Although its exterior is utterly devoid of Christian symbols, the Monument to King Victor Emmanuel II has a Christian chapel deep within it. Why is it there, and how does its message relate to that of the monument’s neoclassical exterior?

Show Notes

We spoke in the last episode of the National Monument to King Victor Emmanuel the Second, the so-called “Wedding Cake” that took over  half of the Capitoline Hill, and my main observation was that it is utterly silent about the long Christian tradition in Rome. It turns its back sharply on this part of the Roman past and populates itself with statues and sculptures that draw on motifs of Ancient Pagan Rome, of which the Winged Victories are only the most obvious.

One of six prominent Winged Victories on the Vittoriano (my photo)

This policy had an echo in this century, which might help to clarify it. In 2004 the European Union was trying to write a new Constitution for itself, one that would bind its members more closely together. It eventually failed, but at the time, Italy joined Poland and Ireland in seeking to have the new Constitution include a Preamble that would refer to Europe’s Christian heritage. They thought it would be useful if the new constitution noted the Christian origins of many of the shared values that gave Europe its identity and should guide the member states. Others argued that modern values were forged not from Christianity but in opposition to it. Wasn’t Christianity implicated in the religious wars, the Crusades, and the silencing of Galileo? Didn’t the modern doctrine of individual rights emerge to help protect against such dark events? One side focused on the origins of Western values, the other on the origins of Modern values, which they saw as breaking sharply with the past. In the end, for these and other reasons, it was decided that the proposed Constitution would remain silent about Europe’s Christian past, and I think the architecture and inscriptions of the Vittoriano were guided by similar reasons. It too wanted to leave the Church and its Christianity past behind. The Vittoriano celebrated the victory of the Risorgimento; the Church had opposed that movement, and so it got the silent treatment.

In noting this similarity between the anticlericalism of the New Italy and that of the European Union, I don’t mean to deny important differences. One of these is that the Vittoriano does all it can to forge a new civil religion to help hold the Italian people together, and one of the ways it does so is by surrounding its Altar of the Fatherland with artistic reminders of the glories of the Ancient Romans. I don’t know of any comparable attempt on the part of the EU to create emotional bonds among its members.

But I claimed in the last episode to have stumbled upon a striking exception to the Vittoriano’s cold shoulder to Christianity. I found this exception not on the outside of the Vittoriano, which has been my focus so far, but on the inside. The Vittoriano is home to several museums, and I was visiting one of them when I saw a sign saying “Il Sacello del Milite Ignoto,” “Chapel of the Unknown Soldier.” And there, down a few steps, was a Christian chapel inside the enormous non-Christian Vittoriano, complete with a crucifix, altar, and mosaic representations of four saints and Christ on the Cross.

This chapel was not part of the original design and was not present when the Vittoriano was dedicated in 1911. But times change, and in May of 1915 Italy entered World War I. By the time the war was over, almost one million Italian soldiers had been wounded and a half-million killed, and this from a population of only 35 million. It was a brutal war. So what can a great nation do to acknowledge and honor the sacrifices it calls for at such times?

Chapel of the Unknown Soldier, deep inside the Altar of the Fatherland

France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States each decided to honor their war dead by a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The mortal remains of a single unidentified soldier would be buried in such a way as to call attention to the sacrifices of all. The Italian government specified a series of solemn ceremonies that included a long procession by train, which would move slowly so the nation could pay its last respects to the fallen; religious services in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Rome; and a patriotic final ceremony at the tomb. And where would the tomb be but the Vittoriano!

All this was in the fall of 1921, but no chapel for the Vittoriano had yet been built or planned. Instead, the honored remains were kept in an outdoor casket, at the feet of the Goddess Roma and surrounded by an honor guard, so large crowds could easily visit them. The indoor chapel was not built until the 1930’s. I would like to know the thinking behind this insertion of a Christian altar inside the secular Altar of the Fatherland, but I have not yet been able to locate a reliable source. While continuing to look for one, I’ll conclude with a historical note and a question.

The historical note is that Mussolini’s Fascist regime came to power in 1922, and as we learned in Episode 3, Mussolini and Pope Pius XI reconciled the Church and the Fascist version of the State in 1929. Tensions remained, of course, but Mussolini was now ready to make concessions to the Church in order to gain the benefit of being recognized and supported by the Church. He had already returned a large cross to the Colosseum; he also exempted the Church from taxation and promoted the Holy Year of 1925, among other signs of improving relations. It is thus important to note that the Chapel of the Unknown Soldier was built under Mussolini, not under the liberal regime that had designed the Vittoriano. It is not a fulfillment of the original plan but a departure from it.

My concluding question is whether the Chapel is evidence of a difficulty in having a government that tries to substitute a secular altar, an Altar to the Fatherland, for an altar to a god that promises a deeper consolation. The Vittoriano has a sculptural group that calls explicitly for Sacrifice, for example, but how does it justify and reward such sacrifice? In good times, little such sacrifice might be needed, but World War I posed a greater challenge.

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