Il Vittoriano:

The struggle to create national identity

Il Vittoriano
1. Introduction
2. History of the Risorgimento
3. The decision making process
3.1 The preparatory works
3.2 The first tender
3.2.1 Columns
3.2.2 Triumph arches
3.2.3 Temples and pantheons
3.2.4 Statues
3.2.5 Combined structures
3.2.6 The judgment for the first tender
3.3 Policy-making by the Committee
3.3.1 Monument
3.3.2 Statue
3.3.3 Location of the monument
3.4 The Second Tender
3.5 Building Il Vittoriano
3.6 Overview data
4. General description of the vittoriano
4.1 External structure of the building
4.2 External sculptural and ornamental compositions
5. Elements of 'il vittoriano' in detail
5.1 The equestrian statue of Victor Emanuel
5.2 First-tier Statues of Il Vittoriano
5.3 The base-reliefs 'Work' and 'Love of Homeland' within the centre 'the goddess of Roma'
6. Conclusion


Il Vittoriano is the Italian name for the gigantic white monument in the centre of Rome, built to commemorate Victor Emanuele II, the first king of the unified Italy. Situated in the centre of Rome, its tall, white marble is one of the first buildings to catch the eye of many tourists. The wedding cake, as it has been nicknamed by the Roman people, is ridiculed by locals and art historians alike. Its pompous stature and over the top size makes one wonder how such a building could ever be constructed.

When looking at the history, the Vittoriano has been constructed after a massive architectural competition. Many questions therefore come up. What was the point behind the building? Why build a monument for Victor Emmanuel? What was the building supposed to represent? Why were certain creative choices made, for example when it comes to location, form, symbolism, the placement of statues, etcetera?

In the upcoming, we will try to fit the Vittoriano in a political, economic, social and artistic context. The starting point will be the historical context. By analysing the Risorgimento we will try to understand the spirit of the age. Then we will go through the decision making process, to understand the choice of elements of the building, which will give us an impression of the main problems the new state of Italy was challenged with, for which the building would be a solution. After that a general description of the building will be given. We will conclude with an in-depth observation of a few elements of the Vittoriano: the equestrian statue of Victor Emanuel II and the base-reliefs 'Work' and 'Love of Homeland' and the statue of the goddess Roma in the centre of the first level of the Vittoriano.

History of the Risorgimento

Italy as we know it, is only a recent addition to the European continent. In the Middle Ages the geographical entity that we now call ‘Italy’ was littered by numerous small city states. Even though we can see in Humanistic texts that there must have been some feelings of kinship between the different city states, they were foremost individual states that valued their independence. It was not infrequent that they even fought amongst themselves. There was not such a thing as being ‘Italian’, but you would be ‘Venetian’ or ‘Florentine’.

A sense of Italian unity, was introduced after Italy was taken by Napoleon in 1805. In this highly centralized kingdom, the old regional differences were combated. The French Code Civil was introduced, Tuscan was made the official language and smaller city states were absorbed into bigger provinces. It is in this atmosphere that a national consciousness started to develop. Soon secret societies started to grow, planning to overthrow the French government and take control of a unified Italy. All of this did not come to fruition after the defeat of Napoleon. At the peace conference, Austria, one of the victors, demanded restitution of its former North-Italian possessions. The Italian wishes were discarded and Austria regained a strong diplomatic position in Italy, either by taking direct control, for example of Veneto, or by the institution of members of the Habsburg family, the rulers of Austria.

Needless to say, the desires of certain parts of the Italian people did not go away under Austrian rule. In fact they only grew stronger, as the restitution of the ancient régime came about by giving back the rights of the old aristocracy. The unrest characteristic of the revolutionary years, continued even after the fall of Napoleon. Secret societies thrived in these circumstances. In 1821 this did result in a revolution, but this was quickly defeated by the Austrians, as the secret societies lacked cohesion and unity. After a prolonged period of unrest, a new movement, called ‘Young Italy’, was born in 1831. The leading figure, Giuseppe Mazzini, later called the heart of the unification, set the later tone of the Risorgimento, referring to ancient glories and the will of God in order to find legitimacy for a unified Italy. It was his main objective to overthrow all the ancient regimes in Italy to create a new, unified Italy. A few years later he was forced to go into exile after the government cracked down upon the Young Italy movement.

In 1848, the year of revolution in almost all European states, Italy also was in chaos. In the ‘Springtime of the People’ the Austrian government was thrown out. A unified Italian front, however, crumbled after a few months. Soon after, Mazzini made an ‘Appeal to Italians’ striving for democratic revolution after the armies of the unified Italian front had not managed to make Italy independent. The revolution did at first take hold of strong Italian cities as Rome and Venice, but in 1849 both cities fell to sieges from respectively France and Austria, thereby ending the democratic revolution of 1848-1849.

In the years after 1849, the liberties of the revolution year were quickly taken back by the ancient rulers. A period of serious repression followed. Only in Piedmont did the changes made in 1848 live on. On the basis of a constitution given by king Victor Emanuel II did Piedmont have its own parliament, which gave a base of power independent of the king. Main man was Cavour, who led many reforms, for example to reduce the power of the Church, and defended the powers of parliament against the king. The period of 1849-1859 proved to be very prosperous for the Piedmontese. All in all they were a striking example for the Italian nationalists. And Cavour wanted more.

In 1859 Cavour allied himself with the nationalist movement of Mazzini. He wanted to make Piedmont the dominant power in northern Italy, by means of evicting the Austrians. To do that, he could use the power base provided by the nationalist movement. But he had also learned from the failed revolution of 1848-1849. Cavour therefore made a pact with France, where they agreed that France would assist Piedmont if the Austrians attacked in exchange for the province of Nice and Savoy to France. In 1859 the Austrians finally attacked.

The war was short: it lasted but two months, in which the Austrians were utterly crushed by the forces of France and Piedmont. The result of this war was that Piedmont now was the dominant ruler in northern Italy. The city states in Middle-Italy held plebiscites, in which the population voted for direct rule by Piedmont. But it didn’t stop with this diplomatic annexation of parts of Italy. At the same time, supporters of Mazzini in the Two Sicilies, were talking of revolution. The old warlord Garribaldi, who had fought in the revolution of 1848-1849 and the recent war against Austria, went on his own accord and amassed an army of the Thousand. In name of Italy and Victor Emanuel II he quickly vanquished the South of Italy and instated a constitution based on the Piedmontese. After further plebiscites in the South, the people voted for direct annexation to Piedmont. In November Garribaldi handed over the rule to Victor Emanuel II. Italy was starting to take its form.

The years following 1859 were focused on finishing the unification of Italy. Only Venice, which had remained under Austrian rule, and Rome, ruled for centuries by the pope, had remained out of Piedmontese hands. In 1866 Venice fell, but it was only in 1870 that Italy finally could be unified. In 1870 the French forces defending the pope finally withdrew, allowing a siege on Rome. With the fall of Rome, Italy was finally one.

The fall of Rome, however, was not the end of all problems. For one there was still the problem of the Church, who was clearly opposed to the unification of Italy, with the pope calling himself the ‘prisoner of the Vatican’ after the fall of Rome and urging the Catholics not to support the new Italian state. On the other hand there was still a powerful regional sentiment, which even today is still alive. In essence there was a feeling of unity, but not a particular strong one. Common grounds had to be created, they had to ‘make Italians’ (fare gli Italiani).

The making of Italians was done on the one hand by cultural means, such as paintings, poetry and music. Verdi is a good example of this. His song called Va in the third act of Nabucco is a song lamenting the homeland. On the other hand, history played an important role. The main point from early on was of course the memory of the Roman state, the last time Italy had been unified. But also other historic personae were added to the Italian memory. Dante for example, in his time a Florentine, would be dubbed an Italian. It is with these efforts that Italian people were made. The lack of a clear national memory, however, and with that the legitimacy of the Italian state, was one of the biggest problems facing the newly united Italy of 1870 and onwards.

The decision making process

Describing the process of building Il Vittoriano is not important in the sense that one has to know how the moment was build. However, in a somewhat more conceptual sense it is of the utmost importance. Beneath, a description of the creation of Il Vittoriano will be provided.

The preparatory works

On the 16th of May, 1878, the Italian parliament adopted a law for building a memorial for Victor Emanuel (alla memoria di Vittorio Emanuelle II). On the basis of this law, a Royal Preparatory Committee for the creation of Il Vittoriano was installed. The Preparatory Committee consisted of 21 member, all of which were political figures. After having difficulties to decide how to proceed, the Committee eventually opted for a worldwide public tender. After presenting its recommendations to the parliament, a second law was adopted. This law stipulated, largely in accordance with the ideas of the Preparatory Committee, that a worldwide public tender was to be held for the creation of a building to commemorate Victor Emanuel, liberator and founder of the Homeland. Furthermore, the total costs for the building were not to exceed 9 million Italian lires. Alongside, a new Committee was formed, which had to set the terms and conditions of the tender. This Committee was more balanced than the previous one; it consisted of politicians, as well as artists. However, the Committee failed to come up with a shared stance, not only artistically, but also when it came to composing a jury for the appraisal of the designs. The Artistic Societies of the important Italian cities continuously objected, in fear of the installation of a jury that consisted of citizens of other city-states. Obviously, those city-states seized to exists when Italy was unified, but the distrusting attitude characterizes the absence of a sense unity. Eventually, it was decided that the jury consisted of two chambers, so to speak. The first was composed of representatives of the Italian Artistic societies, the members of the second were elected. Despite the discussion regarding the installation of a jury, the decision-making body remained to be the Committee.

The first tender

After a long time of discussion and disagreement, a first round of tender was held. The Committee received 315 designs, 22 of which were excluded based on formal reasons (too late, etcetera). The Committee therefore had 293 projects to judge. The desire to have an international tender, not just one for Italians, resulted in the fact that designs were sent in from 13 countries, as well as from all former Italian city-states. However, the majority of the designs was from Italy (235 Italian on a total number of 293). Noteworthy is the fact that the Committee did not appoint a location in which the monument was to be built, other than the fact that it would be in Rome. That resulted in the fact that some projects chose a location that suited their designs, whereas others did not decide on a location whatsoever.

When examining the submitted projects, one sees a wide variety of designs. For example in terms of shape, everything from round, square or ‘flat’ to triangular and octagonal. Also the height varies, as well as the proposed symbols and the placement of them. In some designs, Victor Emanuel plays a minor role, in others a statue of him is prominently placed. The role of religion also very different; some architects propose a monument that is, for the most part, a cross, whereas others have no religious content whatsoever. Brice makes the following division in order to bring some categorization in the enormous diversity of designs:

  1. Columns
  2. Triumph arches
  3. Temples and pantheon
  4. Designs in which a statue in dominant
  5. Combined structures

This division permits us to take a closer look at the reactions of art critics, the press, the people of Rome in particular and of Italy in general and of course the Committee. The Committee used two rounds of voting to give gold medals, silver medals and honorary recommendation to projects. As will be discussed later, this did not mean that the projects won in the sense that they were actually built.


Project number 196 by Ignazio Roselli Lorenzini is interesting, because the architect’s design is accompanied by an explanation of his artistic choices. He states that a triumph arch would not suit Rome, because traditionally such buildings have been used as places of commerce. Furthermore, they were only built for military success, whereas the monument for Victor Emmanuel aims to do more than exclusively honor him for his military achievements. The same can be said for equestrian statues. Temples are, according to Roselli Lorenzini, built for divinity, however not for kings. What he proposes is large column with a statue of Victor Emmanuel on top, that shows to what great heights the Risorgimento has brought Italy. Around the one high column, several (226) smaller columns had to be placed, symbolizing the staircase so the speak; the cooperation of Italians. The media were moderately positive about Roselli Lorenzini’s design.

Triumph arches

As previously stated, triumph arches are mostly build for military victories. For that reason, they were considered to be inappropriate for the commemoration of Victor Emanuel and the unification of Italy. Giambattista and Basile (project number 56) (amongst others) however, proposed a triumph arch regardless of that fact. They held that with decorations with a slightly different theme than military success, a triumph arch would be an appropriate monument for Victor Emanuel. The people of Rome were very fond of this project and so were the art critics and the press. The Committee however, disliked the idea of triumph arches. Giambattista and Basile’s design was the only triumph arch to receive a gold medal. That was for its impeccable design and decoration. The idea of a triumph arch itself was refused.

Temples and pantheons

Generally speaking, temples and pantheon were, for several reasons, not appreciated by the Committee. One of the more important reasons for that was the fact the intention was to build a monument that served as a memorial for Victor Emanuel, Father of the Homeland, not a monument for Victor Emanuel in the sense that he was buried there. Victor Emanuel was buried in the Pantheon in Rome, where a special alter was installed for him. This brings us to another reason to refuse the idea of a pantheon; Rome already had a major pantheon. Building another one was hardly renewing in any way. Multiple architects proposed temple, pantheons or mausoleums, some of which had domes like the Pantheon in Rome or Les Invalides in Paris. Most combined such a monument with an equestrian statue. The designs featuring pantheons were received very mildly. Art critics as well as the Committee found the designs themselves to be good, but rejected the function such monuments generally have.


As mentioned before, triumph arches and temples and pantheons were refused not only for the function they have, but also for the fact that they already existed elsewhere in Rome. This was one of the advantages of equestrian statues; only one was to be found in Rome, namely the one of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol. The Committee was, for that reason, very fond of the idea of an equestrian statue. Most projects featured groups of statues, with a centrally placed (larger) statue of Victor Emanuel on a horse. Problem was, according to art critics, that many compositions were not synoptic enough; they were too ‘busy’ so to say and impossible for the observer to understand. The idea in general was however approved by the Committee.

Combined structures

The combined structures mostly proposed renovation and alteration of existing buildings or squares. For example on Piazza di Termini, on the Piazza di Pantheon or the Capitol (as well as many other locations). The 17 projects that propose such a combined structures were received in very different manners. Some designs were good, but the location was wrong and vice versa, some projects were rejected in general, etcetera. Given the diversity of the projects, they will not be discussed separately.

The judgment for the first tender

As can be deducted from the above, the designs were broadly discussed in the press, particularly in Italian art magazines and newspapers. Whenever a Roman magazine wrote a bad review on, for example, a Milanese design, a Milanese paper would do the same about a Roman design. The papers from various former city-states also accused each other of prejudice. The Art Societies, who had also played a part in the formation of the jury, continuously objected to the proceedings in the Committee. All together, the Committee, undoubtedly also influenced by the publications and the Art Societies, was left with a difficult task. It had to make a decision without seeming biased towards one or more cities. That was even more difficult since not all city-states were equally represented in terms of the number of designs they sent in. The Committee had several rounds of voting, every time with procedural difference, in example when it comes to the way of voting, the amount of votes a design needed, etcetera.

Brice examined the way in which the press rated the designs and what designs received awards from the Committee. It is striking that there is a discrepancy between the two, although the top of the list varies not so much.

Eventually, the Committee did not decide on one winner, whose design was built in Rome. A second tender was held.

Policy-making by the Committee

Since the Committee did not come to a final decision on what project won, a second tender was held. Although the first tender resulted in a wide variety of designs, it was regarded as unsuccessful. The reason for that was first and foremost that the conditions for the tender, in the broadest sense, were too vague. The Committee was struggling with issues such as what virtues were to be attributed to recently unified Italy. Another major problem was that of the way Victor Emanuel had to depicted. The historical events and context that had to be shown and promoted in the moment were also an issue. Alongside, there had been some abstruseness with respect to the reserved sum of 9 million lires for the construction of the moment. Uncertain was whether this amount was exclusively for the actual construction of the building, or also for the purchase of land and for the buy-out of residents that may have lived in houses that had to be destroyed. If the buy-outs were not included, question remained who had to pay for that; either the City of Rome or the State of Italy.


It requires no further explanation that the building is important not only for the commemoration of Victor Emanuel, but also, in a broader sense, for the unification of Italy, in which the Risorgimento resulted. The Risorgimento however, is more than a political movement; there is also a cultural and artistic aspect to it. Many architects participating in the first tender were oblivious to the latter fact. Since antiquity, Italy had never been united as one state. Rather, there were many different city-states, all of which were, in a certain way isolated from one another. Perhaps not in the sense that there was no trade or commerce, but certainly in the aforementioned political and cultural manner. This left the Committee with tremendous difficulties. Without any shared history, a building had to be built that could serve as a symbol for unification. Not only for Romans or Venetians, but for all Italians. Therefore, the Committee had to make some sort of policy on what the monument had contain in the broadest sense. What are the virtues and history of Italy? Should the shared history be found in the Risorgimento or perhaps earlier, in antiquity? Is there even any shared history and is it even possible to create a widely appreciate symbol of unification?

As had been done many times before, the Committee had to compromise. It was decided that antiquity should play a role, but that it should not be dominant. The fact that the building was placed in Rome, was on itself already a reference to antiquity.

Also the fact that Victor Emanuel was of the House of Savoy (Sardinia-Piedmont) was not to be a predominant aspect in the monument according to the Committee. Sardinia-Piedmont is evidently not more than merely one of the parts of unified Italy

Some designs focused on the shared cultural history of Italy. Those projects featured persons such as Machiavelli, Dante, Galilei, Columbus, Petrarch, Archimedes, Virgilius, Raphael, etcetera. As can be seen, artists from both the Middle-Ages as well as the Renaissance were included, but hardly any important figures from the Risorgimento. The Committee was struggling with the role of major artistic figures. On the one hand, they may shed light on the shared history of Italy, on the other hand they were scarcely related to the Risorgimento, the movement that resulted in the unification of Italy.

Many of the designs contained references in whatever form to cities, provinces or dynasties of Italy. Some projects used the 7 major cities of modern Italy, whereas others included the capitals of the ancient city-states. Some even used the important cities of only Piedmont. Most extreme are probably the two projects who cited on their designs the names of the 8275 municipalities that Italy consisted of. Mentioning city-states, city or dynasties raised obvious questions, namely which cities, provinces or dynasties had to be included and which could be left out of the monument.


In almost all designs, Victor Emanuel is featured is some form. In most, the king is the central figure. There had been much discussions in the Committee on how to depict the king. Not only if the statue had to be realistic or abstract, but also on what virtues had to be attributed to Victor Emanuel. The discussions concentrates on the choice between an equestrian statue, a standing statue or a statue of Victor Emanuel sitting on a throne. This artistic choice had consequences for the way in which the king is perceived. A horse is generally related with warriors and military victories, a throne is somewhat more regal and diplomatic, whereas a standing king is considered to be diplomatic, balanced and moral. Most designs in the first tender opted for an equestrian statue, as can be seen in the table below.


Equestrian 63%
Standing 25%
Throne 5%
Other (or non) 7%

Predominant virtue:

Military 27%
Politician 41%
Balanced or mixed 29%
Other 3%

The king’s clothing and attire also leave room for many artistic choices; choices that affect the way in which the king is perceived yet again. Some architects chose the uniform of a military general, some that of the voluntary Garibaldi troops and some opted for a traditional costume of the House of Savoy, of which Victor Emanuel was a member (Sardinia-Piedmont). The majority chose for the Royal clothing the king wore when in function (in the time from his coronation until his death).

Most projects have the tendency to give the king a somewhat ‘perfect’ image, in the sense that he was a military leader, but also a skilled politician. Culture plays a minor role in almost all designs. In the press virtues such as truth, unity, progress, justice and diplomacy are promoted.

Location of the monument

As mentioned before, the first tender did not contain any indication of where the monument was to be built, other than the fact that it had to be placed somewhere in Rome. Some projects did decide on a location, others did not. Of the ones that chose a construction site, the majority opted for the Piazza di Termini, a minority for the Capitol or the Pantheon. Many chose for Piazza di Termini simply because there was plenty of space at the time. The Pantheon and Capitol evidently have close connection with antiquity, the latter also with renaissance. The Committee discussed this matter on the 5th and 6th of June, 1882. It added Piazza Venezia to the list, which is the square in front of the current location of Il Vittoriano. The following arguments were put forward. The Capitol was a very central and glorious location. It is near the Forum Romanum, the Colloseum and is at the end of the road that leads to the Piazza di Popolo. On the other hand, it was an expensive location. Moreover, in order to empty the construction site, several Medieval buildings had to be destroyed. That brings us to the most important advantage of the Piazza di Termini; there was plenty of not very costly space. It is however, not as central as the Capitol. The Pantheon was considered to be a good solution, because Victor Emanuel was buried in that building. It was not more than logical to build a monument for the king near his tomb. Most important downside of this location had to do with finance; it would be extremely costly to make room for a monument near the Pantheon. It would also involve the destruction of many houses. The decisive factor appeared to be of a financial nature. When analyzing the opinions of the Committee members, they are divided as can be seen in the tables below (numbers don’t add up, due to unclarity about the opinion of certain members).

Vote without regard to financial matters:

Piazza di Termini 7
Pantheon 6
Capitol 3
Piazza Venezia 1

Vote with regard to financial matters:

Piazza di Termini 9
Pantheon 2
Capitol 1
Piazza Venezia 1

As shown in the tables above, the Piazza di Termini was most likely to win. We know now that Il Vittoriano was built on the Capitol, even though building the monument there was highly unlikely, based on the Committee’s stance. It is interesting to further examine what changed the position of the Committee.

On the 7th of June, the mayor of Rome spoke to the Committee. He declared that he was not in the position to finance the project in any way. However, the City of Rome already had the intention to modernize the Capitol. For any other financial aid, the Committee had to turn to the Government. The mayor however, pushed the Committee gently towards the Capitol.

On the 8th of June, a government representative and spokesman for the Council of Ministers attended the meeting of the Committee. After his statement, it became clear that the Government would provide financial assistance. Moreover, also this official points out that the Capitol is regarded as the most suitable location.

In the next meeting, on the 12th of June. The Committee had come to the following opinions. The monument was to be built in the very centre of Rome, therefore no longer on Piazza di Termini. The Committee comes to a round of voting, using yet another procedure, as can be seen in the table below.

Yes No
Pantheon 6 9
Piazza di Termini 9 6
Capitol 9 6

The table above shows that the Piazza di Termini and the Capitol tie. The process of voting is highly unclear. The Romans vote alike, as do the Milanese and Florentines. Some members of the Committee have continuously argued for a certain location, but altered their opinion all of a sudden when it came to voting.

The Committee doesn’t meet again until the 16th of September, 1882. This meeting is yet again attended by the spokesman for the government Depretis, who was also present on the 8th of June. He stated again that the Capitol was highly preferred by the Government, who was also willing to making an extra payment. The opinion was at that point, as put forward by member of the Committee Tabarrini, that if the Government officially announced a sum for the construction, the Capitol was favored also for the Committee. Tabarrini had earlier been strongly against the Capitol, but was a close friend of Depretis. The latter was apparently a very influential man. When it came to voting, the Committee opted for the Capitol with unanimity.

The Second Tender

From the above can be deducted that the Committee made policy no earlier than after the first tender. It seems rather peculiar that the very basics, such a location, were not even decided on. The second tender was open until the 15th of December, 1883. It was announced in the Gazetta Ufficial on the 18th of December, 1882. Again, an international tender was held. The following guidelines can be deducted from art. 4 and 5 of the bulletin in the Gazzetta Ufficiale:

  1. A monumental flight of stairs
  2. An equestrian statue
  3. An alter or balcony
  4. Directives on shapes and sizes (in meters)
  5. Placing in relation to other buildings, in example the church behind the Capitol (in meters)
  6. Symbolism and reference to Victor Emanuel, Father of the Homeland and the liberation and unification of Italy.

Fewer designs were made; only 98 as opposed to the enormous amount of 293 for the first tender. It is striking to see that even though the Committee received only approximately a third of design compared to the first tender, there is very little alteration in the candidates backgrounds. The ratio international-national remains more or less the same, as can be said for the origin of the Italian architects.

Several projects were widely appreciated, particularly by the press. Amongst those projects was the design of Sacconi, who would later be the winner of the second tender. The 98 designs were, despite the guidelines of the Committee, very different. Not as much in terms of shapes and sizes, but mostly when it came to artistic choices. Such artistic choices involved the above described choice as to what cities to incorporate in the monument, but also somewhat more historical aspects. Those aspects involved the fact that the Committee ordered that reference should be made to not only Victor Emanuel, but to the unification of Italy as well. Several important events, also of a military nature (battles, persons, etcetera), played a role in the unification, but it is obviously the artist who decided on what to include. Garibaldi and Cavour are not a part of the majority of the design. Presumably, that had to do with the fact that the Committee had explicitly stated that the monument was for the commemoration of Victor Emanuel.

Other issues, largely in accordance with the ones that arose from the first tender, are discussed again in the Committee again.

After a first round of voting, 7 projects remained. Noteworthy is that these were projects that were also favored by the press and that the Committee apparently valued their opinion to a great extent. From those 7 projects, Giuseppe Sacconi’s project was eventually chosen with unanimity.

Building Il Vittoriano

After it was announced that Sacconi was the winner of the second tender and that his monument was to be built, yet another committee was installed. This Technical Committee was charged with overseeing the actual construction of Il Vittoriano. Its tasks were amongst others to hire craftsmen for the sculptures, to decide on what type of stone to use, etcetera. One of the Technical Committee’s most important achievements was that another tender was held for the equestrian statue in April of 1886. In may come as no surprise that one tender was not enough to reach agreement. Therefore, a second tender for the equestrian statue was held couple of months later (July of 1886). Due to continuous disagreement, even a third (February of 1888) and fourth (April of 1889) tender were held, resulting in the appointment of Chiaradia as head of design for the equestrian statue.

Although the blueprint so to speak of the design had been made by Sacconi, the Committee kept arguing about artistic choices. Sacconi gave a detailed presentation of his design, with some alteration, in February of 1887. For the Committee, those modification served as a motive for further discussion. Those discussions dealt not so much with the shape of Il Vittoriano. However, the decoration, the equestrian statue and particularly the Alter of the Homeland were a continuous source of disagreement. There had also been disagreement about the 6 sculptures that were to be placed on the staircases of Il Vittoriano. Eventually, the Committee opted for the following sculptures:

  1. Thought (Monteverde)
  2. Action (Jerace)
  3. Sacrifice (Bistolfi)
  4. Cohesion (Pogliaghi)
  5. Force (Rivalta)
  6. Justice (Ximenes)

The names of these 6 sculptures are of the utmost importance. One can deduct the most important virtues of Italy, at least according to the Committee. The 6 sculptures, as well as the Alter of the Homeland, will be discussed separately below.

From 1896 until 1900 the building of Il Vittoriano was entirely interrupted, due to tremendous financial problems. The construction was continued in 1900, when the Ministry of Public Works made funds available. In 1905, Sacconi died leaving an ‘artistic testament’ for the continuation of the construction of Il Vittoriano. He was replaced by Koch, Manfredi and Piacentini who were from then on jointly responsible for the supervision on the construction of the monument. On the 4th of June, 1911 a ceremonial opening of Il Vittoriano was held. This however, meant not that the monument was completed. Construction, for example of the Alter of the Homeland, was continued until the early 1920’s. In those years, after World War I, also the Grave for the Unknown Soldier was placed on the stairs of Il Vittoriano.

Overview data

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General description of the vittoriano

Beneath, a general description of the building will be provided.

External structure of the building

The structure of the building consists out of three parts: an equestrian statue, an architectural background, and monumental flight of steps. The structure is 135 m (443 ft) wide and 70 m (230 ft) high. If the quadrigae and winged victories are included, the height is to 81 m (266 ft).

Altar of Pergamon

The Vittoriano has a grandiose closed form. Sacconi took his inspiration from the earlier classic of the altar of Pergamon.

The monument is made of a particular kind of marble called ‘botticino’, obtained from distant quarries in Lombardy. The main character of this marble is its opaque white color due to its calcareous components. Unlike most of Rome’s great buildings, which were constructed with soothing travertine, the monument was heft from pure-white marble from Brescia.

By walking upstairs, one will meet the ‘Alter of the Homeland’. A base-relief depicts a double procession consisting of the illustrious precursors of Italian Unity. The base-relief depics Love of Homeland, that fights and overcomes, and Work that edifies and fecundates. These are two trumphs which will finally compose the triptych of the Altar with the figure of the Goddess Roma.This element will be futher discussed in paragraph 5.2.

Above the Alter of the Homeland the equestrian statue of the King stands out, set on a basement whose socle is rich in symbols of arms with the symbolic personifications of the cities of Italy, while on the sides there are two plaques bearing the discriptions: ‘by law dated 16th march 1878’ and ‘Victor Emmanuel II, Father of the Homeland’.

External sculptural and ornamental compositions

Il Vittoriano shows a series of symbolic representations taking the form of ornamental compositions, base-reliefs and groups of statues, understood as a glorification and synthesis of the ideals of the Risorgimento concretely expressed in the Unity of Italy. Underneath we will provide several examples

- At the foot of the flight of steps leading to the monument:

‘Thought’, by Giulio Monteverde (1912). The goddess Minerva is helping a
figure symbolizing the Italian people, after diving away discord and tyranny,
assisted by genius of war.

‘Action’, by Francesco Jerace (1912). Depicts
the group fighters waving in the air the tricolor
on which the words ‘Italy and Victor’ may be
read, while the lion of Venice shakes off the
chains of tyranny.

- On the first balustrade on the right:

‘Sacrifice’, by Leonardo Bistolfi (1911). A dying hero
assisted by freedom and by the personifications of the
values of the family.

‘Law’, Ettore Ximenes (1911). A classic figure of
freedom replacing his sword in its sheath, and thus
ending the struggle and laying the bases for the
building of the state, the statues will be discussed
in 5.2.

- When walking up the steps you will arrive at the basement of the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II. This element will be further discussed in paragraph 5.1.

From the basement a series of figures in high-relief stand out: these are the Personifications of the Cities of Italy, by Eugenio Maccagnani (1911). They consist of a series of female figures, each of which bears symbolic attributes permitting her identification.

Elements of 'il vittoriano' in detail

After a general description has been given, we will further focus on three elements of the building, the equestrian statue of Victor Emanuel , the other statues of the first tier of the building and the base-reliefs ‘work’, ‘Love of Homeland’ and the central statue of the goddess of Roma.

The equestrian statue of Victor Emanuel

Equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II

The equestrian statue of Victor Emanuel II stands solemnly in the centre of “Il Vittoriano”. The statue weighing 50 tons was finished between 1907 and 1910. The horse is so big that on a special occasion a whole dinner table was set up inside its belly.

An inspiration for many equestrian statues is the statue of Marcus Aurelius. This statue was made around 176 AD and the only whole bronze statue left of that time. In classic times it was common to make equestrian statues of rulers and military leaders. It is interesting to note that this statue is displayed right behind “Il Vittoriano” on Capitoline hill. Is it a way to show that modern day Italians can do better that ancient Romans? Nowadays the real statue of Marcus Aurelius has been replaced by a replica, the real one is to be seen in the Capitoline museum.

In medieval times no bronze equestrian statues were made. Donatello’s Gattamelata (1453) was the first bronze equestrian statue after classic times. In the 17th century equestrian statues became popular again. French rulers would have equestrian statues made. Still it was very hard to make these large statues and most equestrian statues were made during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Equestrian statues have classic roots, but it was also popular at the time to make equestrian statues.

The design of the equestrian statue of Victor Emanuel II is not in any way innovative, this does not mean that no interesting choices were made. Just as the statue of Marcus Aurelius it has one hoof lifted. Victor Emanuel’s statue however is dressed in armour. We see that many of the statues of the centuries before also had this, including Gattamelata. He is not displayed in warlike fashion as for example in Venice.

The stance of the horse and its rider is interesting though, however not new. The horse has its neck arched and is looking down. After considering the logical reason; that this was needed to keep the head of Victor Emanuel visible from downstairs we looked at other statues of Victor Emanuel and we found out that most of his equestrian statues have this stance. After consulting a horse expert, we found out that this is a special kind of trot. It is considered good looking way of riding a horse and it would imply that Victor Emanuel had his horse well under control.

Furthermore they chose to depict Victor simply sitting on the horse. They could have also chosen to have the horse rear or have Victor raise a sword. This is not the message they want to bring across. They want to show that the fighting is done. This matches the symbolism of the statue “Law” perfectly. This statue shows a figure of freedom that places his sword in its sheath and thus ending the struggle.
The position on the horse is of course a result of the discussions to what extent they wanted to depict Victor Emanuel as a military leader and on the other hand the extent to which they wanted to depict Victor Emanuel as a political figure. They choose to go for a somewhat balanced mixture of the two.

Victor Emanuel II in Venice (1887).

To conclude, this is a very realistic statue; if one looks closely it is even possible to see Victor’s somewhat bulky belly. Sacconi even blamed Chiaradia that it was too realistic and that it didn’t fit the symbolic and classic character of the rest of the monument. This statue therefore increases the variety of different styles in the monument.
The statue of this size was of course a huge accomplishment. From an artistic viewpoint it was not new.

First-tier Statues of Il Vittoriano

Il Vittoriano is sometimes called an open-air museum of the Italian sculpture of the first quarter of the 20th century. Over 70 of the foremost Italian sculptures were employed in the realisation of the various statues and figures. For now we will focus on the statues made before the First World War. The statues we will discuss are Strength (1911), Concord (1911), Thought (1912), Action (1912), Sacrifice (1911) and Law (1911).

Most of these statues are of heavily symbolist inspiration. Symbolism was a late 19th century art movement that was a reaction to realism. The statues are made in the style that was most popular at that time. It is interesting to note that no religious symbolism is used. The Christian faith had of course had a wide variety of figures and symbols, but Sacconi chose to use only non-Christian symbolism. This is not very suprising, it would be strange if after the struggle against the church they would have Christian symbolism in their monument.

Classic symbols and figures, however, are used; in the concord an old man in a toga is used to represent the state and in Law a classic figure of freedom replaces his sword back in its sheath. We can see that Sacconi tried to bring the classic and the symbolist elements together.

Statues build later (after WW1) show different styles that were popular in that particular time, making it the open-air museum as described.

The base-reliefs 'Work' and 'Love of Homeland' within the centre 'the goddess of Roma'

In the center of the first level of the Vittoriano, there is a big statue flanked by two reliefs. It draws the attention, as it is placed directly underneath the statue of Victor Emanuel II and the big colonnades behind him. It is therefore a centerpiece of the monument. It is even more interesting as it is not as Sacconi had originally thought it out to be and only added after 1906 in the present form by Zanelli.

In the original plan there already was a Dea Roma in the center of the two reliefs. On both sides there was already also a procession towards Roma. The depiction, however, was different from what was ultimately made. On the right there were supposed to be people that were coming to fight for the unification of Italy. Great figures, such as Garibaldi, would have been present on it. But it would not only have been military men, but also the great painters and writers that have had a great role in the makings of Italians (fare gli Italiani). There would have been Dante, Michelangelo and also ancient poets like Virgil. On the left of Roma would have been members of the house of Piedmont, coming across the Alps to save the Italians.

In the end the idea of Zanelli was built, which went against the design of Sacconi. In the middle of the altar we can see a statue of Roma, in a Roman toga. In Antiquity she was the Roman goddess of the State. The viewer might have expected to see Italia, the personification of Italy. This might not have been strong enough as a cultural memory, however, as she only appears at the time of the making of Italy, while Roma essentially means the same thing, but derives her meaning from Antiquity. In the original plan, Roma could also have a geographical meaning, as Rome was the last part of Italy to be captured before Italy was unified.

The reliefs alongside Roma depict ‘Work’ and ‘Love of the Homeland’. These reliefs do not depict any real people and therefore bring the Athenian Parthenon in memory. But this is not the only reference to Antiquity. Just like the figure Roma was clad in a toga, these people are also wearing a Classical outfit. The depiction of ‘Work’ consists of allegories to Agriculture, Growing of the crops, Harvest, the Harvest of Wine and Irrigation. This reminds us of the Eclogues of Vergil, a Classical text going over the tasks of farmers. The text, however, has strong revolutionary tendencies, openly supporting the new emperor Augustus. In that sense it is highly appropriate for the situation after the unification of Italy. The depiction of ‘Love for the Homeland’ consists of three women who are bringing honorary crowns, then the insigne of the legionaries, followed by a chariot of Love of the Homeland and Heroism, and closed by the holy fire of the state. Both processions come towards Roma and therefore the new Italian state. All in all, do these processions use Classical scenery and topoi to bring across the message of superiority of the Fatherland.


All in all it is not so weird that locals and art historians despise the building. The message that the building sends out is a truly mixed signal. The building is as full of different elements of style as it is gigantic in shape. And yet the committee first knew what the building should look like before the location was even determined. All the different elements, even though they are vastly different to one another, apparently do serve a function. The Vittoriano served a role, even taken on its own.

This role can be deducted from the decision making process of the Committee. If you look at the process you can see that Committee continuously has to ask the question how to show the unity of Italy. Should the statue for Victor Emanuel II be sitting or standing? Should the building show all the cities of Italy or should they not be specifically named? The problem of the Vittoriano is that there was no single answer, let alone an answer at all.

With this problem we have reached a core problem of the Risorgimento itself. There is an Italy, but how to make everyone believe in the unity? There was no shared cultural memory to which they could relate: no single thought that could denote the concept of ‘Italy’. The answer of the Risorgimento is therefore to ‘make the Italians’. Older writers, such as Dante and Vergil, suddenly became Italian instead of Florentine or Roman. They took part of different social memories and made it seems as if it was Italian. The big problem is, however, that all different parts of Italy had, sometimes slightly, different memories. To encompass all the different meanings meant that many different elements had to be used. This is what we see in the building, this is why art historians despise the building, this is why there are so many different styles in the Vittoriano.

This struggle to please the cultural memory of all the parts of Italy, is traceable in the Vittoriano. On the one hand for example all the cities are mentioned in the columns themselves, but on the other there is Dea Roma as the single state that stands above all peasants. And to show an example of style, Sacconi tried to bring classic arts and the modern symbolism together, thus looking for a shared cultural memory in classic times. This, however, only worked out to a certain extent; The collonade and the overall design clearly has a classic style, the equestrian statue has classic aspects (even though it is too realistic) and the statues on the first tier clearly have a symbolist style. However the newer statues have different, more modern, styles. The original plan for the base-relief would also have been another fine example of this. It seems that the Committee in the end chose to throw in all different elements, in the hope that different parts would eventually, almost individually, persuade the onlooker of the unity of Italy. Making Il Vittoriano even more the hotchpotch of different styles than Sacconi intended.

All in all, this often ridiculed building is in fact a highly interesting child of its time. The struggle for a common ground, a common cultural memory, is clearly visible within the building itself. When art historians criticize the building for its many styles, they are right, because that is the solution the Committee eventually agreed upon. Everyone would be able to find a piece of itself in the monument and they were hoping this would convince everyone of the unity of Italy. Seeing the building, however, also clearly shows that the answer given in this time was the wrong one. The building was simply misunderstood and ridiculed. In fact, this question remained and the Fascists that came to power in the 1920s also tried to give an answer to it. The struggle for national identity proved to be a hard one, one that the makers of the Vittoriano definitely lost.


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  7. L. Riall, Risorgimento. The history of Italy from Napoleon to nation stat, Palgrave Macmillan: London 2009, p. 16.
  8. L. Riall, Risorgimento. The history of Italy from Napoleon to nation stat, Palgrave Macmillan: London 2009, p. 20-25.
  9. Catherine Brice, 'Monumentalité publique et politque a Rome - Le Vittoriano', École francaise de Rome, 1998 ( ISBN 2-7283-0523-4 ).
  10. N. Cardano, ‘Il cavallo sull’altare. Storia del progetto iconografico attraverso il dibattito contemporaneo’ in: Fratelli Palombi Editori, Il Vittoriano. Materiali per una storia, 1988, p. 13-31.
  11. “Il fregio del Vittoriano, del bresciano Zanelli. La lezione del professor Terraroli Silvio Bonomi.’, by Rinaldo Frialdo – corriere Tv: .