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Recognition of Titles of Nobility in Italy

A frequent question is posed as to whether an Italian title of nobility can be "recognised" in Italy. In almost every case, the answer is negative. The Italian state has not recognised titles of nobility since 1948, and affords such titles no legal protection except in very rare cases of civil law where both impersonation and financial fraud are involved. In certain cases, the predicato (territorial designation) of a titled family may be recognised as part of one's legal surname, but this requires a court decree.

The various Italian heraldic and genealogical agencies and societies cannot grant legal recognition to a title of nobility, though many would have you believe otherwise. Yet, accurate genealogical research is the only mechanism that can prove a valid claim.

Numerous Italian families descend from the untitled nobility, members of the landed gentry entitled to historical coats of arms, but in practise this form of ancestral nobility has not usually been recognised in Italy, where heraldic (armorial) regulation has always been rather lax compared to that of England and Scotland.

There are, however, several institutions which occasionally recognise Italian nobiliary titles in some way, albeit not on behalf of the Italian government.

The Royal House of Italy
The House of Savoy recognises titles of nobility in its orders of chivalry. These orders do not have nobiliary grades or ranks, but knights and dames of recognised noble families may have their diplomas of investiture inscribed with their titles. Unless the title was recognised by the Consulta Araldica (College of Arms) before 1946, or subsequently created or recognised by the King of Italy (between 1946 and 1983), a certification by the Corpo della Nobiltà Italiana (a association of nobles organised under the patronage of King Umberto II in the Italian Republic in the absence of the Consulta Araldica ) submitted to the Duke of Savoy may be considered.

Other Italian Dynasties
The royal houses of Naples (Two Sicilies), Parma and Tuscany bestow honours and recognise titles of nobility in that context. Certain of their orders of chivalry have nobiliary grades. In theory, titles should be recognised based on the nobiliary regulations in force in these realms before 1860, but this is not always the case. However, historical titles (those recognised before 1860) are accepted as legitimate if genealogical descent is clear.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta
Apart from the courtesy acceptance of titles (in correspondence, for example), the Order of Malta concerns itself primarily with nobility of birth for its knights and dames, rather than the titles themselves. The Order of Malta has nobiliary ranks.

The Holy See
Though it rarely creates titles, the Holy See (and the Vatican) may recognise these, and sometimes indicates such titles in diplomas issued for Papal knighthoods.

Social Entities
The membership of certain clubs in Italy (La Caccia in Rome comes to mind) are exclusively reserved to titled noblemen or those listed in the Libro d'Oro published by Collegio Araldico. The Libro d'Oro is not an official or infallible record, but bases its inclusion of certain titles on the determinations of the institutions described above.

A number of factors enter into the fray:

Social Practises
If some institutions recognise titles, it is clear that certain social practises unforeseen in Italy until the republican era have influenced the situation of titular claims. In Catholic families (the majority), divorce, in particular, creates problems where there is no ecclesiastical annulment of marriage. For example, a count wed in the Catholic Church divorces without regularising his position with the Church (through annulment of the marriage). He then remarries. Is the son by the second marriage a legitimate heir to the title of nobility? There is no precedent in the legal structure of the Kingdom of Italy, which recognised Catholic marriages but also civil ones, to address the matter; divorce was legalised in Italy quite recently. Today, the Italian state recognises ecclesiastical marriages, and recognises church annulments as divorces, but the Catholic Church does not recognise divorce.

Nobiliary Law
In principle, nobiliary law should govern matters such as inheritance of titles, but varying practises in different regions create difficulties. In the Two Sicilies, for example, succession through female lines was not unknown, but in the Kingdom of Italy, where it was not automatic, a decree or rescript was necessary to permit it. Today, the heirs to the kings are reluctant to issue decrees in matters of this kind.

Foreign Titles
Some Italian citizens bear post-war titles from foreign sources. In times past, the assent of the sovereign of a subject's home country was required for official use of the foreign title at home. This law cannot be applied today. Italian citizens ennobled in the Republic of San Marino or the Principality of Monaco claimed nobility in Italy, but beginning in 1918 the Consulta Araldica ceased to record these titles as though they were Italian ones. Henceforth, only a special decree could establish such recognition in Italy.

Absent Recognition
This ironic and arcane principle of Italian law (translated literally from the Italian legal term) describes a legitimate title of nobility decreed or recorded but for some reason, perhaps through oversight, never listed in subsequently published official regstries. This creates a problem because, in the absence of the original record (the chancery's copy) in the royal archive, there is no way to guarantee the record in the nobleman's possession today. The greater part of the royal archives of the pre-unification kingdoms has been lost, though something has been preserved in the Italian state archives. Fortunately, cases of "absent recognition" are quite rare.

Which dynasty has jurisdiction to recognise nobiliary titles in the city of Naples? Is it the House of the Two Sicilies or the House of Savoy? In the often metaphysical world of noble titles, it's not just a rhetorical question. Unlike the Vatican, which formalised its relations with the Kingdom of Italy in 1929, the dynasties of Naples, Parma, Tuscany and Modena (the last now extinct in the male line) did not sign such accords. This makes it possible for a title to have been recognised by the kings of these states but not by the kings of a united Italy. Today, when there is no king, the solution is not clear.

False Titles
Unfounded pretensions to titles of nobility are not unknown. Indeed, they are numerous. There is no way to control this phenomenon, as there is no governmental authority empowered to recognise any title of nobility. Furthermore, titles are not illegal in Italian law, merely "unrecognised." Most bogus titles are granted by equally bogus founts of honours --"princes" and the like.

All things considered, a fascinating field.

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