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.

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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

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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.”

The conservatives hoped that he would act as a brake on Parliament; parliamentarians accused him, with some justification, of undermining the policies and authority of his own ministers. The first decade of his reign was at least marked by a success in foreign policy, even if it later turned out to be a hollow one. In 1882 Italy finally seemed to have joined the club of the great powers by signing the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, a move for which Umberto claimed responsibility. (The king’s role in the negotiations is a point on which one would like more information than Mack Smith provides.) Yet the psychological effects of apparently achieving great power status were disastrous. Just as twelve years earlier when Italy acquired Rome as the capital, the great German historian of ancient Rome, Theodor Mommsen, asked an Italian friend, “What do you intend to do in Rome? You cannot be in Rome without having cosmopolitan projects,” so joining the Triple Alliance encouraged ideas that Italy should embark on an imperialist policy and join in the struggle for Africa.3

The politician mainly responsible for Italy’s new imperialism was Francesco Crispi. Crispi had been a republican and a comrade of Garibaldi in 1860, but by 1878 he was a government minister appointed at the suggestion of Vittorio Emanuele II. He accepted private grants of money from the crown; he was heavily in debt to the banker Bernardo Tanlongo, later imprisoned for fraud after a famous scandal; he was an admitted bigamist. But none of this prevented him from dominating Italian politics for a decade. In 1887 he became prime minister for the first time. He was bellicose and boastful, and convinced that it was essential for Italy to create an atmosphere of alarm and trepidation in Europe if she was to be taken seriously as a great power. Most disastrously of all, he decided that the new Italian colony of Eritrea could serve as the base for a large empire in East Africa.

The indecisive king wanted someone who was capable of strong action. (He once called Crispi “a pig but a necessary pig”.) He was confronted with violent social unrest in Sicily, and Crispi was prepared to impose martial law to deal with it; but at the same time, with the king’s sometimes wavering approval, Crispi pressed on with his program of imperial expansion. An attack on the empire of Ethiopia was launched, which ended in the defeat of the Italian army in the Battle of Adowa, another disaster that was to lead to cries for revenge, and so ultimately to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

The last decade of Umberto’s reign was disastrous: peasant risings in Sicily, the defeat in Ethiopia, major financial scandals involving leading politicians, violent suppression of socialist demonstrations in Milan—all these strained the whole constitutional and social structure of Italy. Umberto II was murdered by an anarchist (sent for the purpose by Italian anarchists in Paterson, New Jersey) in July 1900. When he died the British ambassador wrote.

The poor king was the best and kindest of men, but he was hardly fitted to grapple with the enormous difficulties, financial and political, with which the Italian government has to deal.

The new king, Vittorio Emanuele III, who was thirty years old when he came to the throne, did not have an easy inheritance. He had undoubted virtues: he was unassuming; he had an enormous memory for facts; he had rather more general interests than his predecessors; he was a scholarly numismatist, and his collection of coins was said to be one of the best in Europe (just as his contemporary King George V of England had one of the best collections of stamps). President Wilson thought him “a simple, sincere, straightforward little fellow.” Straightforward he certainly was not: he was deceitful, secretive, and stubborn. He clearly suffered from his very small stature and often looked ridiculous, particularly at the side of his stately consort, the Montenegrin princess Elena. Mussolini was later to complain that he was “too diminutive for an Italy destined to greatness.”

But his real problem was inherent in his position. He was constantly proclaiming that he was a constitutional king and taking shelter behind the responsibility of his ministers, and yet his powers were such that he found himself obliged to take decisions that had enormous consequences for him and his country. On at least three occasions these interventions were of major historical importance: the decision in May 1915 to enter the First World War on the side of Britain and France; the appointment of the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini as prime minister in October 1922, and the decision to dismiss him twenty-one years later.

When war broke out in 1914, Italy had been formally allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary for more than thirty years, and the alliance had been renewed as recently as 1912. At the start of the war, Vittorio Emanuele assured the Austrians of “his cordial friendship in conformity with Italy’s treaty obligations,” while almost simultaneously sending messages to King George V declaring that “Italy will do nothing that could hinder the just punishment that will overtake the cruel and unscrupulous aggressors in this war.” The Italian prime minister Antonia Salandra defined Italian policy as being, in an unforgettable and unforgotten phrase, one of “sacro egoismo.”

In this spirit the decision to abandon Italy’s allies and enter the war on the side of France and Britain was a gamble on which of the various belligerents was most likely to deliver the goods in the shape of South Tirol, Trieste, and Dalmatia, territories under Austrian rule claimed by the Italians. What in retrospect seems alarming is that the final decision to go to war for these goals was taken against the opposition of the majority in parliament as a result of the king’s intervention, supported by demonstrations in the streets.

During the war, the king’s role was not unlike that of his grandfather in the war of 1866. He was determined to show himself as a soldier and spent most of his time at his headquarters at the front. He talked of sending an expedition to capture Jerusalem from the Turks and of invading Switzerland, but in fact he never really influenced Italian strategy and he refused to remove the incompetent army commander General Cadorna, who blamed the catastrophic defeat he suffered at Caporetto in October 1917 not on his own generalship but on the cowardice of his troops (just as later Mussolini attributed his defeat to the “immaturity and blameworthiness of the Italian people,” a subject on which he kept a file).4

Later the king, under pressure from his allies, finally replaced Cadorna; and although patriotic Italian historians were later to claim that “at a critical moment he singlehandedly saved the country from destruction,” his decision had been a reluctant one, hesitantly carried out. At least at the last minute, in late October 1918, the Italian army launched an offensive culminating in the victory of Vittoria Veneto, which seemed to the Italians to justify their territorial claims at the peace conference and their disappointment when these claims were not met in full, so that the king complained “that Italy was always put on one side, that Italian interests were always the last to be considered, that they were practically elbowed out of everything.” This attitude of frustrated nationalism, the disappointment at what was called the “mutilated victory,” contributed much to the rapid rise of the Fascist movement between 1919 and 1922.

In an atmosphere of growing economic, social, and political crisis the king was again forced to play an active part. There are suggestions, on which Mack Smith does not elaborate, that he was in contact with Fascist sympathizers early in 1922, but during the summer and autumn he seems to have been passively awaiting the outcome of events; and as the crisis intensified, with Fascist squads beating up their opponents on the streets, he remained secluded on his estate at San Rossore in Tuscany. By October 24 Mussolini was announcing his intention of marching on Rome to “take by the throat our miserable ruling class.”

The Fascists had fewer than 6 percent of the deputies in Parliament and the general commanding in Rome was confident that he could deal with the Fascist threat. But the king still took no action. Finally he arrived in Rome on the evening of October 27, having waited eight hours after receiving the telegram asking for his return, saying that “no one told him the matter was urgent.” However, at this point he did tell the prime minister to defend Rome against the Fascists and ordered the declaration of martial law, a move that had the unanimous support of the cabinet. But by the next morning he had changed his mind; and the declaration of martial law was never signed. On October 29 Mussolini was invited to form a government.

The king, in what Mack Smith calls an “uncharacteristic intervention,” had overridden his ministers who had finally and hesitantly decided to act against the Fascists; and by his decision he achieved the end of liberal government in Italy. He seems to have been afraid for himself and his position—there were rumors that the Fascists would replace him with his more popular cousin, the Duke of Aosta, if he resisted—and his personal prejudices were such that he was prepared to do almost anything to keep the old liberal politician Giovanni Giolitti out of office. Some of the members of his entourage were Fascist sympathizers. He feared civil war. But whatever his motives, it was his action, or perhaps rather inaction, that decided the outcome.

In the long run Mussolini’s acceptance of appointment as prime minister by the king and his decision to retain the monarchy were to contribute to his eventual downfall, since twenty-one years later he was to be dismissed by the same king who had appointed him; and the very existence of the monarchy provided a potential alternative center of power in the state. However the belated assertion of the king’s position in 1943 hardly made up for Vittorio Emanuele’s passive—and indeed at times enthusiastic—endorsement of Fascist rule. He refused to take any action when in 1924 Giacomo Matteotti, one of the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, was murdered, a murder for which Mussolini was subsequently prepared to accept responsibility. Another opportunity for effective action had been lost.

Henceforth the king did not influence events, though occasionally expressing private disquiet about them. On the eve of the outbreak of war in 1939, when Italy’s position still seemed uncertain, the American ambassador, who had delivered a personal appeal from President Roosevelt, reported:

It was tragic to find Italy’s sovereign so completely, and so contentedly, isolated in his mountain retreat when events were rushing to their dreadful climax.

Although Vittorio Emanuele finally, after the successful allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, dismissed and arrested Mussolini and signed an armistice with the allies, his conduct remained as equivocal as ever. Mack Smith gives a vivid account, which will doubtless upset some Italians, of the way in which, at the moment when an American airborne division was about to take off from Sicily to support the Italian forces in Rome that were about to turn against the Germans, the king decided to repudiate the armistice he had signed five days earlier. The operation had to be canceled at the very last minute when the engines of the American transport planes were already starting up. The king’s hesitations and tergiversations had let pass yet another opportunity for decisive action. It is not surprising that for the rest of his reign he was never entirely trusted by the allies.

Vittorio Emanuele finally handed over the crown to his son Umberto when the allies captured Rome. It was too late to save his reputation or that of his dynasty. Umberto II was inexperienced: like many monarchs the kings of the House of Savoy were reluctant to give their heirs any responsibility. He was genuinely open to suggestions for reform, and before Mussolini’s dismissal the Germans had wondered whether he might be in touch with anti-Fascists. His wife, the Belgian princess Marie-José, certainly was. Some people believe that if Vittorio Emanuele had abdicated sooner, Umberto might have been able to acquire enough political skill and popularity to win the plebiscite on the monarchy in 1946; and indeed the closeness of the result suggests that this might have been so. That the son of so inept a king remained so popular suggests that his prospects were considerable. But as it was, the vote went in favor of the republic and the last king of the House of Savoy went into exile in Portugal where he died in 1983. The oldest ruling dynasty in Europe had finally lost its throne. After reading Mack Smith’s book it is hard to regret it.

This Issue

June 14, 1990

  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). 

  3. 3

    See Federico Chabod, Storia della politica estera Italiana dal 1870 al 1896 (Rome: Laterza, 1976), vol. 1, p.221. 

  4. 4

    Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini, p.283.