Monday, April 30, 2012

Consort Profile: Queen Margherita of Savoy

Margherita of Savoy, the future Queen consort of Italy, was born on November 20, 1851 in Turin to Prince Ferdinand, Duke of Genoa, and Princess Elisabeth of Saxony. She was a granddaughter of the famous King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia who introduced constitutional monarchy to the Italian peninsula and, in many ways, started the effort to ensure that the unification of Italy would have a monarchist (rather than a republican) outcome. She grew to be a refined, well mannered but lively girl, well educated and, like all members of the House of Savoy, very much impressed, from her earliest days, with the history of her dynasty and of her duty toward it. It was thus with no love or eagerness but rather that sense of devotion to duty that prevailed in her marriage to her first cousin Crown Prince Umberto on April 21, 1868. The Prince of Piedmont was no more anxious to marry her. The first bride chosen for him, a Hapsburg in keeping with tradition, had died in a tragic accident, though he had not been enthusiastic about that arrangement either. However, with Umberto and Margherita their devotion to duty came first and though there was never really any great love between them, Margherita determined to be the best royal consort she could be and compensate for those areas in which her husband was at a disadvantage.

One year later, on November 11, 1869 the new Princess of Piedmont did her duty and gave birth to an heir to the throne, the future King Vittorio Emanuele III. It was a case of “mission accomplished” and the two never had anymore children. Still, they complemented each other well. Umberto was the quiet, solid soldier while Margherita was the charming, talkative one who memorized Dante and adored music and entertaining. When Rome became the capital of Italy the aristocracy divided into two mutually hostile camps; the “White Nobility” who embraced the Italian monarchy and the “Black Nobility” which remained loyal to the Pope in refusing to recognize the new state of affairs. For those occasions when there was a reconciliation of one family or another it was largely thanks to the efforts of Princess Margherita. In 1878 her husband succeeded his father as King Umberto II and Margherita officially became Queen of Italy, a position she took extremely seriously, even if it did not always seem so. The Queen, however, understood that appearances matter and she knew how to use the social sphere to its best advantage, winning over the elites and the common people alike through her mastery of good entertaining and the appropriate behavior for any occasion.

No one would deny that Queen Margherita had a winning personality and was almost instantly extremely popular with the Italian people. When she and King Umberto first arrived in Rome to take up residence in the Quirinale Palace, huge crowds stood in the pouring rain to greet them. They roared with delight as Margherita had the canopy removed from the carriage, drenching herself and her husband, but allowing her to stand up and greet the crowds. They had all stood in the rain to see her and she would not see them disappointed because of little dampness. Her soft beauty no doubt added to her popularity but she was the not the sort to abide sycophants. The Queen, unlike most Italians, was fair-haired and blue eyed but she reacted quite angrily to any who tried to flatter her by extolling the racial superiority of north Europeans over the Latins of the south. The Queen was Italian to the core and would display nor tolerate the slightest talk that might divide the newly united country. Even though Italian had not been her first language as a child, she was as ardent a patriot as could be imagined.

When in public the Queen was always a uniting figure, saying all the right things and never saying anything that might be divisive. Yet, privately, all who knew her knew that she had very strong social and political opinions. Compared to her conservative husband she was positively reactionary (which is a good thing of course) but she also knew how to get along with everyone and would even dance with politicians of the far left at court functions. The Queen despised parliament as a troublesome talking shop but was intelligent enough to know that the monarchy would have to get along with it. She was among those who reacted with great anger when Italy allowed France to beat them to the annexation of Tunisia and she generally favored a strong and aggressive foreign policy, being one of many who held that Italy would not be taken seriously by the other more well-established powers of Europe until they won a significant war. She had such a reputation for patriotism that a special pizza was named after her which featured green, white and red toppings.

Queen Margherita was much more well rounded than most would assume of someone who held such strident views. She was intelligent, spoke Latin fluently, well-read and played the piano. She enjoyed the arts, intelligent conservation and the company of well educated people. During her time, she made her salon a center of artistic and intellectual lights and so won many people from diverse walks of life to supporting the monarchy, even some who had previously been adamantly opposed to it. Her grace and charm were legendary, impressing even Queen Victoria whose impeccably high standards made her a woman rather hard to impress. She founded several societies dedicated to the study of Italian literature, was patron of numerous charities and was most highly involved in the Italian Red Cross. The Queen was also brave enough to do a little mountain climbing, there being few experiences she was not open to. She was a very religious woman, zealously devoted to her royal house and, though she never had nor sought much political influence, advocated the pursuit of Italian greatness and the glory of the Savoy monarchy. It was, for this reason, that she was an ally of Prime Minister Francesco Crispi who pursued a policy of development and expansion.

When King Umberto I was assassinated Queen Margherita was extremely distraught but quickly took charge of things. She composed a special liturgical prayer for her husband in the form of a rosary extolling the sufferings and goodness of her late husband. She requested that it be recited in all the churches of Italy but, though the Bishop of Cremona endorsed it, the Pope overruled him as the Holy See was still officially ignoring the Kingdom of Italy. Nonetheless, it became popular and spread amongst the people, touched by the words of a devoted wife and thus Queen Margherita cemented in the public mind the image of her husband as “King Umberto the Good”. The dazzling, cultured Queen consort from then on became the mournful, but still strong, widowed Queen Mother. Her ardent patriotism was still very much on display during the First World War and she deplored the chaos that followed. Her sympathy for Mussolini and the Fascist Party has been greatly overstated in more recent years. The Queen mother knew little about him but appreciated a strong, dynamic force in politics that would bring stability and strength to Italy. For someone so committed to the House of Savoy, if she had known more about the republican past of Mussolini she would certainly have been horrified. Still, the Fascists had made an effort to ingratiate themselves to the nationalists and monarchists and the “quadrumvirs” made a show of coming to call on the admired Queen mother before setting out for their March on Rome in 1922.

Queen Margherita did not live long enough to see much of fascist governing first-hand. She would not see the Kingdom of Italy reach its apex of expansion but she was also spared the downward spiral and eventual fall of the monarchy she so dearly loved. Queen Margherita of Savoy died in Bordighera on January 4, 1926 at the age of 74.

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