Modern Italy’s largest, most expensive, and most eye-catching monument goes most often by its nickname, the Wedding Cake. It is huge, bright white, and covered with a wide variety of allegorical statues. This podcast finds in these statues Italy’s intention to break away from the long traditions of Christian Rome, while at the same time reviving Italian pride, unity, and dedication by evoking the glories of Ancient Rome.

Show Notes

This pod introduces the largest, most expensive, and most eye-catching monument to modern Italy, the National Monument to King Victor Emmanuel the Second, more commonly referred to in Rome as the Vittoriano and still more commonly as “la torta nuziale,” or Wedding Cake. A vast work of architecture, it is also a platform for sculpture. I will for now leave aside the names and dates of the many sculptors who contributed to it and will instead stick to our larger themes and see what we can learn from this monument about Modern Rome, especially in its relationship to Ancient and Christian Rome.

The National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II (Photo by Gianna Van Heel)

It’s no surprise that Christian Rome was characterized by art with Christian themes, but I can’t quite get over the extent to which these themes were dominant over all others. An earlier pod tried to make this point by noting how great an exception Raphael’s School of Athens was, and I then granted that other exceptions began to turn up in the Renaissance. Still, as compared to the wide range of subjects of Ancient Art, and seemingly endless range of subjects of Modern Art, Christian Rome stuck to a finite number of heroes and virtues, and a single view of the grand scheme of things. All this helped to mark Rome as a Christian city and reinforce its world view.

So here is a challenge: see if you can find any Christian symbol or theme on the entire, vast Vittoriano. I think I did discover a fascinating exception, but for today, this is the theme I encourage you to test and think about: Is it true that the Vittoriano gives Christianity and the Catholic Church the cold shoulder, and if so, why? Now that we have an organizing question, let’s explore the monument a little more patiently.

The Vittoriano is dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the New Italy, which he helped to bring into being in 1861 and presided over until his death in 1878. Remember, he was first the King of Piedmont-Sardinia, which took the lead in assembling the pieces that became modern Italy, so he was near the center of attention for thirty years. Although often criticized by his political peers as uncouth, unintelligent, and too prone to acting without consulting his governmental colleagues, he won the affection of the people and could serve as a symbol of national unity.  In fact, the Vittoriano says almost nothing about the King as a man. He is present as the symbol of the Fatherland of which he was a Father.

Built at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the Vittoriano is huge, bright white, and in a dominant position. When Rome is viewed from afar, the dome of St. Peter’s stands out, but the Vittoriano is the second-most prominent structure, and it has the advantage of being in a central and historic location. It occupies the entire northern slope of the Capitoline Hill, the most important hill of Ancient Rome. It also overlooks Piazza Venezia, one of Rome’s busiest piazzas, and was positioned so as to be in the line of sight for those walking south on the Via del Corso, the central street of central Rome. They may not know what it represents, but all visitors to Rome notice the Vittoriano and see that it cries out for attention. The critical attention it has received is not always flattering, and neither are its nicknames, the Wedding Cake, the Typewriter, or the Dentures. For many critics, it is too big, too white, too ostentatious, and underserving of the location it seized by obliterating preceding structures that had been there for centuries.

Here’s a quick description of the monument before we return to our theme. The central element is the statue of the first king of Italy in military dress and on horseback. To help indicate the size of the statue, I’ve put a photo on the website showing twenty men having dinner inside the horse’s belly, just before the statue was completed. Although the statue is enormous, the rest of the monument makes it look small, especially the vast and concave colonnade above and behind the statue. There are also two main terraces linked by stairs that lead up from street level. Both terraces and the portico are populated by statues and sculptures carved in high and low relief.

The Last Supper (inside the horse of Victor Emmanuel II)

At the bottom level is a broad staircase flanked by an ornamental railing and by fountains that represent the two seas that border Italy, the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian. On pedestals beside the entrance to the staircase are bronze statue groups representing “Thought” on one side and “Action” on the other, not dissimilar to the way St. Peter and St. Paul flank the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. And in fact the concave colonnade at the top is a little like the open arms of Bernini’s colonnade in front of St. Peter’s: both the Christian and the Modern monument face the center of the city, and both open up toward it. You might say they offer Romans a choice between Church or Nation.

As we go up the staircase to the middle terrace, there are winged Victories in bronze. Victory was a goddess for the Ancient Romans, as Nike—that is, Niké—was for the Ancient Greeks, and her altar and statue in the Senate House of Ancient Rome were the objects of a tug of war in the fourth century. The Christian Emperor Constantius II removed them in 357. Then the pagan emperor Julian had them restored. Then the Christian emperor Gratian removed them again in 382. When a Prefect of Rome named Symmachus asked for their restoration a little later, the intervention of Bishop Ambrose helped make sure that the pagan goddess would not return. But with the Vittoriano, just a hundred yards from the old Senate House, winged Victories have made a big comeback, for the monument has at least six in prominent locations. The Victories help us see clearly that the monument makes many references to ancient symbols and help us to wonder why.

But wait! There are also winged lions flanking the staircase, in marble, and if the winged Victories suggest a non- or anti-Christian iconography, aren’t the winged lions the symbol of St. Mark? Aren’t these the Christian exception I said I could not find?

The winged lion is the symbol of St. Mark, but it is also the symbol of Venice, and my guess is that the lions are here to represent the Italian city more than the New Testament Evangelist. Remember, the Vittoriano is located on a piazza named after Venice, and one which contains other examples of winged lions reminding of that great city.  But perhaps I should defer to an Italian scholar, who says the lions represent the strength and ardor that motivated the patriots who acted to unite Italy. He agrees they have nothing to do with a Christian saint.

The Vittoriano, with it main parts labeled

The middle level of the Vittoriano forms the “Altar of the Fatherland,” which includes an eternal flame ceremoniously watched over by an honor guard, and an enormous statue of the goddess Roma that makes the honor guard look tiny. Above the goddess and on a large pedestal that raises it high in the air on a level of its own is the statue of the King. It’s time to let you know there is also a piazza on another part of the Capitoline Hill, redesigned four centuries ago by Michelangelo, called the Campidoglio. Michelangelo placed an ancient statue equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in its center, and it is unlikely that this statue and the piazza as a whole did not influence the design of the Vittoriano, even if the king was not quite of the stature of the emperor.

The Statue of Marcus Aurelius positioned on the Capitoline Hill by Michelangelo (By Blake Buchannan)

Other elements of Michelangelo’s Campidoglio that are echoed in the Vittoriano are its monumental staircase, its balustrade with eye-catching statues, and its goddess Roma looking from the back of the piazza out toward those who have ascended the staircase. Michelangelo’s goddess has the attributes of Minerva, a goddess who was both warlike and wise, and so does the one on the Vittoriano. Michelangelo also flanks the goddess with statues of large and muscular river gods, and these were clearly an inspiration for the gods of the two seas that are represented on the sides of the staircase of the Vittoriano.

Looking toward Rome from the Michelangelo-designed Capitoline Hill (Blake Buchannan)

On the same level as the Goddess Roma, on podiums that surround the terrace, are four major sculptural groups in marble, which represent qualities or at least aspirations of the Italian people. These are Vigor, Right or Justice, Concord, and Sacrifice. Each has three or four figures and a complex iconography. All but one of the figures to be admired are visually linked by their dress, weapons, or other attribute to ancient times, and none represents a saint or pope.

The top level is a vast and slightly concave portico, whose two ends are classical propylaea (that is, monumental entrance gates, like the one to Athens’ Acropolis) with pediments above them. (A pediment is the triangular space on the front of a temple, with its base on top of the columns, and its other two sides formed by the pitched roof on each side.) The portico is formed especially of a colonnade with 16 fluted columns, each of which has positioned above it a female personification of one of the 16 provinces into which Italy was then divided. (New provinces were added after World War I, and there are 20 today.) Above the two propylaeas are quadrigas, that is, bronze chariots drawn by four horses each and driven by winged goddesses.

The Propylaea on right side with triangular pediment and, still higher, bronze quadriga (my photo)

So great is the profusion of subjects represented on the Vittoriano that it may seem for a moment that nothing has been omitted. It has a king; a couple of pagan goddesses; two chariots; a dozen or so horses, if we count the ones in relief; personifications of 16 provinces, 14 major cities, and two seas; allegories of such qualities as Thought, Action, and Vigor; and architectural elements such as columns, pediments, pedestals, monumental staircases, and an altar. But, as I’ve hinted, the monument is really not eclectic: something has been omitted, something major, and I think this something gives an indication of what the monument stands for, or at least what it stands against.

The Vittoriano is utterly devoid of Christian symbols. I looked for a couple of hours but could not find a cross, a crown of thorns, or an instrument of martyrdom. There are eagles and charging horses, but there are no doves or lambs. There are over a dozen winged goddesses, genii, horses, and lions but no angels. Its central feature is indeed an altar, but it is the Altar of the Fatherland, not of the Prince of Peace. The ancient goddess Roma presides over the Altar, and she is decked out in pagan garb and set in the frame of a pagan temple. The Rome of the People, which built the Vittoriano, is here completely silent about the Rome of the Popes and about the faith that had dominated Rome for over 1,500 years. The Vittoriano finds its architectural inspiration almost entirely in Pagan Rome, as if by emphasizing this noble heritage, it might help it escape the more immediate legacy and influence of Christian Rome.

Remember the angry statue of Giordano Bruno from Episode 2, which attacks the Vatican for an act of papal brutality and broadens the charge by adding to the statue base medallions that show eight other victims of attempts to curtail free thought and promote approved conclusions? Designed at about the same time, the Vittoriano is less pointed and takes the more royal road of scrupulous silence about past grievances, but this silence denies any legacy, inheritance, or inspiration that might have come from the Christian past. Instead, the monument establishes a new cult of the Fatherland, complete with pagan deity and an altar, to support a civil religion that would serve political unity and help the new Italian nation carry out its daunting task.

It was apparently not always easy to refrain from a more direct attack on the Church. At least according to the report of a certain Giuseppe Manfroni, the sculptor of the king on horseback wanted to make the statue a little more aggressive, so he took the initiative of representing the papal tiara and the keys of St. Peter being trampled beneath the hoofs of the king’s horse. His meddling was revealed, and a scheduled dedication of the statue had to be delayed so his additions could be removed. Still, the statue and the monument as a whole are left in an icy silence toward the former ruler of Rome.

Note again the location of the monument: it demolished cherished old structures in order to gain a place on the Capitoline Hill, the site of the Temple of Jupiter, the terminus of the Roman Triumphs, and the most important hill for the ancient Romans. The New Italy went to great expense to place the Vittoriano on the sacred ground of Ancient Rome. Then they chose architectural motifs to link their modern monument with ancient predecessors, using columns and pediments, quadrigas, winged victories, and the goddess Roma herself. In claiming such a close identification with ancient Rome, the new Rome distinguishes itself from the city of the Church, whose visible center was on the other side of the Tiber, in the Vatican, on the far side of the city.

The King was buried in the Pantheon, and like the placement of the Vittoriano on the Capitoline Hill, which was to come later, this choice evokes Ancient Rome, not the Rome of the Popes. While remarking on the king’s ancient burial place, a newspaper favorable to the New Italy had this to say: “It is the fervent wish of all Italians to place the first stone in the new national tradition, erecting it on the foundation of its ancient greatness, against another tradition, which was, is, and will be forever the enemy of Italy.” This statement shows a little restraint in not explicitly identifying this forever hostile tradition, but it suggests the conclusion that the third Rome appealed to the traditions of the first to escape those of the second. This was also my impression from scampering around the Vittoriano.

Tomb of Victor Emmanuel II at Pantheon (wikimedia commons)

After having first observed that the Vittoriano was utterly devoid of Christian imagery, I have since seen so many signs of the anticlericalism of the Risorgimento that I now take it for granted that no monuments in Rome were friendly toward the Church at this time. (“By this time” I mean the sixty years from the seizure of Rome in 1870 to the Lateran Pacts of 1929.) These observations invite a quick reminder of the general situation then facing the New Italy.

Italy seized political power from the popes in 1870, and made Rome its capital in the next year. Then Victor Emmanuel settled into the comfortable quarters of the Quirinal Palace, which until recently had been occupied by the pope. But though leaving his palace behind, the pope had not gone far, he was just across the Tiber, and he still claimed to be the rightful ruler of Rome and the surrounding area. He was still beloved by many Italians and respected by Catholics around the world, some of whom also formed majorities in powerful countries like France, Austria, and Spain. The new Italian government was thus in the uncomfortable position of trying to rule in a city in which the former ruler was still present. He was not without important followers, and he claimed to be the legitimate ruler, a victim of unjust usurpation.

Italy could not use additional force against the Church without alienating many of its own citizens and, in all likelihood, provoking international intervention. It consequently promised that it would not do so. Nor, at the other extreme, did it seem satisfactory to hand Rome over to the pope and move the capital of Italy back to Florence. Much blood had been shed to end theocratic government, promote the liberal principle of individual liberty, and unite the peninsula. The main course of action remaining was for Italy to try to enhance its own authority while continuing to undermine that of the Church. From this point of view, it made good sense to give the Church the Silent Treatment on the Vittoriano while also cultivating a new civil religion of the Italian Fatherland. It would have been strange if the New Italy had used the grand stage it seized in central Rome to honor the principles of its rival in any way.

Besides its silence about Christianity, the Vittoriano makes almost no reference to particular individuals, events, or ringing phrases. There is of course the central statue of the king, and I suspect the absence of other heroes on the monument, like Garibaldi or Cavour, is partly to keep them from overshadowing the king.  But the Vittoriano also lacks references to any and all key events leading up to the birth of the New Italy, including those in which the king was involved. There are concrete geographical references to seas, provinces, and cities, but its other subjects are abstract qualities or principles, such as Action, Justice, Unity, Concord, or Sacrifice. Besides the king himself, I have noted only one minor exception. In the sculpture entitled “Action,” there is a character wearing the uniform of one of Garibaldi’s troops, a Garibaldino, so here is a concrete reference to an important group of contributors to the Risorgimento. But the Garibaldino is not prominent, and there are well over a hundred figures on the monument. As far as I can tell, all of them are either nude or in classical dress, except for the king and the Garibaldino.The exterior of the Vittoriano is thus not a good place to learn history: it invests all its efforts into celebrating the new Italian nation though high-sounding abstract principles. The chief of these abstractions is “the Fatherland,” so it makes sense that many think of the whole monument is the Altar to the Fatherland, even if this is technically only its central part.

I thus think the anticlericalism and the abstractness of the Vittoriano are two of its principal features, and both serve to promote a Civil Religion of the Fatherland, one that might have inadvertently made it useful to Mussolini—a possibility we’ll have to consider later.

But I mentioned above that I stumbled upon a major exception to the Vittoriano’s almost unbroken anticlericalism, and I’d like to turn to it to complicate the picture. I think it raises some excellent questions about modern Italy and modern liberalism. The next Mini Pod will give you the chance to see whether you agree.

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