Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878) was king of Sardinia from 1849 to 1861 and then the first king of Italy until 1878. He worked to free Italy from foreign control and became a central figure of the movement for Italian unification.
The son of Charles Albert, Prince of Savoy-Carignano, Victor Emmanuel was born at Turin on March 14, 1820. His education was not thorough or varied, its content being restricted largely to military and religious training. In his youth he took little interest in affairs of state, preferring to spend his time in the study of military strategy and tactics. In 1842 he married Adelaide, the daughter of Archduke Rainer of Austria.
During the War of 1848 with Austria, Victor Emmanuel fought courageously at the head of a division. Notwithstanding bravery and zeal, the Piedmontese forces suffered defeat at the battle of Novara, and in March 1849 Charles Albert abdicated as king of Sardinia in favor of his son rather than face the humiliation of the peace terms. The new king was immediately confronted with a most difficult and important decision. The Austrians offered to refrain from occupying Piedmont and to give Victor Emmanuel more territory if he would renounce the constitution granted the Piedmontese a year earlier by his father. To his great credit, Victor Emmanuel rejected this offer, suffering as a result the loss of substantial territory and a considerable reduction in the size of his army. His stubborn insistence that amnesty be granted to all Lombards who had engaged in the revolt against their Austrian rulers was rewarded, and his refusal to yield on this point—along with the sacrifices made in order to retain the constitution—caused him to become a hero in the eyes of all Italians.
The peace treaty with the Austrians was ratified in January 1850. In the same year Victor Emmanuel appointed Camillo di Cavour to the office of minister of agriculture. Acquiring the services of this political genius was one of the most important acts of the King's career. Two years later Cavour was named prime minister.
During the 1850s these two able men worked on internal reforms, modernizing especially the financial structure of the kingdom and circumscribing ecclesiastical privileges in favor of civil power. When the Crimean War began, Victor Emmanuel and Cavour thought it prudent to join forces with France and England against Russia in order to gain the attention of the Great Powers. In 1855, during the hostilities, the King visited London and Paris, where he won much favor if not concrete goals.
With a goal of ousting the Austrians from northern Italy, Victor Emmanuel made contact with revolutionary groups throughout the country. In 1859 Napoleon III was persuaded to ally France with Sardinia, albeit at a high price. Victor Emmanuel agreed to cede Savoy and Nice to France and to marry his daughter Clothier to Napoleon's cousin if France joined Sardinia in war against Austria. He concluded these careful preparations for war by conferring on the great soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi command of a newly recruited and eager volunteer corps called the Cacciatori delle Alpi (Hunters of the Alps). War was declared by Austria in April 1859, and at first the course of events favored the Piedmontese and French forces. But Napoleon had second thoughts and unexpectedly signed a separate peace with Austria at Villa-franca di Verona. Over the bitter objections of Cavour, who resigned over the matter, Victor Emmanuel signed the compromise Treaty of Zurich on Nov. 10, 1859. By this agreement Sardinia received Lombardy, but Austria retained Venetia.
Subsequent events proved that in this instance Victor Emmanuel was right and Cavour wrong. Time and diplomacy won for the King what continued fighting without the aid of France might have lost irrevocably. To prevent the reinstatement of the petty princes of Central Italy, Victor Emmanuel maintained contact with the revolutionaries. When Garibaldi took the bold step of invading Sicily, the King aided him secretly. Garibaldi's startling success in Sicily and his subsequent victories on the mainland raised the hopes of Italian liberals and made Victor Emmanuel's ultimate success easier. The King decided to participate in the conquest of Naples and marched south through the Romagna. Its people greeted him with cheers, joyfully agreeing to the annexation of their entire province to his kingdom. He occupied the Papal States, accepting with equanimity the excommunication imposed upon him by Pope Pius IX, and he met Garibaldi in Naples. On Oct. 29, 1860, Garibaldi formally surrendered his conquests to Victor Emmanuel, and on Feb. 18, 1861, Parliament proclaimed him king of Italy.
Venetia was added to the new kingdom in 1866 through an alliance with Prussia against Austria, but complete unification of the peninsula could not be achieved as long as Rome remained in the hands of the Pope. A French garrison stood between Victor Emmanuel and this final conquest. Napoleon III, needing the support of the clergy, did not wish to abandon the Pope, although he had been Victor Emmanuel's ally in the expulsion of Austria from northern Italy. But this last bulwark of the papal territories was withdrawn in 1870, when—under the threat of total defeat by Prussia—Napoleon ordered his soldiers out of Rome. On Sept. 20, 1870, the Italian army marched into the city, and on July 2, 1871, Victor Emmanuel himself entered Rome, from that time the capital of the kingdom of Italy. The Pope, who had lost the last vestiges of his temporal power although the Vatican and his freedom were guaranteed to him, refused to recognize the new kingdom, and Victor Emmanuel died on Jan. 9, 1878, unreconciled to the Church.
The best biography of Victor Emmanuel in English is Cecil S. Forester, Victor Emmanuel II and the Union of Italy (1927). A readable and thorough account of Victor Emmanuel's role in the unification of Italy is contained in Bolton King, A History of Italian Unity (2 vols., 1899; new ed. 1967). An excellent recent study of the period is Edgar Holt, The Making of Italy, 1815-1870 (1971).