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

Ditching the monarchy or a day at the beach: What exactly 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
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.

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.

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

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!

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And it just so happens that this is the perfect time of year to enjoy a day off. Plenty of sunshine (usually – this year it’s been unseasonably wet), but not yet the searing heat of high summer. 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 3 (three) 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. 

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.

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

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. 

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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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