Italian Titles of Nobility
See also: Sicilian Heraldry & Nobility • Sicilian Genealogy • Books • Interview
©1997 – 2015 Louis Mendola
An article of this length can be little more than a precis. Apart from the presentation of the simplest facts, the author's intent is to provide accurate information, avoiding the bizarre ideas that color the study of the aristocracy. At best, this web page is a ready reference that offers a quick overview and a very concise bibliography; it is intended as nothing more. This page is published for the benefit of the historian, genealogist, heraldist, researcher or journalist – and all scientific freethinkers – in search of an objective, unbiased summary that does not seek (or presume) to insult their knowledge, intelligence or integrity.
The study of the nobility and heraldry simply cannot exist without a sound basis in genealogical science. Genealogy is the only means of demonstrating familial lineage (ancestry), be it proven through documentation or DNA, be it aristocratic or humble. At 300 pages, the book Sicilian Genealogy and Heraldry considers the subject in far greater detail over several chapters, and while its chief focus is the Kingdom of Sicily, it takes into account the Kingdom of Italy (1861-1946) as well. That book includes chapters dedicated to, among other things, historiography, feudal law and proof standards. Like this web page, the book (you can peruse the table of contents, index and a few pages on Amazon's site) is the kind of reference and guide the author wishes were available when he began to study these fields seriously over thirty years ago.
In response to numerous queries over the years – including some from the news media – the author has often explained that Italy has no "college of arms" or other government agency empowered to recognize titles of nobility or personal coats of arms. Furthermore, it should be remembered that historical fact is ascertained through scientific reasoning and solid evidence, not via "approval" from a self-appointed "authority" or by somebody who happens to be descended from royalty. The text that follows is concerned with reality, not fantasy. In passing, as there are various Byzantine, Aragonese and Swabian "pretenders" in Europe and even in the United States, it should be noted that the medieval dynasties (Hautevilles, Hohenstaufens, et al.) that ruled Sicily are long-extinct, and that Italy has four royal families: Savoy, Bourbon-Sicilies, Bourbon-Parma, Hapsburg-Tuscany. The other soi-disant "pretenders" are – for lack of a better term – fabulists. That they gain acceptance on the internet or edit entries in Wikipedia does not make them real.
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. The typical American who boasts of a "noble" lineage in Italy dating from the Middle Ages based on genealogical research "by experts in Italy" is the victim of such deception. Still others have paid vendors thousands for supposed "titles of nobility" which, in reality, cannot be sold or transferred in law; those purchasing such "titles" have fallen prey to wishful thinking – a title of nobility is not a piece of paper.
Please note that the author does not, in any way, represent – or speak on behalf of – the governments, institutions, publishers or persons mentioned on this page, although he has occasionally been consulted by some of them, such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the editors of the Almanach de Gotha. Nor has the author ever been paid by any of the institutions, organisations or publishers mentioned here. Queries regarding specific cases and policies should be addressed to the relevant party, not to the author. The author does not render opinions as to the legitimacy of specific titles of nobility claimed by this or that person. (Scientifically, we can prove that such a claim is valid, but we cannot "debunk" one that isn't.) It often happens that one publisher or fount of honour "recognises" a certain person's title while another does not. The following text is based on fact rather than fiction, so – in stark contrast to most sites concerning this topic – expect the blunt and the pragmatic rather than the timid or the whimsical.
Until 1948, the Consulta Araldica (Italy's 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 (parts of Lombardy and Venetia), would not be unduly offended by the body of heraldic law of the newly-unified Italy. Camillo Benso di Cavour infamously observed that, "a Sicilian prince is about equal to a Piedmontese count."
In general, heretofore unrecognized 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 del Regno d'Italia, a series of large, handwritten registers maintained at the offices of the Consulta Araldica and now consultable at Italy's Archivio Centrale dello Stato at EUR outside Rome. An extract is presented in SAGI's Annuario della Nobiltà Italiana, described below. This official registry of the Kingdom of Italy should not be confused with the similarly-named Libro d'Oro published until 2010 by the Collegio Araldico. Defunct since 2014, Collegio Araldico was a family-operated publishing house that accepted members in an affiliated heraldic club; it was not a governmental agency.
(In passing, it should be mentioned that Italy has numerous nobiliary directories of varying levels of quality; the first publication of this kind in the united Italy, published today in a current, new series, is the red Annuario, of which an early edition is shown here. Such directories are listed under Further Reading at the end of this article.)
Although the terms of decrees of creation issued prior to 1860 were respected in the new Kingdom, general regulations were instituted to establish national norms based loosely 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 ("Sicilian 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. The decree of 1926 is the most recent legislation regarding succession and recognition; it is not part of current law.
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 fanatical monarchists), 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 recognized 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 codified the exile of the King of Italy and his male heirs, a provision abrogated some fifty years later. It also abolishes the Consulta Araldica and official recognition of predicati (territorial designations or "seats") if recognized 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, in 1967, Italian high courts would issue still more rulings to attenuate the status even of those titles recognized until 1922 (expressly abrogating most of the corpus of Italian nobiliary and heraldic law), 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 recognized by the Consulta Araldica before 1922.
Among the aristocracy, the Italian Republic's quasi-diplomatic recognition (for cultural purposes) of royal dynasties other than the House of Savoy served to bolster a return of adherence to nobiliary laws and traditions as these had existed before 1860, arcane as this matter may be. The dynasties of the Two Sicilies and Tuscany naturally recognize their own heraldic norms, rather than those of the House of Savoy. Two orders of knighthood, the Order of Malta and the Constantinian Order of St. George of the Two Sicilies, that recognize 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, and certainly in the Kingdom of Italy.
A related topic that garners much interest online is dynastic history. Dynastic headship disputes within the House of the Two Sicilies (settled amicably) and the House of Savoy (less amicably) need not concern us here. The author's stance in each case is well-known, as is his disgust at the various "royalty groupies" (typically sycophants or social climbers) who seem obsessed with publishing online "hate articles" attacking one or the other dynast's supporters.
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 surname 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.
It has become something of an urban legend that most surnames beginning de or di followed by the name of a place are in some way aristocratic in origin, and that certain names are sui generis noble. Such ideas are ridiculous; numerous Italian families having no kinship to Italy's royal Savoys are named Savoia or di Savoia.
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 the generic 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, more typically, 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 (viz. counts of the Holy Roman Empire), Italian titles are inherited only by eldest sons rather than by heirs male general.
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 that should not be confused with the manorial system of landholding, 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 (with its annexation of the last Papal territories). 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 1871, 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.
In view of complexities that sometimes arise in ascertaining the veracity of a claim to a title of nobility, the author is occasionally queried about the simplest means of determining this. The most efficient strategy is to identify descent from an ancestor belonging to the feudal nobility (by feudal tenure) or urban patriciate in the direct, legitimate male line or, alternatively, to determine such descent from an ancestor whose name was inscribed in the Libro d'Oro del Regno d'Italia (before 1946) or the official lists of Italy's predecessor states (before 1861). For the Kingdom of Sicily, for example, there are the works by Mango di Casalgerardo and San Martino de Spucches mentioned in the introduction to the author's online "Sicilian Armory." In Piedmont there are works such as Antonio Manno's Patriziato Subalpino. Although no compilation is complete, the presence of nobiliary-heraldic information in these records, in conjucnction with an accurate, generation-by-generation pedigree, is sufficient to fulfill the researcher's burden of proof in around ninety percent of the cases likely to be investigated.
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; in Italy there are numerous counts of the Holy Roman Empire. 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 Late Latin root being baro , 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. Contrary to popular belief, barone probably is not the most frequent of the modern Italian noble titles; in Italy there are thought to be more counts than barons. 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. Italy has a number of "incognito" barons, particularly in the regions of the former Papal State and Two Sicilies; for the most part these potential claimants descend from holders of tiny baronial estates who failed to petition for recognition after 1861.
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." Seigneuries were feudal lands, typically smaller than 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, and one could compare it to the English title lord of the manor (the origins of the Italian, English and French titles are Norman and traced to the eleventh century). 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). In Piedmont, most holders of the former title vassallo (see below) would be comparable to the signori of southern Italy.
Vassallo (vassal). This was the Piedmontese term for what Neapolitans and Sicilians referred to as a signore. The word was used until around 1800, and with the abolition of feudalism over the following decades most vassalli were recognized as baroni.
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 and a few southern ones (Salerno, Messina). 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 confirmed by published lists). 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. In the Kingdom of Sicily the nobles of royal ("free") cities like Piazza Armerina and Calascibetta based their rank on their status as "noble jurats" whose names were inscribed in the Mastra Nobile much as the patricians of larger cities were recognized. 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. Another category consists of the knights commander of legal patronage (giuspatronato) of the Constantinian Order; these were landholders who ceded large estates to that order of chivalry and in return bore a hereditary commandery transmitted by male primogeniture – the D'Elia family is a good example.
Recognition of Nobiliary Titles
In Italy, so long as criminal impersonation is not involved, one may call oneself by any title of nobility desired based on principles of freedom of expression and the simple fact that such titles are not regulated in law in the Italian Republic.
Despite what one occasionally reads, there exists on the part of the Italian government and (since 1984) the Vatican no official recognition of the nobiliary titles held, or claimed by, Italians. At best, Prince Borghese is addressed as Principe in the Vatican merely as a courtesy. The Republic of San Marino recognizes titles created by that state. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta recognizes certain titles, but it should be borne in mind that in the case of a knight in a nobiliary grade the juridical determinations of the Order of Malta focus principally on the status of hereditary nobility per se rather than titles held by firstborn sons. (In this regard, note that certain genealogists of the Order of Malta have occasionally, even in recent times, recognized ancestral "nobility" in cases where it did not historically exist, having in some cases based such determinations on misleading, incomplete or falsified genealogical documentation. Likewise, they have sometimes refused to recognize nobility of ancestry where it did indeed exist. The author knows of numerous cases in each category.)
In theory, and certainly in law, the heads of Italy's extant royal dynasties (Savoy, Bourbon-Sicilies, Bourbon-Parma, Hapsburg-Tuscany) may recognize titles of nobility. In practice, they rarely do.
There is no mechanism, via either a notarial act, an adoption or a last testament (will) for a titled Italian to cede or will his title to a person he designates, be that person related (cousin, nephew) or not. Furthermore, it is impossible to buy or sell an Italian title of nobility. The only way for an adoptive child to succeed to a nobiliary title was via a royal rescript, and there is no longer a king of Italy or its predecessor states to issue such a rescript or decree.
The juridical assignment of a second surname or even a predicato (territorial designation) by an Italian court of law does not constitute recognition of a title of nobility.
An Italian court's sentence in favor of a man (petitioner) asserting that he was libeled by a defendant (or respondent) who placed in doubt the petitioner's claim to a nobiliary title does not constitute the court's recognition of the petitioner's claim.
A notarial act claiming a title of nobility thought to be dormant has legal value in Italy only as a declaration. A title cannot be claimed or sold via such a declaration.
A claim to inheritance of a title of nobility through female transmission (from the claimant's mother or aunt) cannot be effected because there is no monarch to confirm it; even in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies such succession was not automatic but required approval from the Crown.
In Italy the use (or "exemplification") of a coat of arms over two or three centuries is not, in itself, an ipso facto proof or ensign of nobility, although most lawfully armigerous families were in the past noble ones, if perhaps untitled. Armorial heraldry was never regulated as rigidly in Italy as it was in Britain. At all events, there is a reasonable expectation that a family of recognized titled nobility (counts, barons) extant for at least a few generations since 1700 would have its blazon of arms in one of the various historical references published before 1946.
Historical use of such honorific titles as Magnifico or Don are not, in themselves, proofs of nobility.
No private organisation has the authority to recognize titles of nobility on behalf of Italy's royal dynasties or the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. This includes the Corpo della Nobiltà (see below) which, contrary to a popular misconception, is not a "college of arms," court of chivalry or "legal successor to the Consulta Araldica," and whose "decisions" are no longer recognized by the Order of Malta or even by private, aristocratic gentlemen's clubs like Rome's La Caccia.
Let's bear in mind the fundamental principles of epistemology, which seem to fly out the window when emotions become involved in historical views. There is nothing more ridiculous than a self-styled "expert" who petulantly proclaims that "such-and-such family is not noble because it is not listed in this-or-that book." In documentary, archival records, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. None of the references cited in the following section is complete. In his research, the author has identified many noble families – some happily flourishing today – omitted from recent compilations, sometimes for what appear to be subjective reasons, such as political motives (see below).
Factual history is based on reality, not publication on the internet by a self-appointed "authority." History, like science, has experts but no authorities.
Politics is sometimes a factor in interpreting history. Sadly, certain Italian organisations of a pseudo-aristocratic nature founded since 1948 have a strong Fascist orientation. This influences their rapport with other Italians. For example, a well-known reference published continuously for many decades has been known to delete the names of Italians who supported the partisans against the Fascist regime or who were decorated by the United States. Apart from ethical considerations, this places the historiographical judgement of such organisations and editors in serious doubt.
In connection to a point made in the previous section, contrary to widespread (mis)perceptions, the "recognition" of nobiliary status by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or by the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George does not, in itself, "confirm" ancestral nobility except within those orders of chivalry.
As mentioned above, it is impossible to sell or transfer an Italian title of nobility, or to designate an heir.
In Italy unjustified or unsubstantiated claims to titles of nobility are perfectly normal. Indeed, as many as one in five Italians (yes, an astounding 20 percent) claiming a title or rank of nobility is a "count of no account" whose claim lacks a solid basis in genealogy or in historic nobiliary law, if indeed it has any basis at all. As the use of titles is unregulated by Italian law, with the titles themselves unrecognized, there exists no legal remedy except in clear cases of impersonation for criminal purposes (typically financial/commercial fraud). Perhaps as a reaction to the frequent misappropriation or misuse of nobiliary titles, the last decade has witnessed a subtle trend among younger, legitimately-titled Italians to refrain from making use of their titles of nobility.
N.B. In historical studies, as in science, the burden of proof that an event occurred (or that a status exists) lies with the party making the assertion. It is not necessary for opponents of the assertion to prove that something did not occur or does not exist (negation or "proving a negative"). Anybody who claims a title of nobility should, in theory, be able to prove its veracity; whether he actually wishes to provide such proof to "all and sundry" is his personal prerogative. Speaking only for himself, the author contends that anybody who presumes to be addressed by a title or appellation not recognized in current law in any nation or region should be prepared to defend such a claim, e.g. an Italian who "demands" that Americans address him by a title of nobility that isn't even recognized in Italy. If the reader is in doubt, the author advocates the use of Mister or Signore, which are always correct. The late Giovanni of Bourbon of the Two Sicilies once observed that in his experience it was those having the most tenuous claims to ancestral nobility who made the most noise about it. (For what it's worth, the author also posits that American citizens, whether legitimately titled or not, should not make use of titles of nobility; one reason why Italians petitioning for United States citizenship need not renounce their titles of nobility is that the Italian state itself does not recognize their titles. More to the point, if John Julius Norwich, Ferdinand Mount and Charles Beauclerk can be known professionally and socially sans their aristocratic appellations, then so can baroncino Giuseppe Testa Grossa di Cavolo from Milan.)
Further Reading: Caveat lector!
Sicilian Genealogy and Heraldry. As mentioned above, this book considers the topics of nobility, heraldry and genealogy in greater detail, with special reference to the Kingdom of Sicily. One of its advantages is that, compared to most of the other works listed here, it is published in English.
Annuario della Nobiltà Italiana. Founded in 1878 by Giovanni Battista Crollalanza, a leading Italian heraldist of his era, this comprehensive work (particularly the editions published in 2010 and 2014), the "red book," is by far the most complete, most accurate reference of its kind published since the end of the Kingdom of Italy, the one consulted by experts, the cognoscenti. Among other details, it extracts the Libro d'Oro del Regno of the Consulta Araldica of the Kingdom of Italy and it lists a number of titled families of the pre-unitary states (Two Sicilies, Tuscany, etc.) that failed to petition for formal recognition between 1861 and 1946, along with several Jewish families excluded from other directories since the Fascist era. A continuation of the original series begun in the nineteenth century, this was actually the first directory of its kind compiled in the united Italy. It deserves pride of place as the mother of all Italian nobiliary directories published since unification in 1861. Published today with the cooperation of Crollalanza's heirs by SAGI in Lombardy and edited by a competent staff, this should be the researcher's "go to" source if the primary objective is to identify a historical aristocratic family that still flourished into our times. If a certain legitimately-titled family is not included here, it most probably isn't listed in the various other Italian nobiliary directories either.
Libro d'Oro della Nobiltà Italiana. Published every few years from 1910 until 2010 (the last edition was dated "2010-2014") by Collegio Araldico (a publishing house defunct since 2014), this reference, the "blue book," was generally quite reliable but far from complete. It based some of its editorial decisions on the advice of the Corpo della Nobiltà Italiana, a private organisation having no juridical authority in Italian law. An obvious shortcoming was that hundreds of families ennobled in Italy's pre-unitary states were absent from its pages, while certain Jewish families ennobled in Venetia, Lombardy and Piedmont were excluded. A number of titled families resident outside Italy were overlooked. In recent times, the work consisted of two volumes. Presently (2015), two rival publishing houses are engaged in a legal battle for the right to publish a revived "Libro d'Oro" under that name, each publisher having established a nobiliary organisation to assist these efforts and each supporting different dynastic claimants to the un-borne Crowns of Italy (Savoy) and the Two Sicilies (Bourbon). A book title cannot be patented or copyrighted (any author can name his novel "War and Peace"), while the plethora of Italian nobility references published in recent years has probably saturated the tiny market for such books and increased the confusion already present in the minds of many readers.*
Almanach de Gotha - Volume II. This is the English edition, but not a translation, of the famous work published in Germany. A reliable reference but it only lists (in the yellow-covered second volume) princely and ducal families, and not those of marquesses, counts or barons. Those published most recently (since 2010) are especially accurate. Like other Continental books of this kind, it lists families in every few editions – not in every one – cross-referencing these in the index. It was, of course, the Gotha, published since 1763, that inspired Crollalanza to publish his Annuario, mentioned above. He even imitated the dimensions and format. Compared to the directories released in Italy for an Italian readership, this international publication has the virtue of being published in the English language. As an international reference beholden to no specific dynasties or national jurisdictions whatsoever, it lists (for example) Neapolitan and Papal families for which dukedoms were created in "foreign" states such as Austria, France and Russia.
Enciclopedia Storico-Nobiliare Italiana. Edited by Vittorio Spreti with the assistance of regional consultants, this multi-volume work compiled in the years before 1940 is reliable if sorely incomplete. It is, however, the major compendium of its kind published in the Kingdom of Italy.
Dizionario Storico-Blasonico. The work of Giovanni Battista Crollalanza, this is an armory (it lists blazons of arms) for the Kingdom of Italy that includes extant and extinct families, including many armigerous but untitled ones of the kind which in some countries would be considered noble. Crollalanza was the founding publisher and editor of the Annuario mentioned above.
* NOTE: A decade before its dissolution, Collegio Araldico, private publisher of the first commercial Libro d'Oro books from 1910 until 2010, unsuccessfully sued SAGI, publisher of the Annuario della Nobiltà Italiana, for copyright and trademark infringement, and lost. In its (successful) defense, SAGI presented evidence that Collegio Araldico was at one time prohibited by an action of the government of the Kingdom of Italy to use the title "Libro d'Oro" of the official register retained by the Consulta Araldica as part of the Interior Ministry; indeed Collegio Araldico desisted such use of that title until 1949 – by which time the nobiliary-heraldic functions of the Kingdom of Italy were no longer an issue – for some years making use of the simpler title "Libro della Nobiltà Italiana." In other words, there was no monopoly on either the use of this specific phrase as a title, nor the publication of a nobiliary directory. Furthermore, basic, non-creative data, such as a person's name, title and date of birth published in a list, is not eligible for copyright. Other factors (which need not be expounded upon in this concise essay) also came into play. In the end, the internet, and informative books such as those of the author, made a great corpus of nobiliary and heraldic information readily available, obviating the need of publishing houses to "filter" what had for centuries been "arcane" information in the exclusive domain of archives, libraries and even private document collections. The internet has changed the world, including such countries as our beloved Italy. Despite their obvious shortcomings – legion as these are – the Annuario and (until 2010) the Libro d'Oro are without doubt the most reliable publications of their kind in Italy. The others are best ignored by serious researchers.
Due Diligence: Determining whether this or that title of nobility sported by this or that person is "legitimate" has become a cottage industry among a few outspoken, obsessive hobbyists seeking to "debunk" the claims of charlatans – or the pretensions of folks these self-styled "experts" believe to be charlatans. While acknowledging that such claimants sometimes manage to deceive the uninformed, the author believes that scholars' efforts in this area are often misdirected because the typical fantasist claiming to be a count or duke poses very little danger to society at large; we should focus more attention on the activities of serious criminals. As stated, the author does not waste his time debunking genealogical fantasies.
Some portions of this article 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. Some passages have been quoted on Wikipedia.
©1997–2015 Louis A. M. Mendola. All rights reserved.