Ditching the monarchy or a day at the beach: What is Italy celebrating on Republic Day?

Italy takes a day off on June 2nd, but what exactly are we celebrating? Here, writer Richard Hough tells us the story of intrigue and corruption behind the fall of the Italian monarchy.

Ditching the monarchy or a day at the beach: What is Italy celebrating on Republic Day?
The Frecce Tricolori flying over the Altare della Patria monument in Rome is a long-standing feature of Republic Day celebrations. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO/AFP

At this time of year, it seems that barely a week passes by that isn’t cut short by a day off of one kind or another (as long as the national holiday falls on a weekday).

April 25th was Liberation Day, May 1st was Labour Day, and in Verona on May 21st we celebrated San Zeno, our local patron saint. 

READ ALSO: The Italian holiday calendar for 2022

As if these days of leisure aren’t enough, Italians, in their infinite wisdom, are known to add various ‘ponte’ to the annual calendar of festivities. So, for example, if your revered saint’s day happens to fall on a Tuesday, it makes no sense to go to work on the Monday, so a ‘bridge’ is created from the weekend to give you yet another day off. Genius!

In some ways, these truncated weeks seem designed to ease you into the long hot summer, a chance to acclimatise and prepare yourself for the long school holidays that are to come – Italian schools close for three whole months in the summer. 

So, June 2nd is the Festa della Repubblica, a day that commemorates the creation of the new Italian republic in the seething aftermath of the Second World War.

The birth of the republic

In fact, the day marks the anniversary of the 1946 referendum in which the Italian people had their say on the form of government that would follow the long years of fascism. 

The Italian people were given the simple choice of monarchy or republic. By a margin of 54.3 to 45.7 percent, they chose to ditch the system of hereditary monarchy that had been in place for just 85 years in favour of a new republic. 

Though relatively short-lived, Italy’s monarchical era was not without its drama.

Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy, reigned from 1861 until his death in 1878. His first wife was also his first cousin once removed (Adelaide of Austria), with whom he had eight children. His second marriage,to his principal mistress La Bela Rosin, was also controversial – as a commoner she could never be queen. 

The Altare della Patria Vittorio Emanuele II monument on Piazza Venezia in Rome. Photo: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP

Despite the controversy that was to follow, Victor Emmanuel II remains a revered figure in Italy, endowed with the moniker Pater Patriae (father of the fatherland), and the magnificent Victor Emmanuel II monument in Rome constructed in his honour.

As the first-born male (only males could ascend the Italian throne), the throne passed to Umberto, who reigned from his father’s death in 1878 until his assassination on 29 July 1900. 

Like his father, Umberto also married a first cousin (Margherita of Savoy) and their only son, Victor Emmanuel, was born in 1869. Nicknamed ‘il Buono’ [the good], Umberto also kept a string of mistresses, his favourite of whom were installed in court as ladies-in-waiting to the queen. 

Growing up in the stifling and constrained world of court, Umberto harboured a long-running grievance against his father. When he was crowned king, he quickly sold off his father’s extensive racing horse collection and sought to stamp his own personality, such as it was, on the monarchy. 

Poorly educated, with no intellectual or artistic interests, Umberto was an admirer of Prussian-German militarism. He approved the Triple Alliance (one side of the pre-war system of military alliances that was designed to prevent war) with Austria-Hungary and Germany, but when war came, Italy would eventually join the other side. 

As well as strident militarism, Umberto was also a staunch advocate of colonial expansion. The clumsy execution of these two policies helped to create the climate in which the world inched towards conflict. 

A divisive figure, Umberto was the subject of a number of failed assassination attempts. The violent end to his reign came on 29 July 1900, when he was shot in Monza by the Italian-American anarchist Gaetano Bresci.

The Italian monarchy and fascism

Umberto I was succeeded by his son, Victor Emmanuel III, who reigned until his eventual abdication on 9 May 1946. In preparation for his future role as king, the young prince had been told by his father: ‘to be a king, all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper, and mount a horse’. Shy and withdrawn, at just five feet tall he was known as ‘sciaboletta’ [little sabre]. 

Across the globe, the early years of Victor Emmanuel III’s reign coincided with a period of unprecedented global instability. As well as two world wars, his reign also saw the birth, rise and fall of fascism.

In fact, it was Victor Emmanuel III who, in 1922, had personally appointed Benito Mussolini to serve as Prime Minister of Italy, despite his dubious reputation, lack of executive experience and limited parliamentary support. The King welcomed the ‘strong man’ as a figure who might restore some much-needed order to Italy.


Even after the brutal assassination of the socialist parliamentarian Giacomo Matteotti, the king refused to dismiss Mussolini and he remained conspicuously silent during the winter of 1925–26 when il Duce abandoned all pretence at parliamentary democracy, approving without protest laws that eliminated freedom of speech and assembly, abolished freedom of the press and declared the Fascist Party the only legal political party in Italy.

In fact, the only occasion during the fascist era in which the king exercised his royal prerogative was to veto an attempt by Mussolini to change the Italian flag by adding the fascist symbol to the royal coat of arms, a move that the King considered disrespectful. The King even returned the fascist salute and honoured fascist martyrs, forever associating the crown with the fascist regime. 

The king’s assumption of the imperial crown of Ethiopia, his public silence when Mussolini’s government introduced the vile racial purity laws, and his assumption of the crown of Albania, further eroded public affection for the monarchy.

In July 1943, following the bombardment of Rome, the king was loudly booed when he visited the site of the bombing. Following the armistice of 1943, he fled to the southern Italian city of Brindisi – in stark contrast to the behaviour of Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who had refused to leave London during the Blitz. 

Forever tainted by his proximity to the fascist regime, Victor Emmanuel III abdicated in 1946 in favour of his son Umberto II, a calculated act of contrition which he hoped would bolster support for the monarchy, as the country considered its post-war constitutional future.

Umberto II, the Prince of Piedmont, was the only male of the five children of King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Elena. He would be the last King of Italy. He reigned for just 34 days, for which he earned the nickname il Re di Maggio [the May King]. 

After the fall of Mussolini, he tried to repair the monarchy’s image, but according to the British foreign secretary Anthony Eden his only qualification for the throne was that he had more charm than his charmless father.

Rumours circulated about Umberto’s sexuality: he was romantically linked with the renowned film director Luchino Visconti and French actor Jean Marais, and Mussolini is even said to have kept a dossier on his colourful private life for blackmail purposes.

The 1946 referendum marked the end for Italy’s monarchy. The more conservative, rural Mezzogiorno [southern Italy] voted solidly for the monarchy, while the more urbanised and industrialised Nord [northern Italy], where the hint of homosexuality that followed Umberto had repelled the conservative vote, favoured a republic.

Umberto II was deeply shocked by the result of the vote and initially refused to accept what he called ‘the outrageous illegality’ of the referendum.

Exile, controversy and reality TV stardom

At 3.00 pm on 13 June 1946, Umberto left the Quirinal Palace in Rome for the last time. From Ciampino Airport, he boarded the flight that would take him to lifelong exile in Portugal.

Umberto II lived on the Portuguese Riviera for 37 years. He would never set foot in his native land again. Amidst rumours of infidelity and betrayal, Umberto’s relationship with his wife, Queen Marie-José of Belgium, broke down completely, and she spent most of the reminder of her life in exile in Switzerland.

In the intervening years, surviving descendants of Italy’s royal family have never been far from intrigue and controversy. Prince Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy, the only son of Umberto II, was linked to Propaganda Due (P2), the pseudo-Masonic ‘state within a state’ responsible for high-level corruption and political manipulation that culminated in Italy’s ‘years of lead’.

 Vittorio Emanuele (R), his wife Marina Doria (2nd R), Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia (2nd L) and his French wife Clotilde Courau (L) in 2011. Photo: TIZIANA FABI / AFP

Prince Vittorio Emanuele was also directly implicated in the death of a 19-year-old German student Dirk Hamer, who was accidently shot on the deck of a boat anchored off a south Corsican island, and was arrested on charges of criminal association, racketeering, conspiracy, corruption and exploitation of prostitution, though he was subsequently acquitted of all crimes.

Nowadays, the descendants of the House of Savoy remain the source of considerable fascination for European gossip columns and lifestyle magazines.

The most prominent member of the exiled royal family is Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia, the only son of Prince Vittorio Emanuel, who recently took to Twitter to herald the return of the Italian royal family. The announcement, though, turned out to be little more than a publicity stunt for a new TV show.

In July last year the dashing prince, who has long threatened to launch himself into the murky world of Italian politics (in 2009 he stood unsuccessfully for the European Parliament with an Italian centre-right Catholic party), launched Realtà Italia – a movement which he claims has a concrete plan to relaunch Italy post-Covid.

But the prince remains best known for his occasional appearances on reality TV and popular variety shows – he won Dancing with the Stars in 2009. More significantly, in 2019, he announced that he was breaking with the ancient Salic Law of Succession and designated his teenage daughter Vittoria as his heir.

With over 51,000 followers on Instagram, Princess Vittoria Cristina Chiara Adelaide Maria has found some fame as a burgeoning social media influencer. She will need to peddle more than just influence on Instagram, though, if she is to return House of Savoy to its previous lofty status. In Italy there is little appetite for a return to the monarchical past.

So, how will I be celebrating the end of this incestuous, diminutive, shallow, vain, superficial, immoral, spineless, fascist-enabling, militaristic institution that reined over some of the darkest days in Italian history? Probably with glass or two of Elisivir Lungavita, the bitter-sweet digestif relabelled Amaro Montenegro, in honour of the late Queen Elena of Montenegro. Evviva!

Richard Hough has lived in Verona since September 2011 and writes about the region’s history, football, wine and culture. His new book, Rita’s War, a true story of persecution, resistance and heroism from wartime Italy, is available here. He is currently writing his next book about wartime Verona.

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Pagan witches and Mussolini: Why Italy’s Epiphany holiday has a curious history

Italy celebrates Befana on January 6th, a holiday that rivals Christmas for many Italians. But how did this staunchly Catholic nation come to worship a pagan witch?

Pagan witches and Mussolini: Why Italy's Epiphany holiday has a curious history

On January 6th Italians celebrate La Befana, an ugly witch with a crooked nose, a huge chin wart, hunchback and torn shoes who flies the night skies on a broom, rewarding or punishing kids depending on how they’ve behaved. 

In the morning, Italian children rush to the fireplace to see what La Befana has left in their stockings: sweets and chocolates if they’ve been good, often also money, or ‘charcoal’ (black sugar lumps) if naughty. 

READ ALSO: How to make the most of Italy’s public holidays in 2023

It’s a deeply felt, nationalist holiday. In Piedmont, Befana scarecrows are burned to bless the new year; in Lazio locals do the ‘Befana Dive’, a swim in the cold sea, while women jokingly call each other ‘Befana’ and dress up as witches. In many villages, city piazzas and alleys there are Befana-themed masked parades. 

But how did such a Catholic nation come to worship a pagan witch? 

Its origins date back to Ancient Roman times, when it was real party. Families and friends would get together at the taberna (‘tavern’) to feast, and would also buy cakes to bring to other people’s homes as gifts.

“According to the beliefs of our Roman ancestors, on the night of January 6th female deities flew over the cultivated fields to boost the soil’s fertility and yield,” explains historian and archaeologist Giorgio Franchetti, author of several books on the Ancient Romans.

“Such goddesses had many different names. Initially it was Diana, who is not only the goddess of hunting but also of vegetation and nature, then there was Satia (deity of satiety) and Abundia (goddess of abundance), all beautiful women who physically had nothing in common with the old granny stereotype embodied by modern Befana.”

People dress up as witches during an Epiphany parade – but the original ‘Befana’ was said to be an attractive young female deity. (Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP)

The rural nature of the flying sorceresses was linked to the nocturnal setting during which these fertility rituals were carried out, with a shining moon and in the countryside and woods, which are all elements sacred to Diana. 

Similarly, La Befana lands on roofs at night and slides down the chimney, but today she’s a domestic, homey-looking character who’s no longer confined to rural areas. 

“January 6th was a special day for the Ancient Romans as it ended the 12-day festivity period that followed December 25th, when they celebrated the birth in a cave of God Mithras whose story resembles that of Jesus Christ,” says Franchetti.

“It was also the day of the Sol Invictus, the ‘invincible sun’, for December 25th marked the end of the dark winter days that started to become brighter and longer. 

“This entire period celebrated the beginning of a new year, of prosperity and welcomed the upcoming spring.”

In Italy Epiphany is celebrated with the tradition of La Befana, an old woman, bringing presents to children during the night of January 5th. (Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP)

When Christianity and the Church came along, these young sexy flying pagan goddesses were condemned and banned from worship. No longer accepted as bringers of good omen and prosperity, they were turned into outcast, terrifying witches and classified as ‘evil’. 

They became old, freakish carriers of ill-omen, and thus also of charcoal, which is the symbol of the bonfire on which alleged witches were later burnt at the stake by the Holy Inquisition. 

“The church tried to obliterate all pre-Christian rituals and festivities by overlapping these with the celebration of the Christian Epiphany, which is when the three wise men meet baby Jesus bearing gifts”, says Franchetti.

Centuries later La Befana found her greatest fan in Mussolini, who promoted her as an all-Italian, patriotic female alternative to the foreign Father Christmas. 

Mussolini had a specific reason for making her the Christmas queen. He banned all foreign-sounding and English-related words and traditions, and saw Santa Claus as an outsider to Italian culture. 

The tyrant thus substituted the ‘imported’, Anglo-Saxon Father Christmas with the Italian Befana, who has been roaming the night skies since the dawn of time. 

A street seller holds a Befana doll at a market in Rome’s Piazza Navona. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

In 1928 Mussolini, with the help of the regime’s propaganda, established Epifania as a national holiday. It was called La Befana Romana, or La Befana Fascista.

“It was typical of the regime to appropriate pagan and Roman myths or symbols as means of glorification and power”, says Franchetti.

Inspired by the ideal of great ancient Rome, Mussolini quite cleverly adapted and adopted pagan flying goddesses to his own ends. 

Italian elders still recall when their mothers and grandmothers during the fascist regime would gather piles of old clothes, socks and toys to give to the poor and to homeless orphans.

“It was part of the fascist regime’s pro-welfare propaganda. My mom would go through our wardrobe telling us to help her gather what we no longer needed so as to obey the call from authorities prompting families to be generous to those in need”, recalls 95-year-old Giulio Verde, a Roman pensioner. 

“On TV and radio the regime appealed to rich people in particular to offer food and old clothes to the poor and homeless through national welfare campaigns led by juvenile associations that hailed fascism’s social mission and honored Mussolini”, adds Verde.

However, La Befana’s popularity survived fascism and found supporters even after the end of World War II, as she embodied the positive, familiar image of the gift-bearer. Political parties continued using the Befana as a propaganda tool to promote their policies in favor of poor families. 

Italians also adore her because she allows us to stretch the Christmas holidays out until January 6th – and beyond if the festivity happens to fall on a Friday like this year. We have a rhyming phrase to wish her ciao ciao: “…Eh l’Epifania, che tutte le feste si porta via” (and so the epiphany brushes away all festivities).