Pretenders and offenders


Exiled former royals the House of Savoy have outraged Italians by presenting a €260 million bill to the state, writes Paddy Agnewin Rome.

When the House of Savoy presented Italy with a "bill" for €260 million this week, Italians could have been forgiven for asking themselves "what next?". The Italian "royal" family, it seems, just cannot keep themselves out of the headlines, and not always for the most edifying reasons.

The House of Savoy has written important pages in Italian history, most notably when King Vittorio Emanuele II played a role in the unification of the country in the 19th century. Modern Italy pays its dues to that memory. For example, there is the infamous Vittorio Emanuele monument in Piazza Venezia, in central Rome, a somewhat pompous building lovingly referred to by Romans as "the Wedding Cake" because of its grandiose style.

An arguably even more important link between Italy and the Savoys is the Italian football jersey. It is blue by way of homage to the House of Savoy and that is why the Italian team is known as the azzurri, the blues.

In recent times, the fortunes of the Savoys have plummeted. In a referendum in 1946, the Italian people voted for the country to become a republic rather than a monarchy, effectively putting the Savoys out of "office" and sending the male heirs into an exile, lived mainly in Switzerland. It was only in 2002, after they had renounced all claims to the throne, that the present-day Savoy heirs, Vittorio Emanuele and his son Emanuele Filiberto, were allowed to return to Italy.

In 1946, public opinion felt that King Vittorio Emanuele III had done little or nothing to contfront the dictator, Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. Not only did he sign controversial legislation such as the 1938 Nazi-style Racial Laws, which deprived Jews of both fundamental human rights and property, but he was also held responsible for having failed to keep Italy out of the second World War.

Later he was accused of cowardice, having abandoned Rome for southern Italy in the face of both Nazi and Allied offensives in September 1943, leaving the Italian army without either orders or a commander.

ALL OF THIS inglorious past raised its ugly head this week when TV current affairs programme Ballarò revealed that the Savoys have presented a bill for €260 million to the Italian state, for "moral damages" and properties lost.

Few were amused. Carlo Malinconico, chief of staff to prime minister Romano Prodi, warned that not only would the Italian government refuse to pay but it was also considering pressing charges against the Savoys for their so-called negative role "in Italian history". Meanwhile, Jewish artist Moni Ovadia called on Jews to take a class action against the Savoys for "their wickedness".

Like all Italian litigation, this one is sure to run and run. The Savoys have threatened to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that enforced exile deprives them of their "civil rights and freedom". Curiously, when the Savoys were allowed to return in 2002, parliamentary records show that they gave an undertaking to the Italian government to drop such claims of compensation.

At this stage, it seems highly unlikely that the Savoys will ever be able to repossess palaces such as Villa Margherita (currently the US embassy in Rome) or the Quirinale Palace (currently the official Rome residence of the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano).

While lawyers argue the case, though, Italians could be forgiven for losing patience.

Vittorio Emanuele seems to have a talent for prompting controversy. When the membership roll of Licio Gelli's infamous Propaganda Due (P2) freemason lodge was published in 1981, he featured among the 900 names.

More recently, in 2003, he outraged many by suggesting that the 1938 Racial Laws were "not that terrible". Two years later, though, in a letter to Milan daily Corriere Della Sera, he apologised for those remarks, conceding that it had been an error for his grandfather to have signed the legislation.

Just last summer, Vittorio Emanuele was put under house arrest after spending a week in jail. In a still ongoing case, investigators charged him with being involved in procuring prostitutes for clients of a casino on the Italo-Swiss border.

Worse still, while he was in prison he was overheard spilling the beans on another of his "misdemeanours", telling an inmate of how he had beaten the rap for the August 1978 killing of 19-year-old German Dirk Hammer.

THAT INCIDENT HAD taken place on the little island of Cavallo, off Corsica. Discovering that his yacht's dinghy had been removed and attached to another yacht nearby, Vittorio Emanuele armed himself with a gun and set about retrieving it. In the confusion of late-night darkness, he opened fire, accidentally killing Dirk Hammer, who was sleeping on the deck of a nearby yacht. When the case came to court in Paris 13 years later, Vittorio Emanuele was acquitted of the charges of fatal wounding and unintentional homicide, even though he had admitted civil liability in late August 1978.

Then, too, there was a very public, royal bust-up in Spain in May 2004. Invited by King Juan Carlos to a dinner on the eve of the wedding of Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia, Vittorio Emanuele rather spoiled his bib by getting into a fist fight with his cousin, Amadeo of Savoy, the Duke of Aosta. It was widely speculated that the fact that Amedeo now considers himself the legitimate heir to the Italian throne (given that Vittorio Emanuele has renounced his claims) might have prompted the fisticuffs. Juan Carlos was not much amused, allegedly thundering "nunca más" (never again) when informed of the scuffle.

For many Italians, faced with this week's request for money, "never again" seems like a polite response to the Savoys.