Italian royals face lukewarm welcome home

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The Independent Online
In theory, it was a good week for Italy's erstwhile royal family. More than 50 years after it was sent into ignominious exile at the end of the Second World War, the House of Savoy cleared the first parliamentary hurdle in its campaign to have its male descendants allowed back on Italian soil.

Not only did the Chamber of Deputies vote in favour of lifting the long- standing ban, but it did so without adding an amendment whereby the royals would have to swear allegiance to Italy's republican constitution. Admittedly there is some way still to go - three more parliamentary votes, with ever- stricter rules on what constitutes a majority - but the anti-royalist taboo appears to be well and truly broken.

So much for the good news. The bad news is that the decision was taken in an atmosphere of such suspicion and hostility that the Savoys must be wondering what kind of welcome they can expect on their return from exile in Geneva. As the vote was posted on the speaker's electronic board, there were cries of "Shame! shame!" from both government and opposition benches.

Even among those who voted in favour, there was hardly an outpouring of affection for Prince Vittorio Emanuele and his family. "I have a very low opinion of the Savoys, both the past and the present generation," explained the left-wing deputy Claudia Mancina. "But you can't award or withhold citizenship according to the merits of the person requesting it."

Why so much bad feeling? Much of it is historical: the current prince's grandfather, Vittorio Emanuele III, did nothing to prevent the rise of Fascism, condoned the racial laws that condemned thousands of Italian Jews to the concentration camps, and then, in a state of sheer panic after the fall of Mussolini in 1943, switched sides in the war without informing the armed forces first.

The Savoys have hardly distinguished themselves since. Prince Vittorio Emanuele was charged with the manslaughter of a German tourist in a shooting accident on his yacht in the late 1970s. Although he was eventually acquitted, the publicity did him few favours.

More recently he has given some hair-raisingly incautious interviews about the war years. First he chose to show considerable sympathy towards Erich Priebke, the former SS captain tried and eventually convicted for his role in the massacre of 335 civilians in the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome in 1944, saying the partisans whose actions prompted the killings should have given themselves up to the Nazi authorities.

Then, when the Savoys' return had already been sanctioned by the Italian government last summer, he told state television he had no intention of apologising for the racial laws of 1938. "Those laws, you know... they weren't so terrible," he remarked.

The Savoys' press has not been all bad. In a country that cannot get enough gossip about other people's royal families (notably the Windsors and the Grimaldis of Monaco), the downmarket weeklies have occasionally ventured to paint a sympathetic portrait of Italy's own blue-bloods.

Vittorio Emanuele's 25-year-old son, Emanuele Filiberto, has meanwhile earned himself something of a heart-throb reputation by appearing - via video link-up - on a television soccer show.

The decision to allow the Savoys back has nothing to do with such antics, but is merely an acknowledgement that time has passed and the royals no longer pose a threat to anyone. As Diego Novelli, a deputy who chose to abstain in the vote because of a personal legal wrangle with Vittorio Emanuele, explained: "We had the misfortune to suffer one of the worst ruling families in European history. But given the fact that there's no lack of idiots and imbeciles in Italy, among the nobility and the common people alike, I suppose one imbecile more or less can't do any harm."