Maria Vittoria dal Pozzo was born on 9 August 1847 In Paris as the daughter of Carlo Emmanuele dal Pozzo, 5th Prince of Cisterna – a nobleman in the Kingdom of Sardinia – and his wife, Countess Louise de Merode. Her mother’s sister Antoinette de Merode would become the Princess of Monaco following her marriage to the future Charles III, Prince of Monaco. Maria Vittoria grew up to speak six languages. She spent most of her youth at the Palacio della Cisterna in Turin. She also often spent the summers of Reano Castle.
Maria Vittoria had just one younger sister named Beatriz who died at the age of 13. She was now her parents’ only child, and when her father died in 1864, she succeeded as 6th Princess of Cisterna. Her mother dragged the family into excessive mourning and even refused to have her husband’s body buried.
Maria Vittoria attracted the attention of Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, the second son of King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy and Adelaide of Austria. At first, it was considered to be a flirtation, and it did not seem feasible that Maria Vittoria would marry into royalty. Her mother actively discouraged Amedeo, but he was truly in love with Maria Vittoria. Amedeo turned to the President of the Chamber of Deputies, who pleaded for him with his father, the King. His father then asked, “Do the young people love each other?” The President replied, “They idolise one another.” The King then said, “Very well, they shall be married. It is not for me to stand in opposition to the sentiment of my news.” The news of his engagement to a non-royal bride caused some surprise, but most of the people were pleased. Shortly before the wedding both Maria Vittoria and her mother were bestowed “Her Highness” as a style of address.
The wedding was celebrated on 30 May 1867 in the chapel of the Royal Palace of Turin. Tragically, Count Castiglione, a personal friend of the couple, was thrown from his horse and killed during the procession. Maria Vittoria was said to be deeply affected by his death. After their wedding, Amedeo returned to the navy, and he received a commission as Vice-Admiral in 1868. On 13 January 1869, Maria Vittoria gave birth to her first son. He was named Emanuele Filiberto, and he received the title of Duke of Puglie. Just a few months later, Maria Vittoria and Amedeo boarded the Castelfidardo to represent the King in Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal. They also visited the Holy Land where Maria Vittoria presented the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with all of her personal jewels of around half a million Francs. On their return journey, a boiler exploded, killing and wounding several crew members. Amedeo was later praised for his level-headedness during the disaster.
Maria Vittoria was heavily pregnant with their second child when Amedeo was elected of King of Spain in place of the deposed Queen Isabella II. He was elected on 16 November and their second son – Vittorio Emanuele – was born on 24 November. Amedeo set out alone to his new country, while Maria Vittoria recovered her strength at home. She was soon to follow with their two sons. He reached Madrid on 2 January 1871, and Maria Vittoria followed him in the middle of February. However, she fell ill with a fever during the journey, and her condition was soon so serious that she was given last rites. It took her three weeks to recover, and she was finally able to continue her journey. Amedeo came to meet her and their sons and accompanied them to Madrid.
They soon fell into a familiar routine. They often lunched with just one Lady of Honour and a Chamberlain. After lunch, Amedeo had a cigar before going to his study to occupy himself with affairs of state. Maria Vittoria was kept included in matters of government, and Amedeo often sought her advice. Their family life was lived in just a few rooms of the vast palace, and the state apartments were used for official occasions only. Every Sunday, the court threw dinner parties. Maria Vittoria was known to talk with everyone and was often praised for her intelligence. She developed an interest in her adopted country and spoke Spanish fluently.
Nevertheless, she was aware of the challenges ahead. She had written to a friend before her departure, “We are not going with any intention of imposing ourselves upon the country, and the day on which our labours are proved vain, we will return the crown to those who gave it to us.” Maria Vittoria founded a school for the children of washerwomen, which was in view of the palace, and an orphanage. She also spent plenty of her private fortune on charitable donations.
The country remained unstable under their rule. On 18 August 1872, they were the victims of an attempted assassination attack. As bullets rained down on their carriage, Amedeo stood up and shouted, “Here is the King. Fire at him, not at the others!” An aide-de-camp threw himself on Maria Vittoria to protect her. The carriage quickly sped towards the palace, and by some miracle, none of the occupants were harmed. Maria Vittoria was by then pregnant with their third child. On 23 January 1873, she gave birth to their third son, named Luigi Amedeo. As Maria Vittoria lay ailing with a fever, her husband abdicated the Spanish throne. They were now no longer King and Queen. He wrote, “Be assured that, in relinquishing the Crown, I do not give up my love for this noble and unhappy Spain, and that I bear away with me from hence no other sorrow than that it has not been possible for me to accomplish for her all the good my loyal heart so earnestly desired.” The following year, Queen Isabella II’s son was proclaimed as King Alfonso XII.
Maria Vittoria was actually too unwell to travel, but doctors gave their permission for her to join her husband and sons as they feared a separation would do more harm than good. She was carried out of the palace in a sedan chair with a nurse behind her, holding her newborn son. Amedeo lifted her into the waiting carriage himself. The four carriage procession then departed for the train station upon Maria Vittoria’s order. A first-class train carriage with a bed had been prepared for her. Around midnight the train reached the Portuguese border, and it was finally allowed to cross three hours later. They were received by the Portuguese King and Queen, and they were conducted to the Palace of Belem where Maria Vittoria could finally rest. Amedeo’s father was quick to invite his son and his family to come back to Italy. They stayed in Portugal for three weeks while Maria Vittoria regained her strength.
They returned to Italy onboard the “Roma” as the Duke and Duchess of Aosta, arriving on Italian soil on 9 March 1873. They took up residence on the ground floor of the Royal Palace in Turin but as Maria Vittoria’s health deteriorated – probably due to tuberculosis – she was moved to the Palace of Moncalieri. Amedeo took care of her herself, and he could often be seen wheeling her around in a wheelchair in the gardens. In a last-ditch effort to improve her health, she went to San Remo for the softer air. She died there on 8 November 1873 – still only 29 years old.
She was laid to rest in the mausoleum of the House of Savoy in the Basilica of Superga. Her mourning procession was followed by thousands of poor people – testifying to her charitable heart.1