Childhood & Early Life
Umberto was born on March 14, 1844, to Archduchess Adelaide of Austria and Victor Emmanuel II, in Turin, Italy. His full name was Umberto Ranieri Carlo Emanuele Giovanni Maria Ferdinando Eugenio di Savoia. He later came to be known by his nickname, “il Buono,” meaning “the Good.”
Umberto grew up with his siblings: Maria Clotilde, Amadeo, Oddone Eugenio Maria, Maria Pia, Carlo Alberto, and Vittoria
He was tutored by Massimo Taparelli, marquis d'Azeglio and Pasquale Stanislao Mancini.
Due to Victor's lack of trust in Umberto, he did not allow Umberto to be trained in politics and the constitutional government. The duo shared a hostile relationship. Victor raised him in a strict environment.
Whenever Victor entered the room, Umberto was expected to stand at attention. Before Umberto said any word, in public or in private, he had to kneel and kiss Victor’s hand. This expectations of his father strained their relationship further. The practice of kissing the hand was followed until Victor’s death.
Umberto participated in the Second and the Third Italian Wars of Independence. He also fought in the Battle of Solferino in 1859 and the Battle of Custoz in 1866.
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Umberto succeeded his father to the throne on January 9, 1878, adopting the title “Umberto I of Italy.”
On May 20, 1882, he signed an agreement with Germany and Austria–Hungary to form the ‘Triple Alliance’ and regularly visited Vienna and Berlin. He was impressed with the Prussian–German military and religiously reviewed the army during his visits.
The prime ministers during his rule were sharply criticized for failing to curtail the mafia of Sicily and the ‘Camorra’ of Campania. The mafia and the ‘Camorra’ used their muscle power to intimidate voters to cast their votes in favor of the candidates they supported. Hence, the elected leaders turned a blind eye to the illegal and criminal activities of these mobs and aided organized crime.
These regions were also economically and socially backward, as the elected representatives were unwilling to establish schools, as that would lead to the rise of educated and socially aware citizens.
Umberto was not keen on allocating any significant budget for education. The budget for the military was 10 times more than that for education. It is believed that one of the primary reasons for such huge military expenditure was the word he had personally given to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, which stated he would send five army corps to Germany in case France waged war against them. Umberto kept this information secret from his prime ministers.
He intended to establish colonies in Africa and China. In the 1880s, Italy occupied Massawa in Eritrea and expanded into Somalia.
In an 1886 telegram, he declared that Italy had permanent control over the Holy See.
In 1893, the Banca Romana scandal was exposed and brought disgrace to a lot of politicians, ministers, and parliamentarians, including Francesco Crispi. Despite Crispi's loss of reputation, he had the patronage of Umberto. In December 1893, Crispi became the prime minister of Italy for the second time.
Umberto's expansion plans in Africa were thwarted after Italy’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the forces of Menelik, in the Battle of Adwa in Ethiopia on March 1, 1896.
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In 1897, he denied permission to Antonio Starabba, Marchese di Rudinì, the reigning prime minister, to sell Eritrea to Belgium.
The notorious Bava-Beccaris Massacre in Milan took place between May 6 and May 10 in 1898. According to official reports, the death toll was 82. However, unofficial sources claimed that around 400 were dead and 2,000 were wounded. While the citizens were protesting against the rising prices of food due to the colonization wars in Africa, General Fiorenzo Bava Beccaris ordered his men to open fire at the protestors.
The general was honored by the king and was awarded the 'Great Official of Savoy Military Order.' This action further angered the citizens.
Toward the beginning of 1899, Umberto's foreign minister, Admiral Felice Napoleone Canevaro, sent a naval squadron to China and demanded the surrender of a Chinese coastal city to be ruled as an Italian concession. When the Chinese government refused, Canevaro warned the Chinese of consequences as severe as a war. However, he was compelled to withdraw the threat and resort to diplomatic measures.
The following year, Italy joined the eight-nation alliance and suppressed the Boxer Rebellion in China, taking over Tientsin as its concession territory. However, by then, Umberto had died.
Family & Personal Life
The upheavals during the reign of Umberto's father, Victor Emmanuel II, made it difficult to find a suitable bride for him.
His marriage was fixed with Archduchess Mathilde of Austria but did not take place, as she died in an accident when she was 18.
Thus, Umberto married his first cousin, Margherita Teresa Giovanna, Princess of Savoy, on April 21, 1868. They had a son, Victor Emmanuel III.
He kept a lot of mistresses. Of them, his favorite was Eugenia, the wife of Duke Litta Visconti-Arese. She stayed in his court and was Queen Margherita's lady-in-waiting.
Attempts on Umberto's Life & Death
There were three assassination attempts on Umberto. He survived two but succumbed to the third.
The first attempt was made by an anarchist named Giovanni Passannante, on November 17, 1878, in Naples. He used a dagger to attack Umberto.
The second attempt was made by an unemployed ironsmith named Pietro Acciarito, on April 22, 1897, in Rome. He tried to stab Umberto.
The third attempt was made on July 29, 1900, in Monza, by an Italian–American anarchist named Gaetano Bresci. He shot the king four times and claimed that the Bava-Beccaris Massacre had provoked his action and that he sought vengeance. This attempt was unfortunately successful.
The assassination of Umberto inspired American anarchist Leon F. Czolgosz to kill U.S. President William McKinley.
Umberto and his father were born on the same day, 24 years apart.
He received many awards and honors in Italy and in other countries. Some of his most notable honors were the ‘Knight of the Annunciation’; the ‘Grand Cross, Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus’; the ‘Grand Cross, Royal Hungarian Order of St. Stephen’ (Austro-Hungarian Empire); and the ‘Grand Cross, Order of the Red Eagle’ (Kingdom of Prussia).