Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tragedy at Mayerling, 1889

Today is the anniversary of the infamous "Mayerling Incident," the supposed double suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, only son of Emperor Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth, and his young mistress, Marie Vetsera. Although the tragedy, of course, primarily affected the House of Habsburg, the Belgian royal family was also touched by fate on this occasion, as Rudolf had been married to Princess Stephanie, daughter of King Leopold II and Queen Marie-Henriette of the Belgians. According to Slovakia: The Bradt Travel Guide (2007):
The Mayerling mystery concerning the tragic death of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera, has remained unsolved to this day. On January 30, 1889, the couple were discovered dead at the royal hunting lodge in Mayerling...The most widely accepted theory is that there was a lover's pact: Rudolf shot Marie and then killed himself. Franz Joseph had wanted the lovers to separate but they could not bear life without each other. There is another theory that the couple were murdered and they were victims of a political conspiracy, cooked up by the French Prime Minister Clemenceau, who was conspiring to overthrow Franz Joseph and place the Germanophobe Rudolf on the throne. This way Austria could have loosened ties with Germany and signed an alliance with France. Rudolf refused to take part in the conspiracy and was killed to secure his silence. Certain facts point towards this theory. When Marie's remains were examined half a century later, an astonishing discovery was made. There was no sign of the use of firearms: instead, there was a large trauma on her head. Allegedly, Rudolf's body showed signs of a violent confrontation before death. The tragic deaths shocked the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and caused an immediate crisis of succession to the throne. The court did everything possible to cover up the scandalous incident (the official version was that Rudolf died of heart failure, with no mention of his lover), so it is likely the mystery will never be solved.
It is important to note that the last Habsburg empress, Zita, supported the theory that Rudolf and Marie had been murdered. In 1982, she told the Viennese daily Kronen Zeitung that she believed the couple had been assassinated as part of a plot against the imperial family. Some might say this was merely a way of covering up the shame of a suicide in the ranks of the devoutly Catholic House of Austria, but Zita hardly had the reputation of being a liar. On the contrary, she was a woman of high character and I do not think her testimony can be lightly dismissed.

Before his death, Rudolf ostensibly wrote a farewell letter to his wife. The text reads:

Liebe Stephanie! Du bist von meiner Gegenwart und Plage befreit; werde glücklich auf Deine Art. Sei gut für die arme Kleine, die das einzige ist, was von mir übrig bleibt. Allen Bekannten, besonders Bombelles, Spindler, Latour, Wowo, Gisela, Leopold, etc. etc. sage meine letzten Grüße. Ich gehe ruhig in den Tod, der allein meinen guten Namen retten kann. Sei herzlichst umarmt. Dein Dich liebender Rudolph.

***
Dear Stephanie, you are now rid of my presence and annoyance; be happy in your own way. Take care of the poor wee one, she is all that remains of me. To all acquaintances, especially Bombelles, Spindler, Latour, Wowo (possibly, a nickname for the Baroness Von Welden, Ruldolf's nanny), Gisela, Leopold, etc., etc., say my last greetings. I go quietly to my death, which alone can save my good name. I embrace you affectionately. Your loving Rudolph.


This farewell letter is invoked in support of the suicide theory. Note, however, that there is no explicit mention of suicide. The words are rather ambiguous. Was Rudolf, for instance, really planning to kill himself, or merely foreseeing he might be murdered? In any case, whatever the truth of the matter, the Mayerling tragedy is singularly disturbing, and one can only hope and pray that the victims may rest in peace.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Perfume of Violets


In 1938, Princess Marie-José, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, paid a remarkable visit to the famed Italian mystic and stigmatist, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. The circumstances were sad and poignant. The 32-year-old princess, by then unhappily married for eight years to Prince Umberto of Savoy, heir to the Italian throne, had recently lost her much-loved father, King Albert, and sister-in-law, Queen Astrid, in tragic and troubling circumstances. In her grief, Queen Elisabeth had seemed, for many months, to have lost all will to live, refusing food and comfort and isolating herself from the world. It is easy to imagine the anxiety her emotional state must have caused her daughter and the rest of her family. Indeed, Marie-José and her mother-in-law, Queen Elena of Italy, had been at great pains to help Elisabeth recover, inviting her to visit them in Italy and trying to assist her, little by little, to take an interest in life again. In addition to all these personal sorrows, Marie-José had tormenting political worries. With the passing of the years, she had become more and more disturbed by Mussolini's regime. Worst of all, Europe was on the brink of World War II.


So, by visiting Padre Pio, was Marie-José, at a time of anguish, seeking religious consolation? Many years later, she told her biographer, Luciano Regolo: "It may be that my state of mind influenced my decision to make Padre Pio's acquaintance. But today, now that the years have made me strong in the face of all types of suffering, I like to believe that my motive was curiosity" (p. 171). The fame of the saintly and mysterious friar, whom striking testimonies credited with the ability to heal the sick, read souls, predict the future and even bilocate, had spread far and wide. At the Quirinal Palace in Rome, Padre Pio was a topic of earnest discussion among Queen Elena's ladies-in-waiting, many of whom were devoted to him. In Brussels, the mystic's reputation had reached the ears of Queen Elisabeth, always drawn to the mysterious and the inexplicable. She wrote to her daughter: "I would like to know something more of the friar they say bears the wounds of Christ and can foresee the future" (Regolo, p. 171). Amidst all this interest, acting on a sudden impulse, Marie-José decided to meet him.


Accompanied by her niece, 11-year-old Princess Josephine-Charlotte of Belgium, and a friend, Marie-José set out for the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in San Giovanni Rotondo, where the priest was living. "We got into the car early. For the entire journey, we spoke of nothing but the hereafter, premonitions, and other paranormal phenomena," Marie-José recalled (Regolo, p. 171). When the royal party arrived at Santa Maria delle Grazie, the priest was busy hearing confessions. (By the way, I have heard he could be quite tough on his penitents). Informed of the Princess' visit, Padre Pio responded: "Yes, I'll see her. But first let me finish." Even so august a guest as the Crown Princess of Italy had to wait for her turn. Observing the long line of young men, rosaries in hand, standing before the confessional, she thought: "If this man can succeed in calling back so many boys, he must be a special person" (Regolo, p. 171).

Suddenly, Marie-José noticed a persistent perfume of violets mingled with incense. At the time, she was unaware of the fact that, according to many testimonies, the perfume of flowers and incense was a mark of Padre Pio's spiritual presence. Assuming there must be violets nearby, she looked around, but no flowers met her eyes. "Josephine, do you smell that perfume of violets?" she asked, turning to her niece. "Aunt, what are you saying? Are you crazy? There are no violets here!" Nor did the Princess' friend notice anything unusual. A little later, Marie-José asked a friar, who had come to meet the royal party, if he noticed the perfume. His reply that it was a grace of Our Lord rather perplexed the Princess, always somewhat skeptical of apparently supernatural phenomena.She later explained: "...I have never been particularly religious. My religiosity is of a kind I like to define as 'practical,' excluding all forms of escape from reality. Nonetheless, even today, I cannot find any rational explanation for this extraordinary fact" (Regolo, p. 172).

At last, Padre Pio emerged from the confessional. Marie-José remembered him as a man of great serenity, sweetness, simplicity and humility. His face, she recalled, was pale and marked by fatigue, but his eyes were luminous, radiating joy. He invited Marie-José and her companions into his cell, where he led them in prayer. A heart-to-heart conversation followed. "We spoke for a long time, above all, about my father and my sister-in-law, Astrid. 'They are close to the Lord,' he said, as if he could see them. I did not believe in his gifts as a seer, but his words still filled me with a sense of well-being. The serenity of that man could not leave you indifferent" (Regolo, pp. 172-173). The Princess confided to him her fears regarding the fascist dictatorship, but later forgot his exact reply. Nonetheless, the priest's unusually forceful parting words, as Marie-José kissed him farewell, remained forever engraved in her memory: "There will be war. Be ready, as everything will end soon. Very soon!" (Regolo, p. 173).

For the rest of her life, Marie-José would puzzle over the meaning of this mysterious prophecy. Initially, she thought it must have referred to World War II, and, since, far from "ending soon," the war dragged on for five years, she concluded Padre Pio had been seriously mistaken. Subsequently, she wondered if his words might actually have referred to the fall of the House of Savoy in 1946, astonishingly rapid given that it had, at the end of the 1930's, seemed one of Europe's most secure dynasties. In the end, Marie-José decided the mystic's words could only remain mysterious...Likewise, she could not say whether or not Padre Pio had been a saint; miracles, beatifications and canonizations, she emphasized, were the competence of the Church alone to determine.

She remained cautious of supernatural phenomena, explaining her point of view: "Often, the need to witness otherworldly prodigies...causes people to lose sight of the primary duty of a believer, which, in my opinion, is to aid his neighbor, with all possible means, on this earth." Nonetheless, she insisted: "[Padre Pio is] a personage who merits respect, for having dedicated a large part of his time to the needy, with humility and discretion. Two gifts which are truly rare" (Regolo, p. 173). This respect, moreover, was reciprocal. To the writer Luigi Tucci, many years after meeting the Princess, Padre Pio said: "Marie-José of Savoy is a great lady, a true lady of the spirit ('una vera signora dello spirito') and merits, for that reason, all respect."

The story of Marie-José's visit to Padre Pio has always struck me as a very interesting episode, shedding a rare light on her approach to religion and spirituality.

Reference:

Regolo, Luciano. La regina incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria Jose di Savoia. Third edition. 2002.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The King's Eyes

By all accounts, King Albert I of the Belgians was very near-sighted. His daughter Marie-José, for instance, recalls in her memoirs that he had to wear two sets of glasses to be able to take in the splendors of the dresses at a court ball. It seems remarkable that a man with such weak eyes was able to do so much difficult and dangerous mountain-climbing...In any case, here is a striking reflection on the topic, taken from the journal of the Comtesse van den Steen de Jehay, a close friend and collaborator of King Albert and Queen Elisabeth during World War I.

Lentement le roi parle.

A cause de sa myopie...à peine dévisage-t-il son interlocuteur. Enlèverait-il ses lunettes qu'il ne verrait pas à 15 cm devant lui. Et l'idée est obsédante de songer qu'une personnalité aussi puissante serait subitement suspendue, ankylosée, si une cause infime, coup de vent ou menue branche, lui enlevait, avec la vision, ces deux morceaux de verre!

***

Slowly the king speaks.

Due to his near-sightedness...he can barely make out his interlocutor. If he took off his glasses, he would not see 15 cm ahead of him. And the idea is obsessing, to consider that a personality so powerful would be suddenly suspended, paralyzed, if a minute cause, a gust of wind or a delicate branch, took away from him, along with his vision, those two pieces of glass!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In Memoriam: Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre



January 21 is the anniversary of the regicide of Louis XVI (1754-1793), the tragic King of France. HERE is his last will and testament, written less than a month before he was killed, on Christmas Day, 1792. I cannot understand why one (French) article commented that this was the "last act of a Christian, but not of a King;" it all sounds very regal to me...
In the name of the Very holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
To-day, the 25th day of December, 1792, I, Louis XVI King of France, being for more than four months imprisoned with my family in the tower of the Temple at Paris, by those who were my subjects, and deprived of all communication whatsoever, even with my family, since the eleventh instant; moreover, involved in a trial the end of which it is impossible to foresee, on account of the passions of men, and for which one can find neither pretext nor means in any existing law, and having no other witnesses, for my thoughts than God to whom I can address myself, I hereby declare, in His presence, my last wishes and feelings.
I leave my soul to God, my creator; I pray Him to receive it in His mercy, not to judge it according to its merits but according to those of Our Lord Jesus Christ who has offered Himself as a sacrifice to God His Father for us other men, no matter how hardened, and for me first.
I die in communion with our Holy Mother, the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church, which holds authority by an uninterrupted succession, from St. Peter, to whom Jesus Christ entrusted it; I believe firmly and I confess all that is contained in the creed and the commandments of God and the Church, the sacraments and the mysteries, those which the Catholic Church teaches and has always taught. I never pretend to set myself up as a judge of the various way of expounding the dogma which rend the church of Jesus Christ, but I agree and will always agree, if God grant me life the decisions which the ecclesiastical superiors of the Holy Catholic Church give and will always give, in conformity with the disciplines which the Church has followed since Jesus Christ. I pity with all my heart our brothers who may be in error but I do not claim to judge them, and I do not love them less in Christ, as our Christian charity teaches us, and I pray to God to pardon all my sins. I have sought scrupulously to know them, to detest them and to humiliate myself in His presence. Not being able to obtain the ministration of a Catholic priest, I pray God to receive the confession which I feel in having put my name (although this was against my will) to acts which might be contrary to the discipline and the belief of the Catholic church, to which I have always remained sincerely attached. I pray God to receive my firm resolution, if He grants me life, to have the ministrations of a Catholic priest, as soon as I can, in order to confess my sins and to receive the sacrament of penance.
I beg all those whom I might have offended inadvertently (for I do not recall having knowingly offended any one), or those whom I may have given bad examples or scandals, to pardon the evil which they believe I could have done them.
I beseech those who have the kindness to join their prayers to mine, to obtain pardon from God for my sins.
I pardon with all my heart those who made themselves my enemies, without my have given them any cause, and I pray God to pardon them, as well as those who, through false or misunderstood zeal, did me much harm.
I commend to God my wife and my children, my sister, my aunts, my brothers, and all those who are attached to me by ties of blood or by whatever other means. I pray God particularly to cast eyes of compassion upon my wife, my children, and my sister, who suffered with me for so long a time, to sustain them with His mercy if they shall lose me, and as long as they remain in his mortal world.
I commend my children to my wife; I have never doubted her maternal tenderness for them. I enjoin her above all to make them good Christians and honest individuals; to make them view the grandeurs of this world (if they are condemned to experience them) as very dangerous and transient goods, and turn their attention towards the one solid and enduring glory, eternity. I beseech my sister to kindly continue her tenderness for my children and to take the place of a mother, should they have the misfortune of losing theirs.
I beg my wife to forgive all the pain which she suffered for me, and the sorrows which I may have caused her in the course of our union; and she may feel sure that I hold nothing against her, if she has anything with which to reproach herself.
I most warmly enjoin my children that, after what they owe to God, which should come first, they should remain forever united among themselves, submissive and obedient to their mother, and grateful for all the care and trouble which she has taken with them, as well as in memory of me. I beg them to regard my sister as their second mother.
I exhort my son, should he have the misfortune of becoming king, to remember he owes himself wholly to the happiness of his fellow citizens; that he should forget all hates and all grudges, particularly those connected with the misfortunes and sorrows which I am experiencing; that he can make the people happy only by ruling according to laws: but at the same time to remember that a king cannot make himself respected and do the good that is in his heart unless he has the necessary authority, and that otherwise, being tangled up in his activities and not inspiring respect, he is more harmful than useful.
I exhort my son to care for all the persons who are attached to me, as much as his circumstances will allow, to remember that it is a sacred debt which I have contracted towards the children and relatives of those who have perished for me and also those who are wretched for my sake. I know that there are many persons, among those who were near me, who did not conduct themselves towards me as they should have and who have even shown ingratitude, but I pardon them (often in moments of trouble and turmoil one is not master of oneself), and I beg my son that, if he finds an occasion, he should think only of their misfortunes.
I should have wanted here to show my gratitude to those who have given me a true and disinterested affection; if, on the one hand, I was keenly hurt by the ingratitude and disloyalty of those to whom I have always shown kindness, as well as to their relatives and friends, on the other hand I have had the consolation of seeing the affection and voluntary interest which many persons have shown me. I beg them to receive my thanks.
In the situation in which matters still are, I fear to compromise them if I should speak more explicitly, but I especially enjoin my son to seek occasion to recognize them.
I should, nevertheless, consider it a calumny on the nation if I did not openly recommend to my son MM. De Chamilly and Hue, whose genuine attachment for me led them to imprison themselves with me in this sad abode. I also recommend Clery, for whose attentiveness I have nothing but praise ever since he has been with me. Since it is he who has remained with me until the end, I beg the gentlemen of the commune to hand over to him my clothes, my books, my watch, my purse, and all other small effects which have been deposited with the council of the commune.
I pardon again very readily those who guard me, the ill treatment and the vexations which they thought it necessary to impose upon me. I found a few sensitive and compassionate souls among them – may they in their hearts enjoy the tranquillity which their way of thinking gives them.
I beg MM. De Malesherbes, Tronchet and De Seze to receive all my thanks and the expressions of my feelings for all the cares and troubles they took for me.
I finish by declaring before God, and ready to appear before Him, that I do not reproach myself with any of the crimes with which I am charged.
Made in duplicate in the Tower of the Temple, the 25th of December 1792.
LOUIS

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A New Novel and a New Website

To celebrate the launching of her beautiful new website, Elena Maria Vidal, Catholic historian, novelist, and author of Trianon and Madame Royale, is hosting a giveaway of her latest book, The Night's Dark Shade. The winner will be announced January 25. According to the product description:
Set amid the turmoil of the Albigensian Crusade in thirteenth century France, THE NIGHT’S DARK SHADE tells of heresy versus orthodoxy, and of forbidden love versus fidelity. Heiress of her father’s estates in Auvergne, the orphaned Lady Raphaëlle leaves her home to marry a nobleman in a remote castle in the Pyrenees. There she encounters the mysterious Cathar sect who challenge all of her most deeply held beliefs. As she seeks the path of her true calling, she discovers hatred and betrayal, as well as abiding friendship and unexpected love.
I have not yet read The Night's Dark Shade, but I know from her blogs, Tea at Trianon and Fountain of Elias, and from her other novels that Elena Maria Vidal is a very knowledgeable and talented lady with a gift for weaving together history, faith and spirituality in a fascinating, informative, touching and inspiring mix. HERE are some interesting reviews of The Night's Dark Shade, and a lovely interview with the author.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Soldier and a Lady

In Louise reine des Belges: 1812-1850, Madeleine Lassère quotes (in French translation) a passage from Charlotte Bronte's  satirical novel Villette (1853), describing (according to Lassère) King Leopold I and Queen Louise of the Belgians. Actually, Villette takes place in an imaginary country disparagingly called "Labassecour" ("The  Farmyard"). Nonetheless, the story was inspired by Bronte's experiences of Belgium during the 1840's. In particular, this passage, describing a concert attended by the King and Queen of Labassecour, was based upon a gala performance in Brussels attended by Leopold and Louise. Although the author apparently detested the Belgians, describing them in a letter as "singularly cold, selfish, animal and inferior," the portrayal of the King and Queen is surprisingly sympathetic. The description of the King's sadness and the Queen's kindness does coincide with what we know of Leopold and Louise.
A signal was given, the doors rolled back, the assembly stood up, the orchestra burst out, and, to the welcome of a choral burst, enter the King, the Queen, the Court of Labassecour.Till then, I had never set eyes on living king or queen ; it may consequently be conjectured how I strained my powers of vision to take in these specimens of European royalty. By whomsoever majesty is beheld for the first time, there will always be experienced a vague surprise bordering on disappointment, that the same does not appear seated, en permanence, on a throne, bonneted with a crown, and furnished, as to the hand, with a sceptre. Looking out for a king and queen, and seeing only a middle-aged soldier and rather a young lady, I felt half cheated, half pleased.
Well do I recall that King—a man of fifty, a little bowed, a little gray ; there was no face in all that assembly which resembled his. I had never read, never been told anything of his nature or his habits : and at first the strong hieroglyphics graven as with iron stylet on his brow, round his eyes, beside his mouth, puzzled and baffled instinct. Ere long, however, if I did not know, at least I felt, the meaning of those characters written without hand. There sat a silent sufferer—a nervous, melancholy man...
Some might say it was the foreign crown pressing the King's brows which bent them to that peculiar and painful fold; some might quote the effects of early bereavement. Something there might be of both these, but these as embittered by that darkest foe of humanity—constitutional melancholy. The Queen, his wife, knew this : it seemed to me, the reflection of her husband's grief lay, a subduing shadow, on her own benignant face. A mild, thoughtful, graceful woman that princess seemed ; not beautiful, not at all like the woman of solid charms and marble feelings described a page or two since. Hers was a somewhat slender shape ; her features, though distinguished enough, were too suggestive of reigning dynasties and royal lines to give unqualified pleasure. The expression clothing that profile was agreeable in the present instance; but you could not avoid connecting it with remembered effigies, where similar lines appeared, under phase ignoble, feeble, or sensual, or cunning, as the case might be. The Queen's eye, however, was her own, and pity, goodness, sweet sympathy, blessed it with divinest light. She moved no sovereign, but a lady—kind, loving, elegant. Her little son... accompanied her : he leaned on his mother's knee, and, ever and anon, in the course of that evening, I saw her observant of the monarch at her side, conscious of his beclouded abstraction, and desirous to rouse him from it by drawing his attention to their son. She often bent her head to listen to the boy's remarks, and would then smilingly repeat them to his sire. The moody King started, listened, smiled, but invariably relapsed as soon as his good angel ceased speaking. Full mournful and significant was that spectacle !

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Letter By King Baudouin

Here are a few extracts from a touching letter, dated January 31, 1982, addressed by King Baudouin I to his father, former King Leopold III. The affectionate tone marks the renewal of warmth between father and son. During the 1960's, political and personal factors had caused an estrangement between Leopold and Baudouin, but their relations improved in the 1970's and early 1980's. Towards the end of Leopold's life, after years of absence, Baudouin (albeit discreetly and alone) visited him periodically at Argenteuil.
Mon cher Papa,
Ta carte si affectueuse m'a apporté une grande joie. Cela fait du bien d'être parfois encouragé par son père, surtout lorsque celui-ci à été du métier...
Tu peux t'imaginer combien je serais heureux de te revoir et de passer quelques heures avec toi. Je voudrais à cette occasion te parler de notre Pays et de mon rôle...
En attendant un signe de ta part, je t'embrasse avec toute l'affection que tu sais.
Ton fils,
Baudouin 
***
My dear Papa,
Your so affectionate card brought me great joy. It does one good to be encouraged from time to time by one's father, especially when he has been in one's profession...
You can imagine how happy I would be to see you again and spend some time with you. I would like to speak with you, on this occasion, about our Country and my role...
As I wait for a signal on your part, I embrace you with all the affection you know.
Your son,
Baudouin
(quoted by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil, 2006, p. 344) 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Royal Crypt of Laeken

Here are some photographs, courtesy of Michel Wal, of the royal crypt of the Church of Our Lady, Laeken. (Do click to enlarge the pictures!) The crypt is the traditional burial place of the Belgian sovereigns, their consorts, and some other members of the royal family. This is where Princess Lilian, the second wife of King Leopold III,  did not want to be interred. Nonetheless, perhaps it is just as well that she was. After being harshly criticized all her married life, at least she receives royal honors in death.

The tomb of the first King and Queen of the Belgians, Leopold I and Louise-Marie. As a matter of fact, the whole Church of Our Lady of Laeken, a neo-Gothic construction of the 19th century, was designed as a mausoleum for Louise-Marie.

The resting place of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth. This is the tomb that certain sensationalist authors try to surround with scandal and mystery. Some, contesting the official version of Albert's death, and preferring more lurid theories (eg: "he was shot over a love affair"), propose to open the tomb and autopsy the King's remains to reconstruct "what really happened" on February 17, 1934. Others like to suggest that Van Eyck's lost masterpiece, The Just Judges, stolen shortly after Albert's death, is buried along with the King. Really, I think Albert's death was tragic enough without all this lurid and morbid speculation. I know I am giving it far more attention than it deserves, but it always annoys me.

Another view of the crypt. Enlarging the picture shows the photographs of King Leopold III, Queen Astrid, and Princess Lilian atop the third grave from the right.


The burial places of Prince Charles, younger brother of King Leopold III and Regent of Belgium from 1944-1950, Crown Prince Leopold, the only son of King Leopold II and Queen Marie-Henriette, and Princess Josephine, one of King Albert I's sisters, who died in infancy. Albert had another sister named Josephine in memory of this lost baby.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wedding of Umberto & Marie-José


On January 8, 1930, Princess Marie-José of Belgium married the heir to the Italian throne, Prince Umberto of Savoy, at the Quirinal Palace in Rome. The wedding date, in accordance with the bridegroom's wish, coincided with the 57th birthday of his mother, Queen Elena. It was a hectic and exhausting day for the young couple.

Although Marie-José rose early in the morning, hours before the ceremony, she nearly arrived at the altar late. Defying superstitions, Umberto had come to see his bride before the wedding. With his attention to details and aesthetic perfectionism (traits Marie-José would sometimes find frustrating), he was infuriated to find that the sleeves on her gown had been sewed on the wrong way. Perhaps no one would have noticed, but the Prince insisted on remedying the situation (in the end, by having the sleeves completely removed, and replaced with long white gloves). It was ironic, as Marie-José had not even wanted to wear this gown, preferring simpler, more modern attire, but Umberto had insisted on the utmost grandeur. (He had, in fact, personally helped to design the dress, an elaborate creation of white and silver). "I look like a Madonna in procession!" the bride had muttered.

After all this delay, the nuptial cortège finally began to wind through the palace to the Cappella Paolina. As they passed by rows of (often dethroned) European royalty, King Albert I of Belgium, with his characteristic irony and humor, whispered in his daughter's ear: "There's alot of unemployment in our profession." At the altar, according to tradition, four princes of the House of Savoy held a veil, a symbol of purity and protection, over the bride and groom. By 11 am, Umberto and Marie-José were man and wife.

After the ceremony, the newlyweds made their way to another part of the palace to sign the marriage documents. Mussolini, who was present, wanted Marie-José to use the Italian form of her name, "Maria Giuseppina." The strong-minded young woman, however, much to her husband's embarrassment, stubbornly refused to do so. (She would always proudly sign herself "Maria José," creating an awkward situation for the Italian press. To avoid offending either Mussolini or the Princess, many journalists settled on dropping the second part of her name altogether).

The rest of the day was taken up with duties of protocol; appearances on the balcony, official visits, celebrations and applause. All very grand, but rather nerve-racking for Umberto and Marie-José, almost too tense and agitated even to touch the elaborate dishes at the banquet. At last, the couple were left alone together in the magnificent bridal chamber.

Early, the next morning, Umberto and Marie-José were seen praying together in the chapel, evidently in devout meditation. Perversely, this gave rise to malicious talk. Bizarre rumors began to circulate, to the effect that the Prince had made a vow of chastity, or, at any rate, that the newlyweds were surely not very ardent lovers! It was only the beginning of endless gossip about the couple.

Reference:

Regolo, Luciano. Il re signore: tutto il racconto della vita di Umberto di Savoia. 1998. pp. 254-258

Monday, January 4, 2010

Jewel in a Crown...


Beautiful music and an interesting, rather austere slideshow of photographs of Queen Astrid, her family, her childhood homes in Sweden, the "Tiara of the Nine Provinces" of Belgium, the "fatal tree" and the memorial in Küssnacht. The photograph at 5:30, is so haunting, apparently the last one of Astrid alive...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

First Year Anniversary

The Cross of Laeken is a year old today. Many thanks to all visitors since January 2, 2009! I am deeply touched and honored by your interest and support. Best wishes for 2010!