As Queen Elizabeth II cancels a state visit to Italy, Carol King looks back at her first visits as a princess and then a young monarch.
Queen Elizabeth II is now aged 86 and perceived as an institution. Yet many may not remember how in her youth she attracted as much attention as Catherine, Duchess of
Cambridge – often still referred to as Kate – does today.
The Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, was due to visit Rome from Wednesday 6 to Thursday 7 March. However, the trip was cancelled because of she has had health issues. It would have been her fifth visit to Italy, and her fourth as Queen. It’s likely that the Queen has happy memories of her first visit in 1951 in particular because it was during the early, and more carefree, days of her marriage.
She and Prince Philip married in 1947 and they went on to have a fairly conventional married life by royal standards. They lived at Clarence House in London, had two children Prince Charles and Princess Anne, and Philip was a young officer in the Royal Navy stationed in Malta with his frigate HMS Magpie.
The young Princess Elizabeth visited Malta several times a year. The island was a place where the royal couple could mix freely with people their own age, away from the glare of the public eye – even sitting in the back row of the cinema unnoticed. Malta is where Philip took up polo – a sport in which he excelled – and he was a member of the naval team, participating in international competitions.
The couple visited Italy on holiday from 11 to 24 April 1951. They flew from Malta to Rome where the carabinieri formed a guard of honour to meet them. They stayed at the British Embassy and had lunch with President Luigi Einaudi at the Quirinale Palace. The Princess made a visit to Don Bosco Children’s Home, and she and Philip attended a dinner dance organised by the Commonwealth diplomatic corps.
The Princess and her husband went to the Vatican where they talked to Pope John XXIII for 20 minutes in his private study – because the Princess’s visit was an unofficial one, she was not be received in one of the Vatican’s formal rooms. Philip wore naval uniform and his wife a long, black velour dress with a black lace veil that hung over her head and shoulders reaching down to her knees.
However, the trip included some playful diversion, too. The couple did some sightseeing, visiting the Colosseum and watching a horse race on Rome’s oldest road, the Appia Antica. Philip played for Malta’s British naval team against Italian teams in the International Cup of Nations tournament at the Acqua Acetosa polo ground and the British press snapped the couple wearing sunglasses as they strolled to the stables.
The Princess had a celebration for her 25th birthday that month at Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) at Tivoli. They also drove from Rome to Florence to stay with Philip’s cousin, former Queen Helen of Rumania, who lived in Italy after her family was forced to abdicate.
Only three months later, the couple’s way of life changed drastically when the heath of the Princess’ father, King George VI, deteriorated. Philip returned from Malta and gave up his active naval career to support his wife in taking on more royal duties. On 6 February 1952, the King died in his sleep and she succeeded the throne. The next time the royal couple visited Italy the Princess had become Queen.
Italy welcomed the Queen and her husband for a four-day state visit in May 1961. The visit got off to a relatively informal start. They flew to the Decimomannu Italian Air Force base in Cagliari, Sardinia on 24 April. After spending a day on the island, they boarded the royal yacht HMY Britannia. Later, the yacht anchored unexpectedly off the island of Vulcano near Sicily. The Queen and Philip took a motor launch to the small volcanic island where they strolled about unknown among fishermen before heading to a hotel for an impromptu lunch. The Queen ate grilled shrimps followed by veal and then strawberries on a terrace facing the sea.
The couple sailed to Naples on the royal yacht then took a train to Rome where the Queen was met by crowds – among them actress Anna Magnani with her son Luca – who lined the streets cheering: “Bella! Viva la regina!” (Lovely! Long live the Queen!” That evening, 20,000 people chanted outside the Quirinale Palace for an hour, shouting: “Elisabetta! Filippo!” (Elizabeth! Philip!). She and Philip attended a state banquet hosted by President Giovanni Gronchi, followed by a reception attended by 3,000 members of Italian high society.
The Queen won praise in the press for her slinky evening gown embroidered with golden oak leaves, laurel leaves and silver stars, which she wore with a train of white tulle embroidered with crystals and hemmed with golden oak leaves and silver stars, set off by an emerald and diamond tiara with matching earrings and necklace.
The Queen was able to indulge her love of horses by attending a gymkhana and the Derby Italiano horse race at Ippodromo Capannelle (Capannelle Racecourse) with President Gronchi. Knowing the monarch’s love of horses, the date of the Derby was changed to coincide with her visit.
The Queen’s visit to the Holy See to meet Pope John XXIII was the first time a British monarch had had a private audience with a Pope since 1923. Wearing a black lace gown and veil designed by Norman Hartnell, the Queen chatted in French with the Pope in the Vatican’s Throne Room. In an unprecedented move, the Pope allowed TV cameras into the Throne Rome to record the event. Some 1,000 nuns and priest sang ‘God Save the Queen’ in the courtyard – the first time the British national anthem was sung in the Vatican.
The royal couple left on HMY Britannia from the port of Ancona to sail to Venice before going on to Florence. In Venice, she visited St. Mark’s Square and even had the chance to do some window shopping. They visited the small island of Torcello at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon, taking in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and Church of Santa Fosca.
The couple took a moonlit ride on a gondola on the Grand Canal. The royals’ gondola trip raised the spirits of the gondoliers themselves, in what was a triumph over bureaucracy. Until then, all the Queen’s visits around Venice had been in a motor launch. The outraged gondoliers protested to the mayor, the British Consul and eve the British Ambassador. Each time, the gondoliers were fobbed off with excuses, but when the Queen heard of their plight, she said: “I would love to ride in a gondola.”
The chief gondolier was asked to go to the royal yacht. The Queen and Philip then took a ride along the canal serenaded by guitarists singing Italian love songs aboard a barge lit by torches. When the Queen returned to her yacht, she managed to speak a little Italian to the chief gondolier, saying: “Grazie.”
The couple also visited Turin, where they visited the ‘Italia ‘61’ world exhibition and met the head of Fiat Giovanni Agnelli. The Queen then flew back to London.
In October 1980, the Queen was welcomed by President Sandro Pertini, and in 2000, she visited President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi at the Quirinale Palace in Rome. She met
Pope John XXIII in the Vatican and she met Pope John Paul II twice on her visits in 1980 and 2000.
You can find more about Queen Elizabeth II's special special affinity with Italy on our special feature dedicated to Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee.