Thursday, March 01, 2007

Royal cousins fight for defunct Italian throne

By Malcolm Moore in Rome

Italy is bracing itself for an unseemly court battle over who has the right to call himself the head of the country's royal family.

While the titles and honours of the Italian royal family have not legally been recognised since 1946, when the republic was founded, Prince Victor Emmanuel, 70, has ruled over the House of Savoy since the death of his father, Umberto II, in 1983.

However, his cousin Amedeo, 63, the 5th Duke D'Aosta, strenuously maintains it is he, not Victor Emmanuel, who is the true heir to the defunct monarchy.

Last summer, Amedeo declared that he had changed his name to Savoy and would assume power. However, his attempt to seize control will be fiercely fought by Victor Emmanuel in a closed hearing at a court in Arezzo at an undisclosed date this month.

Victor Emmanuel has said Amedeo's membership of the dynasty has now been cancelled, "because of his gravely injurious behaviour towards the honour of our royal person." In addition, he denounced Amedeo and his son Aimone to the court for usurping the name of Savoy and the position of family head.

The quarrel between the two men has raged for several years and once even resulted in a fist fight. Three years ago, Victor Emmanuel punched Amedeo twice in the face during a dinner held by King Juan Carlos I of Spain to celebrate his son's wedding.

Amedeo believes his cousin gave up the right to call himself Umberto II's heir when he married a Swiss biscuit heiress and champion water-skier without his father's permission in 1971.

To back up his claim, he has produced letters between Umberto and Victor Emmanuel, in which the last king warned his son about the consequences of marriage without his express permission.

"It could bring about the loss of all your rights to succeed as Head of the House of Savoy and your claim to the throne of Italy, reducing you to the status of a private citizen," wrote Umberto. When Umberto heard that Victor Emmanuel had married Marina Doria secretly in Las Vegas, he wrote again in panic, reminding him "word for word" of what he had said.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Filiberto, the son of Victor Emmanuel, dismissed Amedeo's claims as "sterile provocations" and said he possessed documentation countering the claim.

"It makes me laugh. I think Italians have plenty of other problems, and are not even slightly interested in the issues raised by the duke.

"If he wants to crown himself, let him. All of Italy will laugh," he said.

Despite the acrimony, many Italians still look upon the House of Savoy with fondness and respect. Amedeo announced he wanted to settle the matter because of a series of scandals that have tarnished the Italian throne, but did not want to bring the matter to court earlier because it might have held up Victor Emmanuel's return from exile.

Victor Emmanuel, who has worked as a banker and an aircraft salesman, was convicted in 1989 of having shot a 19-year-old German while on board a yacht in Corsica. He was subsequently acquitted.

His name was also found on a list of people allegedly belonging to the secretive P2 Masonic lodge, membership of which is illegal under Italian law.

In 2003, he gaffed when he said the laws against the Jews, passed by Mussolini and signed by his grandfather, were "not that terrible". The laws banned Jews from attending or teaching in school, from owning businesses, marrying non-Jews, staying in hotels, or working for the state.

Last summer, he was arrested and imprisoned on charges of pimping and corruption.

He has been released from house arrest and no trial has been announced.

His sister, Princess Maria Gabriella, has switched her allegiance and is backing Amedeo's claim. "My father asked to be buried along with the royal seal, and that was his way of showing that the dynasty ended with him," she said.

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