The dukes of Savoy and Sicilian ice-cream

by Lorenzo Piccoli

The House of Savoy is one of the oldest royal families in the world, being founded in year 1003. The dukes of Savoy used to rule the historical Savoy region around Nice, but that changed in 1563, when they decided to shift their capital from Chambéry to Turin. By then it had become abundantly clear that the Po Valley offered more room for expansion.

In fact, military expansion was the dynasty’s principal ambition. This can be easily noticed today by any person who wonders around Turin. Across the city’s squares there is a magnificent abundance of statues of kings, princes, generals, and soldiers. My favourite is in Piazza Carlo Alberto, with the bronze figure of the king waving his sword mounted on his horse and and four bersaglieri with their bayonets underneath.

Historically, not many people are aware of the fact that the first significant expansion of the Savoy was the annexation of Sicily to their Kingdom in 1713. In all truth, the way in which Sicily became part of the new Kingdom of Piedmont was twisted, to say the least. After centuries of Spanish rule, armies of both French and Austrian emperors had both occupied the island. In 1707 the Peace of Utrecht gave precedence to the Austrians. They, in turn, decided to hand Sicily over to their newly acquired friend, Victor Amadeus of Savoy. This was a rather bizarre decision, as no part of Italy is so unlike Piedmont as it is Sicily. Victor Amadeus sailed to Palermo in 1713, probably indifferent to these nuisances.

His enthusiasm, however, proved to be short-lived. In his masterpiece on The pursuit of Italy, David Gilmour explained that ‘coming from a place where nobility had a tradition of military and state service, Victor Amadeus could not understand why Sicilian aristocrats were so unwilling to be soldiers or administrators. He called their assembly in Palermo an ice-cream parliament, because eating ice-cream seemed to be its members’ most conspicuous activity. The nobles were equally contemptuous of this rustic-looking northerners and regretted the disappearance of Spain’s elegant and elaborate viceregal court. Victor Amedeus soon tired of trying to rule an ungrateful island offered it back to Austria provided he was compensated by somewhere else where he could be called a king; eventually he managed to get himself made King of Sardinia’.

At the time he could not know that more than a century later, in 1861, the Dukes of Savoy would regain possess of Sicily and thus become the first monarchs of the nascent Kingdom of Italy.