THE former Royal family of Italy returned to their homeland yesterday without panoply or pageantry. They wore black - a symbol of mourning for what might have been, had history not denied them a throne.
Vittorio Emanuele, 64, who would have been the fourth king to bear the name but for 53 years in exile, was visibly moved as he stood on Italian soil for the first time since he was nine.
His last sight of his country was in the Bay of Naples from the yacht carrying him and his father, Umberto II, the "Summer King", to exile in Switzerland after the monarchy was abolished. They had been tainted by association with Mussolini’s fascism and made unwelcome in a nation which had embraced republicanism.
Later, the republic would constitutionally forbid any male heir of the House of Savoy from returning to the land they had ruled.
But last month, after years of campaigning, the Italian constitution was amended to allow the deposed family to return to their homeland as private citizens.
On his arrival yesterday, Vittorio Emanuele trembled and had to be comforted by his wife, Maria Dorio, and their son, Vittorio Filiberto, 30, who was making his first visit to Italy.
The family arrived at Rome’s Cimpiano Airport at 9:07am on a private flight from Geneva carrying them and a small entourage.
If the Italians were excited by their arrival, they were uncharacteristically calm.
Airport officials had to inform the government that they had arrived, just as they were whisked away by Vatican representatives for an audience with Pope John Paul II.
Emerging from the Vatican, Vittorio Emanuele was still clearly moved and described his return as "a page in history".
The majority of Italians believed it was a humanitarian act to allow the family to come home.
Many felt it was unfair that Vittorio Emanuele was denied his homeland because of his grandfather, Vittorio Emanuele III, who had actively supported Mussolini’s Fascists.
The king appointed Mussolini as prime minister and gave his Royal seal of approval to Nazi-style race laws that led to the deaths of thousands of Italian Jews.
In 1943, as Mussolini’s regime crumbled, the despised king fled Italy and created a tidal wave of republicanism.
In 1946, he abdicated in favour of his son, Umberto II, who reigned for only 27 days before Italians voted to scrap the monarchy.
Two years later, the new constitution barred Umberto and his male heirs from Italy - until the law overturned the ban.
Many Italians felt the time had come to stop "visiting the sins of the father on the sons".
Sergio Romano, a political analyst, said: "Lots of people have no regard for them, but feel they should come back.
"They realise the country was made by the monarchy to a degree."
The House of Savoy ruled over swathes of France and pre-unified Italy from the 11th century.
However, experts were quick to dismiss any possibility that lifting of the ban may signal a return to the throne for Vittorio Emanuele.
Joseph Farrell, the professor of Italian studies at Strathclyde University, in Glasgow, said: "The family are regarded by most people as being near idiots."
Princess Maria is seen as a "clothes horse" wife, while her son, Vittorio Filiberto, is a playboy financier who dates models and dreams of buying Napoli football club.
Vittorio Emanuele is the only one to have been directly involved in a ruling family, but he is regarded as a dangerous dilettante.
In the 1970s, he was cleared by a French court of the manslaughter of a German tourist.
It was alleged the tourist, who had been sleeping on a beach, was hit by a shot fired from Vittorio Emanuele’s yacht.
Prof Farrell added: "They are no longer a political force."
However, Filiberto has said that he is ready if the Italian people want him.
"That is unlikely. There are vestiges of Royal support, but even they are disdainful," said Prof Farrell.
Lt Col Francesco Silvestri, 83, a retired army officer loyal to the Royal family, said: "Poor things! These three are really nothing special."
But Sergio Boschiero, of the Monarchic Union, had a different view.
"I’m happy that an injustice is wiped out," he said.
The party stayed in Italy for five hours following the papal meeting before flying back to Switzerland.
Vittorio Emanuele said: "This time, we wanted to come before Christmas to visit His Holiness. Next time, I want to go to Naples and Venice, and all the other parts of Italy."
The monarchs in exile
KING Mihai (Michael) became monarch in 1927, aged six, when his father abdicated. Mihai ruled under a regent until he was deposed when his father returned in 1930. He became king again in 1940. In 1947, Soviet troops invaded Romania and he was forced to give up the throne. He was allowed to return in 1996, and offered the chance to run for president, but he refused. The republican government now recognises him as a former head of state and he serves as a roving ambassador.
KING Leka Zog of Albania was two days old when his father, King Zog, and family fled during the 1939 Italian invasion. His father was deposed in 1946, naming his son as his successor before his death in 1961.
Leka returned to Albania in 1997, but failed to take the throne in a referendum that year. He was found guilty in absentia of organising an armed uprising and was only granted an amnesty in June 2002, when he returned to Albania.
CROWN Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia’s father, King Peter II, fled in 1941, after the Nazi invasion. The prince was born in 1945 at Claridges Hotel, London - the room was declared Yugoslav territory by George VI so Alexander, who served in the British Army, would have a right to the throne.
In March 2001, he was given Yugoslav citizenship and, in July that year, he and his family returned and moved into two palaces in Belgrade.
KING Juan Carlos was born in 1938. His grandfather, Alfonso XIII, had been forced into exile in 1931, dying in 1941. The family moved to Lisbon in 1946. He received part of his schooling in Spain and studied at the University of Madrid. He married Princess Sofia of Greece in 1952. In 1969, he was picked as Franco’s successor and was proclaimed king two days after the dictator’s death in November 1975.
KING Constantine was made king in 1964, aged 23. Three years later, a coup sent him into exile in Italy. He has lived in Britain since 1964 and has said he has no wish to return to power, accepting Greece is now a republic. In 2000, he won a court case against the Greek government to recover confiscated Royal estates, which had been taken in 1994.
MOHAMMAD Zahir Shah was born in Kabul in 1914, and took the throne in 1933, aged 19, after his father was assassinated. He reigned for 40 years. In 1973, he travelled to Italy for medical treatment. While he was abroad, Zahir Shah was ousted in a coup by his cousin Mohammad Daoud, who opposed links with the West. Since then, he has lived in Italy. He has no wish to see his family return to power, but would like to return and help establish peace in Afghanistan.
KING Simeon II of Bulgaria - Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha - was born in Bulgaria in 1937. He was appointed to the throne aged six, but deposed by the Communists in 1946.
He lived in Egypt and Spain, spending most of his life in Madrid, and became a successful businessman. In June 2001, he returned to Bulgaria and competed in the elections where his party - the National Movement for Simeon II (NDS) - won 120 seats. He is now prime minister, and the first ex-monarch in post-communist Eastern Europe to return to power.