Monday, October 3, 2011
Monarch Profile: King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy
At the time similar conflicts were playing out all across Italy. A good illustration was when, in 1848, the people were incited to demand a constitution. King Charles Albert agreed to grant it and appeared on the balcony, waving the tricolor flag alongside his sons Victor Emmanuel and Ferdinand to the jubilant cheers of the crowd while all sang the ‘Hymn of Pius IX’ as the “liberal reformer” Pope who spoke openly of the “Italian nation” was at that time the most popular Italian of all. Things would soon change. Piedmont-Sardinia was spared further turmoil by giving in to the liberals but other states would not and when Austria sent troops to prop up their relatives in other of the minor Italian states, Piedmont-Sardinia went to war against Austria in the name of Italian independence (just as the King had earlier offered to do when Austrian troops violated the Papal States). The result was a crushing Austrian victory and King Charles Albert left the battlefield and the throne, abdicating in favor of his son who became King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia.
Tensions remained high, especially so when Piedmont-Sardinia was the only constitutional monarchy on the Italian peninsula. They were most hated by local reactionaries for this reason but also by the radical revolutionaries who feared they would cut out their support by delivering the liberties they promised but doing so within the framework of a monarchy rather than a republic. Yet, this was when Victor Emmanuel II became known as the “Honest King” for being alone among his fellows in standing by the promises all had made to ensure constitutional government. As his popularity grew so did the jealousy of his enemies. He was a pleasure-loving man but not an irreligious one and commented that of all the accusations his enemies threw against him the one that hurt most was that he was anti-clerical. Over time he continued to reference God and the Church in official papers and speeches even when the audience did not react favorably to such references. He favored the plan put forward by the philosopher Gioberti that Italian unification should come about by an alliance of Rome and Turin in a confederation of the Italian states. The Prime Minister, Count Camillo Cavour, argued that it was useless to even try to negotiate with the Holy See and after efforts to make concessions failed the King began to sway to his point of view. That view was likely reinforced when the works of Gioberti were condemned and his book placed on the Index of Forbidden Works.
So, finding scant support amongst the princely states, Victor Emmanuel II turned to an alliance with Great Britain and France. He was anxious to restore the lost glory from the defeat by Austria and was assured by Cavour that joining with Britain and France in their war against Russia (on behalf of Turkey) in the Crimea was the way to do it. The British constitutional monarchy had long been a model for Piedmont-Sardinia, providing liberty enough to maintain a content public but with a strong-enough monarchy to ensure security and an orderly society. France was more worrisome but most came to believe that only an alliance with France would enable Piedmont-Sardinia to eject the Austrian army from the Italian peninsula. So it was that the northern Italian kingdom joined a war in southern Russia despite having no tangible reason to do so. Russia had not offended or harmed them in any way but if it would win the favor of Britain and France, off to the Crimea they would go.
Toward that end, his hopes rose upon the death of the King of the Two-Sicilies and the accession to the throne of Francesco (Francis) II. The late Ferdinand II had refused an alliance with the Savoy, and was hostile to Sardinia to the bitter end, but with a new king, Victor Emmanuel II hoped things might be different and he offered an alliance again to King Francis II, uniting the Italian states between them with Sardinia responsible for the north and Sicily for the south. However, Francis II, one of those upright men who have often faced disastrous consequences for holding to their principles rather than practicality, refused the offer of friendship. With the Pope now refusing any sort of unity at all and the rejection of Francis II any hope that Italian independence could be achieved by a union of the existing monarchies evaporated. The only remaining choices were a revolutionary republic, as represented by the likes of Giuseppe Mazzini, or a constitutional monarchy as represented by King Victor Emmanuel II.
The congress was never called as no country was willing to go out on a limb to restore the central Italian princes who had abandoned their thrones. Even the Church garnered little but moral support. Austria was under threat from France and Prussia, the anti-clerical party in France was strong and growing in anger over Papal support for the royalist cause. Belgium was divided on the issue and Spain and Portugal were both ruled by monarchs the Church had recently opposed, even if never officially. The issue of the Papal States soon dominated the “problem” of Italy. The liberals who had once applauded Pope Pius IX now vilified him and after being driven from Rome by a short-lived republic, the Pope had become an ardent reactionary. Only a tiny minority in Italy ever questioned the goodness and piety of the Pontiff but, given his shifting record, many were increasingly willing to question his ability as a monarch. The King and Pontiff exchanged many eloquent letters, each extremely polite and respectful toward the other but neither achieving any progress. The King professed that he took his duties seriously as a Catholic prince but that he also had a duty to safeguard the independence of Italy and, as he pointed out in one such letter, he did so, “following the impulse given from the Vatican” which was a thinly-veiled reference to the rather contradictory policy of the Holy See concerning Italy.
The central Italian states were annexed by Piedmont-Sardinia after referendums which the nationalists hailed as positive proof of popular support and which the Church condemned as totally fraudulent. In truth, and this would continue for a long time in Church-State relations in Italy, the nationalists were probably correct since the Church, which was not about to abide by the referendum, forbid anyone from participating. Today this seems harsh but the Papal position was perfectly understandable. In the Papal States, moral law was secular law. To work on Sunday, miss monthly confession or get too friendly before marriage was not only immoral but illegal; in fact it was illegal *because* it was immoral. Things like moral law, right and wrong, or the legitimacy of papal rule could not be subject to popular opinion. It would have negated what the Papal States stood for (the beginning of an issue that remains problematic for the Church even today). So, the Pope could not recognize the results of the referendum which were unanimously in favor of union with Italy because all of those loyal to the Pope obediently refrained from voting.
King Victor Emmanuel II immediately wrote to the Pope, defending his position and asking the Pope to accept his religious sincerity and to work with him to reconcile their differences. Six days later the Pope publicly excommunicated the King, while still, in his written reply, asking God to bless the King. Such was Pius IX. The King was, naturally, deeply troubled by all this, as were all Italians who were, despite political differences, overwhelmingly Catholic. None could fail to admire the courage of the Pontiff and yet, when he claimed it as his sacred duty to uphold the temporal power, they remembered how he had once granted a constitution and the laity in government and other liberal reforms only to revoke them all later. This lack of consistency allowed the nationalists to pick the version of Pius IX that most pleased them and blame the harsher version on wicked advisors from whom the Pontiff must be rescued and so also be relieved of the “burdens” of temporal rule. There were also plenty of priests and bishops throughout Italy who continued to administer the sacraments despite the blanket excommunication on the King, his government, his army and any who cooperated with him, obeyed him or recognized his authority. Italy was not only split by being forced to choose between “nation” and “religion” but the Church was as well.
The southern Bourbon bastion was gripped by crisis. The Swiss mercenaries who made up the backbone of the military had mutinied and been bloodily suppressed. The uncle of King Francis II had even joined the nationalists after his nephew had refused to go along with the liberal movement and turned down two offers of friendship from Piedmont-Sardinia. There had even been an effort, talked about in Naples, Rome and Vienna to form a ‘Holy League’ to oppose Piedmont-Sardinia by bringing in Spanish troops (the only other monarchy where the Bourbon dynasty still ruled). However, Spain refused on the grounds that such an effort would be too unpopular and dangerous. This is not surprising given that the Church had backed the Carlist faction in trying to overthrow Queen Isabella II and bitter divisions remained in Spanish society. Those loyal to the Queen were sympathetic to the liberals, not Francis II or the Pope and the Queen would not dare weaken her army at home and risk being overthrown herself by the Carlists who remained a force to be reckoned with no matter how religious and reactionary (both good things) she herself was seen as being by the liberals in Spain.
Thus Naples was already rife with revolutionary conspiracies when Garibaldi and his red-shirt republicans invaded Sicily and quickly overran the island. Count Cavour supported the expedition which brought down a storm of outrage on Turin. The King had been reluctant to have Cavour back and when he did, made it clear that Cavour would be responsible for his own actions. Cavour refused to back down. They had twice offered Naples an alliance and been twice refused so they felt no great guilt in viewing King Francis II as their unofficial enemy. The King had and would continue to have stringent disagreements with Garibaldi (who certainly felt no great loyalty toward him) yet he could not help but admire the man who showed such audacity, devotion to his nation and strict adherence to his principles -even if those principles made him opposed to the very concept of monarchy. In Naples King Francis II belatedly offered a constitutional government but it was too little, too late. His ministers resigned, most of his military forces melted away and with Sardinian ships looking on, Garibaldi crossed to the mainland (despite the King asking him not to) and occupied Naples, proclaiming a provisional government.
Garibaldi felt no such hesitation and tried twice to conquer the city only to be defeated by the French and the Papal army of international volunteers who had made their way to Rome to defend the theocracy, cheering Pius IX as the ‘Pope-King’. In the meantime, in 1866 King Victor Emmanuel II allied with Prussia in another war against Austria. The Prussians effectively used the Italians as a red flag to arouse Austria and then claim self-defense and drive the Austrians from their place of preeminence in Germany. It was not a pleasant affair for Italy but, in the end, Veneto was at long last added to the Italian nation. All that remained was Rome and, in a way, it would be Prussia that proved instrumental in removing that obstacle as well. In 1870 the Prussians provoked France into launching a foolhardy attack and used that to rally the German states in a war against Napoleon III that would result in the creation of the modern Germany.
The French troops were hurriedly pulled out of Rome at this crisis at which point Italy moved to take the city, claiming (rather lamely) to be responding to ‘riots and disorder’. As he had done before, the Pope deployed his army but then tried to prevent them from actually fighting. He knew it was hopeless, yet he wanted some symbolic shots to be fired to show that he was being conquered and not going along with the takeover willingly. However, some of his forces resisted anyway but the poorly maintained force of volunteers from around the world were brushed aside by the Italian army with little difficulty. Rome was taken and, after a brief stay in Florence, the Italian government moved there to make the Eternal City their capital. The Pope withdrew behind the walls of the Vatican, declaring himself a prisoner and refusing to recognize the Kingdom of Italy in any way. It was the start of a stand-off that would last well into the next century.
When the King came to open the first national parliament in Rome his speech was largely dominated by assurances to the Church, a “free Church in a free State” was the catch phrase of the time. Other than that, he remarked on the historic nature of their meeting that, for the first time since the era of the Roman Empire, the people of Italy were united under one monarch, led by one government in Rome and that no foreign armies stood on Italian soil. They had fought long and hard to see this accomplished and the King wished to embark on a period of rejuvenation after this ordeal and having made Italy united to focus on making Italy prosperous and a member of the community of great European powers. It was a period of seemingly limitless possibilities for Italy and her new Royal Family. In 1870, with some difficulty, the King persuaded his son to accept the offer of the throne of Spain from the provisional government there. To rescue Spain from disorder and anarchy and restore her to benevolent power seemed, to Victor Emmanuel II, a glorious and worthy undertaking for a Savoy prince. He would have been wiser to have listened to his advisors who all warned against it. Queen Isabella II had been overthrown for being too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives. Spain was torn by more factions and more pretenders to the throne than any country in Europe. The liberal moderates called for a Savoy but the conservatives supported the line of Isabella II, the Carlists supported the line of her uncle and there were republicans who wanted a President. However, the Duke of Aosta was accepted as King Amadeus I of Spain though it would prove to be a doomed enterprise.
Even toward the end of his life the King kept up his formidable schedule. Some eyebrows were raised in 1869 when he married a commoner-turned-countess named Rosa Vercellana. According to some, he did this while in a fever and later regretted it but nonetheless continued to regard her as his wife for the rest of his years and had two children by her. He was famously punctual, familiar and informal though he could manage proper regal dignity when the occasion demanded. His good nature made him generous with the endless petitioners who came to him for help, despite his very meager allowance, and he was often taken advantage of by fraudsters, but it never dissuaded him. He left debts rather than a fortune behind him which his son, King Umberto I, insisted on paying himself though a grateful nation offered to cover it. The King never refused a favor and even the Pope once asked him for one though he continued to officially refuse to recognize the King or the new country. Victor Emmanuel II had even offered to abdicate if it would spare the Pontiff pain but the Pope, unlike many others then or since, was not so petty a man as to hold a grudge.