- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

NAPLES, Italy, March 15 (UPI) — The son of Italy's last king officially ended a 57-year exile Saturday, setting foot at the exact spot in this Italian port city where he said goodbye to the country as a 9-year-old boy.

Victor Emmanuel, now a private citizen, came to Naples with his wife Marina Doria and his son, Emmanuel Filiberto, aged 30. The male heirs of Italy's royal family were forced into exile in Switzerland in 1946.

The return was played down by government officials, with none — not even Naples municipal government representatives — on hand for Victor Emmanuel's return. The event was also boycotted by hard-core Italian royalists, who are angered that the 66-year-old would-be king renounced all claims to the throne as part of the deal that allowed him back into the country.

But the return of the head of the Savoy family was celebrated by the country's elite and by noble families, who were at the head of a crowd of more than 2,000 on hand for the arrival.

"This is like welcoming back a beloved uncle," Emmanuela Visconti, a Tuscan countess who is a distant relative of Victor Emmanuel's, told United Press International. "With or without a royal title, he is one of our own."

Government representatives were indeed conspicuous in their absence. Though parliament approved Victor Emmanuel's return last year, even Naples' left-wing mayor, Rosa Russo Iervolino, chose not to attend.

"The Savoys are not children," she was quoted as saying in the local newspaper Il Mattino. "I don't think I should have to take them by the hand through the city. I don't think I should be anybody's babysitter."

Nevertheless the would-be king was careful to insert an acknowledgement of Parliament's action in remarks shortly after his arrival. "My thanks to all Italians for making possible, through the Parliament, our return to Patria (the homeland)," the Italian news agency Ansa reported him as saying.

Though the Savoys' official residence was in Naples, they were only moderately popular in the city that was ruled by the rival Bourbon family until the country was united in 1870. In fact, the city showed its displeasure regarding the royal family's return when it refused a $17,000 donation from Victor Emmanuel for a homeless shelter, a gesture that the Savoy family spokesman told UPI was an "uncivilized and hurtful" gesture.

And elsewhere in Italy, the return has been downplayed by a public put off by the fact that, after more than half a century of exile, the family waited nearly nine months after parliament voted to allow them back in the country.

"They tried so hard to be allowed to return, but then they didn't seem like they really wanted to do so once they had permission," said Maria Rosa Pettiti, 83, who said she witnessed Victor Emmanuel's departure in 1946 but who was having a cup of coffee a few hundred meters away from his return, choosing not to watch the event. "To me, sitting with my friends is a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon."

The family's spokesman said a back injury sustained in Egypt last year made it impossible for Victor Emmanuel to return sooner. He also said public opinion would not stand in the way of the former prince's nostalgia-filled weekend, which will include a day of catching up with old friends and family members in a penthouse apartment equipped with red velvet armchairs and a visit to the Naples Cathedral on Sunday. Scheduled for Monday is a return to the former royal palace.

The family was exiled in retribution for King Umberto I's collaboration with the country's wartime Fascist dictator Bettino Mussolini. After the end of the war, Umberto stepped down in favor of his son, Umberto II, in a desperate attempt to save the monarchy. But a referendum forcing them into exile nonetheless passed by a narrow margin.

In exile Victor Emmanuel was a controversial figure, criticized for lacking what the newspaper La Stampa called "the dignity of the monarchy." The would-be king was accused of manslaughter in 1978 for the slaying of a German tourist, Dirk Hamer, who was shot trying to climb aboard the family's yacht. A French court acquitted Victor Emmanuel in 1991, but the issue remains a sensitive one.

Victor Emmanuel also said in recent years that anti-Semitic laws passed under the Mussolini regime were "nothing really terrible," a statement he later issued an apology for to Italy's Jewish leadership.

Despite the ban from entering Italy, the family owned a villa on the French island of Corsica that has a view of Sardinia, which is part of Italy. Victor Emmanuel has admitted to piloting the family's sailboat into Italian waters and as close to land as possible without touching shore.

His son, Emmanuel Filbert, is a former disc jockey who has spent much of his adult life jet-setting around Europe, cultivating an image as one of the continent's most eligible bachelors and upsetting Italians by announcing that he has no intention of giving up his banking job in Zurich. Last year, he appeared less-than-royal when in advertisements for a brand of Italian olive oil that, according to him, was "fit for a king."

"Victor Emmanuel got what he wanted: he can return to Italy," political scientist and self-appointed royals watcher Angelo di Negri told UPI days before the return. "But I think he and his allies in Italy always imagined a story-book return and that is hardly what this is."

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