A frequent question from visitors, is “What is that big white building in the centre of town?” The Vittoriano as it is known to locals is a grand monument in the centre of the city, dating to the 19th century which recalls and celebrates Italian unification and the first king of united Italy – Victor Emmanuelle II.
The building is many things, it has a collection of museums relating to the unification, the Italian language and recent military history, the altar of the fatherland (a secular altar) and the tomb of the unknown soldier. For many visitors to the city the highpoint is the spectacular views of Rome from the top of the monument. Many have mixed feelings about the building, visitors and locals alike; the Romans hate it, I rather like it but can’t help feeling it is slightly out of place – it would be more at home in Paris or Vienna.
A symbol of a ‘New’ Italy
Many people don’t realise Italy is a new country. When you are surrounded by thousands of years of history and architecture, it is confusing to hear that Italy – as a unified peninsula, its flag and even the language are less than two hundred years old; younger than America and only a fraction older than Canada and Australia.
After the Roman Empire fell, Rome and Italy were continually ransacked by waves of invaders. Italy became a collection of divided City-states, governed by the pope, aristocratic families with private armies and foreign interests like the French, the Spanish (who controlled southern Italy from Naples down) and the Austro-Hungarians. Finally, in the 19th century after decades of fighting for independence the Italian regions banded together to take back control of the boot. The ‘Kingdom of Italy’ was created in 1861 – this was called the Risorgimento (resurgence) or the Unification of Italy. At the same time the pope (who had ruled the papal states including Rome for centuries) retreated inside the walls of Vatican City. Victor Emmanuelle II who had been instrumental in bringing about the risorgimento became the first king.
Building the Vittoriano
When Victor Emmanuel II died in 1878, the Italian state wanted a monument to the Risorgimento and the first King of Italy. The architect, Giuseppe Sacconi planned an elaborate design of terraces and porticoes using classical architectural forms inspired by the Roman Forum (which is behind the monument) – the result was a modern neoclassical forum with space for visitors to stroll.
The heart of the ancient centre of Rome and the most important hill (the Capitoline) were chosen as the site for the monument, intended to create a modern urban context with a large new piazza in the centre (Piazza Venezia). The idea was to bring Rome into the modern age to rival London and Berlin and to create a public space with stairways and terraces for the populace. Initial plans were for a raised square on three levels but soon the monumental complex exceeded the designs and kept spreading outwards. It required the demolition of numerous buildings dating back to the middle ages and to ancient Roman times; 17 metres below the building today there are Roman remains and quarries.
The Vittoriano is enormous – 81 m (266 ft) in height (including the chariots) and 135 m (443 ft) wide, it dominates Piazza Venezia and is an integral part of Rome’s skyline from any viewpoint. Building started in 1885 and continued until 1935, although it was officially inaugurated in 1911. The design is of a huge covered portico with classical columns and a propylaea or monumental gateway at each end. The open portico is set on a sweeping staircase of 243 steps which lead to the so-called altar of the fatherland, which is topped by a statue of the goddess Roma (beneath lies the crypt of the unknown soldier).
At the centre of the monument above the altar is a statue of Victor Emmanuelle II, the hero and namesake of the monument; he is seated on a horse and cuts a regal, dashing figure sporting an impressive moustache which is actually over 1m wide. To give an idea of how gigantic the building and the statue is, imagine a group of people having celebratory drinks inside the horse. The wonderful photo below was taken in 1909 just days before the statue’s inauguration!
Altar of the fatherland
The Vittoriano celebrates the unification of Italy, the Italian army and the legacy of the first king. Many of the statues on the monument are allegorical relating to the efforts of the soldiers who fought for independence, they represent virtues and emotions and are named; thought, action, force, concord, sacrifice and the right. At the heart of the monument, beneath the base of the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuelle II is the altar of the fatherland (a secular altar) dedicated to a free and united Italy which is topped by a statue of Roma.
In 1921 the monument became the site of the Grave of the Unknown Soldier; the actual crypt is beneath the altar and can be seen from the inside. The soldier was one of many who died in the first world war who could not be named, alongside the Altar the crypt symbolises the sacrifices made for the people, the homeland and these combined ideals. The Altar of the Fatherland and the Crypt beneath are flanked by two pedestals with flames that are continually lit and are constantly guarded by two soldiers from Italy’s armed forces.
What’s in a name?
The building has many names thanks to its numerous attributes; The Victor Emmanuel II Monument, Altar of the Fatherland, the wedding cake, the monstrosity and my favourite is Mussolini’s typewriter. Many Romans hate the building for numerous reasons; It’s too big and not in keeping with the area, it is built using Brescian stone from the North of Italy rather than local masonry but most importantly a great many medieval buildings were destroyed to build the monument and numerous Romans were forcibly rehoused. Others wrongly attribute the building to Mussolini, although it had already been inaugurated by the time Mussolini came to power.
The Vittoriano and Mussolini
Mussolini and his fascist regime came to power in 1922 when the building had already been inaugurated and was mostly complete. Mussolini’s offices were situated in the Palazzo Venezia (the pinkish building to the left of Piazza Venezia), today his balcony is marked with flags. It was from this balcony that Mussolini addressed the crowds that gathered to hear his speeches. Mussolini appropriated the Vittoriano as a symbol of his fascist regime, distorting the original intention of symbol to unify and strengthen Italy. The Vittoriano was covered by Fascist symbols and became associated with Fascist ideology which was at odds with the original spirit of the risorgimento. After the fall of the regime, all Fascist elements added to the building by Mussolini were removed, but unfortunately in the minds of many the association with the dictator remains.
A symbol of Italian patriotism
Still today, the Vittoriano is regarded as a symbol of Italy and hosts important national celebrations. Every year wreaths are laid in remembrance at the Crypt and Altar by leading officials of the city; the largest annual celebrations are Liberation Day (April 25), Republic Day (June 2), and Armed Forces Day (November 4).
This year, thanks to COVID-19 the celebrations were rather muted. The Italian President Sergio Mattarella presided over the celebrations laying a wreath at the altar overlooking an empty piazza wearing a mask.