Italy’s House of Savoy is one of Europe’s oldest dynasties. It is far older than its peers, such as the House of Windsor and the House of Borbón. It can be traced back to 1003 AD when a feudal lord established the House of Savoy as a result of his close alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor of the era. Over centuries, the heirs retained power and expanded their territories. Sometime in the 1200s, Amadeus V established the Salic Law of Succession, which specified that only male descendants could inherit the Savoy wealth and territory and carry on the family lineage. Throughout the centuries, the House of Savoy retained its power right up to the unification of Italy in 1861.
More than 800 years after the start of the House of Savoy, a King of Italy reigned on the peninsula. Vittorio Emanuele II (1820-1878) did not hold unlimited power but he was an accomplished soldier and diplomat and earned the epithet Padre della patria, Father of the Homeland. His son, Umberto I (1844-1900) oversaw a poor southern Italy under mafia control, a failed colonial expansion into Ethiopia, and the suppression of protests over soaring bread prices. He was killed by an anarchist’s bullet. His son, Vittorio Emanuele III (1869-1947), became a respected head of state at first. But the toll of World War I on Italy and the subsequent rise of Benito Mussolini changed everything. The king had the opportunity to crush the fascist movement, but instead, embraced it. He was already losing his grip on power even before the 1938 leggi razziali –the race laws that restricted the rights of Jews—which further caused the Savoys to lose the respect of many Italians. Although Vittorio Emanuele III later tried to rectify his past mistakes by removing Mussolini from power, the damage was done, and he abdicated in May 1946 passing the scepter to his son Umberto II (1904-1983). The constitutional referendum the following month was a watershed moment in Italian history: Italy embraced republicanism and turned away from the monarchy. Father and son both died in exile, never setting foot in Italy again.
In 2002 the exile law was overturned by the Italian Parliament, and back came the Savoys. But this time without the gravitas of the past. While many royal families have had their internal troubles, the Savoy names have become associated more with scandals and tabloid headlines than with the serious business of government. But then again, there really isn’t a title, a throne, or a position of power from which to govern.
The modern story began when the son of the last king of Italy, another Vittorio Emanuele, in 2019 at the age of 82 issued a decree: “the Duke of Savoy, Prince of Naples and by the grace of God direct heir to Head of the Royal House of Savoy” amended the medieval Salic Law of Succession that restricted succession in the royal line to male heirs. His son, Emanuele Filiberto, did not have sons, so Vittorio Emanuele named his 16-year old granddaughter, Vittoria Cristina Chiara Adelaide Maria, to the top of the line of ascension to the defunct throne. This is the Carignano branch of the Savoy family, named for the ancestral home of Vittorio Emanuele.
Prince Aimone di Savoia Aosta, a cousin and rival claimant, called the appointment totally illegitimate. For decades, the Aosta branch of the Savoia family has argued that the Carignano branch is sullying the family name. The Aosta Savoia took issue with the marriage of Vittorio Emanuele (Vittoria’s grandfather) to a competitive water skier who was not a noble. This same Vittorio Emanuele, now 84, has earned quite a reputation. In 1978 he was accused of accidentally killing a German tourist with a rifle from his yacht off the coast of Corsica. He served time in a Potenza jail on charges of illegal gambling and prostitution. In 2004, at the wedding of the future King Felipe VI of Spain, this same Vittorio Emmanuele reportedly punched his cousin, Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, twice in the face.
Vittorio’s son, Emanuele Filiberto, meanwhile, is hard at work on his variety television career. He is a star judge on a talent show. He won Italy’s Dancing with the Stars and nearly won its Sanremo singing competition (“they screwed me”) with a song he wrote. He has been the face of pickled olives and appeared in an ad for an electronic cigarette company.
And his daughter, the anointed Queen of Italy? Vittoria spends her days at school, models midriff shirts on Instagram, dances with friends and gossips about Prince Harry and Meghan. She wants to design her own fashion brand. Mostly, she’s just trying to figure out what she wants to do in life. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the imaginary crown.”