Savoy, Duchy of

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SAVOY, DUCHY OF. Situated in the western Alps with its capital at Chambéry, the duchy of Savoy began as a county of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. During the reign of Amadeus VIII (13911436), the duchy acquired significant territory in Piedmont, east of the Alps, and its ruler was promoted to the status of duke by the Holy Roman emperor in 1416. In the fifteenth century, the duchy of Savoy included both Nice and Geneva, but by the sixteenth century the focus of the duchy turned east of the Alps. Savoy and the other western territories were difficult to defend against the powerful neighbor state of France. The plains of Piedmont offered more fertile land, greater population, and more possibility of expansion. Turin, the largest city in Piedmont, became the capital of the duchy in 1560.

The survival of the duchy as an independent state was precarious throughout the sixteenth century. Riddled by factions of savoiardi and piemontesi internally, it was also subject to the whim of its more powerful neighbors, France in the west, and the Habsburg domains in the east. Although Savoy had strategic importance as the "gatekeeper of the Alps," it could not stand up to the major powers by itself. Rather, it could only be a useful ally to further the aims of one or another power. In general, France and Spain recognized that Savoy provided an important buffer between their states, and the game of diplomacy often worked well for Savoy. At others times, it caused disaster. During the Italian Wars of the sixteenth century, France overran and occupied the state in 1536. Duke Emanuel Filibert, through an alliance with Spain, managed to reconstruct the Savoyard state in 1559 in the peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. Subsequent dukes were less successful, and once again, Savoy was reduced to the status of a French satellite until the late seventeenth century.

The turning point for the state of Savoy in the early modern era was the reign of Victor Amadeus II (16751730). Not only did this ruler manage to reacquire the territories lost to Savoy-Piedmont in the preceding century, but he also carried out reforms that would make Savoy a model of efficient government in the eighteenth century. Due to his participation in the War of the League of Augsburg (16881697) and the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714), Victor Amadeus II was awarded the island of Sicily in the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. Although Sicily was later exchanged for Sardinia, both islands brought the dukes of Savoy the title of king. In the nineteenth century, the western Savoyard territories were finally absorbed into the French state. The kings of Piedmont-Savoy would be compensated by the crown of the newly unified kingdom of Italy.


As an Alpine region, Savoy lacked many natural resources and fertile land. Its main importance stemmed from the fact that it held the main mountain passes between France and the Italian peninsula. Although towns such as Susa and Chambéry were significant entrepôts between Italian and French cities, the majority of the revenue from this trade went to foreign rather than Savoyard merchants. The territories of Savoy on the western side of the Alps were economically backward throughout the early modern era. The economy there was primarily based on subsistence agriculture. In a mountainous environment, this meant frequent shortages. Feudal lords subjugated the peasantry. On the eastern side of the Alps, however, the territory of Piedmont had fertile plains and a significant silk industry in Turin. The main importance of Turin, however, was not economic but political. As the center of government, Turin held the most lucrative offices in the government administration.

Economic differences exacerbated social and cultural tensions between the two sides of the Alps. The old nobility of Savoy in the west spoke French and leaned toward France in alliances that often challenged the legitimacy of the central government. In contrast, most of the regions in the east spoke Italian, and often leaned toward the empire. Conflicts between the Savoyard nobility in the west and the central government in the east increased when Victor Amadeus extended greater state control over Savoy, abolishing ancient governmental institutions in Chambéry and ending feudal dues by the middle of the eighteenth century.


In terms of religion, the dukes of Savoy were loyal supporters of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the greatest figures of the Catholic Reformation, François de Sales, was a native of Savoy and became the archbishop of Geneva (situated in Annecy after the loss of the city). The author of the influential introduction to the Devout Life, de Sales worked ceaselessly to convert the Savoyard territories surrounding the Protestant Swiss cantons to Catholicism, advocating persuasion rather than force as a means of conversion. He was canonized in 1661. A noteworthy exception to the Catholic majority in Savoy was the enclave of Protestant Vaudois in the mountains outside of Turin. The remnants of the Waldensian heresy going back to the 1100s, the Vaudois were grudgingly tolerated with the exception of major persecutions in 1487, 1551, 1655, and 1663. Victor Amadeus II carried on a war of extermination against the Vaudois from 1684 to 1687, executing or exiling and dispersing the entire community, and resettling the area with Catholics. Despite the loss of many thousands, the community somehow managed to survive.


The state of Savoy provides historians with an interesting example of absolutism and state building in the early modern era. Without an abundance of natural resources, the state survived through its ability to play the major European powers off each other in complex diplomatic maneuvering. However, the strength of the state was also due to its efficient centralization and peculiarly militaristic culture. Although the institutions of state were in large part established under Emanuel Filibert in the late sixteenth century, the major phase of state building took place under the reign of Victor Amadeus II one hundred years later. An energetic ruler who led his troops into battle, Victor Amadeus mobilized his small state for war to an extraordinary extent. His reforms included tax reforms based on meticulous land surveys, and state-run systems of education and poor relief. He established an increasingly professional bureaucracy that included provincial intendants, government officials who made sure that the provinces were acting in accord with the central government. Such reforms ensured the greatest amount of revenue for the centralized state. The Savoyard government was admired as a model of efficiency throughout Europe. In addition, Victor Amadeus made Turin a showplace of state power. Miles of elegant baroque arcades linked the splendid royal palace to government institutions. The architect Juvarra was commissioned to build the great basilica of Superga, on the highest hill in Turin. Visible for miles, the enormous domed structure commemorated the victorious battle of Turin (1706) that ensured the survival of the state, and it stood as a monument to the glory of Victor Amadeus II and the house of Savoy.

The centralization of Savoy has been the subject of extensive historiographical debates. Jean Nicolas has seen it as a reaction to a resurgent aristocracy in the seventeenth century. Geoffrey Symcox attributes it to the desire of Victor Amadeus for absolute power. Others, such as Samuel Clark and Christopher Storrs, have seen Savoy as a perfect model of state building in the service of war. In their view, success in war ensured the continuation of the state, and the efficient mobilization of resources for war created state institutions that in turn were a byproduct of the war effort.

Savoy was an unusually militaristic society. Per capita, it had the largest army of any major European state. From the sixteenth century on, it had conscripted a peasant militia with legal rights. The nobility, unique among Italian states, maintained its militaristic identity throughout the early modern era. Very often when the nobles were not fighting in the army of Savoy, they were fighting in the armies of foreign states. Contemporaries frequently noted the quality of Savoyard soldiers and their loyalty to the state. This militaristic culture, along with efficient administration and astute diplomacy contributed to the success of the Savoyards in maintaining an independent state throughout the early modern era.

See also Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) ; François de Sales ; Italian Wars (14941559) ; League of Augsburg, War of the (16881697) ; Spanish Succession, War of the (17011714) ; Utrecht, Peace of (1713) .


Barberis, Walter. Le armi del Principe: La tradizione militare sabauda. Turin, 1988.

Castelnuovo, Guido. Ufficiali e gentiluomini: La società politica sabauda nel tardo medioevo. Milan, 1994.

Clark, Samuel. State and Status: The Rise of the State and Aristocratic Power in Western Europe. Montreal, 1995.

Guichonnet, Paul, ed. Histoire de la Savoie. Toulouse, 1973.

Nicolas, Jean. La Savoie au 18e siècle: Noblesse et bourgeoisie. 2 vols. Paris, 19771978.

Storrs, Christopher. War, Diplomacy and the Rise of Savoy, 16901720. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999.

Symcox, Geoffrey. Victor Amadeus II: Absolutism in the Savoyard State, 16751730. Berkeley, 1983.

Rebecca Boone