In a city as sprawling as Rome, few things really dominate the skyline. There is St. Peter’s Basilica, and then there is this, the marble neoclassical monument to Italian King Victor Emmanuel II. It is stunningly white, topped with winged Victory statues in bronze, fronted by a huge statue of the king on horseback, and able to be seen from all over the city center.
Vittoriano, or as some locals who don’t like it call it, the typewriter, sits at the base – and up the side – of Rome’s Capitoline Hill (click here to read more about Capitoline Hill), one of very few modern-era monuments allowed in what was the old imperial capital portion of the city. Named for the first king of the unified Kingdom of Italy, Vittoriano was built from 1885 to 1935, and houses a museum dedicated to Italian unification, Italy’s tomb of the unknown soldier, and perhaps the best observation deck in Rome.
While many visitors just walk past and take photos, some intrepid tourists will climb the 243 exterior steps up to the building entrance. Fewer will take the time to see the interior, with corresponding interior stairs leading back down. Even fewer will find the elevator to the observation deck, and yet a smaller percentage will realize their ticket to the observation deck includes admission to the Central Museum of the Risorgimento dedicated to Italian unification.
I am not a normal person, so only after learning all I could at the museum did I realize that my ticket included the observation deck, and then enjoy my time on the staircases. And I am glad to have done it in this order, because while the Vittoriano monument is a beautiful part of modern Rome, it is what it means to the relatively new state of Italy that is the most important.
In 1848, on the verge of what would define the beginning of the process of Italian unification, there were numerous countries on the Italian peninsula. Those in the northern part of what is now Italy were ruled – directly or indirectly – by Austria. The middle of the peninsula was the Papal States, centered in Rome, under the direct control of the Pope. And in the south was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In 1848, as part of a wider European movement toward liberalism, those states in the north rebelled against Austrian conservative rule, led by the Kingdom of Sardinia – which was made up of both the island of Sardinia and Piedmont (in what is now Italy, centered on Turin) and neighboring Nice (now France).
While the rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, it did a few things. First, it directly led to a sense of nationalism that became Italy-wide, as other kingdoms joined in. Second, it led to resentment toward the Pope, as Pope Pius IX originally supported it and then withdrew both his support and troops. And finally, it led to the Savoy family of Sardinia-Piedmont being seen as the leaders in the nationalistic efforts.
Over the next 23 years, there would be three wars of independence, not all of which even had Italy as the focal point, countless other campaigns, and more fascinating personalities than a non-Italian can even begin to understand. In fact, walking through the museum, even having done some research prior to my visit, I am overwhelmed and lost on multiple occasions. Signage seems to demand a bit more background than I have, and it isn’t until the fighting really begins that I feel like I know all that is going on. But I am mesmerized nonetheless, and will distill the basics for you here.
After defeat in 1848, in what would come to be known as the First War of Independence, those in favor of unification became more organized. Led by the Count of Cavour, who would become prime minister of Sardinia in 1852, negotiations were entered into with France, whereby France would receive the territory around Nice in exchange for both military and financial/material assistance against Austria. In 1855, Sardinia sided with Britain and France in the Crimean War, cementing that alliance. Sardinian King Charles Albert had abdicated in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II, and he and Cavour would lead the unification efforts diplomatically.
Militarily, the person at the center is Giuseppe Garibaldi, who we will speak more about later from San Marino. He led Sardinian forces in the Second War of Independence in 1859, where Sardinian and French forces defeated the Austrians and led to Lombardy being annexed by Sardinia, thus mainly unifying the north. (Sardinia would also occupy and then annex Tuscany the following year.)
In 1860, only five countries remained in Italy: Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papal States, an Austrian puppet government in the Veneto, and the tiny city-state of San Marino. Garibaldi led a campaign called the Expedition of the Thousand to Sicily. There, popular support for him and unification swelled his ranks, and by the end of the year, Garibaldi had conquered not only Sicily, but all of the Kingdom up to Naples, leaving only the Papal States between the two Sardinian swaths of territory.
Here is where the museum shines. In one fascinating case, the story of Garibaldi being wounded in battle is told. The museum has his boot with bullet holes, a model of his foot showing where the bullets entered, his actual bone fragments that were removed, the bandages used to stop the bleeding, and the canvas used to lift the general from the battlefield. In another, an original photo album of the thousand volunteers who attacked Sicily sits, with a digital display allowing one to see the inside. I am astounded at the breadth of the artifacts collected; this is not just a museum of portraits and narration.
On March 17, 1861, Victor Emmanuel II was declared King of Italy, and the new nation was born. Ten days later, on March 27, Rome was declared the capital. This is a bit funny, since Rome was not part of Italy, as the Papal States still existed in between Italian territories. The question of what to do about Rome would define much of the next decade, and the government operated out of Florence in the meantime.
The Third War of Independence is actually the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, where Italy sided with Prussia against Austria. With the latter’s defeat, Italy gained the Veneto, the last Austrian territories in what is now Italy.
From 1867 to 1870, a series of campaigns against the Papal States aimed to totally unify Italy and capture Rome. On September 20, 1870, Italian soldiers broke through the walls at Porta Pia, and the city fell. In July 1871, the capital officially moved.
(The museum goes on to trace Italian unification through World War One, where a few more territories were added with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, but this is less important to the story.)
The Kingdom of Italy would last through Victor Emmanuel II’s 1878 death, and through the reigns of two more monarchs, Umberto I and Victor Emmanuel III. After the latter’s abdication following Italian defeat in World War Two, a referendum led to the end of the monarchy and the establishment of the modern Italian Republic. But despite no longer having a royal family, Italians do look back at Victor Emmanuel II as the founder of Italy, hence keeping the magnificent monument here in the center of Rome.
Italian unification is a complicated subject, and even after my visit to Vittoriano and the Central Museum of the Risorgimento, I am still not sure I grasp more than the bare basics of it. I hope that this brief history lesson has helped you to understand just a bit, and that when you come to Rome and gaze upon the typewriter, it holds a bit more meaning for you than its mere beauty.
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