Queen Marie-José, the last Queen of Italy, was born a little Princesse of Belgium in 1906, her father was King Albert Ier and her mother was Queen Elisabeth of Bavaria. The only daughter with two brothers, she was planned to make a proper Catholic royal marriage from a very young age. Coming from a very traditional and conservative family, she would not always follow the expected path. Her youth was spent in education, athletic sports and playing the piano and violin. Her violin teacher impressed her with socialist sympathies, something not very acceptable then as it would be today. During the Great War she was sent safely to England and attended Catholic school. Not long after coming home her marriage was the top priority.
She would have to marry a proper Catholic royal heir but by the end of the war there were very few left. The Bavarian and Austrian monarchies were gone, the Portuguese monarchie was gone and the Spanish about to fall as well. The only real option was the Kingdom of Italy and heir to the Savoy house throne Prince Umberto of Piedmont. They met, still children, just before the war ended which greatly upset great aunt Marie-Sophie of Bavaria, the widowed last Queen of the Two Sicilies who was a passionate enemy of the House Savoy and unified Italy. Marie-José continued her education in Brussels after the war and in 1930 married Prince Umberto of Piedmont though it was an arranged marriage and not a happy one.
The couple lived in Turin and later Naples and had four children, only one son, whose birth as future King and Emperor (this was after the conquest of Ethiopia) was much heralded by the fascist press as the first prince born into the era of the empire (not to last long as we know now). Not everyone in Italy welcomed the new Princesse Marie-José of Piedmont. Conservatives were put off by her short hair and modern fashions but many others tried to copy her, making her a fashionable role model for the elites of Italian society. She was not political, having friends in the fascist party and friends opposed to it but she did help the agenda of the party pushing for “back to basics” motherhood methods such as breastfeeding. She allowed herself to be photographed breastfeeding (which again put off conservatives) to encourage upper class Italian ladies that such was fashionable and not something only for peasant women. We know now that this was very good advice.
When the Second Great War started Marie-José was distressed immensely by the invasion and occupation of Belgium and wanted to rush to the side of her family but her husband persuaded her to stay for the good of Italy. That was important because she showed herself the most intelligent person at court and was a crucial intermediary between the Allies and the Italian government. After Mussolini was dismissed and the King abdicated Umberto and Marie-José became King and Queen of Italy during the month of May in 1946. When the Italian monarchy was ended there was no more reason for the couple to endure their marriage and they separated but out of respect for the Church and any slight hope of a return to the throne never legally divorced.
The former Queen, Marie-José, lived in Mexico for a short time giving piano lessons but spent most of her exile in Switzerland. Everyone she went she was a respected and beloved member of the musical, artistic community. When she died of lung cancer at very advanced age in Geneva in 2001 the Italian government showed signs of some regrets. The love and sympathy for the ‘Queen of May’ Marie-José prompted them to finally abolish the law banning the Savoy Royal Family from Italy and allowing her family to return to their native soil. She was buried alongside her estranged husband in Savoy. Italian royalists said that they hoped some day the whole family could be buried together and that all Italians, royalist or republican, adored Queen Marie-José from Belgium because of her love of the Italian people and her love of liberty.