Ex-Italian Royals Return Home, Meet Pope
Mon Dec 23, 2:31 PM ET
By TOM RACHMAN, Associated Press Writer
ROME - After a half-century of exile and longing, Italy's former royals returned Monday to the land where their family once reigned, ending the shame of banishment imposed for the monarchy's support of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.
Victor Emmanuel, the son of the last king, made an unannounced one-day visit to Italy as a commoner, along with his wife and son. The family went straight to the Vatican (news - web sites) for a private meeting with Pope John Paul (news - web sites) II, then jumped back on a private plane for Switzerland, their home in exile.
The 65-year-old former prince — exiled from Italy since age 9 — promised he would return to Italy in February and live out a dream: to travel around the nation like a tourist.
"I'll start to visit the whole of Italy with my son, who doesn't know it," Victor Emmanuel said. "Seeing how well we've been received, it will be a great pleasure to be among you all again."
"I want to go to Naples and then we will go to Venice, and visit all the other parts of Italy — like someone who doesn't know the country."
They became legally able to enter Italy last month, when a law went into effect overturning a 54-year-old constitutional ban on the presence of the last monarch's male heirs in Italy.
His 30-year-old son, Emmanuel Filiberto, was born and raised in Switzerland, and hadn't stepped foot in the country before Monday. He described the trip with his father and mother, Marina Doria, as "magnificent."
"For me it was something magical," he said.
In recent years, many Italians began to feel that the constitutional ban on male descendants of the House of Savoy was a relic. Over the summer, parliament lifted the ban after much lobbying by the royal family.
"After all, they have not been personally responsible for anything and you cannot maintain that ban indefinitely," political analyst and author Sergio Romano said.
"Lots of people have no regard for the present members of the family, but feel that they should come back. They realize that this country has been made by the monarchy to a certain extent."
The family delayed taking advantage of the right to return because Victor Emmanuel recently suffered a back injury in a motor-rally accident in Egypt. His bad back led the family to limit their trip Monday to five hours.
The visit may have been brief, but it was emotional.
Family friend Hana Husak, who flew with the royals from Geneva to Rome, described Victor Emmanuel's response on arrival.
"I saw him tremble," she said. "He stood silent and was very emotional."
The family took a drive through central Rome, giving Victor Emmanuel a chance to see grand monuments he hadn't seen since he was a boy. Arriving at the Vatican, they had a 20-minute audience with the pope, exchanging Christmas greetings and gifts.
Each of the three ex-royals bowed before the pontiff and kissed his hand. Victor Emmanuel presented the pontiff with two books about the Savoy family and a print of a family member. The pope gave them a rosary.
John Paul offered his blessing, wished them "Merry Christmas," and added "Until next time," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
The exile goes back to a time when Italy had suffered wartime defeat and devastation, and its people looked for someone to blame. Among those deemed guilty was King Victor Emmanuel III, who had been a figurehead monarch during Mussolini's government.
On May 9, 1946, Victor Emmanuel III abdicated in favor of his son Umberto II. But Umberto lasted only a month before a referendum in which Italians voted to scrap the monarchy and make the country a republic.
Two years later, the republic's new constitution barred Umberto and his male descendants from Italy.
For the few remaining Italian monarchists, Monday's return marked the end of an unfair chapter in Italian history.
"An injustice is wiped out," said a delighted Sergio Boschiero of the Italian Monarchic Union, regretting only that the ban had lasted so long.
Another formerly exiled European royal, Simeon II of Bulgaria, returned to his homeland last year and became premier when his party swept parliamentary elections. Italy itself was home to exiled Afghan King Mohammad Zaher Shah until his return in April to help the rebuilding of his nation.
But analysts said it was unimaginable that the royal family — regularly mocked on TV comedy shows and earning little affection from the vast majority of Italians — would have a direct impact on national politics.
Analyst Romano said their return only restores a piece of the nation's history that had been missing for decades.
"All sorts of things make the history of the country," Romano said. "To keep them out is to keep them out of the history of the country."
At the Pantheon, the ancient Roman monument where the Savoy family's ancestors are buried, an elderly volunteer stood guard Monday in front of the tombs.
Retired Lt. Col. Francesco Silvestri, 83, said he was loyal to the royal family — even if he didn't think much of the current crop.
"Poor things," he said. "These three are really nothing special compared to their ancestors."
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