The fall of the house of Savoy

If Italy still had a monarchy, Prince Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia would be king. But now he's in prison for his part in a sleazy corruption and prostitution scandal - and it's unlikely his family will ever recover from the disgrace. How did he end up in such a mess? John Hooper reports

It is not often that the jails of southern Italy - crammed with bag-snatchers, rapists, fraudsters and mafiosi - get the chance to welcome a man with 12 first names. But, in the early hours of last Saturday, the massive steel gates of Bethlehem prison in Potenza swung open to receive Vittorio Emanuele Alberto Carlo Teodoro Umberto Bonifacio Amedeo Damiano Bernardino Gennaro Maria Savoia, the son of the last king of Italy. It was the start of the first act of a drama that is enthralling and appalling European high society.

At the centre of the furore is - improbably - an Italian by the name of Henry John Woodcock. The son of a Neapolitan mother and a British father, Woodcock is a prosecutor in the otherwise sleepy town of Potenza, in the province of Basilicata.

For the past two years he has been overseeing an investigation into an alleged influence-trafficking network of which, he claims, the prince was the "undisputed leader". Vittorio Emanuele denies any wrongdoing, but a judge in Potenza decided that the evidence gathered by Woodcock justified the issuing of a raft of arrest warrants. One was for the detention until further notice of the man who would be Italy's king had it not become a republic after the second world war.

On hearing of his incarceration, his sister, Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, said, in effect, that she no longer considered him a royal. "As of today, for me, he is Mr Savoy," she told the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The evidence against the prince, much of it published since his arrest, includes transcripts of intercepted telephone conversations and photographs of the prince taking and pocketing an envelope. During a five-hour interrogation on Tuesday, Vittorio Emanuele is reported to have admitted that the envelope contained money, but said that it was a contribution to one of the noble orders of chivalry of which he is Grand Master.

Whatever the outcome of the affair, it has done immense harm to the Savoys. The prince's reputation, already damaged by a succession of scandals, will never recover from the publication of his private thoughts across entire pages of Italy's leading newspapers. Those who could have been his subjects on Sardinia, for example, will have been taken aback to find the court documents quote him as telling an associate the Sards are "pieces of shit". The prince added: "Those Sards, all they know how to do is bugger goats. And then they smell the same."

At the centre of the affair are the ambitions of a gaming-machine entrepreneur, 53-year-old Rocco Migliardi, from Messina on Sicily. The judge's warrant describes him as an "individual with a long police record, suspected of involvement with organised crime and with links to, and relations with, dangerous members of the Sicilian mafia". (He is reported to have denied any links with Cosa Nostra.)

According to court documents, Migliardi needed licences from a government department for 5,000 gaming machines. This week, he was reported to have testified that he contacted an associate of the prince and later paid €20,000 (£13,750) to another. Immediately afterwards, 400 of the sought-after permits arrived.

The prosecution claims that, to free up the licences, the prince asked his associates to intervene and that, eventually, large sums were paid to government officials. But to find out who was in a position to grant the permits, they allegedly turned to someone who was close to the very apex of power - a top aide to Gianfranco Fini, then Italy's deputy prime minister and foreign minister. According to the transcripts, the aide was due a "consideration" of up to €500 (£345).

The other charge facing the prince is that of procuring women from eastern Europe to supply to gamblers at a casino in Campione d'Italia, an Italian enclave in Switzerland. Though the prince won the right to return to Italy in 2002, after more than half a century in exile, he has retained his Swiss residency and lives much of the time at his chalet in Gstaad or in a 30-room villa in Geneva.

According to the prosecution, the prostitutes were part of a "complete package" offered to high-rollers from the Sicilian mafia. The prince has denied any involvement. The mayor of Campione d'Italia, who was also arrested at the end of last week, has availed himself of his right to silence.

The whole sleazy affair is just the latest episode in a life dotted with misadventure, scandal and controversy. Vittorio Emanuele was just nine years old when his family - who, under King Vittorio Emanuele III, had aligned themselves with Mussolini and his Fascists - left for exile in Portugal. His father, King Umberto II, is known to Italians as the May King because he ruled only from May 9 to June 12 1946, when Italy became a republic. The new constitution, which came into effect in 1948, imposed a ban on the return to Italy of the male members of the Savoy family that was to remain in force for 54 years.

It was often criticised as cruel, unnecessary and, ultimately, at odds with Italy's commitment as an EU member to freedom of movement. But one reason why it remained in place for so long was that Vittorio Emanuele caused such doubts about how he might behave if he were allowed back.

In 1970, he horrified his father by opting to marry a commoner, a biscuit heiress and former champion water-skier, Marina Doria. They had a first wedding in Las Vegas and a second in Tehran as guests of the shah of Iran. The prince's friendship with the shah later embroiled him in a controversy over his role as intermediary in a sale of helicopters to Iran.

But that was as nothing to the scandal that exploded - quite literally - on the night of August 17 1978 off the coast of Corsica. A shot fired from a rifle owned by the prince fatally wounded a young German tourist [comment: Dirk Hamer]. That led to Vittorio Emanuele being arrested for the first time. He was charged and indicted, and it was not until 13 years later that he was acquitted of manslaughter by a court in Paris.

In the meantime, he had been plunged into controversy of an altogether different sort. The prince had always given an impression of refusing to acknowledge the Italian republic, writing to the head of state, for example, without calling him "president". And it was known Vittorio Emanuele held rightwing views. But what no one knew, until it was discovered by police, was that he was a member of the notorious rogue Masonic lodge, Propaganda Due. The P2, which was headed by a conspiratorial ex-fascist, was disbanded by parliament because of its illicit activities in 1982.

Vittorio Emanuele's return to Italy, in 2003, was - to say the least - colourful. Riot police fired tear gas in Naples to break up demonstrations against him and his family by an assortment of diehard monarchists, hardline, republican neo-fascists and unemployed workers chanting, "Get out of here, traitors". Since then, tensions within the Savoy family have simmered and occasionally erupted. In 2004, as they were leaving a dinner on the night before the wedding of Spain's Crown Prince Felipe, Vittorio Emanuele was reported to have come to blows with his cousin Duke Amedeo. One report said the duke was twice punched in the mouth and would have fallen to the ground had he not been caught on the way down by deposed Queen Anne-Marie of Greece.

Since then, there has been a less dramatic, but perhaps more significant, falling-out. When his father died, Vittorio Emanuele inherited the Grand Masterships of two orders of chivalry. One, the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, has its roots in the 12th-century Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Last February, all three of his sisters resigned from their positions as dames of the order, apparently in protest at the way it was being run by the prince and his son.

Speaking to Corriere della Sera, Princess Maria Gabriella said the two men had introduced "the payment of membership fees [and] activities such as the sale of objects with the Savoy coat of arms and credit cards of the order". Among the new knights of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus - entitled to sport its regalia of an eight-pointed green and white cross - was none other than Rocco Migliardi, he of the gaming machines, the police record and the disputed mafia connections.

Migliardi and the prince will now have plenty of time in which to discuss this and much else besides, since they are currently sharing a cell.

So far, at least, the prince seems to have adapted remarkably well to life behind bars. After getting his first taste of prison food, he told a local politician who visited him earlier this week: "It really is true what they say: in Italy, you can eat well everywhere".


We also publish public media reports because we want to document how ruthlessly they lied about Dr. Hamer and the murder of his son Dirk. We recommend reading the documents in our online archive and the book "Einer gegen alle" (One Against All).