What is the legal status of noble titles and knightly orders in modern Italy?

In early 19th-century Italy, members of secret societies (called “the Carboneria“; English: “charcoal makers”) were the main source of opposition to the conservative regimes imposed on Italy by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Following the Congress of Vienna that year, a political and social Italian unification movement, the “Risorgimento“, emerged to unite Italy by consolidating the different states of the peninsula and liberating it from foreign control. Before the unification, Italy did not exist as a state, but consisted of numerous kingdoms and other sovereign entities, each ruled by separate dynasties. The Carbonari were spread across Europe. They all had patriotic and liberal goals and were republican and anticlerical.

The activities of the Italian unification movement eventually lead to the Encounter of Teano (L’Incontro di Teano) on 26 October 1860; the meeting between general, patriot, republican and Freemason Giuseppe Garibaldi and the King of Sardinia, Vittorio Emanuele II, at a bridge in the town of Teano (in the province of Caserta), after the successful Expedition of the Thousand, during which the forces of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples) were defeated. This meeting paved the way for the union of southern Italy and Sicily with the north of the peninsula. The Expedition of the Thousand was one of the most dramatic events of the unification.

During the meeting, Garibaldi hailed Vittorio Emanuele II as king of Italy, covering the whole Italian peninsula, reaching from the Alps to Sicily. Garibaldi sacrificed his republican aspirations for the Italian unity under a monarchy. On 17 March 1861, the deputies of the first Italian Parliament in Turin, assembled by king Victor Emmanuel, proclaimed the latter King of Italy.

“The Encounter of Teano (L’Incontro di Teano)”, Carlo Ademollo (1825-1911), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Most historians agree that the unification of Italy has commenced with the acquisition of most of Northern Italy by Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia, and subsequently developed over several years as diplomacy and Garibaldi’s conquests extended the new kingdom. Italian unity was finally achieved, largely through the efforts of three Freemasons; the revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, the soldier Garibaldi and the statesman Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour, Isolabella e Leri (his godparents were Napoleon’s sister Pauline, and her husband, Prince Camillo Borghese, after whom Camillo was named). It is interesting to note that for Garibaldi, Freemasonry, especially after 1860, was a meeting place which he more than once used to carry out his political and cultural strategies (Gustavo Raffi 2002). By 1870, nationalists had destroyed the Pope’s earthly dominion. In 1871, Rome was made the capital of Italy, being an independent secular nation state. The Papacy was reduced to 109 acres around Saint Peter’s.

To summarize: the birth of the Kingdom of Italy was the result of efforts by Italian nationalists and monarchists loyal to the House of Savoy to establish a united kingdom encompassing the entire Italian peninsula. The new Kingdom of Italy was structured by renaming the old Kingdom of Sardinia and annexing all the ancient dynastic entities into its structures. 

Historical nobility in Italy

Italy has four royal families: Savoy, Bourbon-Sicilies, Bourbon-Parma and Habsburg-Tuscany. Before the Italian Unification, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (which before 1816 was split into the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily), the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Parma, the Duchy of Modena, the Duchy of Savoy, the Duchy of Milan, the Papal States, various republics and the Austrian dependencies in Northern Italy, all had their own nobiliairy systems with different traditions and rules. The nobility of the Italian Kingdom was expanded into Africa with the creation of the Italian Empire in conquered Ethiopia and East Africa. The structure of the noble titles in Italy is listed below.

mf
Re d’Italia/King of ItalyRegina d’Italia/Queen of Italy
Principe/PrincePrincipessa/Princess
Duca/DukeDuchessa/Duchess
Marchese/MarquisMarchesa/Marchioness
Conte/Count (Earl)Contessa/Countess
Visconte/ViscountViscontessa/Viscountess
Barone/BaronBaronessa/Baroness
Nobile, or Nobiluomo/NoblemanNobile, or Nobildonna/Noblewoman
Cavaliere ereditario/Baronet (hereditary knight)Dama/Dame
Patrizio of certain cities/PatricianPatrizia of certain cities/Patrician
Italian titles of nobility and their English translations

Before the Italian unification, official publications of families with noble titles existed in many states and cities and were often named “Libro d’Oro” (golden book). Examples of golden books were the Libro d’oro of Venice, the Libro d’Oro of Murano, an island in the Venetian Lagoon and the Genoese Libro d’Oro.

Libro d’Oro della Nobiltà Italiana, photo by the Collegio Araldico

In 1869, the Consulta Araldica (College of Arms) was established in the Kingdom of Italy to give advice to the government regarding noble titles, coats of arms and other public honours. The Consulta Araldica was established to avoid abuses and usurpations of noble titles, already existing in the pre-unification states. The Consulta Araldica was instructed to register the nation’s noble titles. In 1896 the Consulta Araldica published the “Libro d’Oro della Nobiltà Italiana“, in which the families were registered that had obtained a noble title from the king or had been recognised by the king as being noble. Currently, members of historical Italian noble families are mainly listed in two publications:

  1. The Annuario della Nobiltà Italiana is a genealogical repertory, containing Italian noble families and Italian notable families. The series was originally created in 1878 in Pisa by writer and scholar Giovan Battista di Crollalanza. The typography of the word was inspired by the nineteenth-century editions of the Almanac of Gotha. The series was published by the Italian Academy of Heraldry, in twenty-seven editions (until 1905), first in Pisa, then in Bari and finally in Mola di Bari. In 1998, the new series of the annuario was established by the well-known scholar Andrea Borella in Milan, in two volumes. From 2000 until her death in 2007, Mrs. Onda di Crollalanza, great-granddaughter of Giovan Battista Crollalanza, accepted patronage of the series. Subsequenbtly, Araldo di Crollalanza, Onda’s half-brother became patron of the series. The current patron is the latter’s son, Goffredo di Crollalanza (* 1974). The latest edition (XXXII) was published in December 2014. The structure of the original work is preserved in its five main sections:
    • Part I: the Royal House of Italy and the sovereign families in the ancient Italian states;
    • Part II: noble families officially registered in the Kingdom of Italy;
    • Part III: noble families divided into papal titleholders after 1870, families ennobled or accepted by the Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta; families ennobled by the king of Italy, Umberto II, after 1947 or persons who obtained recognition from the Corpo della nobiltà italiana; families accepted in knightly orders with evidence of nobility issued after the fall of the Kingdom of Italy;
    • Part IV: families adorned with “nobiltà generosa“, especially from the pre-unification states, which were not recognized by the Kingdom of Italy and therefore are not included in the other sections;
    • Part V: Italian “notable” families, for example families in possession of a coat of arms and with noble customs, but not formally recognized as noble.
  2. The Libro d’Oro della Nobiltà Italiana was first published in 1910. The book brings together the families that were listed in the Golden Book of the Consulta Araldica and those included in the Official Nobles Lists of 1921 and 1933. The Libro d’Oro contains 1.997 noble families. Each entry contains a brief historical note, as well as the updated family status and a black and white image of the coat of arms. For 3.859 families, there is a reference to the previous editions of the Libro d’Oro. The latest edition of the Libro d’Oro della Nobiltà Italiana (XXV edition 2015-2019) was published in 2016 and consists of two volumes (volume XXX (AL) and volume XXXI (MZ) of the series) containing about 2.000 pages in total. The next edition, the XXVI 2020-2024, is in preparation.

Legal status of the Italian nobility

Regarding the legal status of titles of nobility in Italy, Wikipedia states:

In 1946, the Kingdom of Italy was replaced by a republic. Under the Italian Constitution adopted in 1948, titles of nobility, although still used as a courtesy, are not legally recognised.

Wikipedia

This statement is inaccurate.

Before the Italian republican constitution entered into force, the noble and knightly
titles (inherited or not) were recognised and regulated by the following laws of the Italian Kingdom:

  1. Article 79 of the ‘Statuto albertino‘ (English: Albertine Statute; the constitution that Charles Albert of Sardinia conceded to the Kingdom of Sardinia in Italy on 4 March 1848) stated that “…the titles of nobility shall be retained by those, who are entitled to them; the King may grant new ones… “;
  2. By Royal Decree No. 313 of 10 October 1869, the ‘Consulta araldica’ of the Italian kingdom was established (a consultative body advising the government on matters of nobility and heraldry, abolished in 1948);
  3. Royal Decrees Nrs. 1489 of 16 August 1926 and 1091 of 16 June 1927 standardised the succession of titles of nobility throughout the Kingdom, and abolished the old rules of succession in accordance with the old legislation;
  4. Royal Decrees Nrs. 651/1943 and 652/1943 regulated the noble titles and the ‘Consulta araldica‘.
Annuario della Nobiltà Italiana. Photo: astedams.it

The forementioned regulations have been abolished by the Republic of Italy in view of the principle of equality, referred to in Article 3 of the Italian Constitution. Further, provision XIV of ‘‘Disposizioni Transitorie e Finali della Costituzione‘ (additional special provisions set out in the Italian Constitution), explicitly states that “aristocratic titles will not be recognised (…) Noble titles granted before 28 October 1922 will become part of the family name“. Therefore, titles of nobility no longer enjoy any legal protection in Italy, and all legislation concerning their protection has been abolished. The ‘non-recognition’ of noble titles by the Italian State however, does not imply that they are illegal, in a way that someone is in a position even to use these titles illegally and thus to commit a criminal offence. These titles are simply not protected by the law (Cass. 1 July 1957, in Giust. Pen. 1958-11-15; Rep. Gen. Giur It. 1958; Usurp. Tit. no. 5). To summarize; in the Italian legal system that emerged from the Republican Constitution, the noble and chivalrous titles are neither forbidden nor recognised and are, from a legal perspective, totally irrelevant, unless they have become part of the family name, in which case they are subject to legal restrictions and provisions. They then enjoy the protection of Articles 7 and 2 c.c. (Italian Civil Code).

This means that the use of noble titles is not prohibited and that Italian law does not attribute any meaning (value or worthlessness) to such titles. Italian republican law does not prohibit the titles of nobility obtained under the abolished nobiliary laws. Only recently have the forementioned Royal Decrees nrs. 651/1943 and 652/1943, which regulated titles of nobility and the ‘Consulta araldica‘, been explicitly annulled by Italian Provisional Legislative Decree No 112/2008 (later converted into Law 133/2008) and Legislative Decree No 66/2010.

Legal status of knightly orders

Regarding knightly titles awarded in accordance with the now obsolete aristocratic legislation, specific rules apply, which are determined by law 178/1951. This law established the ‘Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana‘ (Order of Merit of the Italian Republic) and gives rules regarding appointments in this Order (Art. 1 – 6). Art. 7 to 9 deal with the other knightly orders that already existed in Italy and with non-national or foreign orders:

  1. The forementioned law explicitly abolishes the orders of the former Italian Royal House of Savoy (Art. 7 to 9) with the following provisions:
  2. The law explicitly deals with orders with a special legal status. These are essentially the secular orders of the Vatican and orders under the protection of the Vatican. Specific legislation guarantees that these provisions remain in force. In particular Article 9. 7(2) and (3), in which:
    • is referred to the provisions regarding the knightly titles and the use of decorations of the Vatican and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem;
    • is stipulated that “the legal provisions in force with regard to the use of knightly titles and the use of decorations, issued by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta remain unchanged“.
  3. Finally, the law addresses the granting and use of knightly titles and decorations by distinguishing between the granting of decorations by national orders and/or private organisations and/or individual citizens on the one hand; and the granting of decorations by non-national orders on the other hand.
    • Legal persons, organisations and/or individuals are not entitled to award knightly titles and decorations in any form and under any denomination (Art. 8.1);
    • Non-national orders are allowed, or at least it is not prohibited (see the clause “except for the provisions of Art. 7“), to award knightly titles and decorations, but the use of such titles is permitted only with the consent of the President of the Republic, on the proposal of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Art. 7 paragraph 1).

In short, except for the chivalric orders of the House of Savoy, the national orders mentioned in art. 9, and the orders of the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta, the forementioned law is only relevant in the context of two prohibitions (one as a crime, the other as a violation):

  1. The prohibition of the granting of titles by individuals, organizations and or national orders;
  2. The prohibition of the use of titles and decorations (except when they are granted by non-national orders and in a manner as described above).

Italian law therefore regulates (prohibits, or – under certain conditions – allows) the use of knightly titles and the granting and use of decorations. Apart from abolishing the dynastic national orders of the House of Savoy, Italian law does not prohibit nor authorize the establishment or the activities (other than the conduct described above) of national or non-national knightly orders. Italian law regulates the attribution or use of titles and decorations by knightly orders:

  1. The use of titles and decorations conferred by a non-national order is regulated through Italian administrative law;
  2. The use of unlawful titles and decorations (in accordance with current Italian administrative law since the abolition of the original fines imposed by the Artt. 7 and 8 of the law 178/1951) is prohibited;
  3. The awarding of titles and decorations by national orders, citizens and/or private organisations is prohibited.

In all other cases, a chivalric order (national or not) remains irrelevant to the law, not only because a chivalric order operates in a kind of vacuum according to the Italian legal system, but also because there is no law in the republican legislation that prohibits a knightly order or attaches any particular value to it. Regarding the awarding of decorations, it is absolute necessary to distinguish national orders from non-national orders.

Conclusions

Modern Italian law is fully neutral towards titles of nobility. The historical nobility in current Italy is well-documented in the forementioned publications. In 1946, when the Italian monarchy was abolished, a number of titles used by families in the pre-unification states (Two Sicilies, Papal State, et cetera) still had not been matriculated by the Consulta Araldica. Therefore, it cannot be said that the use of certain titles of nobility is incorrect, when they are not documented in the forementioned publications It can simply be the case that they were not registered between 1861 and 1946.

Awarding knightly orders by non-national orders is not prohibited in Italy but their use is only permitted with consent of the President of the Republic.

When studying the Italian nobility, the following considerations by expert on Italian nobility, mr. Louis Mendola, should be kept in mind:

It has become something of an urban legend that most surnames beginning de or di followed by the name of a place are in some way aristocratic in origin, and that certain names are sui generis noble. Such ideas are ridiculous; numerous Italian families having no kinship to Italy’s royal Savoys are named Savoia or di Savoia.

(…)

In view of complexities that sometimes arise in ascertaining the veracity of a claim to a title of nobility, the author is occasionally queried about the simplest means of determining this. The most efficient strategy is to identify descent from an ancestor belonging to the feudal nobility (by feudal tenure) or urban patriciate in the direct, legitimate male line or, alternatively, to determine such descent from an ancestor whose name was inscribed in the Libro d’Oro del Regno d’Italia (before 1946) or the official lists of Italy’s predecessor states (before 1861). For the Kingdom of Sicily, for example, there are the works by Mango di Casalgerardo and San Martino de Spucches mentioned in the introduction to the author’s online “Sicilian Armory.” In Piedmont there are works such as Antonio Manno’s Patriziato Subalpino. Although no compilation is complete, the presence of nobiliary-heraldic information in these records, in conjucnction with an accurate, generation-by-generation pedigree, is sufficient to fulfill the researcher’s burden of proof in around ninety percent of the cases likely to be investigated.

(…)

There is nothing more ridiculous than a self-styled “expert” who petulantly proclaims that “such-and-such family is not noble because it is not listed in this-or-that book.” In documentary, archival records, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. None of the references cited in the following section is complete. In his research, the author has identified many noble families – some happily flourishing today – omitted from recent compilations, sometimes for what appear to be subjective reasons, such as political motives. Factual history is based on reality, not publication on the internet by a self-appointed “authority.” History, like science, has experts but no authorities.

Louis Mendola, Italian Titles of Nobility

Sources

Weblinks

Disclaimer

This information is not intended as, and should not be taken as, legal advice. Do not act or refrain from acting based upon information provided in this article without first consulting a lawyer about your particular factual and legal circumstances.

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