Historical House of Savoy

When Italy unified in 1861, Turin became the 1st capital of Italy and the House of Savoy became its King.

House of Savoy

Counts and Dukes from the House of Savoy have been the subject of many books and while we were staying in Torino, for centuries the heart of the Kingdom of Savoy, we felt it was the perfect time to learn more about this historical royal dynasty.

The family took their name from the region Savoy, Savoia in Italian, which evolved from the word, Sabaudia. The family dates back to 1003 CE and Umberto I, the first Count of Sabaudia. In 1416 the Holy Roman Emperor elevated their title to the rank of Duke and following the Siege of Turin in 1706, they were awarded the title of King of Sicily. As the powerful Savoy lineage expanded into the 18th and 19th centuries, at one time or another family members were Kings of Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Armenia, England, Scotland, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Albania and Croatia. One family member also held the title of Emperor in Ethiopia.

Vittorio Emanuele II

In 1858 western Savoy was ceded to France, who divided Savoy into Savoie and Haute-Savoie. In preparation for the unification of Italy, the House of Savoy retained the eastern territories of Savoy – Piemonte (including Torino) and Liguria. When the Kingdom of Italy unified in 1861, Vittorio Emanuele II, then King of Sardinia, was appointed King of Italy. He became the first King of a unified Italy since the fall of the Roman Empire 1300 years earlier.

Between the unification of Italy into a Kingdom in 1861 and the creation of the Italian Republic in 1946, all four of Italy’s Kings were from the House of Savoy.

Vittorio Emanuele II ruled from 1861-1878, Umberto I from 1878-1900, Vittorio Emanuele III from 1900-1946 and finally Umberto II, reigned a brief 34 days in 1946 before the monarchy was abolished.

Museo Civico Pietro Micca + 1706 Siege of Turin.

This small two level museum opened in 1961, as part of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Unification of Italy. It is built on the site where Torino’s pentagon-shaped citadel once stood. One floor is above ground and the lower floor connects to miles of tunnels deep underground. The Citadel was at the center of the 1706 Siege of Turin.

The Citadel

The museum signage was in Italian so we had much to translate to understand the events leading up to the Siege of Turin. The trigger was the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) when the Habsburg King Charles II of Spain died without an heir. He named Philip of Anjou, his grand-nephew and the grandson of the French King Louis XIV, as his heir. To counter the growing dominance of the French, Leopold I of the Austrian House of Habsburg, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor and Charles II’s uncle, challenged the French for the Spanish throne. War was declared with France and Spain on one side and the anti-French alliance of England, the Dutch Republic and Austria on the other.

Vittorio Amedeo II, the Duke of Savoy, initially allied with France and the marriage of his 13 year old daughter Maria Luisa to the 18 year old King Philip V in 1701 was meant to solidify that accord. However by 1703, France had continued to expand their boundaries consuming Savoy land so Vittorio Amedeo renounced his alliance with France and switched sides.

By 1706 the French occupied Lombardi to the east of Piemonte, most of the Duke’s Savoyard territories in Piemonte, the Duchies of both Milan and Mantua, leaving only Turin left to conquer. Despite being outnumbered, the Duke of Savoy, Vittorio Amedeo II and Prince Eugene of Savoy, military commander of the army of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, joined forces. It took 4 long months of battle before they successfully broke through the French lines forcing the French to withdraw from Northern Italy and allowing the Duke of Savoy to recover his lands. A treaty to end the war in Italy was signed in 1707 by the French, the Duke of Savoy and Joseph I, the new Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy.

French soldiers preparing a cannon

Beneath the Citadel lies a labyrinth of 13 miles (21 km) of underground tunnels. A network of layers and branches of tunnels were used to defend the Citadel and the city of Torino. Rooms had been built into the tunnels and were filled with explosives that, when exploded, would create deep chasms to stop or slow an attacker’s advance.

Underground tunnels

The death of the young Savoyard soldier, Pietro Micca became a Piemontese hero. The story goes that a large group of French soldiers were attempting to break into one of the tunnels underneath the citadel. Micca sent his partner away to alert his command, then lit a short fuse and detonated a room filled with explosives thereby preventing the French from penetrating further into the tunnel. A kindly English speaking volunteer gave us an unscheduled private tour of the tunnels explaining the 300 year old story of Pietro Micca and the battle of Torino.

Pietro Micca about to set off the mine

Might be interesting to find and watch the 1938 Italian movie, titled Pietro Micca, which portrays his life and his sacrifice during the Siege of Turin.

Museo del Risorgimento

Located inside the historic baroque Palazzo Carignano is the National Museum of the Italian Risorgimento. The Italian Risorgimento is defined as the series of events that freed the Italian states from foreign domination and unified the country into the Kingdom of Italy. The House of Savoy were in favor of and led the unification process.

National Museum of the Italian Risorgimento

The scope of the museum is primarily a period beginning with the First Italian War of Independence in 1848-1849 through the Second War of Independence from 1959 to the unification and creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. We also saw several exhibits covering 1706 and the siege of Turin as well as 1946, the birth of the Italian Republic.

Once again the information posted in the museum was exclusively in Italian, leaving non-Italian guests with less content and many questions.

Museo Egizio

The oldest Egyptian Museum in the world was founded in 1824 in Torino, predating the Cairo Museum by nearly a century. Housed in yet another Baroque building, this extraordinary collection of more than 40,000 statues, papyri, sarcophagi and objects from everyday ancient Egyptian life covers more than 4000 years of history, archaeology and art. Turin’s huge collection of beautifully written papyri was instrumental in deciphering hieroglyphic writing.

Papyrus from the Egyptian Museum

Why this renowned Egyptian museum in Torino we wondered?

Well…..in 1563 when the Savoy dynasty moved its capital to Torino, court historians decided to invent a genealogy for the new capital by suggesting that the House of Savoy had Egyptian origins. In 1630 the Savoy family acquired an elaborate Egyptian bronze tablet with enamel and silver inlay called the Bembine Tablet. Today it is thought to be of Roman origin but it does imitate the ancient Egyptian style. When the Savoy family acquired the exotic piece it was used to add authenticity to their family lineage claim and spurred the family to finance travel to Egypt to search for additional antiquities to add to the collection.

Gallery of Kings

In 1906, Italian Egyptologist, Ernesto Schiaparelli (1856–1928) discovered an inner chamber of an unplundered tomb in Egypt. It was the burial tomb of the 18th Dynasty’s royal architect, Kha and his wife Merit. There were the two large wooden sarcophagi, along with over 500 hundred items, all of which would have served Kha and Merit in the Afterlife.

Kha and Merit were already well known to scholars because their funerary chapel had been discovered 80 years earlier not far from Schiaparelli’s discovery and was on display in the Turin Egyptian Museum.

Funerary mask of Merit, wife of Kha

Basilica of Superga

The French army had besieged Torino for four months when the Savoy Duke Vittorio Amedeo II and Prince Eugenio climbed Superga hill to survey the battlefield before the decisive battle of the Siege of Torino.

At the top of Superga hill, was a small chapel where Vittorio Amedeo prayed to the Madonna for help and vowed that in exchange for the liberation of Torino he would build a much bigger church in her honor on Superga Hill.

Victor Amadeus surveying the French-Spanish army positions. The small chapel is in the background.

The French were defeated, the town was free, the Duke honored his vow to the Virgin Mary and the newly constructed Royal Basilica of Superga, high on the hill overlooking the city, was inaugurated in 1731. In a small Vow Chapel, inside the Basilica, is the wooden sculpture of the Madonna from the original 1461 chapel, where Vittorio Amedeo II had kneeled to pray.

The Royal Crypt in the Basilica of Superga is the traditional burial place of many family members of the House of Savoy.

Basilica of Superga

Armeria Reale

The Royal Armoury of Turin opened in 1837 and has an incredibly beautiful and extensive assortment of arms and armour collected over the centuries by the Savoy family. And look at the glorious palace setting.

Royal Armory of Turin

This UNESCO World Heritage site has weapons and armour used by the dukes and kings of Savoy as well as prehistoric and medieval objects and a myriad of diplomatic gifts. The collection includes European and American swords, guns and rifles displayed alongside oriental arms and armour and prized weapons formerly owned by Napoleon.

Carlo Alberto I (1798-1849) was an avid collector who in addition to amassing the House of Savoy armour, acquired single pieces on the market as well as whole private collections. The earliest objects date to the 13th century and there are many prized relics from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Royal Armory of Turin

Castello del Valentino

The Castle of Valentino is a former residence of the Royal House of Savoy and today is a School of Architecture Faculty of the Polytechnic University of Turin. Once a small hunting lodge, the Savoy family purchased it in 1564 and began its renovation and expansion. Don’t you think this UNESCO site would be an inspirational building to study in?

Castle of Valentino

The ancient horseshoe shaped castle was built between 1630 and 1660 and above the main entrance is an enormous House of Savoy coat of arms.

As we strolled through the charming historic botanical gardens on the castle grounds, we saw dozens of students out enjoying a quiet lunch in the autumn sunshine.

Near the end of the large park lies Borgo Medievale Village. The gothic-style medieval village is a replica of a 15th century Piemontese village. It was built in 1882-84 in preparation for the 1884 Turin Expo. One of the planners of Borgo Medievale was Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906), who was one of the librettists of La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Although the village was very well done, most of it was disappointingly closed during our visit.

The main gate to the Medieval Village

Taking a break from researching, writing and editing, we often turn to other interests. One day we began to read the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) (most famous for her poem “How do I love thee”). We were amazed to find this famous English poet had lived in Italy for the final 15 years of her life and she became obsessed with Italian politics in the mid 1800’s. She wrote a number of letters and poems about the Italian struggle for independence and unity.

Here are a few lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Napoleon III in Italy,” from Poems before Congress.

“Count how many they come

To the beat of the Piedmont’s drum,

With faces keener and grayer

Than swords of the Austrian slayer,

All set against the foe.”

She was an extremely talented poet and it was pure coincidence to find and enjoy her poems about Italy and the House of Savoy.

Saluti from these Turinese,

Edoardo (Ted) + Guilia (Julia)

View our Egyptian Museum photo album here

View our Royal Armoury of Turin photo album here

View our Medieval Village photo album here

View our Museum of the Risorgimento photo album here

View our Museum – The Siege of Turin photo album here

View our Basilica of Superga photo album here

View our Valentino Park photo album here

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