4 November marks a number of military holidays in Italy: the end of World War I, Armed Forces Day, and the Feast of the Unknown Soldier. It is the last of these that brings attention to the Altare della Patria on this day. Also know as the Vittoriano and the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II, the edifice contains a number of secondary monuments and museums: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Memorial of Flags, the Museum of the Risorgimento, and the National Museum of Italian Emigration. The facade of the monument is decorated with numerous marble and bronze sculptures, including the equestrian sculpture of Vittorio Emmanuele II, first king of the unified Kingdom of Italy and matching sculptures of Victory in a horse drawn chariot.
Often referred to as “the wedding cake” or “Mussolini’s typewriter,” public and critical response to the monument has been mixed since its design was awarded to Giuseppe Sacconi in 1885. Construction began in 1911, and was completed in 1925. Commissions for the sculpture were awarded to numerous sculptors across Italy. Problematic aspects of the monument’s design and construction are numerous. A medieval quarter of the city was demolished on the site where the Vittoriano now stands, and the enormity of the structure dominates views of the city from nearly all vantage points in the city. Constructed of bright white marble brought from Brescia, the monument stands in stark contrast to the surrounding city. Moreover, the monument mixes mostly Greek and Teutonic styles – the columns are, for example Corinthian – not Roman, which is discordant with its intent to serve as a monument to the greatness of the Kingdom of Italy, which partly derives from the idea that the greatness of the Roman Empire were being revived.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, whose altar features an eternal flame was dedicated in 1921, on the urging of General Giulio Douhet, a celebrated WWI military leader. The body entombed there is said to have been chosen from a number of unidentifiable bodies by Maria Bergamas, whose son died in combat and whose body was never recovered. Recent research casts doubt on this official account, and suggests that the “body” buried in the tom is actually a composite of the skeletons of a number of soldiers, so as to create a “perfect” soldier.
Further Reading: Wittman, Laura. 2011. The tomb of the unknown soldier, modern mourning, and the reinvention of the mystical body. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Giacomo Balla, Bandiera all’Altare della Patria, 1915, oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome.
Ettore Roesler Franz, Arco di San Marco in Rome (rione Campitelli), c. 1880, oil on canvas. Painting of the medieval quarter destroyed to build the monument.