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Stompin’ with the Savoy

Italy and its Monarchy

by Denis Mack Smith
Yale University Press, 402 pp., $29.95

Denis Mack Smith is the leading writer in English on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian history. Over nearly forty years he has done much to challenge many myths and to counter the view of the liberal prime minister Giovanni Giolitti, who once said, “It would not be right to let beautiful legends be discredited by historical criticism.”1 In the preface to the 1985 reissue of his first book, Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860, Mack Smith wrote of the reception his work has had in Italy. There was surprise that any historian could write without being a member of a school, Catholic or Marxist or Crocean; there was admiration for his scholarly use of new sources; but there was also outrage at the challenge to hallowed historical legends. With his subsequent books, which include biographies of Cavour and Mussolini, a study of Sicily since 1713, and what is still the best general history of modern Italy, Mack Smith has acquired a privileged position in Italian historiography, perhaps, as he himself has suggested, because the Italians are flattered that a foreigner should have devoted a lifetime to the study of their controversial recent past.2 He certainly seems able to say things that are unflattering to the Italians: his Cavour is an unscrupulous and devious politician for whom raison d’état justified any behavior however dubious. His Mussolini is not only a cruel, vindictive, and boastful tyrant but also a mountebank who deceived the gullible Italian people, even if he deceived himself as much as he did them.

Mack Smith has now written a study of the Italian monarchy that subjects the four kings of united Italy to the same debunking treatment. He shows how indispensable the monarchy was for the working of the Italian political system, but also how it was ultimately disastrous. He exposes the limitations and peculiarities of each of the monarchs and their apparently total lack of interest in most of the problems of the Italian state—the question of the South, relations between Church and State, the economic situation, the raising and spending of fiscal revenue, except where it affected the royal pocket or expenditure on that royal preserve, the army.

The limited interests of the successive sovereigns necessarily limit the interest of Mack Smith’s book. The sovereigns were not at all interested in those questions of social or regional history with which most younger historians today are concerned. But in his view from the top, so to speak, Mack Smith has written a detailed, brilliant, sometimes sardonic political history of Italy that sets much of it in a new perspective, even if he leaves unanswered the question how the four kings whom he depicts as so unattractive, deceitful, or just plain stupid succeeded in retaining their throne for so long.

In June 1946 the Italians voted in a referendum to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic. The majority against the king, Umberto II, was a comparatively small one (2 million out of some 23 million votes). After reading Denis Mack Smith’s account one is surprised that there was still so much support for a monarchy that had brought defeat and humiliation to Italy.

Apart from the difficulty we have today in imagining a period when monarchy was taken for granted as the form of government natural to the majority of European states, the historian also faces technical problems. As Mack Smith explains at the start of his book,

Documents were sometimes withdrawn from the archives or destroyed to conceal views expressed and actions taken by successive sovereigns…. The private archives of the royal family were taken away by the last two kings when they went into exile…. None of the four monarchs liked writing letters. They were not easy in conversation, and court protocol prescribed that no topic could be initiated except by themselves.

Some things indeed we shall probably never know, such as the fate of the large fortune left by King Umberto I with Hambro’s Bank in London at the beginning of this century.

One of the problems of hereditary monarchy is that there is no guarantee that the monarchs will have the qualities that their responsibilities require of them, while their very position is likely to give them an exaggerated idea of such qualities as they do have. The Italian royal dynasty, Casa Savoia, the House of Savoy, claimed to be the oldest ruling house in Europe, but the four successive sovereigns of united Italy often seemed to lack intelligence and imagination, and even good manners and common sense. The first of them, Vittorio Emanuele II, at least fulfilled a genuine symbolic function in the struggle for the unification of Italy. Even the fact that the letters VERDI could stand for Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia as well as spelling the name of Italy’s most famous composer meant that the slogan Viva Verdi outside the theater before the first performance of Un Ballo in Maschera in Rome on the eve of the armed struggle for unification could acquire a double significance.

It was in Vittorio Emanuele’s name that Garibaldi deposed the Bourbon king in Naples; but it was also. Vittorio Emanuele’s position as king of Piedmont that could reconcile the conservatives in Turin to the idea of a united Italy rather than an aggrandized Piedmont, and it was to satisfy them that the king continued to describe himself as Vittorio Emanuele II rather than Vittorio Emanuele I.

There was, however, always a confict between his conception of his role and his actual powers, just as there was a contradiction in his official description as king “by the grace of God and the will of the people.” It was characteristic that he told Queen Victoria that his political judgment surpassed that of any of his ministers and that he was writing a book to prove it, whereas in fact, as Mack Smith says, “he was incapable of writing a single page of literate prose.”

He remained deeply provincial, preferring to speak the Piedmontese dialect rather than Italian and showing open contempt for his new Neapolitan subjects. He was happiest when hunting on his large estates or in the company of his many mistresses, especially Rosina Vercellana whom he made Countess of Mirafiori. He disliked Rome, and having to spend time there after it became the capital of Italy in 1870 was an irritation. At state banquets he neither spoke nor ate, anxious to get away for supper at Rosina’s villa. Still, his very coarseness and dislike of formal ceremonies endeared him to many ordinary Italians, so that he was remembered as il Re Galantuomo, even though the emperor of Austria was to complain that in his personal behavior he sometimes forgot to act like a gentleman.

During the early years of the new kingdom, Vittorio Emanuele preserved national unity. By the conservatives he was regarded as a barrier against republicanism, while the existence of a written constitution would, it was hoped, check irresponsible action by the king. This indeed was just as well, for his tendency toward irresponsible action was considerable. He conducted a personal foreign policy behind the backs of his ministers: he was convinced that it was his mission to lead his country in war (“the one thing that truly gives me pleasure is fighting wars”) and was constantly planning to provoke a conflict. “His head,” a British diplomat reported, “is always full of battles gone by and imaginary battles to come with himself at the head of his army.” But when Italy was actually involved in war against Austria in 1866, the victory that gained Venetia for Italy was won by the Prussians, while the Italians suffered two disastrous defeats, by land at the Battle of Custoza and by sea at the Battle of Lissa, so that, as Mack Smith writes, “the fatal words Custoza and Lissa…weighed…heavily on national consciousness for the rest of the century” and demanded some sort of spectacular military success to restore Italian national pride.

The king was commander in chief and so was responsible for the failure to make proper plans for war or to coordinate the actions of his generals, while the admiral in command of the Italian fleet was so incompetent that he had twice run his flagship aground, once with the whole royal family on board. However, since criticism of the king might serve to increase support for the republicans, myths were rapidly manufactured: the defeats were really victories; the king had shown great personal bravery in battles in which he had not actually taken part; or if defeats were admitted then it was the fault of the soldiers and not of their commanders.

One of the king’s problems was that the most successful military commander in Italy was Garibaldi, whose irregular forces had won Vittorio Emanuele much of his kingdom. Vittorio Emanuele’s later treatment of Garibaldi was shabby. In 1862 Garibaldi raised an army of volunteers to win Rome from the Pope, and the king admitted that he “had my orders to a certain extent”; but this did not prevent the regular army from attacking the volunteers and wounding Garibaldi.

Then, in 1867, much the same thing happened. This time the French sent a force to defend the Pope, and Garibaldi’s volunteers were defeated by this foreign army. The king’s idea seems to have been to encourage Garibaldi to invade Rome and then to march in with his own army, on the pretext of defending the Pope and incidentally “exterminating” the radical volunteers in what he called a “bloodbath.” It is hardly surprising that Pope Pius IX should have complained of Vittorio Emanuele’s “inveterate mendacity,” while the British foreign secretary commented after a visit to Italy that

there is universal agreement that Vittorio Emanuele is an imbecile; he is a dishonest man who tells lies to everyone; at this rate he will end by losing his crown and ruining both Italy and his dynasty.

Vittorio Emanuele died in 1878, aged fifty-seven. He had presided over the unification of Italy but left a kingdom full of unsolved problems, to some of which he had contributed himself. He had been too lazy to become involved in domestic matters, and was prepared to leave these to his ministers, provided that they met his repeated financial demands for furnishing palaces and paying off mistresses. But he had encouraged the idea that Italy must be a great power even though the country lacked the economic and military basis for such an ambition.

The new king, Umberto I—loyal publicists were to label him Umberto the Good, though without any particular reason—was personally brave, as he had shown during the war of 1866 and when attacked by would-be assassins; but his personal life was no more exemplary than that of his father, and he insisted on his wife, Queen Margherita (his first cousin), employing his mistress as a lady-in-waiting. He lacked self-confidence; and, according to Mack Smith, “he found the act of writing so tiresome and awkward that he seldom sent letters and did not like to sign his name if anyone was watching.”

  1. 1

    Denis Mack Smith, Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860: A Study in Political Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 1954; reissued with a new preface, 1985),p.x.

  2. 2

    Cavour (Knopf, 1985); Mussolini (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981); Italy: A Modern History (University of Michigan Press, 1969); Modern Sicily after 1713 (Chatto and Windus, 1968).

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