“We were never happy”. These are the words of Marie José, Princess of Belgium and last Queen of Italy, talking to a journalist in 1988 about her marriage to King Umberto. But these could have been the words of any woman whose life has been decided by others and by a tragic history that disrupted destinies and countries in the last century.
But the beginning of the story was a happy one, and nothing predicted all the drama that was to follow. Born as the youngest daughter of Albert I, King of the Belgians, Marie José was related through her Wittelsbach mother, Elizabeth, to Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria and to Empress Sisi of Austria. She was a beautiful child with a strong personality and a deep sense of independence. Belgium was a nurturing environment for the young princess who was encouraged to develop her talents and allowed a good dose of freedom.
In 1930, her marriage was arranged to the Italian Crown Prince, Umberto. It was a political marriage that produced four children and had apparently good chances of success. The luminously beautiful young woman and the handsome Prince Umberto were fairy tale material, but it was not to be. However, Marie José was born to do her royal duty, and soon after the wedding, she served for a while with the Red Cross in Libya, showing an outstanding devotion to her work. With the arrival of the second world war, she was the first – and only – member of the Italian royal family who realised Mussolini was leading the country to disaster.
Her free-thinking and artistic personality was suffocated by the royal court in Rome, so she started to create her own entourage made up by some anti-fascist intellectuals. This poisoned the relationship with her difficult father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III. “You know, I don’t have much to do with the House of Savoy,” she confided to a journalist in 1940. “It’s not a family; it’s a fridge.”.
Marie José had a contradictory relationship with Mussolini. She hated the fascist ideology but felt attracted to the charismatic Italian leader. Some sources even mentioned that they had a brief affair in the 1940s, although there is no clear confirmation of such a relation. When she gave an interview years later, in 1993, and she was asked about this rumour, she replied: “He was a lion. I, too, am a lion. And we both feared one another.”
As Crown Princess of Italy, she met Hitler, in 1940, during a visit to Berchtesgaden, where she went to plead the humanitarian cause of the Belgians. Although Hitler’s answer was a clear No, he was struck by her beauty, famously saying that her eyes have “the colour of the German sky”.
When Italy changed sides in the war, her father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III, who was accused of close links to the fascist regime, had to leave the country and he was succeeded by his son, Umberto. Marie Jose became Queen of Italy. But this was not to last. On the 2nd of June 1946, Italians voted in a referendum for the abolishment of the monarchy. As she reigned only for 27 days (from the 9th of May to the 2nd of June 1946), she was called “The May Queen”.
Initially, she went into exile to Portugal with her husband, but their marriage was already in a severe crisis, so she soon left for Switzerland where she spent the rest of her long life (she died in 2001, at the age of 94).
A talented painter and an accomplished pianist, Marie José lived her life amid books and art while travelling and writing. She returned one more time to Italy, in 1988, when the government decided she was not a threat to the political order of the country.
Maria José remained in the history as a nonconformist royal who was not shy to say: “Being queen is so boring”. However, this did not prevent her from doing her royal duties and giving the Italian monarchy a fresh, human and beautiful face…for one glorious moment in history.