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Vittorio Emanuele II
King of Sardinia 1849-61
King of Italy 1861-78

The last king of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel was also the first king of the united Italy, an important player in shaping the look of the European map and in reducing papal power. The king himself tends to stand in the shadow of the great freedom fighter Garibaldi, or his cunning minister, Count Cavour. But during his time, he was the shining figure for the believers in revolutionary ideas and Italian unity. It is only fitting, therefore, that he is remembered with a huge, white, wedding-cake-like monument located right smack in the middle of the centre of the world, Rome.


Victor Emmanuel II was born in Turin on March 14, 1820. His father was Charles Albert (Carlo Alberto), at the time prince of Savoy-Carignario, his mother the Archduchess Maria Teresa of Austria. There are rumours, as there always seem to with royal heirs, that a great fire in the Pitti Palace in Florence killed the queen's baby, and that the child of a servantess was put in his place as substitute. However that may be, the princeling proved to be a worthy representative of the house of Savoy, which had existed - gloriously - since the eleventh century.

His father became king of Sardinia-Piedmont in 1831. Victor Emmanuel grew up in the stifling atmosphere of the court, bound by stiff etiquette that he hated. His education was mostly military and religious, and in later years he would take a great interest in military matters. Politics, however, he shunned.

In 1842 he was married to his Austrian cousin in an attempt by his father to improve relations with Austria. The bride, Maria Adelaide Di Lorena, was the daughter of the Archduke Rainer. It didn't quite turn out quite as his father expected - six years later the two countries were once again at war. The aggressors, however, were the various Italian states, demanding independence from Austria. The conflict is known as the First War of Italian Independence.

Victor Emmanuel threw himself into the action with gusto. He was given command of a division and led it until he was lightly wounded at Goito. During the next campaign the following year, he commanded the same division. Austria was too mighty, however, and was victorious this year, as the last. Following the disastrous defeat at Novara, Charles Albert, on the 23rd of March, abdicated in favour of his son. The old king retreated to a monastery in Portugal, where he died three months later. At the age of 29, Victor Emanuel found himself the lone head of a beaten, ruined kingdom.

The Honest King?

His first task was to secure peace with Austria. Of the meetings between the king and the Austrian field marshall, Josef Radetzky, two stories are told. The old version is that the king courageously defended his father's constitution, instituted after the revolutions of 1848, and the revolutionary Italian tricolour, which the Austrians wanted to replace with the traditional blue flag of Piedmont. Instead he had to give them land and monetary compensations, as well as disbanding most of his military.

A revised version, widely held among historians today, says that the Austrians desperately wanted Victor Emmanuel II to keep his constitution, as they expected popular uprisings if he trashed it. Whatever the stances were, the results were these: The king had surrender territory and 65 million francs in reparations to Austria, withdraw his fleet from the Adriatic, and disband his army of Lombard, Polish and Hungarian volunteers.

For his integrity when it came to keeping the new constitution, he earned himself a reputation as the defender of Italian freedom and was called Re Galantuomo - the Honest King - by supporters of that freedom. At the time, however, most of his subjects despised him as a traitor. His country was diminished, the army in pieces, and the treasury was a weak joke. The parliament refused to accept the peace treaty; the king dissolved it. Fortunately, the king had friends.

Unification begins

Among the ministers in his new government was Count Camillo Benso di Cavour. A year later, the man had risen in rank to premier minister. The peace treaty finally ratified by the new chamber, the king and Cavour set about managing the country again, rearranging the army, the administration, and the economy, opening the country to industrialisation and international commerce. As the country grew in strength, so did the king's popularity, and Victor Emmanuel became the central figure of the Risorgimento - the movement for Italian unification.

At that time, the Austrian Empire possessed large parts of the wannnabe-Italy, such as Lombardy, Modena, Tuscany and Venetia, and was a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Victor Emmanuel's father had tried taking them on single-handedly - the king now realised that in order to beat a giant, you needed strong allies. Victor Emmanuel and Cavour settled on France, led by Napoleon III. Sardinia entered the Crimean War on the winners' side in 1855, mainly to get a foothold on the international arena. With his troops still in the East, Victor Emmanuel went to Paris and London, and was warmly received by both Napoleon III and Queen Victoria.

In 1859, mobilisation of the Piedmont-Sardinian army caused the Austrians to attack, starting the Second War of Italian Independence. The Piedmontese won at the battle of Magenta, when a superior force of Austrians was driven away in confusion. However, the Austrian army was more powerful in the long run, and through many small skirmishes the Piedmontese were merely stalling while waiting for France to come to their aid. The French army beat the Austrians in the bloody battle of Solferino, and quickly signed an armistice, not wishing to get further entangled. Victore Emmanuel was not consulted, and so did not get as much land as he had hoped, only the province of Lombardy (Lombardia). Cavour resigned in protest, but the king happily accepted the deal, preferring to earn some land and keep the French emperor's friendship.

1860 and a new era

The next year, however, Cavour returned to power, and Tuscany, Romagna, Parma, and Modena all voted for a union with Sardinia. Although this was against the peace treaty, France supported the union in exchange for receiving Nice and Savoy from the Sardinian king. Meanwhile, the freedom fighter Garibaldi had arrived in Sardinia, eager to do his patriotic duties in uniting the country. While Garibaldi and about a thousand men went south to Sicily and fought their way northwards, much like the Allies would later do during World War II, the army of Victor Emmanuel progressed south to meet him.

The Pope's army was defeated at Castelfiardo. Through plebiscite votes, the growing Italy annexed the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Naples and Sicily; and two Papal States, Marches and Umbria. Garibaldi wanted to conquer Rome as well, but the king, fearing the wrath of the French, stopped him by force. Garibaldi was defeated and captured, but later given amnesty.

In 1861, Victor Emmanuel was declared ruler of the new Italian kingdom by the parliament. The parts of Italy that he did not yet rule were Venetia, still under Austrian rule, and Rome, protected by Napoleon III. The king got hold of Venetia by siding with Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and seized the Papal States when Napoleon III fell in 1870. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was united.

The capital of Victor Emmanuel had moved from Turin to Florence in 1865, and in 1870 continued to Rome. Pope Pius IX was mightily displeased about losing most of his city, and his successors continued denouncing the kingdom of Italy until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 resolved their disputes.

Was the king only a fanatic leader of Italian unification? No - he let Cavour and Garibaldi be that, and entertained himself with other hobbies as well. He loved getting away from the court to hunt in the mountains. He had a good relationship with his wife Adelaide, who bore him several children, and some issues with a mistress as well.

To his royal wife, seven children were born. They were:

  1. Clotilde (1843-1911), married in 1859 to Prince Napoleon, Napoleon III's cousin, for political reasons. The prince, also known as Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte or simply Plon-Plon, was infamous for his bad morals, but their marriage sealed the alliance between France and Sardinia.
  2. Humbert I (Umberto) (1844-1900), who became the second king of Italy and married his cousin, Margherita of Savoy.
  3. Amadeo (1846-1890), Duke of Aosta, proclaimed King of Spain, married to Maria Victoria della Cisterna and later to Maria Laetitia Napoléon.
  4. Otto (1846-1866), Duke of Montferrat
  5. Maria Pia (1849-1911), married to Luís I of Portugal
  6. Carlo Alberto (1851-1854), Duke of Chablais
  7. Victor Emmanuel (1855) Duke of Genevois

In the year 1855, the king lost not only his newborn son, but also his wife, his brother Ferdinand, and his mother, the Queen Dowager Maria Teresa. Clerics who thought what Victor Emmanuel was doing to the country was sacrilegious, quickly declared that he was being punished by God.

In 1869, the king had a morganatic marriage to Rosa Teresa Vercellana, La Rosina, who he had made Countess of Mirafiori and Fontanafredda ten years earlier. Their son Emanuele Guerrieri later became duke of Fontanafredda.

Victor Emmanuel spent the rest of his life consolidating his kingdom. The king never felt at ease in Rome, surrounded by the hostility of the Pope and the noblemen who sided with him. In 1878 the king died and was buried in the Pantheon of Rome. His son Umberto, Humbert I, succeeded him.


In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the kingdom of Italy, the Monument to king Victor Emmanuel II was erected in Rome. Giuseppe Sacconi designed it and construction began in 1885, but it was not inaugurated until 1911. A white limestone construction flanked by winged lions and personifications of victory ("Vittorie" in Italian, do you get the pun?), it centres around an impressive statue of king Victor Emmanuel II on his horse. Today the monument also houses Italy's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, always guarded by two sentries of honour. The grandiose structure is also known as the Vittoriano, the typewriter, and the wedding cake.

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