Queen Elizabeth II is the second longest serving current head of state in the world. In her long and continuous reign as Queen of the UK and Commonwealth, her travels to 116 countries - including Italy - make her one of the most widely travelled monarchs in history.
Marking her milestone Diamond Jubilee in memorable style, a recent four day special weekend was held nationwide across the UK – and throughout the Commonwealth - with the Queen hosting key events in the capital. Millions tuned in worldwide to witness the unique commemoration – a perfect prelude for the forthcoming Olympics.
Crowning moments were many, setting sail with a spectacular floating procession on the River Thames, with 1000 boats escorting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Reflecting Britain’s rich maritime history, vessels in the flotilla included the Belem, Europe’s oldest tall ship to a James Bond speedboat. The scene was reminiscent of a Canaletto masterpiece – and even included Venetian gondolas for good measure.
For many, the special pop concert extravaganza held outside Buckingham Palace rivaled the famous Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert of 2002. Britpop from Sirs Paul McCartney to Elton John - plus an international flavour - represented every decade of the Queen’s reign. Anglo-Italian opera star Alfie Boe delivered a rousing ‘O Sole Mio’, before rocking into an exciting Elvis version of ‘It’s Now or Never’. An estimated 250,000 packed into The Mall leading up to the Palace, rising to 1.5 million the next day to witness the colourful pomp and pageantry of the Queen and family’s fairytale finale of traditional carriage procession and appearance on the Palace balcony.
Acceding to the throne in 1952 in the days when Britain was still an Empire, the Queen has always managed to keep the delicate balance between continuity and change. She has weathered great change since: from shielded privacy to her family subject of the paparazzi; from conservative ‘50s Britain through swinging ‘60s London; from the perception of Great Britain as an island nation to part of Europe; from the solid Christian family values she was brought up with to personal disappointment when in turn, three of her four children divorced – none more publicly than Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Italians may empathise with the professional way Elizabeth runs the monarchy, and in the way she refers to her Royal clan in private as ‘The Firm’. In common with the Italian feeling for family, she is mother as well as monarch; mama and Ma’am; a great grandmother and nations’ matriarch. Prince William described the Queen as ‘grandmother first, Queen second.’ And went onto say: ‘She’s brought life, energy and passion to the job. She’s modernised the monarchy and shows the strength of women at the top.’
Viewed as a model of English modesty, the Queen’s said to have great humour in private - though in public she prefers discretion to over-expression. A famous example took place on meeting ex Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi at a G20 meeting in 2009. After he had exclaimed ‘Mr Obama’ to the US President, the Queen was apparently overheard to comment drily, ‘Why does he have to shout?’
The Latin language, however, has over time, often guided British royal protocol. Her Majesty’s signature insignia is ER or Elizabeth and the Latin Regina - the Italian equivalent of the word Queen. An important Latin text, from 1382, the Liber Regalis has been consulted over the centuries to accompany the ‘pomp & ceremony’ of English and British coronations - including Elizabeth II’s coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Interestingly, the Queen still favours Latin phrasing at times of strong emotion, it seems. During the ‘90s she spoke publicly of her ‘annus horribilis’ - referring to her horrible year which had marked the deterioration of the marriage between Charles, her eldest son and Princess Diana – all tracked unflinchingly by the British paparazzi – along with the terrible fire at Windsor Castle. Recent times have been happier with the worldwide broadcast of the wedding of her grandson Prince William, second in line to the throne, to Catherine, now Duchess of Cambridge.
Of special note are the Queen’s very many goodwill state tours, extending the hand of friendship far and wide. Within her reign she has travelled to Italy and variously seen Rome, Naples, Pompeii and Palermo, Venice and Florence to Genoa. To mark the occasion of her first state visit in 1961 in style, then president Gronchi commissioned Pininfarina to deliver four stretch Lancias as royal transport for the momentous occasion. With the Queen’s love of horses in mind, her personal trip highlight would likely have been enjoying The International Horse Show in Rome.
Unlike the ‘carte blanche’ enjoyed by presidents, as a constitutional monarch, Elizabeth cannot be seen to express her own political opinions in a public forum. She has met and kept a ‘cordiale entente’ with, five of the eleven Italian presidents of recent times: Giovanni Gronchi, Pertini and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi; met respectively in 1961, 1980 and 2000. In the UK, she received President Gronchi early in her reign in 1958, followed by presidents Saragat in 1969, Francesco Cossiga in 1990 and Ciampi in 2005. Without doubt her biggest Anglo-Italian achievement and historic breakthrough has been in forging good relations with the Papacy, considering that she has outlived six Popes.
By inheriting the staunch title of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Elizabeth could have stayed stuck in ancestral aspic. For despite the common thread of Christianity, her ancestral predecessor and namesake Elizabeth I, changed history the first time by breaking ties with the Holy See. In comparison, Elizabeth II has demonstrated a support for inter-faith relations.
In 1961 she visited Pope John XXIII and in 1980 and 2000, Pope John Paul II. She in turn has received the latter Pope in 1982 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. In 1980 the Queen made history as the first British monarch to make a state – or formal – visit to the Vatican. Described at the time by BBC news as a ‘warm and relaxed’ encounter, the visit was seen as a significant step in building bridges between the Church of England and Roman Catholics. Subsequently, the Queen invited Pope John Paul II to the UK in 1982 on a pastoral visit, adding: ‘We support the growing movement of unity between the Christian Churches throughout the world and we pray that your Holiness’s visit to Britain may enable us all to see more clearly those truths which both unite and divide us in a new and constructive light.’
In turn the Pope replied, ‘I render homage to the Christian history of your people, as well as to their cultural achievements. The ideals of freedom and democracy, anchored in your past remain challenges for every generation of upright citizens in your land.’
The Queen visited the Vatican again in 2000 to mark the 20th anniversary of their first meeting. In turn, the Pope reinforced their close ties over the years when he said: ‘Relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See have not always been untroubled; long years of common inheritance were followed by the sad years of division. But in recent years there has emerged between us a cordiality more in keeping with the harmony of earlier times and more genuinely expressive of our common spiritual roots.’
Courteous to the different cultures with which she comes into contact, the Queen dresses with respect to suit every occasion. In line with Vatican protocol - but unusually for the Queen - she dressed in black for meetings on Italian holy ground. Though she favours classic British couturiers, her usual on duty wardrobe displays an almost Continental use of bright colour. This is functional in that she feels it important to stand out in a crowd. Kensington Palace Royal Ceremonial Dress Archives report that last year alone the Queen opted for a palette of Mediterranean blues across 29% of her engagements. A sense of appropriate elegance has to underpin every choice of outfit – with trademark hat, gloves, court shoes and framed handbag. No wonder that Italian designers Valentino to Dolce e Gabbana cite her as one of their all-time icons.
Leading up to the Jubilee the Queen commented: ‘In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the strength of family, friendship and good neighborliness. I also hope that this Jubilee year will be a time to give thanks for the great advances that have been made since 1952 and to look forward to the future with clear head and warm heart.’
She is said to live life by the motto: ‘Never explain, never complain.’ It could also be ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ As both mother and monarch, she has seen many milestones both in public life and in personal, with more in store. November marks the 65th wedding anniversary to her husband, Prince Phillip, now 91. Above all, she is never a puppet Queen… but one with principles that have helped shape the world - and certainly Britain’s diplomatic relations of faith with Italy. As one banner in the massive Jubilee crowd proclaimed: ‘Elizabeth the Great.
She’s a diamond!’
He has works hanging in the Vatican to the Uffizi and Pitti in his native Florence amongst others, but the painting that made the late Pietro Annigoni world renowned – a romantic portrayal of the Queen in 1955 – is on show for the first time in 26 years at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Considered by many to be both the most famous and popular of her portraits, the Renaissance inspired piece broke all attendance records when unveiled at the Royal Academy. Annigoni didn’t just want to capture ‘…the regal dignity of a queen, but also as she appeared to me – a beautiful young woman.’ Consequently, he went on to paint several members of the Royal Family including the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. Exhibiting until the 21st October, see www.npg.org.uk for more.