HM King Umberto I of Italy
  • January 18, 2016
  • Posted In: Royal

The second monarch of unified Italy, King Umberto I (1844-1900) was born into a dynasty at war. During the prince’s adolescence, his father King Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy and Giuseppe Garibaldi were fighting the patchwork of independent ducal states and kingdoms that made-up Italy and working towards the union known as the Risorgimento of 1861. The Savoy family had ruled territories in and around Italy since the year 1003 but their claim to the throne of the unified kingdom was not universally popular.

Prince Humbert of Peidmont (as he was first listed in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers) served during the Second War of Independence and witnessed the carnage during the Battle of Solferino in 1859. The battle was the largest fought on European soil since Leipzig at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and an average of 26,000 men were killed every day. The young Prince of Piedmont would fight at his father’s side until all the kingdoms of Italy were annexed under King Victor Emmanuel’s rule. On marching into Rome, the House of Savoy caused a rift with the Vatican that remained unresolved on King Umberto I’s death and also alienated the Catholic ruling powers of Europe.

As heir to a fledgeling throne, Prince Humbert was not considered a solid match although a tentative alliance with Archduchess Mathilda of Austria was dashed when the unfortunate girl set her gauze gown on fire smoking an illicit cigarette and burnt to death. Instead, the prince married his first cousin Princess Margherita of Savoy, daughter of the Duke of Genoa. The wedding in 1868 proved to be a political masterstroke.

Though not a beauty, Princess Margherita had charisma and poise. Her effect on patriotic crowds was described as Margheritissimo. When Prince Humbert became King Umberto I of Italy in 1878, his new queen endeared herself to the crowds waiting in the rain outside the Quirinale Palace in Rome by removing the canopy from the royal carriage. The queen understood the power of pageantry and would dazzle the crowds with her jewels including a famous emerald parure and an extraordinary collection of pearls that King Umberto would add to every year. Queen Margherita accumulated thirty-three ropes of pearls including a string measuring over three feet.

One of King Umberto’s first acts on becoming monarch was to tour Italy showing-off Queen Margherita and their heir Victor Emmanuel, Prince of Naples, who was born in 1869. Like many a European throne, King Umberto’s was not secure. In Naples he duelled with a would-be assassin disarming the man with his sword. The king earned his title ‘Umberto the Good’ by keeping a close watch on his subjects and appearing at their side in times of crisis and natural disaster such as the floods that overwhelmed Venice and Verona and an earthquake on Ischia.

King Umberto sought recognition on the international stage with his colonial campaigns to annex Eritrea and Somalia. He also led Italy into an alliance with the Great Powers to crush the Boxer Rebellion in Imperial China; a bloody conflict that destroyed many of the architectural treasures of Peking including the Summer Palace. But danger was always clear and present at home. Another assassination attempt was foiled in 1897 when an anarchist tried to stab the king in Rome.

The royal family was in residence at the Villa Reale, Monza, in 1900 when the anarchist party finally hit their target. In 1898, the city of Milan had been placed under marshal law after riots had broken out protesting against the colonial wars in Africa. Canons had been turned on demonstrators and the death toll was said to have reached 1000. King Umberto had sent a telegram congratulating commanding General Bava-Beccaris for crushing the insurrection and the incident had become known as the Bava-Beccaris Massacre.

King Umberto was returning to the Villa Reale when Italo-American anarchist Gaetano Bresci shot him in the heart at point blank range. On being apprehended, Bresci said ‘I have not shot Umberto. I have killed the king. I have killed a principle’. He claimed the assassination was revenge for Bava-Beccaris. Bresci was found dead in his cell less than a year into his life sentence. Only two more Savoy kings would rule Italy. The dynasty was voted out in the referendum of 1946.

Prince Humbert first visited Henry Poole in 1864, four years before his marriage to Margherita of Savoy. A single page lists his orders between 1876 and 1877, a year before he became king. His orders are extravagant, suggesting King Umberto was as well-versed in sumptuary lore as Queen Margherita. His first order for 1876 was a blue sable coat lined with silk and trimmed with quilted velvet collars and cuffs. His buckskin coat lined with silk is made with matching vest, trousers and leggings. The orders for 1877 are to be sent to the Royal Palace in Milan and include a black superfine dress coat lined with silk, a pair of elastic doe trousers with silk fittings and braided sides and a pair of blue whipcord doeskin trousers.

(c) James Sherwood


Photo © (c) Property of James Sherwood