In response to questions, I wanted to share some thoughts on the troubled marriage of King Umberto II of Italy and Queen Maria José, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. For a more in-depth account, I can recommend this article by Cristina Siccardi, as well as the biographies of Umberto and Maria José by Luciano Regolo.
As a young bride, Maria José suffered from many nasty rumors. Evil tongues mocked her thick, curly hair by calling her la Négresse blonde, whispered that her children were not Umberto's, or suggested that they had been conceived artificially, since the princess had been unable to become pregnant for four years... The rumors were unsubstantiated, although Maria José loved to form friendships with artists and intellectuals and her bold, unconventional ways, like those of her Wittelsbach mother, probably fostered gossip. It is also probably true that Maria José and her husband were basically incompatible. The marriage had been arranged by the Belgian and Italian royal families to strengthen the friendship between their countries dating from the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles also left very few Catholic reigning houses to provide suitors for Maria José. From childhood, she was raised by her mother to see Umberto as the perfect Prince Charming, arousing expectations of a great love which were later sadly disappointed.
Umberto and Maria José had deep admiration, respect and affection for one another, but Umberto seems to have had trouble relating to his wife romantically. My impression is that he loved her, but was not in love with her. Umberto was always concerned and solicitous for his wife, but tended to be reserved and distant towards her. After the fall of the Italian monarchy and the exile of the Savoys, Maria José found Portugal, the royal family's refuge, too depressing. She also had difficulty relating to her husband on a daily basis. While Maria José was much more open, Umberto tended to hide his feelings of deep sorrow and humiliation, to withdraw into silence. His wife came to believe that he needed space to deal with his inner turmoil. Accordingly, she moved to Switzerland, where she felt more cheerful. Health reasons also contributed to her decision. The royal couple, however, always maintained cordial relations, and continued to visit one another. Umberto, who shared Maria José's cultural interests, assisted his wife with her prestigious historical research on the House of Savoy, and wrote her beautiful letters. Every month, he sent her a bouquet of red roses with an affectionate note. When Umberto was dying of cancer, his wife was at his side and they spent many tender hours together, holding hands.
There have been many rumors that Umberto was unfaithful, or even bisexual, but I am skeptical, to say the least, as many of these claims seem to have been fomented by the fascists, who saw the handsome, popular young prince as a potential threat to Mussolini. It is also known that Umberto was deeply religious and Maria José praised him in the highest terms, after his death, as a man of great moral rectitude and personal virtue who never lost his dignity or rigor, even amidst the most atrocious sufferings. In the end, I feel that the King and Queen had a good marriage.