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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of The Vittoriano in Rome

What is The Vittoriano?

The Vittoriano, also known as The Victor Emmanuel II National Monument, is a towering marble monument in honour of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy, familiarly known as ‘The Wedding Cake’.

The Victor Emmanuel II National Monument

The Vittoriano History

In the early 19th century, Italy was a fragmented place comprised of many different kingdoms and principalities, with Spain, France and Austria all exercising power over its constituent parts. This caused fierce resentment amongst the populace. Riots and political rebellions frequently took place, secret societies promoted nationalism, and pro-independence feelings bubbled away under the surface.

It was during this tumultuous time that a young Victor Emmanuel succeeded his father to the throne of Piedmont-Sardinia, a kingdom comprised of northwest Italy and the island of Sardinia. Under the guidance of his prime ministers, Victor Emmanuel made tactical allegiances across Italy and deliberately provoked upheavals in smaller states. Eventually he was successful in driving foreign powers out of Italy, and, upon declaring it a united country, was crowned as its first king. To the disappointment of many, however, he insisted on retaining his dynastic name of Victor Emmanuel II, rather than becoming Victor Emmanuel I of Italy.

Shortly after the king’s death, it was suggested that a monument be erected to celebrate his life, along with the new nation-state of Italy. Its construction was by no means a speedy process, with a lengthy international competition held to decide who would design the new memorial. By the time the eventual winner, Giuseppe Sacconi, got to work on the monument, seven years had passed since the monarch’s death.

When the Vittoriano, as it became known, was finally finished, the locals were astonished by its domineering stature. An impressive 80 metres in height, it stands as a colossal homage to classical Rome, with an architectural style that draws on the great temples of antiquity, which you can see in the elaborate Corinthian style columns. Its gleaming white marble appears to tower from the Capitoline Hill. In the centre, there stands a tremendous equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel in gilt bronze, which rests on a detailed pedestal decorated with military emblems and figures representing historic towns of Italy.

But the Vittoriano was more than a celebration of Italy’s former ruler. It was meant to instil a sense of pride in peoples’ new, unified identity. As a result, the monument is teeming with symbols of Italian nationalism. Look out for the two fountains, symbolizing the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas (which border Italy), and the 16 colossal statues representing Italy’s provinces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to its ostentatious design, the Vittoriano took more than 50 years in all to complete, and was finally finished in 1937.

Following the First World War the grave of Italy’s Unknown Soldier was laid to rest here. You’ll find this memorial at the monument’s centre (beneath the enormous statue of the goddess Roma) perpetually guarded by two sentinels.

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