Before the funeral of Vittorio Emanuele II, who died suddenly at the youthful age of 57 on January 9th 1878, the possibility of erecting a monument in honour of the first King of a unified Italy was discussed during the assembly of the municipal council. As King of Sardinia and then Italy for almost 29 years, he had been the protagonist of epic deeds in the eyes of his people. His reputation was heroic, a king heaven sent, a father figure to all.
On March 16th a decree was issued by Minister Giuseppe Zanardelli. It was the green light for a national monument dedicated to the memory of the king. Eight million lire was set aside for the triumphal ark.
Construction of the monument meant that considerable sacrifices would have to be made as regards artistic and archaeological heritage. An entire medieval district was demolished. The convent of Ara Coeli (Heaven’s Altar) was demolished. Paolo III’s tower and the viaduct connecting it to “Palazzetto Venezia” were demolished. Giulio Romano’s home was demolished. Pietro da Cortona’s workshop was demolished. The old “Via della Pedacchia”, “Via Macel de’ Corvi” (crow’s slaughterhouse), and Madame Lucrezia’s alley also disappeared.
On March 22nd 1885, the ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone came to pass in the presence of the Italian Royal Family. Sacconi’s project was inspired by monumental classic complexes such as Pergamon’s altar and Palestrina’s temple. The monument was intended to have been an open space, an agora, open to all citizens inside a sort of banked square in the heart of Imperial Rome.
A legoland staircase flanked by two winged lions leads to the “Altae of the Motherland”, which itself supports an “alto-rilievo” (high relief) by Angelo Zanelli. A colossal equestrian bronze of Vittorio Emanuele II by Enrico Chiaradia is the highlight, lowlight, or darklight, depending on your point of view. The grand portico (porch) with columns reaching 15 metres high, and two statues of the goddess Victoria riding on quadrigas – an allegorical representation of supreme victory – were created by Carlo Fontana and Paolo Bartolini.
Today it dominates Piazza Venezia, obscuring much of the Roman Forum. Those of us who have a vested interest in ancient Roman history would pay well to see it demolished. Italians are ambivalent and they have plenty of less than endearing nicknames for their wedding cake, including “English soup”. Either way, tens of thousands of snap happy tourists love it. Mildy disconcerting to say the least.