Giovanna of Italy – Royal humanity and compassion in times of war

(public domain)

Eastern European monarchies are a still untapped source of great stories and exceptional human and national destinies. At the end of the Second World War, the whole region found itself under Soviet influence, the monarchies were abolished, and communist republics were established by force and fraud, as it was the case in Romania, Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia.

Amid exceptionally difficult circumstances, women of royal families were once again a solid example of strength, loyalty, and love of their adopted countries. Most of them came from other places (Queen mother Helen of Romania from Greece, Bulgarian Tsarina Joanna from Italy, Queen Marie of Yugoslavia from Romania) and learned to love and cherish the countries of their royal husbands and became icon figures in the national history of these countries.

The last Tsarina of Bulgaria was no exception. Born HRH Princess Giovanna Elisabetta Antonia Romana Maria of Italy in Rome on 13 November 1907 to HM King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy and Queen Elena of Montenegro, she remains in the Bulgarian history as an exceptional woman who risked her own life to save others and demonstrated resilience and loyalty in a time when such values were ignored and forgotten.

Princess Giovanna spent a happy childhood at Villa Savoia, playing with her brother and two other sisters under the watchful and loving eyes of their parents and governesses. Her education was of the highest quality with lessons of history, literature, piano, English, and French, but above all, with a clear emphasis on royal duty and integrity. It was never a secret that she was expected to marry one of the kings or princes of the European royal houses of the time and all her life was a preparation of the moment when she would carry a European crown with dignity.

Princess Giovanna met the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III for the first time in 1927 during the European tour of the Tsar. He barely noticed her, according to witnesses of that first meeting, but the subject of their marriage was discussed between the two royal families. Three years later, in 1930, they met again at the wedding of Princess Maria Jose of Belgium to Princess Giovanna’s brother Crown Prince Umberto of Italy. This time…it was love at…second sight.

However, things were not meant to go smoothly for the happy couple. Religion was a source of difficulty for this marriage. Between the staunchly Orthodox Bulgarians and the staunchly Catholic Italians, the negotiations to conclude the marriage were anything but easy. The Pope wanted to make sure that the couple would raise future children in the Catholic faith while for the Bulgarians, the next generation of their royal family could not have been anything else than Orthodox. The Tsar declared at some point that he preferred a bachelor’s life than to be denied the marriage with Giovanna, while she was ready to enter a convent if she could not marry Boris. In the end, things worked out with Giovanna renouncing her Italian royal title. They got married at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi on 25 October 1930 amidst a great deal of public celebration. Later on, an Orthodox wedding ceremony was performed in Sofia, at St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, where Princess Giovanna of Italy became Tsarina Joanna of Bulgaria.

The new Tsarina was very much liked by her new people. She was very down-to-earth and preferred to cook meals for herself and her husband, saying that “The secret of domestic happiness is to be found in the kitchen”. Princess Marie-Louise, their first daughter, was born in 1933 and was baptised an Orthodox in Sofia, which triggered a huge upset at the Vatican. Tsarina Joanna remained throughout her whole life a devout Catholic but always respected the Orthodox traditions. In 1937, the much-awaited heir to the Bulgarian throne was born, Prince Simeon. However, the family happiness was short-lived.

Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war. The Bulgarian Royals had hoped to stay out of the conflict for as long as possible. A source at the Bulgarian court mentioned that “Tsar Boris III is supposed to have said that his wife was pro-Italian, his ministers were pro-German, and his people were pro-Russian while he was entirely neutral.” But this neutrality was extremely hard to maintain. Under great pressure, the Tsar agreed to a limited alliance with Germany and its allies, although he was totally unsympathetic to Hitler. Tsarina Joanna intervened many times on behalf of the Bulgarian Jews and managed to get them visas for Argentina. During the Holocaust years, she set an example of humanity and persistence. Her own sister, Princess Mafalda of Italy would die in a Nazi camp as she opposed Hitler’s racial policies.

Following a meeting with Hitler, Tsar Boris returned to Sofia, suddenly fell ill and died. It was thought he was poisoned by Hitler’s staff. Amid this tragedy, Tsarina Joanna had to see her 6-year-old son proclaimed Tsar Simeon II of Bulgaria with three regents to act for him. In 1945, the Communists took over Bulgaria, staged a referendum and abolished the monarchy. Tsarina Joanna had 24 hours to take her children and leave Sofia. She went into exile first in Egypt, then to Spain, where Franco was welcoming victims of the Communist aggression. Later on, she moved to Portugal where her brother, the exiled Italian King, Umberto II was living.

It is worth mentioning that Tsarina Joanna returned to Bulgaria, in 1993, after the fall of the Communist regime to bury the heart of her beloved husband in the Bulgarian land. It was her last trip to her adopted country. She died in Portugal, in 2000, at the age of 92.

Tsarina Joanna, Princess Giovanna of Italy remains one of the brightest figures of the royalty of the 20th century, an example of great humanity and compassion. A beautiful, intelligent Italian girl who happened to be the last Tsarina of Bulgaria.

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