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The Royal House of Savoy

An Introduction

© B. I. Di Bella

Theirs is an old story, spanning a thousand years. At the dawn of the second millennium, in the mountainous Alpine region the Romans had called Sabaudia, there arose an obscure family of noblemen whose greatest distinction heretofore was its unique role in guarding strategically important mountain passes.

From its earliest memory, their history would plunge the Savoys time and again into the very vortex of European conflict and intrigue. Yet, amazingly, they almost always succeeded in extricating their dynasty from disaster or near-disaster, to continue their royal procession through the centuries. [A list of works suggested for further reading follows this text.]

Origins of a Millennial House

At that moment in the Middle Ages, amongst Germanic emperors, French knights and Papal intriguers, no one could have foretold the fortunes of this dynasty. This relatively obscure family, probably descended from Barbarian warriors but, according to some historians, Burgundian ones, would display over the centuries a Machiavellian shrewdness and enduring strength of will, emerging some nine centuries later, following two catastrophic World Wars, as the oldest royal house of Europe still on a throne. Traced through the male line, the Savoy sovereigns of twentieth-century Italy descended directly from antecedents who ruled with sovereign authority before the Norman conquests of Hastings in the North and Messina in the South, who counted among their eleventh-century contemporaries not only the Normans William the Conqueror of England and Roger of Sicily, but Harald Sigurdson in Denmark, Alexius Comnenus at Constantinople and El Cid in Spain.

Like so many other royal families, the Savoys were not destined by any divine authority to rule. There were to be no prophet Samuels or Pope Leos to anoint the founder of the dynasty. The progenitor of the House of Savoy was a certain Humbert (Umberto) "the Whitehanded" who lived from circa 980 until around 1047. He may have been the great-grandson of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, though this is unproven. In 1003, perhaps as as an act of gratitude for military service rendered to the latter Emperor Conrad II, Humbert acquired certain Alpine territories as a feudal lord and came to be known as Count of Savoy. He appears to have already had certain lands, however, and from an early date, Humbert's de facto exercise of his rights was more akin to that of a sovereign ruler than to that of a mere feudal vassal. This could have resulted from the obvious importance of his loyalty to the Emperor, who may have considered that a "sovereign" ally with a vested interest in defending his own strategic lands would be more loyal than a temporal feudatory.

Count Humbert may have had white hands from the Alpine chill of many a long winter's hunt for ibex and deer, but in fact his nickname, ascribed retroactively, derives from from a textual mistranslation of an early Latin record which actually refers to the walls of his castle, not his hands, as white.

The Umbertine Legacy

The dynasty's initial acquisition of territory was slow, at first based on advantageous marriages to Italian and French heiresses, but the Savoys' prominence came quickly. Two of Humbert's sons were bishops who served as provosts of the Abbey of Saint Maurice on the River Rhone east of Geneva, a church still associated with the Royal Family today. (Saint Maurice, the early Roman martyr whose relics are kept there, is the patron of the House of Savoy and of one of its orders of chivalry.)

Amedeo (Amadeus) "the Tail," Humbert's oldest surviving son, succeeded his father but served as Head of the house for just a few short years before his own death. His nickname is attributed to the story that he was kindly disposed to pay a visit to the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, but not without his entourage of vassals and knights, his "tail." A younger son, Otto, who had married Adelaide of Turin, succeeded Amedeo around 1052.

It was Otto's own son, Amedeo, who established the dynasty's presence in Piedmont, the territory east of Savoy and south of the Alps, inherited through his mother, Adelaide. As its name implies, Piedmont lies at the "foot of the mountains." At this early date, the dynasty also ruled Aosta, which borders Switzerland and France. These early Counts of Savoy epitomized the romantic spirit of the Middle Ages.

Over the centuries, the dynasty would not be given to spectacular conquests, but rather to the slow, cautious, even plodding, increment of territory and influence. For more than three centuries, the title "Count of Savoy" was handed down from generation to generation, sometimes passing between collaterals but always in the hands of the Whitehanded's progeny. Territorial expansion accompanied the dynasty's history.

Amedeo VI, called "the Green Count" for the colour he favored, which was the tincture of the liveries he gave to those who attended his tournaments, founded the Order of the Collar in 1362. Known today as the Order of the Annunciation, it survives as one of the oldest dynastic orders of chivalry.

Dukes of Savoy

In the late fourteenth century, Amedeo's eight year old grandson ascended the Throne as Amedeo VIII, known to history as "the Peaceful," probably in reference to his pious reflective inclinations. As he grew to manhood, a certain personal quality became manifest. Though quite devout, he was also a warrior-knight, whose faithful service to the Empire earned him the title "Duke of Savoy" in 1416. The Statuto he promulgated for his subjects was an early attempt at constitutional law and a guarantee of certain personal liberties. He retired to a monastery in 1434, designating his son, Ludovico, Lieutenant of the Realm, and ceding to him the title "Duke of Savoy," but not thereby abdicating the Throne. In 1439, he was elected as the anti-Pope Felix V but renounced this pontificate to recognise the true Pope ten years later. The first Duke of Savoy died in 1451, having founded the confraternal Knights of Saint Maurice, an institution which survives in today's Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.

Time passed and the Savoy lands became the center of conflict between the greatest monarchs of Western Europe, pitting France against Spain. During the Renaissance years, most of Piedmont was invaded and occupied by the French, for more than two decades beginning in 1536. Carlo II retreated into the hinterland, and many of his own subjects believed that the Savoy reign was at an end. Exceptional times called for exceptional leadership, and for the Savoys this was such a moment.

A descendant of Amedeo named Emanuele Filiberto succeeded in 1553 at the age of twenty-five and set about strengthening his position militarily and administratively. Having been a general in the service of Spain, he harbored a tendency to absolutism, but also hardheaded pragmatism. Hence his nickname, "the Iron-headed." This appellation may also have had something to do with his appearance in full armour at the battle of Saint Quentin, where, allied with the Empire, he defeated the French. The consequential treaty of Cateau Cambrésis guaranteed Savoy's position as a buffer state while allowing the Spaniards hegemony over the rest of Italy.

In 1560, in typical military fashion, the Iron Head founded a modern army and navy and, for efficiency's sake (as well as for better defense), he moved the capital to Turin (Torino), which had much better fortifications than the Savoyard city of Chambéry. He made Italian the official language of his realm three years later, though most documents continued to be published in French as well. Piedmontese, a dialect with Italian and French elements, became the Royal Family's vernacular at court; it remained so well into the twentieth century.

The Duke of Savoy had another goal, however, that of combating Moslem pirates in the Mediterranean --always a menace to commerce. By tradition, Emanuele Filiberto was not the first of his dynasty to take an interest in fighting Moslem naval forces. A legend was spawned, long after the event is supposed to have taken place, that one of Emanuele Filiberto's predecessors had assisted the Order of Saint John at one of the battles of Rhodes. The story has been perpetuated to explain the allusive meaning of the Savoy's motto FERT, Fortitudo eius Rhodum tenuit.

Confronting military realities on land and sea was one thing; defeating the ideological tides of the Reformation was quite another. His predecessors had been tolerant of Waldensians and Jews, but both groups now came under special censorship. (The Iron Head's great-grandson, Carlo Emanuele II, would prove far less tolerant; yielding to foreign pressure, he used military force against the Waldensians in 1655, massacring many civilians.) In the interest of curbing the spread of Protestant influence in his realm, Emanuele Filiberto heeded the Pope's call to defend the Faith and revived the Knights of Saint Maurice, erecting this company into an order of chivalry whose members acted as representatives of the Counter Reformation. He relinquished many schools in his state to that most militaristic of Catholic orders, the Jesuits.

Prosperity in Piedmont

The immediate descendants of the Iron Head were clearly inferior to him in words and deeds, if not aspirations. They had all they could do just to retain their position and territory. One lasting phenomenon, however, was the ever-advancing Italianization of Piedmont, even to the point of one Duke writing poetry in Italian extolling the virtues of a united Italy, with a Savoy as its King!

The new capital of Turin certainly bolstered this transition.The seventeenth century witnessed a great building program in the city that would trumpet to all of Europe that Turin was to be the principal city of the House of Savoy. Despite the Savoys' best efforts, however, Turin's streets and architecture are as reminiscent of Parisian styles as Italian ones, and Italians nicknamed the city "Little Paris." The future Royal Palace was completed in 1658, the Carignano Palace in 1680, and the Madama Palace, built in the thirteenth century, was expanded and refurbished to house widows of the Royal Family.

The Sacred Shroud of Christ, brought to Turin in 1578, was now venerated in a special chapel of the duomo, adding to the city's luster as an important center of "Catholic Europe."

In the complicated chessboard of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, the Savoys had to be ever-vigilant in order to avoid becoming mere pawns in the hands of great players. Vittorio Amedeo II, who ascended the Throne in 1675, may have deserved his reputation for duplicity, but he was also the most distinguished Savoy ruler since Emanuele Filiberto.

Though wed to a niece of the grand monarch Louis XIV of France and faithfully adherent to French foreign policy in the early years of his reign, he was not averse to changing sides when political interests dictated doing so. As the various European dynastic wars blackened the latter part of the seventeenth century, he withdrew loyalty from France in order to support the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs.

Yet, when the Spanish refused to acquiesce to Piedmont's takeover of Milan, a separate treaty was made which weighed strongly in Savoy's favour and against the interests of Spain.In the War of the Spanish Succession, Piedmont returned to the family fold with France in the opening phase of the conflict. In the first years of the eighteenth century, Vittorio Amedeo easily switched to the Hapsburgs and the English camp. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht rewarded him with new lands in northeastern Italy, and a Crown in Sicily.

Kingship and Statesmanship

This ancient Crown clearly enhanced the standing of the House of Savoy. They were kings at last. The wealth of Sicily far exceeded that of Piedmont, and Vittorio Amedeo brooked no delay in taxing his new subjects with the Rivello of 1714. He immediately discovered Palermo to be a far more prosperous city than Turin. But the new king, who proved to be an able administrator of his island realm, spent little time there. Seven years later, he accepted, in exchange, Sardinia, a nearer realm that he could rule from Turin. No longer a bit player, the House of Savoy was becoming an important, if not decisive, force to be reckoned with in European affairs.

His grandson, Vittorio Amedeo III, was confronted face-to-face by two tumultuous events. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars did not bypass Piedmont, but Sardinia was spared, and it was to that refuge that the dynasty retreated. The last vestiges of feudalism, which governed certain property rights, was abolished in Piedmont in 1797.

The Congress of Vienna restored Piedmont to the House of Savoy, with the addition of Genoa. After a brief succession of unremarkable "caretaker kings" in the three sons of Vittorio Amedeo III, the Crown passed, in 1831, to a collateral branch of the dynasty descended from Tommaso Francesco, Prince of Carignano, a younger son of the Iron Head.

So it happened that Carlo Alberto succeeded Carlo Felice, his fifth cousin one generation removed, to become King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy, and to inherit numerous lesser titles. He inherited a Kingdom in which liberalism and nationalism were to gather momentum. Mazzini and others were beginning to make their ideas heard in Italy and abroad.

In 1848, the effects of a popular revolution spawned at Palermo rapidly spread throughout Italy and many parts of Europe. Carlo Alberto's reaction, like that of the King of the Two Sicilies, was to grant a form of constitution, but the effects of his Statuto, which conferred certain rights to the upper and middle classes and religious minorities were longer lasting, and they spared Turin the revolt's worst effects.

He was compelled to abdicate in 1848 as the result of several factors, such as his having ordered troops into nearby Milan to quell the revolutionary disturbance there, only to be defeated by Austrian forces. He was succeeded in 1849 by his son, Vittorio Emanuele II, and died that same year.

Kings of Italy

Men make history but events make men, and this was certainly the case with Vittorio Emanuele II, helped along by D'Azeglio, Cavour, Crispi and, of course, Garibaldi. One by one, Sardinia absorbed its sister Italian states, even --in the instance of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies-- a nation with far superior military and economic resources. By 1871, with acquisition of the Papal State, the union was nearly complete, though as recently as the First World War it expanded still further, into Tirol.

The Risorgimento was a complex and controversial movement, but its result, a united Italy, was long overdue. Vittorio Emanuele did not demand the Italian Crown; he had proposed that his Neapolitan kinsman, Ferdinando II of the Two Sicilies, accept it as a more suitable candidate. The steadfast Ferdinando died in 1859 and the conquest of Sicily and the rest of Italy followed.

Vittorio Emanuele II was declared King of Italy in 1861 following a series of referenda which, had they not been fraudulent, would be studied by sociologists and electoral experts the world over, for they allegedly indicated that around ninety-seven percent of eligible male voters favored the House of Savoy as their reigning dynasty, a phenomenal margin of affirmation.

The new constitutional King reigned, but did not rule, from Turin, actually residing at Rome only for part of each year before his death in 1878. His younger son, Amedeo, was King of Spain for a few years, and the first King of Italy had an illegitimate son by a mistress, but it was Umberto, his eldest son, who succeeded him as Italian Sovereign.

Umberto I wed a Savoy cousin, Margherita. The transplanted Savoy court, now at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, was a glittering assemblage of the newly wealthy aristocracy, fiercely loyal to the Savoys, and the old Papist "Black Nobility" still loyal to the Pope but gradually moving to embrace the newcomers. But as ad hoc economic policy sought to alleviate a national debt with the wholesale rape of economic resources inherited from the South, poverty enveloped the countryside as never before. Rampant population growth did nothing to alleviate the problem, and Italy embarked for the first time on the road of foreign imperialism.

The results were disastrous. In 1896 the Italian army was decimated in a terrible defeat in Ethiopia; the government of Francesco Crispi fell and the name of the House of Savoy was muddied. Economic conditions worsened. Protests, strikes and protest marches followed and the government suppressed them with repressive measures. Even among the middle classes, King Umberto's popularity plummeted. He was assassinated by an angry anarchist in 1900, succeeded by the young Vittorio Emanuele III.

A Long Reign

A degree of economic stability followed, for a time. Italy's Alliance with Germany and Austria had been formed by Umberto's government. Foreign imperialism was still in vogue, but for now the Italians sought colonies closer to home, in Libya.

On the eve of the First World War, notwithstanding some persistent problems, Italy was accepted as a Great Power. In the early days of 1915, after more than a year of hostilities, Italy decided to renounce its Alliance with the central powers and ally itself with the Anglo-French-Russian coalition. Always antipathetic toward the Germans, Vittorio Emanuele was a major player in this political maneuver. He even went to the combat zone himself.

After more than three years of trench warfare in the northern mountains, with tremendous losses in men and matériel, Italy, and Victor Emmanuel, the "Soldier King," emerged victorious. But the victory was disappointing, if not bitter. The few crumbs given Italy by her allies fell far short of expectations, and postwar economic conditions at home were not good.

Labor strikes and Communist rumblings began. In this maelstrom of disorder, a right-wing movement, Fascism, gained the favour of many Italians, some of them solidly middle class. Led by men such as Benito Mussolini and supported by the likes of Gabriele D'Annunzio, the Fascists were as violent as any group of incendiaries could be.The new movement was militaristic, reactionary, counter-revolutionary and, before long, monarchist.

Supported by the sympathy of key elements in society, including some police officials and military officers, and even anti-communist bankers and industrialists, the Fascists under Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922, though at first he stayed away to protect himself from the indignity of a possible failure.

Though his loyal forces could have put down any revolt by the vehement mob, the King acceded to Fascist demands for power, his royal initiative later confirmed by a democratically-elected parliament, which the Fascist party soon controlled. A degree of stability followed as the new regime gradually increased its power base. The Lateran Treaties of 1929 brought the Kingdom of Italy a welcome diplomatic rapport with the Vatican.

But the new totalitarianism was no substitute for sound democratic principles. Censorship and police brutality, including torture, were commonplace, and royal authority was greatly restricted as time passed. Early casualties included anti-Fascists men of achievement such as Carlo Levi and Umberto Nobile. The King signed a series of repressive and racist laws, including those restricting the rights of his Jewish subjects --legislation that induced Enrico Fermi and Emilio Segrè to emigrate. Signing the new laws was a mistake, but it was said that a constitutional monarch was constrained to approve his own execution decree were it proffered for his signature. To do otherwise was to risk a constitutional crisis. Considering the course of events, perhaps it was time for a constitutional crisis.

Italy's brutal invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, only to be expelled by the British five years later, did little to enhance its esteem at the League of Nations. The nation's conquest of that exotic foreign land earned Vittorio Emanuele a short-lived Imperial title; it earned his country the world's wrath, and, after the Second World War, the first United Nations citation for crimes against humanity.

The declaration of war against the Allies was another royal mistake, one that would lead to the unprecedented slaughter of thousands of Italian civilians. Even Japan's leaders foresaw some of the eventual consequences of their Pacific war against the Sleeping Giant, but Italy's Fascists simply presumed a brief conflict.

The King's Consort, Queen Elena, was decidedly pacifistic, and even planned a summit conference with other queens to promote the cause of peace. Other Italian women shared her sentiments, but their voices went unheard. They didn't even have the right to vote.

With the occupation of smaller nations, more royal titles followed, but they were fleeting and ephemeral at best. Although the king personally loathed Hitler, and was generally unenthusiastic to support Germany, he did little to actively discourage the Duce. The time for a constitutional crisis had surely arrived.

But an empty victory against tiny Greece cannot be compared to a war fought against the British and Americans. Its military defeats made it clear that Italy could not win her ill-planned war. The bombing of Italian cities in 1943 was the first domestic shock. A constitutional monarch should be aloof of political developments; he embodies not the government, which can change at any time, but the people of his nation. Yet, such words fall short in explaining this subtle legal distinction to a young Sicilian mother who must search for her child's body amid the rubble of a home that has been destroyed by American bombs.

The Allies invaded Sicily in Summer 1943. They were welcomed by the population as liberators from the Fascist yoke; resentment for the regime ran so deeply that it seemed not to occur to the cheering crowds at coastal cities like Palermo and inland mountain towns like Caltanissetta that the Allies were enemy invaders who had killed thousands of Italian troops during the conquest, and that Italy was still at war with them. It would not remain so for long. The King quickly removed Mussolini and declared war against Germany. It was almost too late to save Italy.

The House of Savoy was saved by its retreat from Rome. Widely viewed as abandonment, if not worse, this act alone did much to discredit the Royal Family. It led to a profound questioning of the monarchy's role --and future. Amid this chaos, there was a man whose loyalty to his country's traditions and institutions was beyond question. He was Prince Umberto of Savoy, son and heir of King Vittorio Emanuele III.

Born at Racconigi, near Turin, in 1904, Umberto was a competent air force officer well-groomed to succeed upon his father's abdication. This he did in 1946, reigning briefly as Umberto II. In a war-torn nation, Umberto and his wife, the adamantly anti-fascist Maria José of Belgium, campaigned to preserve the monarchy.

Though Umberto sought to distance himself and his dynasty from the nation's Fascist past, this campaign, too, ended in defeat. In early June, a popular referendum, during which Italian women voted for the first time, decided narrowly in favour of a republic. Its method and balloting were questioned, and there were certain "irregularities" in some quarters, but Umberto, who reigned for but a month, was forced into exile. For most of the next four decades, His Majesty lived in a coastal town in Portugal. "Il Re di Maggio" ("The May King"), as he was christened by the Italian press, died in Geneva in 1983, prevented by a constitutional provision from ever returning to his homeland. He was survived by his Consort, Queen Maria José (who died recently), children and grandchildren. King Umberto II was succeeded as Head of his House by his son and heir, Prince Vittorio Emanuele, who lives in Switzerland with his wife, Princess Marina of Savoy, née Ricolfi Doria. As Duke of Savoy, Vittorio Emanuele is the forty-fourth head of his dynasty, a direct descendant of Umberto the Whitehanded.

Intended as a provisional measure, the exile law forbade the male descendants of the last King of Italy from entering the country for decades. It was abolished in 2002 and the Savoys re-visited Italy in December of that year. As guests of the Vatican, their first, brief (day-long) visit to Italy allowed them the diplomatic honours (police escort) usually accorded to heads of state. For Prince Emanuele Fliberto, son of Vittorio Emanuele, it was the first opportunity to set foot in Italy.

Suggested for Further Reading:

The historical outline presented here is necessarily brief, but there are various works that present detailed histories of the Royal House of Savoy. The better ones are published in Italian. English works generally focus on the Kingdom of Italy, ranging from the critical (Italy and Its Monarchy by Denis Mack Smith) to the cynical (The Fall of the House of Savoy by Robert Katz) to the conjectural (A Case for Monarchy by Robert Gayre), and are more likely to be found in public and university libraries in English-speaking countries. The Enciclopedia Italiana (Volume 30, Rome 1936), which can be consulted at some larger public libraries outside Italy, also presents a lengthy, if pious, history of the House of Savoy. Return to beginning of the article.

Cognasso, Francesco. I Savoia. (The Savoys). Varese 1971. This magnum opus, over a thousand pages long, is the definitive historical work on the House of Savoy. With the assistance, for the final chapters, of King Umberto II and the late Falcone Lucifero, Minister of the Royal Household, Cavalier Cognasso presents a comprehensive history, with an excellent bibliography which includes works on dynastic orders of chivalry, genealogy and law. As opposed to Oliva's book (see below), I Savoia is written in a scholarly style, almost as though it were a chronicle of events.

Di Scala, Spencer. Italy: From Revolution to Republic. Boulder and Oxford 1995. Excellent general Italian history that places the House of Savoy into its proper context after 1700. While some of the author's few economic observations could be challenged in light of available evidence, his social and historical presentations reflect serious scholarship and keen insight. The book contains an excellent Critical Bibliography.

Hayward, Fernand. Histoire de la Maison de Savoie. Paris 1953. (Published in Italian as Storia della Casa di Savoia at Rocca di Casciano in 1955.) A fine general history of this dynasty, and one of the first such works published following the end of the Italian monarchy.

Oliva, Gianni. I Savoia, Novecento Anni di Una Dynastia (The Savoys, A Dynasty's Nine Hundred Years). Milan 1998. Over five hundred pages in length, I Savoia is detailed and quite objective, encompassing the dynasty's history from the earliest times until the years of exile. Of particular interest are the chapters dealing with the dynasty's modern period prior to the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy. Contains an excellent bibliography and index. This book is written in a lively manner that makes reading it a pleasure. Published by Mondadori Editore of Milan.

Ricotti, Ercole. Storia della Monarchia Piemontese (History of the Piedmontese Monarchy). Florence 1861-1865. Published at a turning point in the history of Italy and the House of Savoy, this multi-volume work describes at length the workings and political activities of the Piedmontese state, with extensive information on the dynasty that ruled it.

Savoia-Aosta, Amedeo. In Nome del Re (In the Name of the King). Milan 1986. Presented as a long interview with Italian journalist Gigi Speroni, this autobiography of the outspoken Duke of Aosta (born in 1943) is an insightful firsthand account of life in the Royal Family in the aftermath of the Second World War, and particularly of its complicated relationship with the Italian Republic.

Strawson, John. The Italian Campaign. London 1987. Insightful account and analysis of the Allied strategy and campaigns in Italy in 1943-1945, researched and written by a British officer who served there.

The author, whose work has been published previously in Italy, is a Lecturer at the University of Palermo. Return to top of article.

©1998 B. I. Di Bella. Published here by permission.

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