Jelena Petrović Njegoš, aka Elena of Montenegro (It. Elena del Montenegro or Elena di Savoia), was a Montenegrin princess and an Italian queen, a caring mother, wife and grandmother, a great benefactor, versatile artist, painter, poet, photographer, archaeologist and patron of the arts. She was born in Cetinje on 28th December 1873, as the sixth child and fifth daughter of Prince Nikola and Princess Milena
Christened by Russian Emperor Alexander II Romanov, at the age of ten she was sent to be schooled at the Smolny Institute of Noble Maidens in Saint Petersburg, which was under the patronage of the empress. It was there that she discovered her talent for painting.
It was while attending the first International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 1895 that she met Italian Prince Victor, with whom she developed a close affinity thirteen months later, at a ball in Russia to celebrate the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. Their rapport didn’t go unnoticed by Vittorio’s father, Italian King Umberto, who was troubled by his son’s disinterest in marriage and wanted to strengthen his lineage with “new blood”, as there were too many marriages between cousins in the dynasty.
Princess Jelena Petrović Njegoš strengthened the Savoy dynasty by providing it with five children, while her numerous acts of benevolence led to her becoming a favourite among the Italian people.
“I ask you if you will give me your hand and consent that you will take me, and I offer you mine. I want, and later we will ask my and your parents if they will give us permission and blessing,” – it was with these words, in 1896, that Italian Prince Victor Emanuel proposed to Princess Jelena, the daughter of Prince Nikola Petrović Njegoš, while the Italian prince was visiting the Montenegrin court in Cetinje. And he thereby resolved, with this short dialogue, an issue that the diplomats of Montenegro and Italy had been working on for almost two years. Of his nine daughters, Prince Nikola Petrović Njegoš managed to have five of them married into imperial and royal courts (Princess Zorka was wed to King Peter I of Serbia).
Their civil wedding ceremony was held at the magnificent Quirinale Palace, while the church ceremony took place in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, with many guests from across Europe in attendance. Princess Jelena took the surname Savoy and converted to the Catholic faith, in her firm belief that God is best served through love for one’s nearest and dearest.
A postage stamp entitled “Vittorio Emanuele III’s Wedding” was planned for issue to commemorate this event, but it was never distributed and today there are only 100 existing examples of this stamp.
In the year 1900, news of the assassination of King Umberto by an anarchist in Monza reached his son Vittorio Emanuele while he was cruising the Mediterranean with Jelena. The prince had hitherto considered his ascension to the throne as being a long way off, given his father’s age (56). The young king immediately got to work. Speaking just a few days after taking the throne, in his first address to the nation, he introduced a conciliatory policy by stating “Monarchy and Parliament go hand in hand”.
The ruling couple took up residence in Rome’s Quirinale Palace, which was surrounded by royal gardens and sports fields. A veritable oasis of happiness and joy for the royal couple, they spent years and decades of their reign in this idyll, together with their children.
The Italian people felt affection towards the new royal couple, and often also admiration. When an earthquake devastated the city of Messina in 1908, the king and queen risked their own lives by travelling to the area and spending more than 20 days helping the people of the city. The queen skilfully assisted the wounded, easing the suffering of the victims by her own hand. It was more than 50 years later, in 1960, that a marble statue was erected in Messina’s Seggiola Square, embracing the figure of the queen as a young girl who witnessed the devastating earthquake and responded as the noble, courageous benefactor known as Elena di Savoia.
The Queen of Italy had five children with King Victor Emmanuel III: Yolanda, Mafalda, Umberto, Giovanna and Maria Francesca, all of whom married into European royal houses. Jelena went down in history as the last queen of Italy.
In 1939, three months after the Nazi invasion of France, Jelena penned letters to the six European queens who were then still neutral (Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia). Victor Emmanuel III was arrested by Benito Mussolini in July 1943, but in September of that same year, with the help of their allies, the royal couple managed to find refuge in the port city of Brindisi. Their daughter Mafalda was arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp, where she died in 1944. In a referendum held in Italy in June 1946, 52 per cent of voters gave their support to a republic over a monarchy. The formation of the new Republic of Italy was declared four days later, thus formally ending the House of Savoy’s rule in Italy.
Vittorio Emanuele III, who had abdicated in favour of his son Umberto II prior to the referendum, headed into exile with Jelena in May 1946. The royal couple retired to Villa Jela in Alexandria, as guests of King Farouk I of Egypt, who thus reciprocated for the hospitality that his father had previously enjoyed in Italy. Jelena remained by her husband’s side until his 1947 death. Left a widow, she only remained briefly in Egypt before relocating to France. There, in Montpellier, she was diagnosed with a severe form of cancer and died during an operation to treat it in 1952. She was buried, in accordance with her wishes, in a common grave at the Montpellier Municipal Cemetery.
Victor and Jelena hadn’t been parted from one another from 1896 onwards, even during their time in exile – 51 years of marriage, together with the Italian nation, in fortune and misfortune. Her charitable work and service to the people of Italy were so great that Catholic Bishop Ricard of Montpellier initiated the process of her beatification in 2001.
In 1937, Pope Pius XI bestowed on her the Golden Rose of Christianity, the Catholic Church’s highest honour for a woman. In a telegram of condolence sent by Pope Pius XII to her son Umberto II following her death, he described Jelena as a “Lady of charitable work”.
In 2002, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her death, the Italian Ministry of Communications issued a commemorative stamp with her likeness that linked her personality to the fight against cancer. At the beginning of the 21st century (2001), with the opening of the diocesan process for her beatification, the late queen was accorded the title “Servant of God”.
In December 2017, 65 years after her death, Jelena’s remains were repatriated from Montpellier to the monumental Sanctuary of Vicoforte Church near Turin, where they were interred alongside the mortal remains of her husband.