One of Rome’s most prominent landmarks, as well as being one of the most artistically questionable structures in the city, is the Vittorio Emanuele II (Victor Emmanuel the Second) monument in Piazza Venezia, just a few blocks from our curia Sant’Ambrogio in the historic center of Rome.

Piazza Venezia is one of Rome’s major traffic junctions, where three important streets, the Via del Corso, Via dei Fori Romano and Via del Teatro Marcello all converge. Today cars, buses, taxis, motorbikes, horse-drawn carts and pedestrians are non-stop features of Piazza Venezia, which actually dates back only to the late 1800s.

Sometimes called “the Typewriter” (remember those?), “the Wedding Cake,” “the Marble Monster,” and other irreverent names, the Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Piazza Venezia dominates the bustling square. The hard-to-miss gigantic structure is dedicated to the memory of Italy’s first king, Vittorio (Victor) Emanuele II of Savoy, who reigned from 1861 until 1878, the year he died. Though he was Italy’s first king, he bears the title of “the Second,” only because that is what he was as king of Savoy, “Vittorio Emanuele the Second.” The title was carried over to his role as king.

The Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Piazza Venezia was designed by Giuseppe Sacconi, and construction began in 1885, and though unfinished, was dedicated in 1911, to commemorate the unification of Italy that happened under King Vittorio Emanuele. The center-piece of the monument is an enormous statue of Vittorio Emanuele riding a horse, made of gilded bronze, thirty-nine feet tall and weighing fifty tons.

Also in the monument and up a majestic flight of steps, is the “Altar of the Fatherland,” (“altare della patria”) and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This completely secular shrine bears some resemblance to homage paid to God and the saints in the hundreds of Catholic churches and other sanctuaries in the Eternal City, but there is really nothing ethereal or spiritual about the edifice.

There are always two soldiers, from various branches of the military, at the Vittorio Emanuele monument, posted on either side of an “eternal flame” at the grave of the Unknown Soldier. The military guards are present around the clock, rain or shine.

When I was a student in Rome in the 1980s, the Vittorio Emanuele II monument could only be viewed from outside, through a wrought iron fence that was always closed. Today there are openings in the fence and people are allowed into the monument, up the stairs and a much closer view of the monument than was previously permitted.

This marble structure of pillars and statues bears some remote resemblance to the beautiful colonnade in front Saint’s Peter’s Basilica a mile away at the Vatican, but the Piazza Venezia shrine to Vittorio Emanuele II pales in comparison to Bernini’s ingenious and harmonious design at Saint Peter’s Square.

Piazza Venezia’s imposing monument has been called, along with the disrespectful names mentioned above, one of the ugliest sights in the city, but it is normally an integral part of a tour of Rome. More than once, when boarding or in bus 40 or 64, taken at the city’s main train station, called “Stazione Termini,” and heading toward Sant’Ambrogio, I have been asked by tourists where the Piazza Venezia is located. They know they should be on bus 40 or 64, but where precisely to get off is unknown to them. Since Piazza Venezia is the stop just before ours, (Lagro de Torre Argentina) I assure those asking that I will indicate where to get off the bus.

The monument certainly draws crowds, usually in droves, every day of the year from what I can observe, as I regularly pass by the monument.

Besides containing a shrine to Italy’s first king, the altar of the Fatherland and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Rome’s Piazza Venezia is also a very large square that has other important sites. Among these is the Palazzo (Palace) Venezia, which the Venetian Cardinal Pietro Barbo built as his residence in 1455 next to the church of San Marco, the place in Rome where Cardinal Barbo was assigned, called his “titular church.”

In 1464 Pietro Barbo became pope, taking the name Paul II, and continued to use the Palazzo Venezia as his residence. Later the building became the Venetian embassy, when Venice was an independent republic. In 1797 the palazzo passed into Austrian hands and in 1916 it became Italian state property.

A museum is now housed in the large and imposing halls of the palace, some of which are covered with frescoes. Many sculptures, paintings and tapestries are there as well. On the ground floor of the building, at one of the corners, is a chapel where Eucharist Adoration regularly takes places, under the care of the sisters of the Order of “Daughters of the Church.”

In modern times the Palazzo Venezia was the place where the dictator Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945), nicknamed “Il Duce,” (“the Leader”) railed at the masses from the small second floor balcony. Many photographs from Fascist Italy show Mussolini on the porch of Palazzo Venezia with hands waving wildly in the air as thousands of people in the piazza below are transfixed by the words and gestures of the founder of Fascism and its dictator.

Next door to the Palazzo Venezia is the beautiful minor basilica of San Marco, originally built in 336 by Pope Mark whose mortal remains are in an urn below the main altar of the church. The basilica is the national church of the city of Venice in Rome. Somewhat over-shadowed by the Palazzo Venezia, the church well worth seeing nonetheless. It bears the name of Venice’s special patron, the Evangelist Saint Mark.

Like the Jewish Ghetto, Piazza Venezia is rich in history. One can only imagine the crowds that must have come for the dedication of the Victor Emmanuel shrine in 1911 or the multitudes who came to hear a later leader, Benito Mussolini. Both men, Vittorio Emanuele and Benito Mussolini, were complex and controversial leaders who played important roles, for better or worse, in Italy’s political history and its change from a basically Christian nation to a more secular one, and their influence is still felt at Piazza Venezia to the present day.