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Son of Last King of Italy Returns
© 2003 L. Mendola

Two of the few European royals who still found themselves exiled from their country in the year 2001 have finally returned to Italy. Prince Vittorio Emanuele, son and heir of King Umberto II of Italy, accompanied by his son, Prince Emanuele Filiberto, and consort, Princess Marina, visited the Pope briefly during the morning of 23 December 2002. For Vittorio Emanuele, Duke of Savoy, it was his first visit to Italy since 1946. For thirty year-old Emanuele Filiberto, born in Victor Emmanuel at Rome's Ciampino Airport with Italian officials.exile, it was the first ever. Well, almost, since his airplane had landed in Italy on at least one occasion in the past, while returning to Switzerland from a mission to deliver medical supplies in the Balkans. The Duke of Savoy had occasionally ventured into Italian territory while skiing in the Alps.

Arriving by private jet from Switzerland, the royal family landed at Ciampino Airport outside Rome, from whence King Umberto II had departed for exile in 1946, following his wife and children (including a young Vittorio Emanuele), who had already left by ship from Naples. Accorded full diplomatic status as guests of the Vatican, Vittorio Emanuele and his family were escorted into the Eternal City for a long meeting with His Holiness before returning to Switzerland by early afternoon.

The official Papal invitation ensured that the family's first visit to Italy would permit them the honours normally reserved to heads of state, which is the status granted by the Vatican to the heads of many non-regnant royal families.

The royal family was met by a small entourage consisting of Prince Sergei of Yugoslavia, also a grandson of King Umberto, and a few friends. Emanuele Filiberto took some pictures, but there were few journalists present. A smiling Vittorio Emanuele showed his newly-issued Italian passport to photographers.

The constitutional law prohibiting the return of male descendants of the King of Italy was finally abolished by a law promulgated 23 October 2002, published on the 26th and effective from 10th November. Recuperating from a spinal cord injury, the Duke of Savoy explained that he also wishes to meet with the President and Prime Minister as soon as possible.

Meeting privately with the Pope, who presented them with rosaries, the Savoys made a gift to the Pontiff of two books about their dynasty and a print of the Venerable Maria Cristina of Savoy, consort of King Ferdinando II of the Two Sicilies.

A half century is a long time. Conservative jurists claimed that the stated "transitory" nature of the exile meant it to be intended as temporary, and following the death of King Umberto twenty years ago his consort, the late Queen Maria Jose, was allowed to return to Italy on the basis that as a widow she could no longer be the consort of a dead man. Yet, the long exile, criticised in certain quarters for decades, had become a political issue here in Italy, where there seems to be a political philosophy for every citizen. Extreme leftists (Communists) argued that King Vittorio Emanuele III's tacit collaboration with Fascism's wars, racist laws, and social policies had forever compromised the dynasty, today comprising just four dynasts (namely Vittorio Emanuele, his son Emanuele Filiberto, Amedeo of Aosta and his own son, Aimone), the older two of whom were but young children when the Second World War ended in 1945. Post-war right wingers (such as the National Alliance) argued for the family's right to return, but many former Fascists and hard-line nationalists criticised them for the Sovereign's change of alliance in September 1943 following the Allied invasion of Sicily (at which HRH The Duke of Edinburgh was present as a young officer) and the Savoys' subsequent withdrawal from Rome. More vocal separatists (characterised by the Northern League), meanwhile, in supporting a new federalism, opposed the family's return based on their unification of the country in the 1860s. Many of Italy's monarchists entertained even more colourful views, and in the last few years have separated into various factions. Many aristocrats were indifferent. On the street, opinions ranged from the rational to the ignorant, though recent surveys indicated that most Italians supported the return of the Duke of Savoy and his son as private citizens.

The Duke of Aosta, who had served the Italian Republic as a naval officer, often made the family's case on television. In such an eclectic atmosphere, difficulty in overturning the exile law continued through the 1990s, well into the years of Italy's so-called "Second Republic."

In his election campaign, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, in private life a successful Milanese entrepreneur and reportedly the wealthiest man in Europe, made clear his intention to support abolition of the exile law. His government, consisting of center-right parties, pursued this agenda. Never before had an Italian government made the matter of the Savoys' return an important question of national policy.

In recent years, the Duke of Savoy has made statements condemning certain actions of his grandfather, Vittorio Emanuele III, a constitutional monarch whose long reign encompassed both world wars and many difficult growing pains for his nation. After the Second World War, following King Umberto's departure in the wake of the referendum establishing the Italian Republic, a general amnesty prohibited legal prosecution of Italians for crimes related to Fascism or the war, while the trials of a few Fascist officers resulted in only minimal or "suspended" sentences, even as the United Nations issued a declaration making Italy the first nation ever cited for crimes against humanity. Umberto, formerly an air force officer, was implicitly absolved from any wrongdoing. The impoverished Italian state was obligated to abolish most of what remained of its military fleet and pay reparations to Ethiopia, Greece and Albania, although relief came from the United States with the Marshall Plan. From Milan to Palermo, as bombed cities were gradually re-built, the "Italian Miracle" took hold, with increased economic development in the flourishing of entire industries. Most Italians got on with their lives, and the country eventually became part of the UN and NATO.

Residing in Portugal in the 1950s, King Umberto, though highly regarded by many, remained a symbol of an entire nation's errors, horrors and defeat. It was a collective opinion both tragic and unjust, but His Majesty passed his decades of exile in quiet dignity. For some he was Fascism's last victim. Neither perception was flattering, but until his final days, suffering from terminal illness in Switzerland, his return from exile was hotly debated.

Following the king's death, Vittorio Emanuele succeeded his father as head of the dynasty and he, too, became a target of sorts for Italian journalists and cynics. As Communism fell in eastern Europe and exiled monarchs were allowed to visit their former realms, as the son of Austria's last emperor was allowed to visit Vienna, the Savoys' exile continued. It has taken two generations for an indecisive Italy to confront its past by allowing King Umberto's heirs to enter the country.

The Duke of Savoy returns to an Italy far removed from the place he left as a child in 1946. Yes, for the man born to be king, Italy is a different country. For his son, it's a new one. And for an Italian family the Second World War has finally ended.

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