A statue for
«the first woman of Italy»:
Cristina Trivulzio

Gisella Lombardi

When she arrives in Paris, she is already a legend. The beautiful princess, with fragile health, stands her ground against a foe so much more powerful than her, that refuses to accept a fate she doesn’t like.  

Princess Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso, the heroine of the Risorgimento, is the first woman to have a statue erected in her honour in Milan. A rare sight in fact, as there are very few statues to commemorate women in the whole country. The writing etched into the base seems to taunt us: “That the happy and honoured women of the future, may think of the pain and humiliation that women that preceded them in life suffered through and remember with some gratitude the names of the women that paved the way to a never enjoyed, if not barely dreamed joy!” 150 years have passed since her death, which went unnoticed at the time. Seated on her bronze chair as if she were about to get up her determined expression, within her hand a pen and paper. Let’s follow her then and discover why she is one of the women we should remember with gratitude.
If her noble title seems that of a fairytale, her life is more akin to an adventure novel. A woman of great intelligence and great stubbornness, at 16, Cristina decides to go against everyone’s best advice and marry prince Belgiojoso. He was famously a lady’s man and soon went back to his old habits and even infects Cristina with syphilis, further worsening her waning health. Determined not to suffer any more humiliation, Cristina asks for them to separate. It is at this point that she veers off the traditional path to trace one for herself.
To cure her broken heart, she tours Italy, visiting Genoa, Naples, Rome, Florence and falls in love with her country. She starts to dream of a united and free Italy and discovers a new passion for politics. The Austrian police suspect her of subversive activities and place her under surveillance. They ask her to return to Milan immediately, but she refuses. They issue a warrant for her arrest and accuse her of high treason. On the night of the 17th of November 1830, she flees, crossing a river, to seek refuge in France, changing her life forever.

When she arrives in Paris, she is already a legend. The beautiful princess, with fragile health, stands her ground against a foe so much more powerful than her, that refuses to accept a fate she doesn’t like. Too proud to be dependent on her friends, she experiences poverty for the first time. All her assets are frozen, and she writes articles and paints for a living. She becomes famous as a passionate supporter of the Unification of Italy. General Lafayette takes her under his wings and manages to free her assets. In 1853 her salon is the most important meeting point amongst Italian and French culture. So many famous guests grace her salon: Cavour, Massari, Mamiani, Listz, Bellini, Chopin, Balzac just to name a few, mostly politicians, academics and artists. She wore extravagant gowns, discussed politics and history with the men, she was perfect gossip material. A lot of the rumours circled around her love life: she was said to have had many affairs with both men and women. In 1838 she falls pregnant and discovers, during motherhood, a new type of love. That same year a general amnesty allows her to go back to Italy. She seeks to escape the gossip and finds refuge in her estate in Locate. Here, she is profoundly shocked by the farmers’ horrible living conditions. As it is not in her nature to witness somebody suffering without trying to alleviate the pain, she introduces new hygienic norms, cares personally for the sick, builds schools for children and the youth. In a few years, Locate becomes a modern and innovative community. Sadly, her difficult relationship with the government hinders her from expanding her innovations and her neighbours are afraid of her ideas. Being a woman makes it impossible for her to pursue a classical career in politics. She thus finds a way to express her political views through journalism. She is deeply convinced that progress can only be obtained through the education of people and considers her writings an instrument of change. During this time she travels back and forth from Paris working as a journalist. She is the director of the first Italian political journal. It is with a pen as her sword that she fights for the unification of Italy.
In 1848, revolution is in the air. Cristina goes on a second tour of Italy. This time she is not a woman with a broken heart but a political activist. Everybody wants to hear her talk and she is full of engagements. In her letters, she writes to her friends that this warm welcome makes up for all the suffering she has endured for her country. The Five Days of Milan surprise her during her stay in Naples. In a whirlwind, she organizes a ship on which she sails with the Belgioioso battalion of 200 male volunteers. When she arrives in Milan she is welcomed by cries of victory and cannot keep her is overcome with emotion. Yet, she will not succumb to optimism, she is an expert in history and politics and sees clearly all the obstacles that still lay before them on the path to a united Italy. Being a realist, she thinks that the best way forward is to use the Savoy monarchy to unite Italy. In the future, a republic may be considered, but it is not the right time yet. When General Radetzky takes back the city, she is forced once again to leave, shocked and disappointed by the fact that King Carlo Alberto did not defend the city.
She is thus convinced that a republic is the only way to go. When Rome rebels, she decides to leave France and economic stability, and go work as a foreign correspondent. In Rome, she quickly starts to disagree with the politics of the triumvirate, yet she gives her all to make the endeavour succeed. She becomes the Director General of the military Ambulances and has the task of running all of Rome’s hospitals. Cristina appeals to all the women in Rome, and hundreds of them come to help her: noblewomen and prostitutes working side by side – which will later be heavily criticized, even by the pope himself. In a few days, she manages to make a new plan of action for the hospitals, organises new medical posts in strategic places and makes all the volunteers go through basic nurse training. The fight is bloody. They resist for a month before they have to surrender. Even as the French march into Rome, Cristina stays with the wounded. She fights hard to take care of them until an anonymous letter informs her that a warrant for her arrest has been issued. Once again, she flees with her child and her governess.
The dream of a free and united Italy seems to be lost, without hope she retires in Anatolia where she lives a very simple life in the country. Sadly, the economic situation worsens and her health, too. Subjected to an assassination attempt by one of her servants – a retaliation because she had chastised him before for his violent conduct– she found herself lame and with her head slanting towards the left for the rest of her life. She cannot afford a doctor, so she handles it herself. She worries for her daughter and it is for her sake that she finally accepts the Austrian blackmail: to trade her assets for her return to Milan and her loyalty. When she arrives in Milan, she dedicates herself to the future of her daughter Maria and the legal process granting her recognition as the legitimate child of prince Belgiojoso. Maria marries a man that she sincerely loves, and Cristina is very happy to care of her grandchildren. Even though she cannot do anything actively against Austria she follows every development in the unification of Italy with passion. And when she can, she writes about politics and history.
In 1866 she publishes the article Of the present condition of women and their future, in which the quote stems at the base of the statue. It is the first time that Cristina addresses publicly the matter of gender. She, an example of how stupid it is to consider women naturally inferior to men, hesitates in asking for emancipation, a word she refuses to use. From her words, you can glean the price she paid by living always in contrast with her time and her contemporaries, how much it cost her to give up her femininity to cloak herself in traditionally masculine attributes. She was admired and slandered, heard but never really listened to. She feared recommending a similar life to other women. And yet, she dreams of a world in which society is enriched by the intellect, the advice, the work of women. A world in which women and men are free and equal to work together for the good of the community. She was able to see her first dream come true. Cristina «The first woman of Italy» died on the 5th of July 1871, just three days after the big triumphal entrance of Vittorio Emanuele II into the new capital city, Rome. She leaves us women of the future the task to complete the road to happiness that she and the other women of the past started.

[1] “Cristina Trivulzio da Belgiojoso Geschichtsschreibung und Politik im Risorgimento” Karoline Roerig 2013

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