I’ve always found it amusing that St. Patrick’s Day, the day of the Irish, is also the day that the modern Italian nation state came into being.
June 2, 1946 is the birthday of the modern Italian Republic – Constitution Day – but March 17, 1861 is the day Italy became a nation state.
On that day in Turin, the first Italian Parliament declared Italy independent, Victor Emmanuel II its King and Rome as its capital city.
The unification of Italy had taken half a century beginning with the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Unification was opposed by the Austrian Habsburgs, which ruled Northern Italy and the Papacy which ruled central Italy.
It culminated in 1861 with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily and his march to Naples at the head of a ragtag army of 25,000. Simultaneously Victor Emmanuel of the House of Savoy marched south and met with Garibaldi’s forces at Teano.
The two met and Garibaldi pledged his allegiance – it is considered the birthplace of the Italian nation as we know it. Garibaldi entered Naples beside the King to tumultuous crowds and immediately retired, leaving the unification of the Italian peninsula to Victor Emmanuel. Garibaldi sacrificed his hopes for a republican Italy in return for a united Italy. The republic would not come until after two world wars. Until then, Italy was a constitutional monarchy with Victor Emmanuel II as its first King.
Neither Venice nor Rome was part of Italy in 1861. Venice would be ceded to Italy after Austria’s defeat in the Austro-Prussian war. Rome was occupied by the French army defending the Papacy. The Pope had lost vast territories in central Italy to the new united Italy but continued to exercise his temporal powers in Rome. After its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war France withdrew its garrison in 1871 and Rome was occupied by Italian troops, confining the Pope to his tiny Vatican enclave. The reigning Popes did not set foot in Italy for more than half a century, declaring the new Italian state anathema.
Why did Victor Emmanuel decide that Rome would be his capital when he didn’t possess it? Rome faced many competitors among Italy’s urban centers.
Milan was the banking and stock market as well as journalism center. Florence was celebrated for its cultural and artistic heritage. Naples was by far Italy’s largest city and even in 1914 still remained so. Turin was the center of heavy industry and ancestral home of the new monarchs.
But Rome had its history. It echoed the glories of empire but ever since the Cross had triumphed over the ruins of the Capitol, Rome had become the heart of the world girding empire of the church. And the political mixture of the Risorgimento was etched with anti-clericalism.
Italian modernity seemed irrational without it.
Fifty years later Italy was still nation of fractious peoples and divided loyalties. Northerners look upon their southern brethren as bandits and brigands unable to resist their childish impulses. Southerners look north and saw not Italians, but Germans and Francophiles ready to leave their country and make their names in Paris or Berlin. They didn’t even speak the same language.
Everyone looked down on Rome – a city of dreary shop and hotel keepers, waiters and prostitutes catering to condescending British and German tourists looking down their noses at an inferior people.
But Rome had what these other places did not. It had glory. It had cache.
There is a balcony on the façade of the Palazzo Venezia overlooking its piazza from whence Benito Mussolini would harangue the crowds of adoring Fascists, standing in the heart of Rome. Rome, the “eternal city, ”the inspiration of the first, second and third “Italies” – the Rome of empire, of the Renaissance and the Risorgimento.
From the balcony in1940, Mussolini could look to the Roman Capitol, the sublimely sacred site of the classical Imperium. To the east the Coliseum was visible down the Via dell’ Impero, Empire Street, itself a jewel of Fascist urban planning. To the west, the Corso Vittorio Emmanuel led to the Vatican while another corso led toward the Milvian Bridge, where Constantine to his immediate military and political benefit, saw the Cross and on to the Via Flaminia and those other Roman roads which fanned across the empire.
Piazza Venezia – Mussolini’s balcony is on the right.
The Dictator’s balcony view was resonant with history and myth; yet in 1940 the biggest building, the most imposing in its glaring whiteness was the architectural message of the Victor Emmanuel Monument; the Vittoriano, the Monumentissimo, the Typewriter, the Wedding Cake, standing along the southern edge of the Piazza Venezia and guarding the entry of the Via dell’ Impero, its jingoism and bravado dwarfing the Dictator and the crowds.
The building is not a Fascist one; it honors Italy’s first King. Planning began in 1880 and it was dedicated in 1911, the 50th anniversary of reunification. Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti saluted it as a “national anthem in marble,” the most sacred and visible symbol of the new Italian nation.
The monument displays a statuary of the liberal gods, Thought, Action, Sacrifice, Law, Peace, Unity, Liberty to the disgust of the Vatican and its sympathizers. Not all the Gods were treasured by Fascists either.
After WWI the Winged Victories were added, charging toward the west, ready to take on the Vatican or as the Fascists argued, Britain and France.
Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown, the Altar of the Fatherland” was added in 1922 interring an unidentified Italian soldier from the Great War. Mussolini would make regular use of the site as one Fascist war succeeded another.
The monument is set right up against the Roman Capitol and its axes lead to the Coliseum and Imperial Forum, to the Theater of Marcellus and the Temple of Janus; It served as visible proof that the ghosts of Italy’s past were welcome in the new nation.
As an Italian historian has explained “The monument and the Piazza Venezia, adjacent as they were to the classical forum, constituted or were meant to constitute the “Italic Forum” of modern Rome.
The monument was and remains a quintessentially Italian study in brilliant white marble uniting a fractured people with its past glories. Many have criticized the monument as ….well everything. Too Large. Too white. Too ornate; not fitting in with the rest of the city.
It should be recalled that design and construction began when Italy as a nation was only 19 years old and still very unsure of itself. The monument was built with a pride in what had been accomplished and the hopes for a future Italy. It is the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials all rolled into one.