Monday, July 23, 2012

Monarch Profile: King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia

King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia was the last head of the royal House of Savoy before the foundation of the modern Kingdom of Italy. His reign occurred at a time of great divisions, struggles and opportunities, many of which he would embody in his own life. He was born Prince Carlo Alberto Amedeo on October 2, 1798 in Turin to Prince Carlo Emanuele of Carignano and Princess Maria Cristina of Saxony, the first of their two children. Carlo Alberto was born into the era of the French Revolution and so, along with the traditional education from his family on the glories of the House of Savoy and conservative values, the displacement of the family meant that he also received a very liberal education in Geneva and later in Paris during the first French Empire. This had a lasting impact on him as throughout his life he displayed a commitment to the idea that the House of Savoy must take a leadership role in northern Italian affairs and also a lasting friendship with France, something many in his family, given what they had been through, certainly did not share. Nonetheless, as none of the sons of King Vittorio Amedeo III produced an heir to the throne, there was an early assumption that Carlo Alberto would one day inherit the leadership of the family and the throne of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Prince Carlo Alberto had finished his education and was appointed to the rank of lieutenant of dragoons by Emperor Napoleon I in 1814. After the fall of the French Empire he returned to Turin and the elder members of the family set him on a new educational program intended to rid him of his pro-French and moderate liberal sympathies. They were not entirely successful and throughout his life Carlo Alberto would try to reconcile these two opposing world views he had been raised with. 1817 saw the happy occasion of a royal wedding when Prince Carlo Alberto married Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, Princess of Tuscany, on September 30 in Florence. She was a great woman, a devoted wife and a woman of very conservative opinions and a deeply sincere Catholic faith. In time three children were born; the future King Vittorio Emanuele II, Prince Ferdinando Duke of Genoa and the little Princess Maria Cristina who sadly died in infancy. Princess Maria Theresa was an excellent wife and mother whose influence was soft but strongly felt in both her husband and in the future reign of her son.

In 1821 King Vittorio Emanuele I abdicated, leaving the throne to his brother who became King Carlo Felice. However, he was, at that time, in Modena and so it was Prince Carlo Alberto who had to act as regent until he returned. That year a revolutionary movement took up the tricolor and demanded a constitutional monarchy as well as Savoy leadership in a movement to unify the states of Italy into one kingdom. Prince Carlo Alberto was sympathetic to these ideas and granted the first Piedmontese constitution. The very traditional and conservative King Carlo Felice, however, was certainly not and as soon as he returned to Turin he revoked the constitution, cracked down on dissident elements and sent Prince Carlo Alberto to join the French royal forces in Spain that were fighting to restore the absolutist King Fernando VII to his throne, hoping this would help put his priorities in order.

During this campaign, Prince Carlo Alberto won laurels as a champion of the old order. He was recognized for his great skill and bravery at the battle of Trocadero in 1823, defeating the constitutionalists and restoring the absolute monarchy of King Fernando VII. The part Prince Carlo Alberto played in this victory also earned him admiration in the Austrian Empire, which began to take notice of him as a rising star on the European stage. They were eager for a friendly face in Turin as they had been greatly at odds with the ultra-conservative King Carlo Felice. When he died in 1831 his last words to his successor Carlo Alberto were rumored to be, “Hate Austria”. In Piedmont-Sardinia there was joy and optimism upon the succession of the new King known as ‘Carlo Alberto the Magnanimous’. Here was a man who was committed to the glory of the monarchy, a man of vision and yet also a man who throughout his life had been torn by two conflicting world views. King Carlo Alberto would finally make Piedmont-Sardinia a constitutional monarchy, yet who was so traditional and conservative in his own tastes that he once called Prince Metternich a ‘radical’. He would be opposed by the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum yet it was King Carlo Alberto who would lay the foundation for the future Kingdom of Italy.

King Carlo Alberto went to work immediately, tearing down the internal customs borders in his kingdom to advance a free economy. Although sympathetic with some of their nationalist aims, he also suppressed the conspiracy of the adherents of Giuseppe Mazzini because he would not tolerate republicanism or anything which threatened the monarchy. As his later actions would prove, this was not out of any desire for arbitrary power on his part but because King Carlo Alberto (wisely) believed that republicanism would only divide and weaken a country, leaving it vulnerable to attack by more powerful neighbors. He was determined to defend the rights and freedoms of his people but realized that a monarch was necessary to do so rather than placing the freedom of the people at the mercy of self-serving political representatives. Rather, he looked to the examples of the constitutional monarchies of France and Belgium where traditional structures were preserved and individual rights were respected. In his model, however, the role of the monarch would be much more central and carry more authority in the political process.

Another area King Carlo Alberto looked at with concern was the faith of his country and the growing trend toward secularism, pushed by many of the secret societies that wanted the monarchy abolished. In a very poignant letter to His Holiness Pope Pius IX, King Carlo Alberto said, “…we have reached a point so distressing for Religion that I can scarcely bring myself to speak of it. Our country used to pass for a model of piety; Religion was triumphant there; daily she made immense progress” but, the King went on to say, feuding clerics and a lack of enforcement from the hierarchy had allowed decay to set in which the anti-clericals were only too willing and able to exploit. Also blaming the influence of the neighboring French Republic, the King lamented, “…so great is the evil, Most Holy Father, that it is beyond human power to repair it…” This was part of an overall trend across Europe and no place, even the Papal States themselves, were immune from it. We can also detect an implied criticism against the liberalism and optimism that characterized the early years of the reign of Pope Pius IX, a position he would soon radically reverse.

Things came to a head with the Revolutions of 1848. It was in that critical year that King Carlo Alberto earned his “magnanimous” title by enacting the constitution that would serve throughout the remaining years of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia as well as throughout the life of the Kingdom of Italy; the Statuto Albertino. Previously he had remarked that it was his desire for the liberation of Italy that caused him to oppose a constitution but when it became clear to him that this movement was the way of the future, he adeptly got out in front of it and earned the respect and admiration of his people by codifying in law their rights and representation in government while reserving final authority for the King. The Italian tricolor became the new national flag of Piedmont-Sardinia with the arms of the Savoy Royal Family as its central motif. Absolutists from Madrid to St Petersburg condemned the King for taking this action, taking the side of the reformist movement, yet the communist revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels singled out King Carlo Alberto as their greatest enemy. The absolutists, they argued, were discredited but Carlo Alberto had robbed the revolutionaries of their greatest propaganda weapon by making himself the champion of the freedom of his people.

King Carlo Alberto, although he had no ambitions to march down the length of the Italian peninsula, was determined to see Austrian rule removed from the north and when Milan, Venice and neighboring areas rose in rebellion against Austrian rule he stepped forward as their protector and declared war on Austria. In doing so, he beat the republicans to the punch and turned many would-be republicans into ardent supporters of the Savoy monarchy. This was the First Italian War of Independence and Piedmont-Sardinia allied with Tuscany and (for a short time) the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies against the Austrian Empire. At first his armies were successful but on July 24 came the disastrous battle of Custoza which was a decisive Austrian victory and forced the Piedmontese to agree to an armistice. It was his misfortune to face Field Marshal Joseph Graf Radetzky, one of the most capable commanders in the Austrian military. The conditions Austria demanded for peace were so severe that King Carlo Alberto was reluctant to agree to them. However, he had no choice and so accepted all responsibility upon himself for the defeat. On March 23, 1849 he abdicated the throne in favor of his son and went into exile in Portugal. Heartbroken at the loss, he did not survive the year and died in Porto on July 28 at the age of 50.


  1. I always found the fact that he himself had married a Habsburg funny, especially when one considers that the "Habsburg rule" and "Austrian rule" are essentially the same thing - the country WAS through the family.

    Oh, and I was wondering... do you take requests for royal profiles? I've been reading a lot about certain royals that I'm having a hard time finding info about!

    1. I wouldn't call it "funny" myself, it was almost a family tradition among the Savoys to marry Hapsburgs. King Carlo Emanuele III married a Lorraine, Vittorio Emanuele I married an Austria-Este Hapsburg, Carlo Alberto married a Hapsburg, Vittorio Emanuele II married a Hapsburg and even King Umberto I was going to marry a Hapsburg but the poor girl died in a tragic accident.

      On the other side, Duke Leopold I of Austria married a Savoy and Kaiser Ferdinand of Austria married a Savoy. Of course, none of that has ever stopped political disagreements or wars between the countries involved. It helps prevent them but cannot always stop them.

      As for requests, I'm afraid I just can't do it. Some take longer to research than others and that can put off my schedule and if I do a request for one person I'd have to do them for anyone and that would be overwhelming. Still, anyone is free to make a suggestion, it might get done or it might not but there's no harm in tossing ideas around.

  2. That's true. It just seems odd on the surface to me.

    I understand about the requests too. I, and many others I am sure, greatly appreciate what you've done with this site, as there is a dearth of good places where people who share an interest or belief in monarchy can cavort and discuss; I can only imagine maintaining this site takes a good deal of your time. In any case, if you were interested, I am looking for more info on Princess Charlotte of Prussia (daughter of the Empress Frederick, the British Princess Royal) and her unfortunate daughter Princess Feodora. I've been reading a lot about the Victorian era of late and I've been wanting for info on these interesting royal ladies (Charlotte in particular - she seems to have had a touch of her elder brother's impetuousness), having found no luck online. If you get a chance, I'm curious if you know more about them than I do. Don't feel any obligation too though, just if you have the time or desire and share my interest.


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