Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Heroine of Gaeta - Maria Sophia of Bavaria

Duchess Maria Sophia of Bavaria,
Queen of the Two-Sicilies

Maria Sophia of Bavaria was the last queen of the Kingdom of the Two Siciles, who by the age of 19, had been a queen, lost her kingdom, rallied soldiers around her in the hopeless defense of a lost cause, and had had men - even her enemies - writing reams of romantic slush about her. She was "the angel of Gaeta" who would "wipe your brow if you were wounded or cradle you in her arms while you die". D'Annunzio called her the "stern little Bavarian eagle" and Marcel Proust spoke of the "soldier queen on the ramparts of Gaeta". She was intelligent, lovely, and headstrong; she could ride a horse and defend herself with a sword. She was everything you could ask for - a combination of Amazon and Angel of Mercy.

Maria Sophia came from the Bavarian royal House of Wittelsbach, the daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria and Princess Ludovika. She was the younger sister of the famous Empress Elizabeth of Austria ('Sissi'). Like her ravishing older sister, Maria Sophia was said to be 'unusually beautiful', according to the sculptress Harriet Homer.

In 1859, Maria Sophia married the soon-to-be king Francis II of Bourbon, the son of Ferdinand II, King of Naples. Within the year, with the death of the king, her husband ascended to the throne and Maria Sophia gave up the frivolous court pursuits of a princess and took on the full-time responsibilities as the queen of a realm on the verge of crisis. The Italian peninsula was in the grip of turmoil brought on by a combination of revolution, nationalism and republicanism. People were eager for an Italian unification. Upon their ascension, Francis II and Marie Sophia were already the target for invasion by the army of revolutionary republicans led by Giuseppe Garibaldi.

To avoid bloodshed in the major city of Naples, the king, the queen, and their army retreated to Gaeta to make what turned out to be a last stand. By this time also the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia under King Victor Emmanuel II had joined the fight for Italian unification and lay siege to the stronghold of Gaeta, which eventually overcame the defenders. It was the siege of Gaeta that gained Maria Sophia the reputation that stayed with her for the rest of her life. She was constantly on the walls, tireless in her efforts to rally the defenders, giving them her own food, caring for the wounded, encouraging the troops, and shouting defiance at the enemy. She refused the chivalrous offer from the attacking general that if she would but mark her residence with a flag, he would make sure not to fire upon it with artillery. "Go ahead and shoot at me", she said; "I will be where the men are."

However, it was a vain and hopeless fight. The King and Queen were forced to give up Gaeta and went into exile in Rome. They were welcomed as honored guests of the Papal court but the position of the Pope was under the same threat that had already befallen their own country. In 1870, Rome fell to the forces of Italy, and the King and Queen moved in Bavaria where Francis II died there in 1894. Maria Sophia's activities were, however, far from over. She continued to preside over a Two-Sicilies court-in-exile and never gave up hope for a restoration of her adopted kingdom.

During a visit in Rome in 1870 of the sculptress Harriet Homer (who made a sculpture of Maria Sophia), she wrote in a letter to her father about the visit of the then Crown Prince Umberto and Crown Princess Margherita (the future rulers of united Italy), and her devotion to the exiled Queen:
"...The Prince and Princess of Piedmont [Umberto and Margherita] came the other day [to Rome], and Roman society is completely divided over who should they speak about. You must be either Papalist or Liberal. You can not be both. She [Margherita], they say, is beautiful and charming. I have not seen even a glimpse of her, though one of the knights of honor tells me that she will visit soon. But I'm still faithful to my violet-eyed heroine of Gaeta.."

During World War I, Maria Sophia was actively on the side of Germany and Austria in their war with Italy. She hoped that the defeat of Italy might to lead to the restoration of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But that was not meant to be. She went on to see her beloved homeland, the Kingdom of Bavaria, taken up into a united German Empire, and Italy became, irrevocably, a single nation state. She lived to see Mussolini take power in Italy and to see Hitler make his first move in Germany. She was still active enough in her 80s to stand at the window of her apartment in Munich and look at anarchists and police battling in the streets. She wanted "to see if young people of today still have the stuff they had when I was young.”

The wealth and privilege in Maria Sophia's life were, to a certain extent, overshadowed by personal tragedies. Her marriage was not consummated for many years, as her husband suffered from phimosis. His shyness and religious fanaticism also prevented the couple from developing any kind of physical intimacy with each other. While in exile in Rome, Maria Sophia fell in love with an officer of the papal guard, Armand de Lawayss, and became pregnant by him. She retreated to her parents' home at Possenhofen in Bavaria, where a family council decided that she must give birth in secret to prevent scandal. On 24 November 1862, Maria Sophia gave birth to a daughter in St. Ursula's Convent in Augsburg. The child was immediately given to another family. Maria Sophia was made to promise that she would never see the child again, which deeply affected her. She suffered from depression in later life, which is believed to have been rooted in this event. A year later, on the advice of her family, Maria Sophia decided to confess the affair to her husband. Afterwards, the relationship between the two improved for a time. Francis submitted to an operation which allowed him to consummate the marriage, and Maria became pregnant a second time, this time by her husband. Both were overjoyed at the turn of events and full of hope. On 24 December 1869, after ten years of marriage, Maria Sophia gave birth to a daughter, Maria Cristina Pia. Cristina was born on the birthday of her aunt, Empress Elizabeth, who became her godmother. Unfortunately, the baby lived only three months and died on 28 March 1870. Maria Sophia and her husband never had another child.

Other personal tragedies Maria Sophia's life was the death of her younger sister Sophie Charlotte in the 1890s. She died heroically while trying to help others from a burning building. Shortly thereafter, in 1898, Maria Sophia's older sister, the Empress Elizabeth was stabbed to death by an anarchist.

Maria Sophia died in exile in Munich in 1925. The Italian newspaper il Mattino announced her death, and was praised as " of those European princesses who, with her great gifts, would have had another destiny but for the dramatic events of her times."

She attracted harsh criticism, but she also generated so much respect and admiration in her long life. Even from those who would be her most extreme political enemies such as the famous Italian ultra-nationalist Gabriele d'Annunzio called her the "stern little Bavarian eagle". The Queen was buried alongside her husband and their short-lived daughter in the Church of Santa Chiara in Naples.


elaine Griffiths-Roberts said...

Love the story and web site.

Gem said...

Thank you Elaine!

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