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 Monday, 23 December, 2002, 14:59 GMT
Italy's royals return home
The royals meet the Pope at the Vatican
The returning family emphasised their Catholic religion
Victor Emmanuel, the son of Italy's last king, has returned to Italy after more than half a century in exile.

He and his family landed at Rome's Ciampino military airport in a private plane on Monday morning, ahead of a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

I cannot find words to express my feelings at this moment

Victor Emmanuel
Victor Emmanuel spoke of experiencing "indescribable emotion" at his return.

Hours later the family left for the return flight to Switzerland, after a lightning visit which had taken commentators by surprise.

But Victor Emmanuel's decision to make his first visit to the Vatican - rather than to the Italian president or Naples, which he left as a nine-year-old boy in 1946 - has earned criticism from some who saw it as inappropriate.

The former royal family swore their loyalty to the Italian republic as part of the terms of the lifting of the post-war ban on them returning to Italy.

Victor Emmanuel touches down in Rome
It is Victor Emmanuel's first visit since he was a boy
Sergio Romano, a former ambassador and an influential commentator, described the decision to go to the Vatican as "a combination of arrogance, political insensitivity and bad upbringing."

But Victor Emmanuel told reporters: "We are Catholic and I am returning to my country which, with the Pope, is the seat of Catholicism.

"The first thing I do is see the Pope, then we shall see all the others."

The visit was made possible by a series of votes in the Italian parliament earlier this year, reversing the post-war ban on the male royals' return.

"I have come back to Rome after 56 years and I cannot find words to express my feelings at this moment," Victor Emmanuel said, as he stood on Italian soil for the first time in his adult life.

The family has been in Geneva since 1946 when it was exiled for supporting the fascist government of Italy's wartime leader Benito Mussolini.

Monarchy discredited

The BBC's Rome correspondent, David Willey, says Victor Emmanuel, his wife, Marine Doria, and their son, Emmanuel Filiberto, were whisked away from the airport in two cars provided by the Vatican.

The 65-year-old prince was nine years old when he left his homeland, while Emmanuel Filiberto, 30, has never set foot in Italy.

They are the direct descendants of Italy's last king, Umberto II, who died in Switzerland in 1983.

Umberto's father, Victor Emmanuel III, reigned while Mussolini was in power, before eventually dismissing the former dictator in 1943.

The king, disgraced for collaborating with the fascist regime, including having endorsed the deportation of thousands of Italian Jews during World War II, abdicated in May, 1946.

Two years later the Italian constitution barred Umberto's descendants from Italy.

Campaign

The royals have led a long campaign to visit their homeland and earlier this year the Italian parliament relaxed the ban on the grounds that the family presented no danger to the Italian republic set up after the fall of fascism.

Our correspondent says the visit had been planned for some time, but the family kept secret the date of this whirlwind trip.

He says there is little public support in Italy for the return of the monarchy, who are regarded as slightly anachronistic in the Italy of the third millennium.

The family have renounced all claims to the Italian throne.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's David Willey
"In the eyes of most Italians, the former royal family is discredited"
See also:

23 Dec 02 | Europe
15 Nov 02 | Europe
02 Aug 01 | Europe
28 Jan 01 | Europe
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