Vittorio Emmanuel II Last Rites



Some of the most dramatic “movie-worthy” scenes in Valerio’s life centered on his attempts to perform the last rites on his king, Vittorio Emmanuel II on Jan 9, 1878. There are many different accounts of what happened before the King died. After reading and re-reading all of those accounts, and reading personal correspondence sent by Valerio to his friends, (discovered in the State Archives in Roma), I believe that my story is probably as close to the facts as possible. I’ve told and retold this story many times to family, and friends and many of them are waiting for the book, movie, or 3 part mini-series of Valerio’s life.

The Last Hours of Vittorio Emmanuel II

Vittorio Emmanuel II was seriously ill, surrounded by his family, his physician, Dr. Bruno, Valerio, and a few others. A few days before, as word of the gravity of the situation traveled out of the Palace, Pope Pius IX, ( or one of the Cardinals in the Vatican), sent two emmissaries to the Quirinale Palace to talk to the King, ostensibly out of good will. Valerio, who was skilled in many ways, understood the risks of letting Vatican emmissaries near the King, so he kept them in a room far away from the King’s chambers. Valerio’s anxiety about the emmissaries was likely that he feared that they would tell the Vatican that Vittorio had confessed to them and regretted taking the Catholic Church’s property.

At this point, Valerio had already heard the King’s Confession, (controversial in itself since Vittorio had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX years earlier), and after talking to Dr. Bruno, Valerio decided it was time to perform the Last Rites,(Extreme Unction). Dr. Bruno had told Valerio and Vittorio’s family that the King had only a few hours to live. Having decided to administer the Last Rites, Valerio needed to obtain the special oil and the Viaticum, (Eucharist), required for this. Ordinarily, those materials would be in the Chapel, but the Palace Chapel had been deconsecrated years earlier when the King was excommunicated, and those materials had been removed from the chapel. Valerio then instructed an assistant to go to the nearest church, Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi, and ask the priest there to provide the oil and the Viaticum. Valerio’s assistant raced out of the Palace to the nearby church to speak to the priest. The priest was there but told Valerio’s assistant that he was under strict orders from the Vatican to not cooperate or provide any help to the King. After failing to get the priest’s cooperation, Valerio’s assistant raced back to the Palace to relay the bad news.

Valerio was disappointed, to put it mildly, and was very concerned that the King could die at any moment. Valerio decided that while his assistant had failed to convince the priest to provide what they needed, that he would use his skills and rank to convince the priest otherwise. Valerio, with his assistant in tow, then raced back to the church to try to change the priest’s mind. When it became clear that Valerio wasn’t going to be any more successful than his assistant had been a half hour before, Valerio asked to speak to the priest’s Bishop. The Bishop’s residence was not close by, and Valerio and his assistant raced by carriage to the bishop’s residence. One can only imagine what was racing through Valerio’s mind on that carriage ride. He had no idea whether his King was still alive. Valerio and his assistant arrived at the Bishop’s residence, and Valerio tried his best to convince the Bishop to instruct the priest to provide the oil and Viaticum. The Bishop’s response was clear and precise. The Bishop would cooperate if, and only if, Valerio could provide a signed written confession from the King that acknowledged that the King had stolen property, (think the Papal States), from the Pope and the Catholic Church. Without promising anything, Valerio told the Bishop that he would need to speak to his King. Valerio and his assistant then raced back to the Palace by carriage. Valerio was relieved that his King was still alive but decided against telling him what the Bishop’s ultimatum was. Instead, Valerio and the King had a brief discussion about life and death, and Vittorio stated pretty clearly that,

  • “I want to die a good Catholic” and
  • “I never intended to harm the Catholic Church

Valerio listened to this and likely said to himself, “This is all I’m going to get” and “I think I can work with this”. Valerio left the King’s Chambers and with his assistant in tow, they raced back to the Bishop’s residence. Valerio likely told the Bishop that the King was too ill to read or write but that he, Valerio had just spoken to him and this is what the King said:

  • “I want to die a good Catholic” and
  • “I never intended to harm the Catholic Church

Valerio also likely mentioned that the King could die at any minute and that time was of the utmost importance. To allow the King to die without administering the Last Rites was going to be the Bishop’s decision. The Bishop pondered this and since there were no telephones for him to call the Vatican, he decided that the King’s statements would have to be good enough. The Bishop then accompanied Valerio and his assistant to the church and instructed the priest to provide the Viaticum and anointing oil. Valerio and his assistant then raced back to the Palace hoping that they were not too late. When they arrived at the Palace and were preparing to enter the Kings Chambers, Dr. Bruno came out and told Valerio that the King seemed better and that he, Dr. Bruno, was concerned that if Valero performed the Last Rites on the King, that the experience of it would be stressful for the King. Valerio tried his best to convince Dr. Bruno otherwise but was not successful. Valerio and his assistant returned to Valerio’s residence, (a 5 minute walk), and others waited in a room adjacent to the King’s chambers. About 30 minutes later, Valerio was summoned to the Palace as Vittorio had taken a turn for the worse. By the time Valerio reached the King’s Chambers a few minutes later, Dr. Bruno emerged to tell everyone that the King had just died.

Palazzo Quirinale Roma

Quirinale Palace Roma.

The death chamber of King Victor Emmanuel II in the Quirinale Palace,1878, Rome, Italy, engraving,
illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XVII, no 425, January 19, 1878.

SS Vincenzo e Anastasio di Trevi, Roma

The church, SS Vincenzo e Anastasio di Trevi where Valerio and his assistant ultimately obtained the special oil and Viaticum needed to administer the Last Rites to the King.

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