Just outside the small village of San Martino della Battaglia, a few kilometres south of Lake Garda, we find a remarkable monument from the nineteenth century. The monumental tower closely resembles a chess piece and honours the memory of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy, who sat on the throne from 1861 until his death in 1878.
Construction of the monument started two years after the death of the popular king, who because of his efforts to bring about the Italian unification is considered a father of the country. The tower was erected on a hill that saw heavy fighting during the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859. While the French under their emperor Napoleon III fought against the Austrians at Solferino itself, the Italians – strictly speaking the Piedmontese and Sardinians – clashed with the same adversaries at the humble settlement of San Martino. During the battle the hill on which the tower was built changed hands several times, but in the end the Italians prevailed. The words ‘della Battaglia’ were obviously not added to the name ‘San Martino’ until after the battle.
On 15 October 1893 the monument was inaugurated in the presence of King Umberto I (1878-1900), Victor Emmanuel’s son and successor. Queen Margherita was also present; the famous Pizza Margherita was named after her. The tower is 74 metres high and the words A VITTORIO EMANUELE II above the main entrance immediately make clear to whom the building is dedicated. People who somehow manage to miss the text get a second chance when they enter the monument, as they will bump into a bronze statue of Victor Emmanuel by Antonio Dal Zòtto (1841-1918). On the walls surrounding the statue we see scenes from the life of the king. These were – rather appropriately – painted by an artist named Vittorio Emanuele Bressanin. It is rather hard to imagine that this painter, who was born in 1860, was not named after the then king of Piedmont-Sardinia. On 17 March 1861 Victor Emmanuel also became king of Italy.
Visitors can reach the top of the tower by taking the spiral staircase inside the monument. The stairs lead to several mezzanines which have walls decorated with frescoes depicting crucial battles from the struggle for Italian unification. The images we see are heroic and overtly patriotic, but also a bit kitschy. The aforementioned Vittorio Emanuele Bressanin, Giuseppe Vizzotto Alberti (1862-1931), Vincenzo De Stefani (1859-1937) and Raffaele Pontremoli (1832-1906) were responsible for their creation. What is especially noteworthy is that these gentlemen did not just paint Italian victories. The first fresco features the Italian victory in the Battle of Goito on 30 May 1848, but the next mezzanine has a fresco depicting the defence of Venice, which ended in an Italian defeat. On 22 March 1848 one Daniele Manin had proclaimed the Republic of San Marco in Venice. Cities in the Veneto joined the Republic, but the Austrians quickly retaliated. In May of 1849 Venice was heavily bombarded and at the end of August it was forced to surrender. The city had, however, given a heroic display of resistance, and this has been immortalised on the fresco.
The third fresco is about a battle fought on 16 August 1855 at the river Chornaya. The battle was part of the Crimean War. At the Chornaya, French, Turkish and Italian soldiers managed to repel a large Russian attack. By sending an expeditionary force to participate in this war, the Italians created a lot of sympathy with the French for the Italian unification cause. The Italians’ brave performance at the Chornaya may even have been a contributing factor to the emperor Napoleon III’s decision to intervene in Northern Italy in 1859 (although the intervention was largely motivated by material and immaterial advantages). The French campaign led to the Battle of Solferino, of which the Battle of San Martino was a part. The fighting at San Martino is featured prominently on the fourth fresco in the tower, while the fifth fresco is about the Battle at the river Volturno on 1 October 1860. There the famous revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) defeated the army of Naples.
The sixth fresco again depicts an Italian defeat, i.e. the defeat against the Austrians at Custoza on 24 June 1866. This battle was fought southwest of Verona during the Third Italian War of Independence. In spite of an Italian numerical superiority it was the Austrians that won the day. Moreover, Victor Emmanuel’s younger son was seriously wounded during the fighting. Fortunately the Italian defeat was not total, and just over a week later Austria suffered a severe defeat against Prussia at the Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa). The Veneto then ended up in Italian hands after all. Now the sole remaining duty of the Italians was to annex Rome, for without the former caput mundi the Italian unification could not be considered complete. On 20 October 1870 the Italian army broke into the city at the Porta Pia. The fighting was brief, but even in brief fights there are casualties. Major Giacomo Pagliari was killed and he is the central figure of the seventh fresco. While climbing to the top of the tower visitors will by the way hear atmospheric music from the miniseries The Pacific.
View, museum and ossuary
The view from the top of the tower is truly splendid, especially on a clear day. In the distance one can see Lake Garda, with the foothills of the Alps just behind it. And then there is the town of Sirmione. It is situated on a promontory which extends into the lake and which is, from north to south, about four kilometres long. Visitors should be able to see the castle of Sirmione, the Rocca Scaligera, quite well.
Behind the tower is a small museum (Museo del Risorgimento), dedicated to the Italian unification. Weapons, paintings, maps and other objects tell the story of the Risorgimento. The museum is quite similar to the Museo Risorgimentale di Solferino. A combination ticket is available for those who want to visit all the attractions of both Solferino and San Martino.
While the tower dedicated to Victor Emmanuel highlights the heroic aspects of the Italian struggle for independence, we see the horrible reality of war in the Ossario di San Martino. In this ossuary, inaugurated on 24 June 1870, the remains of Italian and Austrian soldiers have been collected. In this case we are talking about the bones of 2,619 men who were killed and 1,274 skulls. To those who are in need of a little culinary comfort after their visit to the ossuary I can highly recommend Osteria Alla Torre.