Sardinian History – Who were the Savoy?
Sa bagassa ‘e Pio Nono, ‘that whore of Pope Pius IX’, is a habitual curse in Nuoro, even now, apparently because of the change in the Pope’s politics, in the far past. In fact, in the early phase of his Papal mandate (his lengthy ruled lasted from 1846 to 1878), he showed some liberal sympathies, which soon became a rigid conservatism. In 1848, Pius IX, claiming to be above national interests, breached his agreement with the Sardo-Piedmontese Kingdom by refusing to support its war against Austria, thus causing the defeat of its army in the First Independence War. That unpopular decision resulted in the sudden loss of the good opinion that the Piedmontese patriots had had of him: hence the widespread and lasting success of this curse also in the remote Sardinia.
By the way, only God knows what ‘Italy’ was at that time, and why an Independence War had to be declared by the Savoy family, one of the most likely targets for a just independence war, because of its controversial conquests and annexations, as well as its greedy colonialism. Of course, in the Italian textbooks the concept of ‘Italy’ was always taken for granted, and also that Barbagia belonged to this alien, indefinite country. It promised an extraordinary and always postponed Rinascita, ‘renaissance’, to the local populations.
In Barbagia, Pius IX was considered a whore. So too were many others; at first the minister Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour, Garibaldi too, so vain, so war loving that he trusted the Savoy family, and, by definition, the international ‘escort’ Contessa di Castiglione, who pleaded the cause of Italian unity with Napoleon III of France.
Carlo Alberto Emanuele Vittorio Maria Clemente Saverio Giulio di Savoia (1798 – 1849), the unlucky victim of the Pope, was the monarch of the Sardo-Piedmontese Kingdom from 1831 to 1849. He was always an ambivalent prince and then king, pushed by powerful visions and great ideals and always knocked down by minor events and adversities. He motivated and disappointed everybody (he looked like a democratic US leader actually) and he was forced, in the end, to go into exile and die abroad.
I have regard for Charles Albert: he was a peculiar person in a collection of intemperate characters. His life was hard and contested, always uncertain. He was a modern figure with good and bad, bearing the clear weight and consciousness of his human inadequacy, unlike all the other Manichean kings before and after him.
If there is a lesson in history—and I strongly believe there is—it is not surprising that two later Savoy kings, Victor Emmanuel III and Umberto II, went into exile too and died abroad, while Umberto I was so loved by the Italian population that he survived several assassination attempts before being eventually murdered in 1900 in Monza. Only one king among the last five of the dynasty, Victor Emmanuel II, died in his bed, in Rome, in 1878. By the way, he didn’t die in God’s Grace because the Pope had excommunicated him—but that is another chapter.
I like Charles Albert, I repeat. He was fond of Sardinia and went twice to visit this part of his kingdom: in 1829, when he was still a prince; the second time in 1836, as the King. And it is not strange that the Sardinian hymn Cunservet Deus su Re, May God save the King, has been written in 1844 just for him.
I’d prefer a Risorgimento guided by Charles Albert, I have to say, yes; I’d prefer his character, doubts and humanity. But history doesn’t make concessions, and we had to suffer the descendants of a butcher—this is the same story, undoubtedly, and tightly linked with Sardinia’s history.
The first king of the new kingdom of Italy, established in 1861, Victor Emmanuel II (1820–1878) was in fact the son of a butcher, Mr Tanaca. Of course, official history denies this. But the truth is that Charles Albert needed to replace a son who had died in his cradle in a fire. His nurse died as well. Mr Tanaca accepted the advantageous swap—his son was the same age as the dead royal—and was paid in cash. It is no surprise that there wasn’t any similarity between them: Victor Emmanuel II was short and stocky while Charles Albert was more than two metres tall and slim, with a different face, a different posture. It is no surprise that the new king was famous for his ignorance (he did not study but preferred to hunt and fuck far and wide in the countryside—he really was a forerunner) and his ability to lie, starting from his first official achievement, the negotiation with General Radetzky after the defeat of the Piedmontese army in the First Independence War—I repeat: he really was a forerunner!
I’m not saying that butchers are a bunch of liars, pay attention, it’s just that the Piedmontese historians took great care in creating the legend of the Re Galantuomo, the honourable King, who was able to oppose the Austrians strongly and was always generous with his subjects, only because he was of plebeian birth.
Actually, our son of a butcher promised General Radetzky that he would cancel the liberal constitution and return to a strict and conservative monarchy, thus saving the existence of his kingdom.
Speaking instead about generosity, one of his greatest exploits was the bombardment of Genoa—where the population was not very fond of Piedmontese policies—killing more than five hundred people, women and children included.
Now, let’s take a step back and imagine that Queen Victoria had ordered the bombardment, I don’t know, of Birmingham, just to pacify the hungry people. I truly mean a hungry, starving population, not pushed by political or revolutionary dissent. Do you think that this would have been possible? Our honourable King did just this, and in Genoa, one of the best and oldest cities of his kingdom, moreover calling the local people ‘a vile and infected race of canailles’.
By the way, his son, Umberto I, replicated this infamous bombardment against the starving population of Milan—blood doesn’t lie.
Since the Italian ordeal starts with Victor Emmanuel II, it is useful to remember that flocks of historians and journalists, instead of criticising the dynasty, started to lick the royal Savoy’s ass, creating a new national sport that would have continued well after the Savoy dynasty and into the Agnelli’s dinasty—same origins, same historical damage wreaked on Italy—and with anyone else in power in Italy, whoever they were (are).
By the way, why ‘Victor Emmanuel II’ since he was the first King of Italy? The answer is that he neither cared nor understood the noble concept of ‘Italy.’ He thought he was only a Savoy member, a fact much more significant for his limited but determined brain.
How I love him, his proud moustache, his arrogant and bovine glance! His wives, mistresses and lovers, his hordes of illegitimate children, his preference for French women thanks to their superior ‘tiraggio’—so he said based on the results of his deep research!
Actually I think that Italy—the homeland I have in mind—deserved a better dynasty, with great figures and enlightened men and not this Savoy-Tanaca band of voracious colonialists and womanizers.
Yes, because Victor Emmanuel II, this splendid character, just to avoid the bankruptcy of the Piedmontese kingdom (behind the greatest plans there is always an economic reason, of course) accepted and internalised another perspective, the unification of Italy. It was a very romantic idea developed by a small percentage of romantic thinkers. The illiterates were more than 97% of the entire community back then—and still numbered 95% at the beginning of the twentieth century; we have to remember. So this ‘great movement of people’ or this ‘strong underground river’ pushing for the unification was an elitist dream actually.
Whatever. In Victor Emmanuel II’s mind, unification was only the conquest of the rest of Italy, mainly the south, where some legends said that vast treasures were hidden.
It is true that in 1856 the Regno delle Due Sicilie was internationally recognised as the third industrialised nation in the world, after Great Britain and France; it is true that the Turin stock exchange was founded in 1850, while the Napoli stock exchange opened in 1810; again, it is true that the Real Opificio Borbonico di Pietrarsa had twice as many workers as Ansaldo, the largest company by value in the kingdom of Piedmont. Nevertheless, just a few years after the unification, the questione meridionale, the southern question, tragically emerged: in the south there were no treasures but a disastrous economic situation, worse than the Piedmontese one—you can read Lettere Meridionali by Pasquale Villari, written in 1878.
As a result of a selfish strategy and especially of the subsequent, inconsiderate action of spoliation of the countryside, the numbers of Italian emigrants are impressive—as I said before.
To continue our story, you have to visualise Turin, and I can recommend the books of Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini (F&L was the usual way they signed their joint works), a couple of great, contemporary writers. Sorry for the literary digression, but no one else has been able to describe the atmosphere and the character of this city as they did, through the extraordinary development of their novels. You can argue that F&L were contemporary authors and wrote about a modern Turin. However, believe me, the core of this city hasn’t changed—forget the suburbs, the crowd of immigrants, initially in the past from the south of Italy, latterly from Africa, Romania and the Middle East; forget the immense bankrupt areas that are monuments of industrial archaeology, a marvellous gift left by the well-behaved disappearance of Fiat, and the widespread spectre of a new, shocking poverty—yes, I was saying that Turin hasn’t changed since the nineteenth century.
It was the capital of a kingdom never understood or loved—the dynasty of Savoy, as the name suggests, came from the west, from the modern France—and so it castled in itself in, was closed and thus ignorant, arrogant and pervaded by a stinking, unpleasant superiority complex and, at the same time, by an unresolved syndrome of encirclement.
Moreover, focusing on the ‘atmosphere and character’, the political power games bred a fauna of ass-lickers, of insuperable slimy courtesans that proliferated and overflowed more quickly than rats. This category of Piedmontese people are called falso e cortese, false and affable, well behaved.
Put all these figures into palaces that had neither the joyous colours of Naples and Palermo, nor the historical greatness of Florence and Rome, but were grey and sad like seventeenth century fortresses in a cold and often misty climate. Then draw the milieu of falsity these figures were forced to live with, a historical secret concerning the plebeian birth of Victor Emmanuel II—by the way, well known by everybody. Finally, mix everything with the terrible economic situation that magnified the ever-present stinginess, the extreme reluctance to spend money and invest, and the intense and selfish desire to take other people’s wealth and power at all costs.
If you need a soundtrack for this painting, use the splendid song by the Piedmontese artist Paolo Conte, one of my favourites, which goes: ‘Con quella faccia un po’ così, quell’espressione un po’ così che abbiamo noi che abbiamo visto Genova…’, which stated that Genoa, even though it is close to Turin, is another world for the Piedmontese people, strange and inexplicable, just because it is not Piedmontese.
Now you can understand the plumbeous ambience of the royal palace and the background of the caesarean section, the forced birth of Italy.
What did they know, those Savoy, about Sicily and Campania, for instance? Or about the tonalities of the Mediterranean Sea, the breeze and the sun, the monuments of Rome or the Tuscany landscape? They though the people of the South were only briganti—the Sardinian people, well they were different, mere monkeys, Sardignoli. That was all.
What else would you expect from the Tanaca-Savoy dynasty?
The butcher’s grandson, King Umberto I (1844–1900), in fact, triumphantly continued the traditions of the house. Not many eligible Catholic royal brides being available for him due to the conflict with the papacy, he finally married his first cousin, Margherita of Savoy. Their only son was Victor Emmanuel (III). Umberto I was a womaniser like his father was—his relationship with the Duchessa Litta, called in Italy la Du Barry da strapazzo or la Pompadour di noi altri, remains famous. He had mistresses and lovers too, and several illegitimate children. Umberto I was heavily involved in the Banca Romana scandal and hated by the intellectuals for his conservatism (by the way, he was strongly hated by Italian population because of his greedy and colonialist actions, not because his of conservatism). He ordered general Bava-Beccaris to cannonade the people of Milan who were protesting because of famine and hunger, killing and wounding hundreds of poor individuals. King Umberto I sent a telegram to congratulate Bava-Beccaris and decorated him with the medal as a Great Official of the Savoy Military Order. This was our king, the God.
Returning to Sardinia, Umberto I had the brilliant idea of contending with France, which was the main importer of Sardinian produce (oil, wine, wheat, fruit, cattle, etc.). France stopped all imports. This decision was devastating for the Sardinian economy, so much so that the local banks went bankrupt, and the population suffered decades of famine. The economy regressed to a state of basic bartering.
Just to give some figures, cattle farmers in Sardinia periodically delivered cattle to Marseille, supplying the entire southern part of France. Export from just one province, Sassari, amounted to a quarter of the total Italian exports of cattle. In 1883, 26,168 live cattle were exported from the province of Sassari. Sardinian wine cost as much as 40 liras per hectolitre. After 1887 and the breach of the commercial agreement with France, exports stopped. The price of wine, back then only used for internal consumption, dropped to 6 liras per hectolitre. The bank Credito Agricolo Industriale Sardo immediately went in bankrupt, and the savings of the Sardinian families were lost. As soon as the credit industry closed, there was a sudden increase in usury. In Barbagia, interest rates charged by the usurers were between 100% and 200%, depending on the cases.
At the end of the nineteenth and twentieth century and the beginning of the twentieth, in Sardinia there were periodic riots as a result of hunger and famine. In spite of these disastrous conditions, and more effective than Bava-Beccaris’s bombardment of the defenceless population, the book La Delinquenza in Sardegna by Alfredo Niceforo was published. It was an explosion of cruel racism—moreover, packaged in the unchallengeable form of scientificity—which was the shroud in which the Sardinian populace was finally buried.
I think that the state curricula, the curricula of the Ministero Italiano della Pubblica Istruzione, should include Alfredo Niceforo and his splendid analysis. Only by reading those pages is it possible to understand the complex hypocrisy of the legend of the unity of Italy, and its real goal.
So, now it is not surprising that the glorious King Umberto I was so appreciated by the Italian population that he faced with several assassination attempts before eventually being murdered in 1900 in Monza by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci—who declared that he wanted to avenge the people killed during the Bava-Beccaris massacre.
Following the lies told about Victor Emmanuel II, again the Piedmontese historians took great care in creating for Umberto I the legend of the Re Buono, the Good, and describing his reign as a tranquil age of well-being!
How can you understand Grazia Deledda without knowing these events, these historical conditions and consequences?
It is quite incredible, but even now there is a lack of knowledge, a guilty lack of profoundness in the analyses, and superficial, provincial and pusillanimous literary critics.
Sardinia history is not politically correct.
Grazia Deledda’s work isn’t either.