The first time I encountered his name, it was a passing reference, which caught my eye and posed a question. The words on the page were “Duca degli Abruzzi” and I wondered, “Who was he and what was he doing in Africa?” I am so glad I bothered to find out, for now his life has inspired a character and a whole subplot in my work in progress.
Let me tell you about the real guy.
Luigi Amedeo Giuseppe Maria Fernando Francesco di Savoia was an Italian in search of L’aventura! An explorer and mountaineer and a cousin of King Victor Emmanuel III, he eschewed the life of luxury he might have had at court to scale the highest peaks in North America and Africa, and nearly conquered K2. He also led an expedition that set records in exploring the Arctic.
Most of the aristocrats who settled in Africa were British second sons in need of a place where they could live a sumptuous life for little money. The Duke of Abruzzi was a third son, but he was drawn to Africa for a great deal more than its inexpensive but tony life style.
Prince Luigi was born in Madrid in 1873, while his father Prince Amadeo of Savoy was briefly King Amadeo of Spain. Papa abdicated his throne and returned to Italy when Luigi was three years old—at the time Uncle Umberto became Italy’s king. The title Duca delgi Abruzzi was created for the little guy.
Luigi Amedeo started his world travels in his twentieth year: going to Italian Africa in Eritrea, to Canada, and back to Africa this time to Italian Somaliland.
After developing his mountaineering chops on Mount Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Alps, he began to look for new peaks to conquer. He was the first to scale Mount Saint Elias on the US-Canadian border. The New York Times reported the exploits of Luigi and his team, including detailed descriptions of the mirage city they thought they saw on the glacier.
Perhaps that was where this Italian fell in love with ice. In 1899, he organized an expedition to the North Pole and made it further than anyone had before. They went in winter and planned to cross the frozen sea by dogsled. Along the way, the Duke lost two fingers to frostbite and had to let the others go on without him. They eventually got to 86°34’, about forty kilometers closer to the pole than any other group had ever gotten.
In 1906, the Duke returned to Africa, this time to Uganda where he climbed every mountain in sight—sixteen summits in all. One of them still bears the name—Mount Luigi di Savoia. Three years later, he took an expedition to K2 and very nearly made it to the top. The route to the summit of the second highest mountain in the world is still called the Abruzzi Route. Luigi’s attempt of K2 set the then world record for altitude.
The Duke became an Admiral in the Italian Navy in 1911 and commanded the Adriatic fleet for the Italians in World War I. After the war he went back to Somaliland and pretty much never left Africa again. Early on, he was an ally of Mussolini, but once Il Duce showed his real stripes, the Duke gave up on him and spent his time in Africa building roads, dams, schools, hospitals, churches and mosques.
I am, as I write this, busy inventing a character based on him. My guy will not be Luigi himself, but a fictional version that has his regal connections and his sense of adventure. And something like Luigi’s love life, which was no more staid than any other aspect of his experiences. As a young man, the factual Duke fell in love with Kitty Elkins, daughter of US Senator Stephen Elkins. But then King Victor Emmanuel III refused permission for his cousin to marry a commoner, Luigi’s brother stepped in, and in true Italian tradition played the family trump card and convinced the Duke to give up Kitty. He eventually married Antoinette Brizzi, the daughter of a wealthy Italian nobleman who was famous for the wines from his estate.
After his wife’s death, Luigi married a Somali woman—Faduma Ali. He died in 1933 in the Somali town he had founded, Village of the Duke of Abruzzi, and was buried there on the banks of the Shebelle River.
Lots of explorers who achieved less are much more famous. I wonder why.
Annamaria - Monday