Contemporary Knighthood in Italy



Louis A.M. Mendola


Italy sometimes seems a land of ironies. A democratic republic since 1946, she bestows honours in no fewer than five orders of knighthood. Italy boasts two non-regnant royal families as well as three non-regnant grand ducal houses, each of which bestows honours upon Italian citizens. Three sovereign governments exist entirely within Italian borders, and each bestows honours as well. It so happens that the only reigning Italian dynasty, a branch of an old Genoese family, rules a sovereign principality not far beyond Italian territory and it, too, bestows honours upon Italian citizens. A few Italians are hereditary knights bachelor, forming a kind of Italian baronetage. Indeed, for a nation having no throne, and entertaining no serious plans for the reinstitution of a monarchy, the Italian Republic is endowed with a plethora of gentlemen entitled to the ancient address "Cavaliere."

The visitor can hardly be faulted for observing what may best be described as a perplexingly abundant use of honorific titles; there seems to be a cavaliere (knight) in every cafe, a commendatore (knight commander) in every seaside villa.

Yet, the situation confuses foreigners much more than it does the Italians themselves, well-acquainted with their own rich history and traditions. Respect for the past is part of the Italian character, and in Italy the past is truly ancient. In fairness, it would be inappropriate to compare the Italian system of ranks and honours to the rigidly organised system in place in the United Kingdom. As a republic, Italy does not attach any significance (or precedence) to civil honours save for the recognition they confer upon their recipients. As a nation whose Constitution sanctions the unique nature of the Catholic Church (referring here to the church rather than the Vatican government) as a "state within a state," Italy acknowledges the religious character of many of the orders it recognises. These include those of the Papacy, arguably the seat of the world's largest monarchical institution, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, seat of the world's smallest monarchical government. It is worth observing that this practice remains unchanged even though, since 1986, Roman Catholicism is no longer the official state religion of the Italian Republic.

In Italy, context is very important in precisely defining the legal status of an order of knighthood. While the government distinguishes between its own orders and those of other nations and the predecessor state (the Kingdom of Italy), the body of law governing these matters consists of Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry circulars and regulations as well as national statutes and acts of the Office of Honours and Heraldry, and at all events enforcement has never been very rigid outside military and diplomatic circles.

The parliamentary law of 1951 (see below) establishing the first order of the Republic while formally abrogating continued recognition of those orders bestowed by the exiled King of Italy constitutes the framework of Italian policy in this regard, but the statute itself makes it clear that Italian citizens decorated by the King of Italy before that date were not thereby deprived of pre-existing rights to their honours, decorations and forms of address, even if their court privileges and precedence were rescinded.

Because of widespread misperceptions with regard to the aforementioned law of1951 and because, as has been noted, this statute forms the basis of official Italian policy toward orders of knighthood, it is here translated and presented in full:

Law number 178 of 3 March 1951, Foundation of the "Order of Merit of the Italian Republic" and protocol for bestowal and display of decorations.

The Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic having approved,


promulgates the following law.


Article 1.

The Order of Merit of the Italian Republic is hereby established toreward those who have earned the special recognition of the Nation.

Article 2.

The Head of the Order is the President of the Republic. The Order is administered by a Council composed of a chancellor, who shall preside, assisted by sixteen members. The chancellor and members of the Council are appointed by decree of the President of the Republic, on the recommendation of the President of the Council of Ministers [Prime Minister], having heard the recommendations of the Council of Ministers [Cabinet]. The Council of the Order elects from among its members a Commission [Giunta]of four members. The Commission is presided over by the chancellor.

Article 3.

The Order consists of five ranks: knights grand cross, knights grand officer, knights commander, knights officer and knights. For outstanding merit knights grand cross may exceptionally be decorated with the grand cordon.

The maximum number of annual nominations to the five grades shall be determined by presidential decree on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, having considered the advice of the Council of Ministers and the Council of the Order.

Article 4.

The honours are bestowed by decree of the President of the Republic on therecommendation of the Prime Minister, having considered the advice of the Commission of the Order. Particular means of bestowal may be established by the statutes prescribed by article 6.

Honours may not be bestowed upon senators or deputies during their terms of office.

Article 5.

In consideration of penal law, a conferee may be divested of an honour for indignity.The divestiture is established by a decree of the President of the Republic following a proposal of the Prime Minister on the advice of the Council of the Order.

Article 6.

The statutes of the Order shall be approved by a decree of the President ofthe Republic on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, acting on the advice of the Council of the Order.

Article 7.

In the territory of the Republic Italian citizens may not make use of decorations or chivalric titles bestowed in non-national orders or by foreign states unless these have been authorised by decree of the President of the Republic, acting on the advice of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Violators of the above may be fined up to five hundred thousand lire. The use of medals, decorations and chivalric titles bestowed by the Holy See and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre shall continue to be governed by regulations already in force. Likewise, no modification is made to the regulations already in force for use of the medals, decorations and chivalric titles of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Article 8.

In consideration of article 7, the bestowal is prohibited of honours, decorations and chivalric titles, in any form and by any name, on the part of corporate bodies, associations or private individuals. Violators may be penalized by from six months to two years of imprisonment and fined from two hundred fifty thousand to five hundred thousand lire.

Whoever makes use, in any form or manner, of honours, decorations or titles described in the preceding section even though these may have been conferred prior to enactment of the present law, shall be penalized by payment of a fine between fifty thousand and three hundred thousand lire.

A conviction for the infractions described in the above paragraph shall include publication of the sentence according to Article 36, final section, of the Penal Code.

The terms of the second and third sections set forth above are valid also when the actual bestowal of the honours, decorations or titles in question has taken place outside Italy.

Article 9.

Bestowal of the Order of the Most Holy Annunciation and the relative decorations is suppressed. The Order of the Crown of Italy is hereby suppressed and the bestowal of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus is discontinued. In any event, the continued use is permitted of those decorations heretofore conferred, exclusive of every right of precedence in official ceremonies.

Other orders and honours instituted prior to 2 June 1946 shall be the subject of a separate law.

Article 10.

The Government is authorised to undertake the stipulations necessary for enforcement of the present law.

The present law, given under the Seal of State, shall be entered in the official registry of laws and decrees of the Italian Republic, to made available to whomever seeks to consult it.

Given at Rome this 3rd day of March 1951.


Signed, EINAUDI. Countersigned, De Gaspari, Sforza, Piccioni, Pella.


Seen by the Keeper of the Seals, Piccioni.


Some authors have speculated that the statute of 1951 erred in its implicit classification of certain orders bestowed by the King of Italy as "national" when these were in fact "dynastic," and this has fostered the cliche that the sections of the law pertaining to certain orders bestowed by the Kings of Italy are simply "illegal." In explanation, it is worth considering the manner in which these institutions were altered between 1860 and 1946, when the last Italian monarch, Umberto II, was deposed by popular referendum in the first free elections held in Italy in nearly a quarter of a century.

In 1860, the heads of the ruling dynasties of the Two Sicilies, Tuscany, Modena and Parma were deposed in favor of the Royal House of Sardinia (Savoy). In the statutes and decrees relative to the orders bestowed in these realms until that time, it is overwhelmingly evident that no distinction was made between "dynastic" and "national" orders of knighthood; this distinction simply did not exist in the Italian states in that era, and the dynasties deposed between 1859 and 1861 lawfully continue to this day to bestow the orders they had conferred while regnant. In statutes and decrees relative to orders of knighthood bestowed in the Kingdom of Italy between 1860 and 1946, the distinction between "dynastic" and "state" orders eventually became a reality. An analogy of sorts may be drawn with Great Britain's Royal Victorian Order, which is in the personal gift of the Sovereign, in contrast to the Order of the British Empire, which is bestowed by the Sovereign on the basis of recommendations by the Prime Minister.


Some orders bestowed by the Kings of Italy may indeed have come to be considered national institutions appertaining not to the House of Savoy itself but to the Kingdom of Italy as a constitutional nation state and, by implication, to the Italian Republic as the successor to that state. With the Italian Constitution of 1948, some of those entities which formerly had been associated with the Crown were now associated with the Presidency of the Italian Republic in a lawful, internationally-recognised successor state to the Kingdom of Italy. Whether the Italian Presidency can be considered an office precisely analogous to the Italian Crown is debatable, but the Italian Republic made no effort to usurp or bestow, for example, the Order of the Crown of Italy; it merely "suppressed" its position in Italy, where the Republic established its own orders of merit, a prerogative it was free to exercise as a sovereign and democratic nation. The Order of Merit of theItalian Republic and the Order of Labour Merit (see below) are today recognised by the Head of the House of Savoy, presumably because their existence does not infringe upon any dynastic rights or prerogatives. The only order of knighthood of the Kingdom of Italy that could be said to be bestowed in some manner by the Italian Republic today is the Order of Labour Merit. Conferred upon twenty-five citizens annually, this prestigious institution is similar in almost every respect to the order of the same name bestowed by the Kings of Italy; even the decoration itself is nearly identical. During his long exile, King Umberto II bestowed the Order of the Crown not as Head of the House of Savoy but as King of Italy. Article 139 of the Italian Constitution authorises the Republic to manage the charitable foundation of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, which still operates from the Roman office which once housed the chancery of orders of knighthood of the Kingdom of Italy, while the Ministry of Defense still confers the Medal of Saint Maurice which was once attached to the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.

The history of the rank of hereditary knight bachelor (cavaliere ereditario) is more appropriately considered under the topic of nobiliary titles.

Apropos titles of nobility, a particularly Italian tradition is worth noting. As recently as the early decades of the twentieth century, the younger sons of titled noblemen were addressed by courtesy "Cavaliere" even if they were not hereditary knights bachelor or conferees of an order of chivalry.

Although this unofficial practice was tacitly tolerated for centuries, by 1920 it was contrary to Italian heraldic law. Obviously, these untitled noblemen must be distinguished from actual knights. The enduring use of the title "cavaliere" in this manner results from the medieval practice of the younger sons of feudatories enlisting in the military-religious orders. In the Middle Ages, the nobility was the class from which postulants to knighthood were drawn, though in fact most Italian baronies extant in the nineteenth century were of anything but "medieval" creation. As the nobility constituted the greater part of the knightage of the Order of Malta, the Constantinian Order of Saint George and, until quite recently, the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, there was little to discourage this centuries-old practice, which is now obsolete.

Each order of knighthood traditionally associated with Italy and the Italiansis listed here according to the fount of honour by which it is or was conferred. Unfortunately, there exist for some of these institutions "shadow" orders known by similar appellations but bestowed by other sources. Honours bestowed by the mayor of the "Principality of Seborga," a town in northern Italy, cannot be considered legitimate under Italian law. Likewise, there reside in Italy and elsewhere various claimants to the thrones of long-extinct Byzantine, Norman and Longobard dynasties that once ruled parts of what is now Italy, and several of these persons bestow "knighthoods" upon Italian citizens; only those honours bestowed by the Italian dynasties regnant in 1859 immediately prior to unification may be considered legitimate. (Some of the dynastic orders mentioned are not, in practice, bestowed at present.)

The President of the Italian Republic bestows the Order of the Star ofItalian Solidarity, the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, the MilitaryOrder of Italy, the Order of Labour Merit and the Order of Vittorio Veneto. The last is particularly interesting in that it was founded in 1968 to be conferred upon veterans of the First World War.

The Italian Crown bestowed various orders (dynastic orders are described below), including the Order of the Crown of Italy and the Order of Labour Merit. Several orders bestowed in occupied territories had fallen into abeyance by 1944, including the Equestrian Colonial Order of the Star of Italy, the Order of Zvonimir of Croatia, the Order of the Besa of Albania, and the Order of Scanderbeg of Albania. The Order of the Roman Eagle was bestowed in Italy and its occupied territories, particularly upon military officers.

The Holy See bestows five Pontifical orders, namely the Supreme Order of Christ, the Order of the Golden Spur (Golden Militia), the Order of Pius IX (Pian Order), the Order of Saint Gregory the Great, and the Order of Pope Saint Sylvester. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is a non-Pontifical order under the authority and protection of the Holy See; its grand master is a cardinal.

The Head of the Royal House of Savoy is H.R.H. Prince Vittorio Emanuele, Duke of Savoy, only son of the late King Umberto II of Italy (1904-1983). The dynastic orders of which the Duke of Savoy, as head of his dynasty, is hereditary grand master are the Order of the Most Holy Annunciation (Order of the Collar), the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, the Military Order of Savoy and the Civil Order of Savoy, of which the Order of Civil Merit of Savoy is a part. If the Duke of Savoy were to bestow the Order of the Crown of Italy, he would do so as the Pretender and Heir to the Italian Throne.

With the abrogation of the exile of Prince Vittorio Emanuele and his son, H.R.H. Prince Emanuele Filiberto, Prince of Venice, it is likely that certain conditions of the law of 1951 eventually will be changed.

The Head of the Royal House of Bourbon of the Two Sicilies is H.R.H. Prince Ferdinando, Duke of Castro, grand master of the Distinguished Royal Order ofSaint Januarius, and the Constantinian Order of Saint George (recognised by the Italian government with Foreign Ministry decrees of 1963 and 1996 which permit military officers and civilians to wear its decorations), as well as the Royal Order of Merit of Saint Ferdinand, the Royal Military Order of Saint George of the Reunion and the Royal Order of Francis I. The Duke of Castro has a son and heir, H.R.H. Prince Carlo, Duke of Calabria.

The Head of the Grand Ducal House of Tuscany is H.I.R.H. Archduke Leopoldo Francesco of Habsburg-Tuscany, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who has delegated the duties of grand master of his dynasty's orders of knighthood to his elder son, H.I.R.H. Archduke Sigismondo. These orders include the Military Order of Saint Stephen of Tuscany, the Order of Saint Joseph, the Order of the White Cross, the Order of Military Merit and the Order of Civil Merit. Although these orders are not recognised by statute, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has granted certain civilian knights the authority to wear the decorations of, in particular, the Order of Saint Stephen.

The Grand Ducal House of Parma bestows the Constantinian Order of Parma and the Order of Merit of Saint Louis. The Grand Ducal House of Este of Modena bestows the Order of the Eagle of Este and the Order of Merit.

The Council of the Captains Regent of the Republic of San Marino confers theEquestrian Order of Saint Agatha and the Civil and Military Order of Saint Marino.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta bestows the Order of Malta (Order of Saint John of the Hospital of Jerusalem) and the Order of Merit.

The Serene House of Grimaldi of Monaco bestows the Order of Saint Charles, the Order of the Crown of Monaco, the Order of the Grimaldi(s) and the Order of Cultural Merit.


(C)1997 Louis A. M. Mendola. Some parts of this article were published originally in the Journal of the Orders and Medals Research Society, London, in 1989 and 1993.