Italian king's reburial reopens old wounds

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Queen Elena of Italy (second right) and King Victor Emmanuel III (second left) leave Vatican city after an official visit to Pope Pie XII on December 26, 1939Image source, AFP
Image caption,
King Victor Emmanuel III (second left), seen here with his wife Queen Elena, died in exile in Egypt in 1947

The body of King Victor Emmanuel III has returned to Italy from Egypt, 70 years after he died there in exile.

But the royal reburial has brought back difficult memories for many and caused anger, as the BBC's Sofia Bettiza in Rome reports.

King Victor Emmanuel III was infamously nicknamed Sciaboletta, meaning "little sabre", because of his size: he was 1.53m (5ft) tall.

A special sword had to be forged for him, so it would not scrape the ground when he carried it.

His physical stature may have been small, but Victor Emmanuel's impact on Italian affairs certainly was not.

He is known in Italy as the king whose actions gave rise to the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and the end of the monarchy.

Now, seven decades after his death, he is causing fresh controversy.

Victor Emmanuel died in exile in Egypt in 1947. He had fled Italy four years earlier, fearing arrest by the German army after declaring an armistice with the Allies during World War Two.

His remains were finally flown back to his homeland on Sunday, amid condemnation and outrage, particularly among Italy's Jewish community.

"This cannot fail to generate deep concern," said Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

"Victor Emmanuel III was an accomplice of the fascist regime, whose rise he never opposed."


In 1922, Victor Emmanuel chose not to mobilise the army against Mussolini's fascists and instead asked him to form a government, paving the way for 20 years of dictatorship.

He was later also heavily criticised for signing racial laws in 1938 that legalised the persecution of Jews.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The king (left) and Benito Mussolini attend the celebration of Victory Day in Rome in 1938

Some of Victor Emmanuel's descendants are calling for his remains to be moved to the Pantheon, the ancient Roman monument where Italy's first two Savoy kings lie.

Emanuele Filiberto, his great-grandson, told Italian media that members of his house shouldn't be buried in "just any tomb".

"It's not anachronistic to hope that kings be respected," he said.

But the request was branded as "mockery" by the Jewish community in Rome. Many pointed out that the Pantheon is very close to the ghetto - the city's Jewish neighbourhood where, in 1943, about 1,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to Nazi death camps. Only 16 survived.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Emanuele Filiberto, the king's great-grandson, supports the idea of burying him at the Pantheon

Even the manner in which the king's remains were physically transported to Italy has sparked anger - on a military plane, paid for by the state.

"A disagreeable choice," said Massimo D'Alema, a former Italian prime minister.

"We need to be careful about the symbols we are sending," said Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the Five Star Movement, who is running in the next election and could become Italy's new prime minister. "We are reopening a wound in our history."


Three years after the king fled Italy - leaving his homeland, and significantly the Italian army, in chaos - he abdicated in favour of his son.

A month later, in June 1946, Italy voted to become a republic.

It was also decided that all members of the Savoy family would be barred from setting foot in Italy ever again - a ban that was overturned in 2002.

Who was King Victor Emmanuel III?

  • 1900: Victor Emmanuel III becomes King of Italy
  • 1922: He asks Mussolini to form a new government, paving the way for the fascist regime
  • 1938: The king signs laws restricting civil rights of Jews
  • 9 September 1943: Victor Emmanuel III flees Italy
  • 9 May 1946: The king abdicates in favour of his son
  • 2 June 1946: Italian referendum, Italy becomes a republic
  • 28 December 1947: Victor Emmanuel III dies in exile in Egypt

His remains were returned at the weekend after a formal request by his family in 2011.

On Monday they paid tribute to him at a family mausoleum near Turin in a small private ceremony.

Victor Emmanuel was reburied next to his wife, Elena of Montenegro, a woman who was 1.80m tall and used to call him "mon petit roi" (my small king).

His grandson, Victor Emmanuel, who would be the king if Italy still had a monarchy, says he still hopes his grandfather's body could be moved to the Pantheon - "where kings belong".

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The king's tomb at a mausoleum near Turin

His niece Maria Pia says he was "adorable".

"I used to call him little grandpa. He was affected by rickets - his legs were so short that when he stood up from his chair he had to do a little jump, like us children."

The rest of the country will probably remember him in a very different way.