September 15, 1904 – Umberto Nicola Tommaso Giovanni Maria di Savoia
The only son of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, King Umberto II of Savoy is one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in history, on the throne from May 9 to June 12, 1945. Known as the “May King”, he was Italy’s last king before the monarchy was abolished and Italy became a Republic. After a referendum in 1945, Umberto was forced into exile in Portugal to avoid a civil war. His family ties to Benito Mussolini did no favor to his fate. In a 1959 interview, Umberto told the Italian newspaper La Settimana Incom Illustrata that in 1922 his father had felt that appointing Mussolini prime minister was a “justifiable risk”.
Victor Emmanuel III and his wife, Elena of Montenegro had three daughters, but just one son, who became heir apparent upon his birth, since the Italian throne was limited to male descendants.
Umberto had an authoritarian, militaristic upbringing and was expected to show an exaggerated deference to his father. In private and public Umberto always had to get down on his knees and kiss his father’s hand before being allowed to speak, even as an adult, and he was expected to stand to attention and salute whenever his father entered a room. Like the other princes of Savoy before him, Umberto received a military education that taught him little about politics; with the expectation that they would learn when they inherited the throne.
As a young man, Umberto was anything but subtle in his pursuit of handsome young officers. One of his lovers was Lieutenant Enrico Montanari. In 1927, Umberto gave him a silver cigarette lighter with the inscription “Dimmi di si!” (“Say yes to me!”). Montanari claimed that he was “seduced” by the lavish gifts Umberto gave him. Umberto constantly craved sex, but he felt very guilty and tormented afterward for violating his strict Catholic teaching that homosexuality is a cardinal sin. To make up for what he called his “devastating burden”, Umberto tried to pray away the gay. He would go from mass to some officer’s bed, from the confessional to the steam baths. He had a special fondness for officers from aristocratic families. Film director and aristocrat Luchino Visconti had an affair during their youth in the 1920s.
25-year-old Umberto had an arranged marriage in 1930 to Marie José of Belgium (1906–2001), daughter of King Albert I of the Belgians and his wife, Queen Elisabeth, carrying out a tradition common to European royalty. He lived apart from his wife except for public appearances. He spent his wedding night and honeymoon apart from his wife, instead enjoying the company of male friends to whom Umberto gave expensive gifts. The young men flaunted the gifts in public. When Umberto called on his wife, he was always in the company of some dude and had himself formally announced. Umberto and his wife kept separate apartments, separate beds and had separate social circles.
Umberto fancied himself a fashion icon, personally designed his bride’s wedding dress and was said to have liked wearing his bride’s wedding dress in the company of his gay friends.
They had four children. In Italian high society, there were plenty of rumors that the royal children were the products of artificial insemination or that their real father was Marshal Italo Balbo, a famous Fascist aviator who was a sex symbol in Italy. The rumors were so widespread that Balbo had to meet King Victor Emmanuel III to deny them. Balbo opposed Mussolini’s policy of allying Italy with Nazi Germany, and warned the king that the Fascist secret police, the OVRA, had collected a file on Umberto’s gay activities with plans to blackmail him when he succeeded to the throne.
The couple’s unorthodox living arrangements certainly inspired gossip. It was noted in Italian elite circles that when Umberto and Marie José went on trips they always stayed in separate bedrooms. The rumors have some basis in fact; Marie Jose’s doctor later confirmed that three out of the four royal children were conceived via artificial insemination and that Umberto did not like having sex with his wife.
Umberto spent much of his time hanging out with gay French actor Jean Marais and boxer Primo Carnera. In 1933, when Carnera was asked by reporters what he and Umberto were doing together, he replied:
“… the prince received me wearing a swimming costume and asked me to go for a swim with him in the pool. They then spent the afternoon together“.
Umberto had many assignations with men of all sorts. He surrounded himself with glamorous women to give the impression that he was a playboy.
Umberto’s attitude toward the Fascist regime varied: at times he mocked them and his father for supporting such a regime, yet at other times he praised Mussolini as a great leader. Fascist newspapers “outed” Umberto, calling him “Stellassa” (“Ugly Starlet). In 1943, the fascist media reported in lucid detail Umberto’s various relationships with men as a way of discrediting him, and his gayness became common knowledge.
As the Allies freed more and more of Italy, it became apparent that Victor Emmanuel was too tainted by support of Fascism to have any further role. By this point, the government was so unpopular with the Italian people that Umberto was willing to accept the support of any party with a mass following, even the Communists.
Under strong pressure from the USA and Britain, on April 10, 1944, Victor Emmanuel transferred his powers to Umberto. This was formalized after Rome was liberated in June, and Victor Emmanuel transferred his remaining constitutional powers to Umberto, naming his son Lieutenant General of the Realm. However, Victor Emmanuel retained the title of King. During his period, Umberto saw his father only three times.
The Catholic Church saw the continuation of the monarchy as the best way of keeping the leftist Italians out of power, and Catholic priests used their pulpits to warn that “all the pains of hell” were reserved for those who voted for a republic, warning to vote for a republic would be to vote for the Communism. In hopes of influencing public opinion ahead of a referendum on the continuation of the monarchy, Victor Emmanuel formally abdicated in favor of Umberto and left for Egypt.
On June 12, 1946 a referendum with a 52% majority voted to make Italy a republic. Charges of homosexuality made against Umberto had an impact on the voters, causing conservatives to vote for the republic. From his exile in Egypt, Victor Emmanuel let it be known that Umberto was a failure who was unfit to be king and claimed that the monarchists would have won the referendum if only he had not abdicated. Umberto was deeply shocked that the majority of his subjects chose a republic.
The Republic of Italy was formally proclaimed four days later, ending Umberto’s 34-day reign as king. In his last statement as king, Umberto refused to accept the republic, saying he was the victim of a coup and the referendum had been rigged.
Umberto II lived for 37 years in exile. The 1948 constitution of the Italian Republic forbade amending the constitution to restore the monarchy and barred all male heirs to the defunct Italian throne from ever returning to Italian soil.
Marie José moved to Switzerland and Umberto went to Portugal, though as Catholics they never divorced.
When Umberto was dying in 1983, Italian President Sandro Pertini wanted the Italian Parliament to allow Umberto to return. But he never returned home. He died in Geneva and was buried on French soil in the Savoy family tomb. He was 78 years old when he said ciao. No representative of the Italian government attended his funeral.
Victor Emmanuel went into exile to Alexandria, Egypt, where a year later he died and was buried there in Saint Catherine’s Cathedral. His remains were returned to Italy in 2017.
My favorite thing about his story is that for 34 days, Umberto had the title:
By the Grace of God and the Will of the Nation, King of Italy, King of Sardinia, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Armenia, Duke of Savoy, count of Maurienne, Marquis of the Holy Roman Empire in Italy; Prince of Piedmont, Carignano, Oneglia, Poirino, Trino; Prince and Perpetual vicar of the Holy Roman Empire; prince of Carmagnola, Montmellian with Arbin and Francin, prince bailliff of the Duchy of Aosta, Prince of Chieri, Dronero, Crescentino, Riva di Chieri and Banna, Busca, Bene, Brà, Duke of Genoa, Monferrat, Aosta, Duke of Chablais, Genevois, Duke of Piacenza, Marquis of Saluzzo (Saluces), Ivrea, Susa, of Maro, Oristano, Cesana, Savona, Tarantasia, Borgomanero and Cureggio, Caselle, Rivoli, Pianezza, Govone, Salussola, Racconigi with Tegerone, Migliabruna and Motturone, Cavallermaggiore, Marene, Modane and Lanslebourg, Livorno Ferraris, Santhià Agliè, Centallo and Demonte, Desana, Ghemme, Vigone, Count of Barge, Villafranca, Ginevra, Nizza, Tenda, Romont, Asti, Alessandria, del Goceano, Novara, Tortona, Bobbio, Soissons, Sant’Antioco, Pollenzo, Roccabruna, Tricerro, Bairo, Ozegna, of Apertole, Baron of Vaud and of Faucigni, Lord of Vercelli, Pinerolo, of Lomellina, of Valle Sesia, of Ceva Marquisate, Overlord of Monaco, Roccabruna and 11/12th of Menton, Noble patrician of Venice, patrician of Ferrara.