Umberto I

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UMBERTO I (1844–1900; ruled 1878–1900), king of Italy.

Born 14 March 1844, Umberto received the rank of captain on his fourteenth birthday. He held a series of military commands beginning in October 1862 and saw action at Custoza against Austria in 1866. He married his cousin Margherita, daughter of Ferdinand, the duke of Genoa, on 22 April 1863. Umberto became king of Italy when his father, Victor Emmanuel II, died on 9 January 1878. Departing from his father's example, he ignored the legacy of the House of Savoy and took the title Umberto I rather than Umberto IV. Just ten months after he assumed the throne, the anarchist Giovanni Passanante tried to stab him (17 November 1878). Umberto escaped unscathed, but twenty-two years later another anarchist succeeded in killing him.

King Umberto inherited the challenges of establishing the infrastructure, laws, and institutions for the newly united Italian state and of securing its place among the powers of Europe. Political factionalism and the strains of economic modernization produced increasing tension and tumult during his reign. To popularize the monarchy, Umberto traveled widely in Italy, and he regularly visited the sites of earthquakes, floods, and epidemics to comfort the victims. His efforts to connect with the people earned him the label "the good king." But Umberto did not limit his duties to ceremony. He played a role in turning Italy away from France and toward an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, using his personal ties with fellow monarchs to smooth the way. He also encouraged Italy's imperialist ambitions in Africa.

The king's role in domestic politics produced controversy at the time and in historical assessments of his reign. He accepted a series of weak cabinets directed by prime ministers of the left, including Agostino Depretis, Benedetto Cairoli, and Francesco Crispi. In the 1890s these governments faced agrarian and urban discontent and the growing power of the Socialists. Alarmed industrialists and landowners supported the suspension of constitutional guarantees to enforce public order. In a context of rapidly fluctuating majorities and weak cabinets, Umberto allowed prime ministers to legislate by royal decree. The persistent weakness of parliament caused influential lawmakers such as Sidney Sonnino to call for the return to even stronger royal authority.

In 1898 high bread prices intensified popular agitation, and in May an insurrection broke out in Milan. The government imposed martial law and General Fiorenzo Bava Beccaris restored order, with considerable loss of civilian life. Despite the outrage of socialists, republicans, and anarchists, on 9 June 1898 the king proclaimed his gratitude to the soldiers, decorated Bava Beccaris for merit, and named him senator (16 June). Hoping for a firm government, he then appointed a military man, General Luigi Pelloux, prime minister. Pelloux ended martial law and presented to parliament proposals curbing freedom of press, meeting, and association. When deputies of the left tried to obstruct their passage, Pelloux suspended the parliamentary session (22 June 1899) and imposed the public order laws by decree (28 June 1899). The following year the courts nullified the decrees, and new elections (3 June and 10 June 1900) returned a majority favorable to the government. Pelloux resigned anyway, and the king appointed the moderate Giuseppe Saracco to replace him.

This "liberal about face" ended conservative efforts to bypass parliament and to revitalize government by reinforcing royal power. In the view of some historians, Umberto had endorsed what amounted to a legal coup d'etat during the turn-of-the-century crisis. Others criticize his passivity in the face of parliamentary weakness and the autocratic initiatives of politicians such as Crispi. When he inaugurated the new parliament on 16 June 1900, Umberto underscored his intention to maintain the commitment with which he had begun his reign: the defense of constitutional liberties. Six weeks later, on 29 July 1900, Gaetano Bresci, a silk worker and anarchist, killed Umberto at Monza, proclaiming that renewing Italy began with eliminating its symbolic head. Judgments of Umberto vary, and while few credit him with saving the monarchy or accuse him of destroying it, most concur that his actions caused serious discussion of its merits.

See alsoItaly; Victor Emmanuel II.


Primary Sources

Farini, Domenico. Diario di fine secolo. Edited by Emilia Morelli. Rome, 1961. Provides an inside look at political life from a close advisor of King Umberto.

Secondary Sources

Alfassio Grimaldi, Ugoberto. Il re "buono": La vita di Umberto I e la sua epoca in un'esemplare ricostruzione. 5th ed. Milan, 1973.

Mack Smith, Denis. Italy and Its Monarchy. New Haven, Conn., 1989.

Susan A. Ashley