The Equestrian Statue of Victor Emmanuel II

Statue of Victor Emmanuel II in Rome

Unified as a state in the late 19th century, Italy was soon confronted with the problem of how to create a sense of national identity and trust towards the monarchy among its people. Having been divided for more than thousand years, and been strongly influenced by the Pope, there did not exist a strong tendency of the people to see themselves as one nation characterized by common values, convictions and joined interests. In order to overcome this problem, an artifact was needed that would represent the power of the newly united nation and the central role of the monarchy in the people's minds. Whether the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II, part of the Altare della Patria, embodies the solution to the problem of national identification of the people towards the monarchic state is the central question to be answered.

1. The Risorgimento and the Process of Nation-Building
1.1 The Risorgimento
2. A Unified Country, a Single Nation?
2.1 Victor Emmanuel II and the Altare Della Patria
3. The Meaning of the Equestrian Statue of Victor Emmanuel II
3.1 Altare della Patria
3.2 Location
3.3 Movement Analysis
3.4 Influence of Motion on the Brain
4. Establishing Emmanuel II in the People´s minds
4.1 The Symbolic Character of the Statue
4.2 Priming the Power of Victor Emmanuel II
4.2.1 Marcus Aurelius
4.2.2 Giuseppe Garibaldi
4.3 Statue of Victor Emmanuel II as a Solution to the Problem of National Identification?

The Risorgimento and the Process of Nation-Building

The Risorgimento

Flag of the Kingdom of Italy

"The Risorgimento was spirit of sacrifice, it was suffering in the ways of exile and in the galleys, it was blood of Italian youth on the battlefields (...) it was the passion of a people for its Italian identity." [4]

Time line of the risorgimento (click to expand/hide)

During the Middle Ages, Italy gradually developed into a system of independent city-states. Hostility between the entities loomed large, and it was only after Napoleon conquered the peninsula in 1805 that a sense of unity was created. This newly acquired sentiment, however, was short-lived, as Austria demanded restitution of its former possessions in northern Italy at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Several waves of revolts and insurrections were to follow.

Camillo Benso, generally known as Cavour, was a leading figure in the movement toward Italian unification. As co-founder of the journal Il Risorgimento, he supported an uprising for liberation from Austria. Nonetheless, Sardinian forces were defeated and Charles Albert abdicated in favour of his son Victor Emmanuel. Becoming King of Sardinia in 1849, Victor Emanuel II appointed Cavour Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1852. After the debacle of 1848-1849, Cavour sought to realize the goal of Italian unification by establishing a fine network of alliances, in particular with the French and the British.

During the Crimean War, Piedmont allied with France and England against Russia. In Paris Cavour sought to ingratiate himself with Napoleon, whose support he considered to be crucial after the prior defeat. In July 1858 Cavour met Napoleon III and the two conspired a war against Austria and planned the reorganization of the Italian peninsula. The Second War of Italian Independence began in April 1859, and let to a defeat on the side of the Austrians.

In January 1860, Cavour signed another secret agreement with Napoleon. Turning over Nice and Savoy to France, he demanded French support for Piedmont 's annexation of central Italy. Meanwhile, warlord Garibaldi organized an expedition to liberate the southern city-states. Following Garibaldi's and Cavour's efforts in the area, Sicily and Naples opted for annexation to the Sardinian monarchy. It was further accepted by Cavour that any direct move to capture Rome ran contrary to French interests and hence would lead to an undesired intervention. However, Cavour did make a parliamentary declaration asserting that no other city than Rome had to be the capital of Italy.

The several annexations culminated in the proclamation of the kingdom of Italy on March 17th, 1861. Victor Emmanuel II was recognised as the first king of Italy by the Italian Parliament in session in Turin 1861. Yet, it took ten more years for Rome could be proclaimed capital of Italy.

Yet, neither the unification of Italy, nor the fall of Rome marked the end of all struggles

A Unified Country, a Single Nation?

“Now that Italy is made, we must make Italians” [5]

The proclamation of the kingdom of Italy in 1861 led to the new challenge of how to create a sense of unity among citizens that had – until recently – different backgrounds, traditions, languages and cultures? Or, to put it differently, of how to ‘make Italians’?

Similar to other forms of nationalism, liberal nationalism is based on the fundamental assumption that humankind is naturally divided into a collection of nations, each possessing a separate identity. The central theme of this form of nationalism is therefore a commitment to the principle of national self-determination. Its goal is the construction of a nation-state: that is, an autonomous political community bound together by the overlapping bonds of citizenship and nationality. It is thus an alternative to multinational empires and city-states. In the latter case, the nation-state is a principle, or ideal type, reflected in Giuseppe Mazzini’s goal: ‘every nation a state, only one state for the entire nation’.[6]

Although general agreement existed up till 1861 on the idea that the separate city-states should be unified, the particular approach that had to be taken to this end remained highly contested. Whereas Mazzini argued that Italy should be ‘One, Independent, Free Republic’ [7] and established the political society La Giovine Italia (Young Italy) to this end, Vincenzo Gioberti proposed a road toward a federal Italy. Together with Church and its adherents, he envisioned a unified Italy under the rule of the pope, characterized by religious beliefs and values. Conversely, the Austrians signalled conditional support for an Italian monarchy.

This controversy, and with it the struggle to create a single national identity, did not end with the proclamation of the kingdom of Italy. The powerful Church, that was adamantly opposed to the nation-state building as occurred until long after its creation, was only one example of the many controversies that persisted. The lack of a common national memory combined with fading excitement about the recent Italian unification thwarted the establishment of cohesion among the people.[8]

Victor Emmanuel II and the Altare Della Patria

The Altare della Patria

Victor Emmanuel II, born 16 March 1820, was the eldest son of Charles Albert and Maria Theresa. He took part in the First Italian War of Independence under his father. Emmanuel II became King of Sardinia in 1849 when his father had abdicated the throne after a humiliating military defeat by the Austrians at Novara. He soon became the symbol of the Italian Risorgimento, and was especially popular in the Kingdom of Sardinia because of his respect for the new constitution and his liberal reforms. After two more Wars of Independence, Victor Emmanuel II was designated as the first king of Italy by the new Parliament of unified Italy on 17 March 1861. Yet he did not renumber himself after assuming the new royal title. This was a contested move as far as public relations were concerned, since it was not indicative of the new start that the Italian people desired and suggested that Sardinia-Piedmont had taken over the Italian Peninsula. Victor Emmanuel died in Rome on 9 January 1878 (aged 57), and he was buried in the Pantheon, where his grave is still to be found. The Italians have given him the epithet Father of the Homeland (Padre della Patria).

On the 16th of May, 1878, the Italian parliament adopted a law for the creation of a memorial for Victor Emanuel 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 members, all of which were politicians. The selection process for a design took form of a public tender open to individuals from all over the world. Yet, with the legacy of fragmentation and persistent controversies in society, it took two tenders before Giuseppe Sacconi was selected as the designer of the eclectic structure of the monument. After his death in 1905, he was succeeded by three architects: Manfredo Manfredi, Pio Piacentini and Gaetano Koch. Moreover, it took three more tenders to select Enrico Chiaradia as sculptor of the statue which was to be featured at the heart of the monument.

The Meaning of the Equestrian Statue of Victor Emmanuel II

Equestrian Statue of Victor Emmanuel II

The oversized equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II, which took at least twenty years to manufacture, was completed in 1889 and inaugurated in 1911 at the 50th anniversary of the unification of Italy.[9,15] At first glance, the statue will not reveal much. Instead, the viewer must look careful at the different characteristics pertinent to the statue in order to understand the meaning of the statue. Additionally, does the meaning of the solution contribute to creating a sense of national identy of Italy?

Altare della Patria

Alatare della Patria

The monument tries to express the national identity of Italy and tries to emphasize the national pride of Italy during the Risorgimento. But how? First of all, several well-known Italian sculptures made a contribution to fine parts of the monument. A few examples of the artists are Angelo Zanelli and Leonardi Bistolfi.

Second, the Altare della Patria contains the word altar, which means that this monument is a place built to sacrifice. Sacrificing is offering blood to a God, thus losing something valuable, in the hope to receive blessing in return. In the altar you can see an unknown soldier underneath the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II as a sacrifice for the country for creating one nation at the end of the Risorgimento. Additionally, an altar also represents rituals, a series of actions that belong to a culture. Therefore, the fact that the monument has become an altar contributes to creating a sense of national identity.


In the middle of the monument, the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II is gazing at the Piazza del Popolo. The monument is sited at the symbolic heart of Rome, the northern slope of the Capitoline Hill at The Piazza Venezia. The monument is present at the Piazza Venezia, the Capitoline Hill and the Piazza del Popolo as several ways of these piazzas lead exactly to the center of the Altare della Patria and thus the statue of Emmanuel II.[18] This emphasizes the centrality and importance of the king.

The location of the monument was so important, probably because of creating a sense of national identity, that even a medieval district was destroyed for the construction of the Altare della Patria. However, destroying a medieval district for this monument unintentionally created provocation amongst the people of Rome later on.[18,23]

Altare della Patria- Via dei Fori Imperiali [28]

Movement Analysis

A statue is an object that is standing still. However, it can still induce certain movement by its body language. In order to understand the body language of the horse and Victor Emanuel II, you must take a closer look at the statue from different positions.

The Equestrian Statue of Victor Emmanuel II

The king is staring slightly to the left, his head is up and he is gazing to the horizon. It seems like he has some kind of vision or is grieving about what he has made trough. Take a look at the limbs. Emmanuel II has a firm grip with his left hand on the stirrups, pulling the horse slightly backwards. This seems to brake the movement of the horse so that the rider and the horse are perfectly balanced in their motion. The left hand of Victor Emmanuel II seems to be hanging a bit loose, which makes a balance between activity and non-activity. This might implicate the control of motion.

The Equestrian Statue of Victor Emmanuel II

Like Victor Emmanuel II, the horse is not in a static position. The rare legs are not positioned next to each other, but are in front of each other. So the horse is either in locomotion or in an active position. The head is pushed down and is tangling slightly to the right, which induces motion to the right. The mouth and nostrils are open which means that the horse is exchanging a certain amount gas in order to be physiologically balanced, which makes you clear that the horse is bodily active. The tail of the horse is giving cues about movement as well, as it seems that the wind is blowing from the front which induces that the horse was, or is, moving forward. However, the horse could be simply whipping his tail as well.

A particular feature of the horse is that one hoof is raised. A popular belief in the United States and the United Kingdom holds that this feature points at that the rider was wounded during the battle of died from his battle wounds [10]. According to some historians, raising the right hoof is a sign of victory as the fallen enemy would be begging for mercy beneath the hoof of a horse. However there is little evidence for this and moreover, the horse of Victor Emmanuel II is raising the left hoof. [12] It is not clear if there is any difference between raising the left or the right hoof. In this case a sign of victory would be more presumable, since the unity of Italy was actually a victory itself.

Influence of Motion on the Brain

Notice that the last section deals with the interpretation of the statue by its motion. This interpretation relies on memories you have, which makes you able to compare different features of the statue to your memories. As a result by making these comparisons, our emotional state might change through several mental processes. [25,26]

So what kind of effect should the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II have on people's emotional state? And more important, did it give Italy a sense of a national identity during the Risorgimento?

Mirror neurons in action: Neonatal macaque imitating facial expressions

Notice that the word 'emotion' contains the word 'motion', meaning that these two words/processes are closely related to each other. The motion of the statue cannot only influence your emotion but can also bring you in motion by the cause of mirror neurons, which get activated when watching something move. [27]

The statue induces movement, thus activating the mirror neurons which in turn makes you feel the movement the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II is indicating. The feeling of these movements activate the emotional state and depending on that state, one might feel the urge to take certain actions. Therefore, during the Risorgimento, the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II presumably should have led to take action to continue the nationalistic spirit blossoming at that time.

Establishing Emmanuel II in the People´s minds

The Symbolic Character of the Statue

As already mentioned in the second section of the wiki "a unified country, a single nation?" one of the key figures of the Risorgimento period, Massimo d´Azelgio, once stated: "Now that Italy is made we must make the Italians." What this statement implies is the important notion that even though Italy was politically and economically unified from 1860 onwards, a sense of shared identity and a belief in the unified nation was still not sufficiently developed. So from a social cognitive point of view the essential question arose how to connect the minds of the Italians with the national state in order to establish a deep sense of responsibility and duty towards the state and towards the monarchy.

The equestrian statue on the Altare della Patria was intended to be the solution to the problem of the discrepancy between national unity and a sense of a fragmented nation among its people. In order to achieve this, the statue of the Italian king should not only be incredibly big and surrounded by an altar that stresses the sacrifice of the Italian people to the newly-built nation, but it should also psychologically connect to the souls of the Italians in terms of their convictions and memories.

Besides the importance of the location already discussed, other cues of meaning of the king´s statue played an essential role for enhancing the feelings of duty towards the monarchic state. The intention was to present the statue of Victor Emmanuel II in such a way that it makes connection to two other very important statues in Rome. In terms of its appearance and posture, the statue of the king was supposed to relate to the statue of Marcus Aurelius and to the one of Giuseppe Garibaldi in Rome. Both of these two statues represent quite distinct personalities, but they embody a deep sense of Italian identity and memory.

Priming the Power of Victor Emmanuel II

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius' Statue in the
Capitoline Museums, Rome

What makes the statue of Marcus Aurelius so attractive as a model for the statue of Victor Emmanuel II, is not only that this emperor is associated with military victory, but that he represents a variety of highly admirable person-related features and values in the memory of the Italian people that were especially interesting for the identity of the Italian monarchy. By visually relating the king´s statue to this antique statue, Victor Emmanuel becomes associated with the so-called "five good emperors", Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. This had a highly prestigious symbolic value for the Italian monarchy, since these Roman emperors represent the peak of prosperity and power of the Ancient Empire. So the intention was that the audience should see the Italian monarchy as a continuation of these great leaders in the history of Italy and should therefore feel a strong sense of identification with the king and their state.

Another important fact that makes the Aurelius statue so appealing to connect it with the Italian king´s statue in terms of the memory of the nation, is the attitude how the antique leader exercised his power. Due to a deep conviction in the philosophy of stoicism, Aurelius saw his power as a duty and less as a privilege. So Aurelius was seen as a wise emperor and this was a highly needed feature for the Italian monarchy given that at the end of the 19th century a lot of intellectuals considered the Italian nation as a people lacking a favorable character [30].

What makes Marcus Aurelius additionally so appealing is the fact that he strongly condemned any national separation tendencies in the Roman Empire. As a very powerful emperor, political figures such as Avidius Cassius, governor of Syria, were decapitated after trying to putsch against Rome. By resembling Victor Emmanuel II to Marcus Aurelius, the message could be spread that also the Italian monarchy would condemn any separation tendencies by the Italian regions and would fight for unity.

To sum up, by relating the kings statue to the statue of Marcus Aurelius, the audience should associate the same leadership qualities of Marcus Aurelius, such as power, wisdom and persistence, to the first king of Italy.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

Giuseppe Garibaldi's Statue in Rome

The other important figure that should help to cause a stronger identification with the unified country marked by a monarchy is Giuseppe Garibaldi. By showing Victor Emmanuel on a horse, the audience is capable of associating the king of Italy with the military leadership of the unifier. In the eyes of the audience during the time of the end of the 19th century, Giuseppe Garibaldi had a very high reputation. He was not only a great leader, but also highly admired in terms of his personal qualities. Furthermore, he was probably one of the first political celebrities and represented a charismatic revolutionary hero highly devoted to the unification of Italy. Importantly, he was the person with whom people could identify, not only in Italy but in whole Europe. By creating an equestrian statue of Emmanuel II, much alike that one of Garibaldi, the intention of the sculpture was that when memorizing the first Italian king, he becomes associated with strong leadership and a high degree of popularity.

Statue of Victor Emmanuel II as a Solution to the Problem of National Identification?

In terms of whether the equestrian statue solved the discrepancy between the lack of national identity and a unified Italy, it can be stated the following from a social cognitive point of view. Since the aim was also to create a long-lasting sense of national identity and responsibility via the Italian royal institution, it can be emphasized that this had not been very successful. Less than three decades after the completion of the Altare della Patria and the equestrian statue, the monarchy was abandoned. However, even before in the time of Fascism the link between national identity and the king was relatively small given that Benito Mussolini was considered the actual leader of the nation from the 1920s onwards.


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