Umberto II, King of Italy (1904–1983) has the distinction of being the last king of Italy, reigning for 34 days in 1946 before being deposed in a popular referendum abolishing the Italian monarchy. He remains known within Italy as the Re di Maggio, or “May King,” because most of his reign fell within the single month of May.
As the son of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, Umberto was a popular figure. Handsome and charismatic, he was viewed as a desirable match for female European royalty in the period after World War I. Marrying a Belgian princess in 1930, Umberto served his country during World War II and worked to disengage Italy from the war during the conflict's later stages. His brief reign came about when his father abdicated the throne, believing that his popular son would appear less tied to the fascist Italian regime of dictator Benito Mussolini. When the vote went against the monarchy, Umberto left the country, later citing his reason as a way to prevent civil war within Italy. He spent the rest of his life in exile, never giving up the desire to return to his homeland.
Umberto II was born Umberto Nicola Tommaso Giovanni Maria di Savoia (of Savoy) on September 15, 1904, in the Savoy monarchy's castle in Racconogi. Located in northwestern Italy, the castle stood on lands that were traditionally part of the domain of the royal House of Savoy. This family had ruled over a region near the meeting point of modern-day Italy, France, and Switzerland since the 11th century, and its members had ruled over the Kingdom of Italy since the unification of that country in 1861. Umberto's father, Victor Emmanuel III, was Italy's third king and assumed the throne in 1900, after his father, King Umberto I, was assassinated by an anarchist. Umberto's mother, Victor Emmanuel's wife, was Queen Elena, Princess of Montenegro, and Umberto would be her only son; he had two younger and two older sisters. As the heir apparent, he was given the title Prince of Piedmont.
Umberto received his primary education from tutors at home, and in 1914 he entered the Italian Military Academy. After graduating in 1918, he joined the Italian army, receiving a commission as a lieutenant. He held that rank in 1922, when fascist forces marched on Rome at the behest of Mussolini. Assured that the Italian military would remain loyal to the crown, King Victor Emmanuel III yielded to large fascist demonstrations and asked Mussolini to form a government and head the governing council as prime minister. In 1923, Umberto graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Turin, and he was eventually elevated to the rank of general in command of a single division.
Tall (in contrast to Victor Emmanuel, whose height was only slightly more than five feet) as well as dashing, freespending, and charming, Umberto attracted female admirers by the carload. During his 20s he carried on numerous love affairs and was rumored to be bisexual. Although he sometimes expressed frustration that his obligations as a royal prevented him from marrying for love, Umberto took care to maintain a sense of propriety and projected what he considered a “proper” image whenever he appeared in public.
On January 9, 1930, Umberto married Belgium's Princess Marie Josée at the Pauline Chapel at Rome's gigantic Quirinal Palace. Following the wedding, the couple was received by Pope Pius XI, who suggested that the often strained relations between the Vatican and Italy's secular monarchy were improving. Shortly after the couple returned from their honeymoon, rumors surfaced claiming that the crown prince was engaged in an affair with American actress Jeannette MacDonald. While relations between Umberto and Marie would often be described as tense, they had four children: Marie Pia, born in 1934; Vittorio Emmanuele, born in 1937; Marie Gabriella, born in 1940; and Marie Beatrice, born in 1943. The royal couple first made their home at the Savoy royal palace in Turin, although they later relocated to Naples.
At the beginning of World War II, from June 10 to June 25 of 1940, Umberto led the Italian army's West Group in the Italian invasion of southern France. The invasion was successful in that France surrendered at the same time as an armistice was signed with Nazi Germany, but the prince's forces, although numerically in balance with those of the French, suffered heavy casualties and gained little territory.
Mussolini now barred Umberto from further active service and placed him in the largely ceremonial role of Marshal of Italy in 1943. By that time the war had turned against Italy, and the events that would lead to Victor Emmanuel's dismissal of Mussolini (on July 25, 1943) were well underway. Umberto held unofficial meetings with Allied commanders, seeking a solution that would allow Italy to withdraw from the war; Marie José also held meetings with leaders of pro-democracy activists in Italy as well as with Allied American representatives, and she was banished from government centers as a result.
Italy surrendered to Allied forces on September 8, 1943, but the situation remained unstable until the war ended two years later. Nazi Germany invaded northern Italy and set up a pro-German government, even as Allied forces marched northward across the Italian peninsula. The leadership of those regions not controlled by Germany was fluid, but King Victor Emmanuel was deeply unpopular due to his close association with the discredited Mussolini regime. (Mussolini had by now been apprehended while fleeing to Germany, executed, and hung head down at a gas station in Milan to prove that he was in fact dead.) Between April and June of 1944, the Italian king transferred most of his functions as Italy's leader to Umberto, although retaining the title of king. Umberto's title during this period was Lieutenant General of the Realm.
Umberto earned high marks for his management of postwar Italy, whose residents' per capita income in 1944 was lower than it had been in 1900. At Germany's surrender on April 29, 1945, Victor Emmanuel hoped to preserve the monarchy by abdicating in favor of his popular son, promising that Italians would be free to choose their future in a popular referendum. Umberto was crowned King Umberto II of Italy on May 9, 1946. The 34 days of his reign were tense; street fights broke out regularly throughout northern Italy as monarchists, fascists, and republican partisans sought to increase their influence. A referendum on the continuation of the monarchy was scheduled for June 2.
The referendum—which also marked the beginning of woman suffrage in Italy—was characterized by voting irregularities but resulted in a decisive nine-percentagepoint victory for the republican side, although several provinces in southern Italy voted to preserve the monarchy. Umberto urged his supporters to accept the results, and his rule, as well as the succession of the House of Savoy, officially came to an end. On June 13 he departed for Portugal, never to return to Italy. As a married couple, Umberto and Marie José permanently separated soon after, although they never officially divorced due to their strong Catholic faith.
A collector of military memorabilia, Umberto eventually wrote a book on the military medals of the House of Savoy. When his health declined in 1983, a bill was introduced in the Italian parliament that would have allowed him to return to Italy to die, but it came too late: he died in a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 18, 1983. He was buried, by his own request, at the House of Savoy's traditional Hautecombe Abbey monastery burial grounds in St.-Pierre-de-Curtille, France. His wife, Marie José, died in Switzerland in January of 2001.
Katz, Robert, The Fall of the House of Savoy: A Study in the Relevance of the Commonplace or the Vulgarity of History, Macmillan, 1971.
Smith, Denis Mack, Italy and Its Monarchy, Yale University Press, 1992.
New York Times, March 19, 1983, Wolfgang Saxon, “Umberto II, 78, King of Italy at Republic's Founding in '46.”
History Today, http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/birth-umberto-ii-italy (November 18, 2017), Richard Cavendish, “Birth of Umberto II of Italy.”
Unofficial Royalty, http://www.unofficialroyalty.com/king-umberto-ii-of-italy/ (November 18, 2017), “King Umberto II of Italy.”□