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Should Kings Rest in the Pantheon? Romans Have Some Bones to Pick

September 02, 1990|George Armstrong | George Armstrong is the Rome correspondent for the Guardian of Britain

ROME — The Pantheon in Rome is the only pagan temple to have survived almost totally intact. It was the first ecumenical shrine, dedicated to all the gods of antiquity. Built around 25 BC, it was rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian in AD 125. Before the advent of reinforced concrete, the Pantheon's dome was the world's largest--beating St. Peter's, across the Tiber, by about three feet.

Henry James, in uncharacteristically short sentences, wrote his sister from Rome in 1869: "By far the most beautiful piece of ancientry in Rome is that simple and unutterable Pantheon to which I repeated my devotions yesterday afternoon. It makes you profoundly regret that you are not a pagan suckled in the creed outworn that produced it. It's the most conclusive example I have yet seen of the simple sublime."

The late Lewis Mumford, 108 years after James, wrote of the Pantheon's interior "with its dome open to the sky, it conjures a depth of religious feeling that turns St. Peter's into a monument of spectacular vulgarity."

In a contemporary bit of spectacular vulgarity, local monarchists, aided by sympathetic government functionaries, have hatched a plan to inter in the Pantheon the remains of Italy's last two kings, Victor Emmanuel III (1869-1947) and his son, Humbert II (1904-83), along with the former's wife. All died in exile. In a 1946 national vote, the Italians, by a 10% margin, chose a republic to replace their monarchy.

During last year's typically chaotic Christmas holidays, officials were seen taking measurements at twilight in the temple, which has been used as a Christian church since AD 609. Early this year, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti said he could see no reason why the royal bones could not be brought back to Italy and given a Pantheon burial.

Since then, the leading English-language historian on modern Italy, Oxford's Denis Mack Smith, published a book on the House of Savoy, "Italy and Its Monarchy," which detailed new and perfidious information about the two kings, based on information found in British archives. Italian intellectuals have not only thundered their opposition to the proposed Pantheon burial, but have questioned the continuing presence there of the bones of Italy's first two kings.

The House of Savoy, until 1946, could claim to be Europe's oldest reigning dynasty. They were warlords 1,000 years ago who obtained control of Savoy (now part of southern France) and eventually, Piedmont, some parts of Switzerland and the island of Sardinia. In the 19th Century, when Italy was in the process of becoming a unified nation for the first time since the Caesars, the leaders decided that they needed a symbolic head as a rallying point. They chose the king of Piedmont, Victor Emanuel II.

Italy achieved unification in September, 1870, when Rome was wrenched from papal control. When the country's new king died eight years later, the government didn't know what to do with the body. Previous Savoy rulers were buried in a monumental mausoleum in Turin. As an act of defiance toward the Pope (who had excommunicated the king), Victor Emanuel II was buried in the Pantheon, as was his son, Humberto I. Victor Emanuel III was the king of Italy during both world wars. At the outbreak of World War I, he was a signatory to the Triple Alliance with Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II. When his informers assured him, in 1915, that Germany was losing the war, he tore up the alliance and joined the Allies. When Benito Mussolini and his black-shirted Fascists staged their 1922 March on Rome, Victor Emanuel III sent Mussolini a telegram inviting him to visit. The king could have declared martial law and stopped the Fascists at the gates, but they seemed to him a bunch of likely lads who would help him preserve his wealth and his dynasty. He was right.

Three years after Italy had joined Hitler in World War II, the king realized that the Allies were going to win and signed an armistice with them in 1943. The American forces, already in southern Italy, then drew up a plan for a paratroop landing in Rome, with necessary Italian ground support. At the last minute, the king canceled those plans, without giving orders to his military commanders, and took himself out of Rome to the safety of southern Italy.

His cowardly act led to the German occupation of Italy, to thousands of allied, German and Italian deaths and to the deportation to Germany of Italian Jews. In 1946, three weeks before the Italians voted to oust the monarchy in favor of a republic, the king abdicated in favor of his only son, Humbert, who was forever known as the "King of May" because he reigned for only that one month. His father died in Egypt; Humbert spent most of his exile near Lisbon, died in a Swiss clinic and was buried in a church in Savoy.

Unless a sizable number of Italian citizens come out of the closet and reveal themselves to be devout worshipers of Jove, Juno, Apollo, Minerva and Venus, to protest the 1990 Savoy intrusion into the Pantheon, it appears that another act of injustice, masked as Christian piety toward the dead, is about to be foisted on the most noble edifice left from antiquity.

Italian politicians are fond of saying that the cultural riches contained on their peninsula "belong to the world." If that is not hollow rhetoric, or a ploy to have those crazy foreigners footing more bills for preserving that heritage, Italy's far-flung heirs should raise their voices against the plan to put the country's discredited kings into the Pantheon.

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