his wife, Queen Margherita. Known for her intelligence, fortuitous character, and political acumen, she had the ear of the king, who relied on her advice. Besides promoting public education and social welfare, she was a patron of the arts. She toured the country and did much to generate enthusiasm for the monarchy. Her ways were so endearing that her popularity amongst the people eclipsed that of the king. 

The glory days of the monarchy were somewhat short-lived, however. Umberto I faced growing opposition and several assassination attempts. In 1900, he was shot and killed by an anarchist and Margherita became Queen Dowager.

In our next post, we’ll talk about how Fascism and the two World Wars spelled the end of the monarchy in Italy and the country’s new beginning as a republic.

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