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Italian Titles of Nobility

Introduction

Until 1948, the Consulta Araldica (College of Arms) governed heraldic matters in the Kingdom of Italy. Based first at Turin and later at Rome, this agency was part of the Ministry of the Interior. Italian heraldic law was rather complex --full of regulations and other provisions attempting to preserve certain heraldic practices of the realms which had existed in Italy before 1860. Indeed, various regional heraldic commissions had spent decades to ensure that the entrenched nobilities of the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papal State, and the grand duchies of Tuscany, Parma and Modena, as well as certain formerly Austrian territories, would not be unduly offended by the body of heraldic law of the newly-unified Italy.

In general, heretofore unrecognised noble families, whether titled or not, were required by law to petition for recognition of their ranks or titles by the Crown if such was desired. The names of the heads of these families were inscribed in the Libro d'Oro della Nobiltà Italiana, a series of large, handwritten registers maintained at the offices of the Consulta Araldica. (This should not be confused with the Libro d'Oro published by the Collegio Araldico today; the Collegio Araldico is a private heraldic society, not a governmental entity, and its Libro d'Oro, though reasonably reliable, includes many fantastic histories and, particularly in cases of alleged untitled nobility, dubious claims to aristocratic lineage.)

In general, although the terms of decrees of creation issued prior to 1860 were respected, general regulations were instituted to establish national norms based on the Sardinian (Savoyard) model. While a few titles devolved to heirs male general, titles the subject of new creations were stipulated to be transmitted by legitimate male primogeniture. In certain realms, such as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, female succession had been permitted in cases where male heirs were lacking, and this policy was abrogated. Transmission of titles to adopted children required royal rescript in most cases.

The last Italian monarch, King Umberto II (1904-1983), was deposed by popular referendum in 1946. Though its results have been disputed, at least in certain quarters (particularly by fervent monarchists and by several Italian regional courts), this referendum (remarkably, the first occasion for Italian women to vote) was held under American auspices during the Allied occupation and established the Italian Republic as a legitimate state recognised internationally and, eventually, by all of the former ruling dynasties, the Vatican, the Republic of San Marino and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Article 139 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic codifies the exile of the King of Italy and his male heirs, a provision being abrogated only fifty years later. It also abolishes the Consulta Araldica and official recognition of predicati (territorial designations or "seats") if recognised during the Fascist era (i.e. after 28 October 1922). Subsequently, these designations could be suffixed to surnames as a result of particular petitions to provincial courts having jurisdiction in such matters. Eventually, Italian high courts would issue still more rulings to attenuate the status even of those titles recognised until 1922, but local courts would uphold the rights to identity of titled aristocrats in cases where impostors claimed the titles and territorial designations of living persons whose immediate forebears had been recognised by the Consulta Araldica before 1922.

The Italian Republic's recognition (for cultural purposes) of royal dynasties other than the House of Savoy served to bolster a return of adherence to nobiliary laws as these had existed before 1860. The dynasties of the Two Sicilies and Tuscany naturally recognise their own heraldic norms, rather than those of the House of Savoy. The two orders of knighthood (Order of Malta and Constantinian Order of St. George of the Two Sicilies) that recognise ancestral nobility for certain knights employ their own nobiliary standards, which in a few respects differ from those employed in the Savoy dominions in recent centuries.

Recent decades have witnessed an increasingly widespread interest in coats of arms and titles of nobility, especially among Italian descendants abroad, many of whom have been deceived by heraldic or genealogical research firms (some, ironically, operated by noble families) into believing themselves to be armigerous or even titled.

History

As recently as the eleventh century, the sovereign rulers of vast regions --Savoy in the north and Sicily in the south-- were known by the simple title of count. Until around 1300, titles of nobility were hardly necessary as indications of high birth because aristocrats bore surnames, while the common people were known only by given names. At this early date, aristocratic surnames were usually toponymic, based upon the name of the family's fief (di Grosseto, di Noto, etc.). This has led some to believe that there exists in Italian a surname prefix or other onomastic characteristic, akin to the German von, which indicates nobility. This is not true, nor do double-barrelled surnames indicate aristocratic origins; most often, a dual surname simply indicates that numerous families in the same town bore the same surname and eventually required differentiation to distinguish among themselves. As mentioned above, a nobleman's name sometimes includes a predicato, though not a title. Thus, Giuseppe Lanza, Prince of Trabia bears the surname Lanza di Trabia, rather than simply Lanza (a common surname), on legal documents. So great were the differences between the rulers and the ruled in medieval Italy that a common man would not think to impersonate a knight or lord, although this has certainly changed.

The majority of feudatories were simply signori (from the French seigneur, a title introduced into Italy by the eleventh-century Normans), vassali (vassals) or cavalieri (knights). Eventually, this class came to be known collectively as the baroni (barons), as in Italy barone was not always a title descriptive of a particular feudal rank. During the fourteenth century, most minor feudal lands became baronies, their holders barons. It must be observed that the use of these titles usually required some form of sovereign sanction or feudal tenure.

Though they had been used rarely, titles of nobility had certainly existed before circa 1300, but these were usually military ranks and not hereditary. During the fourteenth century, nobiliary titles became hereditary in most of Italy, usually transmitted by male primogeniture and almost invariably linked to land.

Under the Longobards and their residual civilization (the Lombards) in Italy, a fief might devolve to heirs male general of the feudatory, which is to say, to all of his legitimate sons. Yet, this was not a uniform or universal practice. With the Norman influence, Frankish law, dictating male primogeniture as a means of feudal succession, supplanted the Longobard norm in most of Italy. With very few exceptions, Italian titles are inherited only by eldest sons.

By tradition, certain titles, usually dukedoms, are vested in the persons of royal princes. The Head of the Royal House of Italy, though a royal prince, is the Duke of Savoy. The Head of the Royal House of the Two Sicilies, also a royal prince, is the Duke of Castro. These titles are analogous to the royal dukedoms (York, Kent, Windsor, etc.) accorded to members of the British Royal Family.

There was a time, until 1812 in some regions, when the purchase of land designated "feudal" ennobled the buyer ipso facto; the purchaser of a comital fief (a county) thus became a count. This practice ceased with the abolition of feudalism. (Serfdom, a feudal institution, was abolished in Italy during the Middle Ages.) A number of families still own portions of their traditional feudal holdings, but feudal rights and prerogatives of any kind were finally abrogated by the time that Italy was united in 1870. Although most Italian titles are attached to nominal "seats" (territorial designations), usually the names of fiefs or dimore, the ranks and titles are incorporeal. That is to say that, like an idea, name or copyright, the titles constitute a form of intangible property, but property nonetheless. In fact, this is true of nobiliary titles in most nations; the Duke of Westminster, for example, would retain his ancestral title even if he had no actual property in the dukedom of Westminster.

In the Kingdom of Italy, titles of nobility did not accord their holders parliamentary seats or, indeed, any particularly noteworthy privileges save for some purely heraldic (armorial) ones, such as the legal use of a title and coat of arms and precedence at the Royal Court. The principle that the person of a "peer" or other nobleman was inviolable was not applied in nineteenth-centuruy Italian law, for it did not exist. That a titled nobleman ("pari" or "peer" in common parlance though "peers of the realm" were actually greater nobles elected to the Sicilian Parliament beginning in 1812) might enjoy freedom from attachment was likewise an unknown right.

One reason for this is that with the introduction of liberal Savoyard (Piedmontese) law throughout most of Italy by 1870, the Neapolitan and Papal attitudes toward the rights of the nobility had already begun to disappear, and in the event were no longer supported by statute.

Titles and Ranks

Principe, Principessa. (Prince, Princess). From the Latin princeps, meaning first, this is the highest Italian title of nobility, and also the title accorded members of the royal families. Many of Italy's noble princes, particularly in northern regions, are princes "of the Holy Roman Empire," and lack feudal territorial designations attached to their titles. Some southern princes descend from the most ancient medieval feudatories. In most cases, the holder of a princely title in Italy is the descendant of forebears who in antiquity were barons or counts, the family having been elevated through the nobiliary ranks over the centuries. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, princes were addressed most formally as "Your Excellency," a form of address that may be compared, in this instance, to the British use of "Your Grace" for a duke or duchess. The wife of a prince is a princess. The younger son of a prince, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei principi di (seat), namely a "noble of the princes of" some place. Use of the honorific appellations don (lord) and donna (lady) for the son and daughter of a prince is obsolete except in formal documents issued by institutions that recognize Italian titular nobility. Princes and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and territorial designation. The heraldic coronet of a noble prince is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by four visible pearls between five visible strawberry leaves. In most representations, the deep red tasselled cap is not rendered within the coronet.

Duca, Duchessa. (Duke, Duchess). Derived from the Latin dux, a military leader, this title originally was reserved to the sovereign rulers of important territories, such as the Duchy of Spoleto. Like princedoms, dukedoms are sometimes borne by nobles whose early medieval forebears were barons, enfeoffed knights or other feudatories. Like princes, dukes were formerly accorded the address "Your Excellency." The younger son of a duke, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei duchi di (seat), namely a "noble of the dukes of" some place. Dukes and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and territorial designation. The heraldic coronet of a duke is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by five visible strawberry leaves. Usually, the crimson tasselled cap is not rendered within the coronet.

Marchese, Marchesa. (Marquess, Marchioness). The term derives from the Old Italian marchio, referring to the man charged with guarding a march, or border territory, and the French marquis shares the same origin. The Marches region, which borders Umbria, is so-called because it was once such a territory. Some attribute the origin of this word to the Middle Latin marchisus, a prefect. Most marquessates are of modern foundation; one reads of few marchesi before the fifteenth century, and the title is quite rare even today. The younger son of a marquess, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei marchesi di (seat), namely a "noble of the marquesses of" some place. Marquesses and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and surname; since in Italy a woman usually continues to use her own father's surname even after marriage, a marchesa may bear a surname other than her husband's. The heraldic coronet of a marquess is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by three visible strawberry leaves, the central leaf flanked by two rows of three pearls each, supported by stems or set directly upon the rim.

Conte, Contessa. (Count, Countess). The word traces its origin from the Latin comes, for military companion. Comital territories were large in the eleventh century, but virtually indistinguishable from baronies by the fourteenth. For purposes of precedence, there is no contemporary distinction between a feudal count and a count palatine; the latter was usually a court officer who lacked a territorial designation attached to his title. It is noteworthy that conte is one of the few Italian titles sometimes, though rarely, inherited by all heirs male, depending on the terms set forth in the patent of creation. The younger son of a count, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei conti di (seat), namely a "noble of the counts of" some place. Counts and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and surname. Counts palatine were created by certain sovereigns and by the Popes and usually bore no territorial designations attached to their surnames The heraldic coronet of a count is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by nine visible pearls, supported by stems or set directly upon the rim.

Visconte, Viscontessa. (Viscount, Viscontess). Originally vice comes, for the attendant of a count, this is the rarest of the modern Italian nobiliary titles, almost unknown in some regions. The younger son of a viscount, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei visconti di (seat), namely a noble of the viscounts" of some place. The standard crest coronet of a viscount is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by five visible pearls, the middle and outer ones supported by stems, the remaining two rendered in a smaller diameter and set directly upon the rim.

Barone, Baronessa. (Baron, Baroness). The title is probably of Germanic origin; the Latin root baro referred to a simpleton, but by the Middle Ages baronis was a title of nobility or, more often, a nobiliary rank employed in reference to holders of feudal property. Most seigneuries (see below) were eventually elevated to baronies. In the South, the most important medieval baronies were elevated to princedoms or dukedoms by the eighteenth century. Though often employed loosely in the remote past, the title barone was by 1800 established to be a creation or recognition resulting from royal prerogative, not an honorific privilege to be appropriated by any wealthy landholder. Heraldic regulation in the Kingdom of Italy further established that the sons of barons could no longer appropriate cavaliere as a courtesy title. Barone is the most frequent of the modern Italian noble titles. The younger son of a baron, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei baroni di (seat), namely a noble of the barons of" some place. The standard heraldic coronet of a baron is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by seven pearls, supported by stems or placed directly upon the rim.

Signore (seigneur). Originally a feudal lord, the title was introduced into Italy by the Franks and Normans. Formerly a minor title, the title is rarely used today because most signori bear greater titles by which they are commonly known, and because, in common parlance, signore has come to mean "Mister." It may, albeit in an abstract sense, be compared to such ancient titles as mor, esquire or manorial lord. Seigneuries were feudal lands, similar to baronies, appertaining to certain lords, either as sub-fiefs attached to baronies or, more often, depending from the Crown directly. A signore might therefore owe fealty to a baron or directly to the king. This is the lowest title which carries a seat. As these noblemen bear a title which is no longer in use, though still mentioned in nobility directories, no particular crest coronet is displayed for this rank. In practice, a signore may display the coronet of an untitled nobleman (see below).

Patrizio (Patrician). The term obviously derives from that used to describe the aristocratic class of ancient Rome, and described the urban patriciate of certain northern Italian cities. A patrizio is said to be "of" a certain place, such as Venice or Florence, without it being his "feudal" seat (patricians were an urban aristocracy). The rank is normally transmitted to heirs male general. According to legislation enacted by the Consulta Araldica, there is no feminine, but the daughter of a patrizio might be said to be dei patrizi [surname], namely "of the patricians [surname]. Patrizio is also the translation of the name Patrick; Patrizia is Patricia but is never used as a title. The crest coronet of a patrician is a simple jewelled circlet of gold.

Nobile (Untitled Nobleman). In the Dark Ages, local leaders known to their people were nobiliti, from the Latin nobilitas, meaning, appropriately, "known." The rank denotes some, but not all, aristocratic Italian families which lack titles. This class may be compared to the landed gentry of Great Britain. There are, strictly speaking, two kinds of nobili-the younger sons of titled nobles and male members of the aforementioned noble families in which there have never been titles. The crest coronet of a nobile is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by five pearls, supported by stems or set directly upon the rim.

Cavaliere Ereditario (Hereditary Knight Bachelor). This rank, usually transmitted by male primogeniture but sometimes to heirs male general, is quite similar to a British baronetcy but older. However, it does not, as is commonly believed, have any direct connection to the medieval rank of the enfeoffed knight. Most cavalieri ereditari descend from the younger sons of nobles or from historically untitled families ennobled with this form of knighthood in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries in Sicily, Sardinia and some parts of mainland Italy. Writing in 1925, Francesco San Martino de Spucches speculated that, at least in theory, hundreds of Sicilians entitled to no other hereditary honour could lawfully succeed to particular hereditary knighthoods which were long-dormant for lack of claimants.

Some parts of this article have appeared previously in The Coat of Arms (journal of the Heraldry Society, London), the Journal of the Orders and Medals Research Society (London), the New Zealand Armiger, and the Commonwealth Heraldry Bulletin.

©1997 L. Mendola


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