Flying on a private jet in the spring of 1999, Prince Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia received word from the cockpit that the plane needed refueling. "The pilot said we had to land in Milan," says the prince, who is customarily known as Emanuele Filiberto. "I said, 'Are you kidding? I cannot go.' " Ultimately the plane was given clearance to land—so long as the 28-year-old prince didn't set foot on Italian soil. It was hardly the way Emanuele Filiberto, putative heir to Italy's crown, had envisioned his arrival after a lifetime in exile. The airport, he sniffs, "smelled of gasoline."

The prince has, in fact, spent his life dreaming of Italy's greater attractions. "I want to eat pizza in Naples, go on a gondola in Venice and see Juventus play soccer in Turin," he says. Whenever his mother, Princess Marina, 66, returns from a trip to Italy, "he always wants to know what I have done and seen," she says.

So far, such secondhand descriptions have had to suffice. Like all male descendants of Italian King Vittorio Emanuele III, Emanuele Filiberto is barred from entering his ancestral homeland. An only child raised in Switzerland by his father, Prince Vittorio Emanuele, 64, and his Swiss-born mother, he is waging an aggressive campaign—via the European Court of Human Rights, the Vatican and the Italian parliament—to return. "My goal," he declares, "is to finally be able to enter Italy as a simple citizen."

But even if he succeeds in crossing the Italian border, it won't be as a simple paesano. Educated in boarding school, Emanuele Filiberto, a bachelor who dates Tatiana von Grecman Waldek, 26, a divorced mother of two, is used to a privileged life of private jets and island getaways.

Yet all his family wealth cannot buy him access to Italy, which abolished its 85-year monarchy at the end of World War II. The penultimate king, Emanuele Filiberto's great-grandfather, had cooperated with Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and signed the 1938 laws under which Jews were persecuted.

Last year Emanuele Filiberto, a banker in Geneva who is fluent in Italian, French and English, apologized on Italian radio for his family's errors. Still, he asks, "am I to apologize for everything done in 1942? It was a disgusting part of history."

Not surprisingly, many Italians regarded his apology as too little, too late. Others resented his threat to visit Italy for last year's Vatican's World Youth Jubilee, regardless of the ban against his presence. (He ultimately backed off the idea.) "If he says he doesn't care about our laws," says Giorgio La Malfa, head of Italy's centrist Republican party, "he can forget about returning here forever."

But not everyone opposes Emanuele Filiberto's return. After the death of his grandmother, former Queen Maria José, in January, polls showed 74 percent of Italians would support lifting the ban.

The prince, who became familiar to millions of Italians during his three-year stint cohosting an Italian TV show about soccer, hopes his plight will be treated with greater urgency in the coming year. "We expect a favorable decision [from the European court] in the near future," says Giuseppe Morbilli, the family's lawyer. And there seems to be progress in Italy's parliament as well. "The politicians are speaking now," says Emanuele Filiberto. "We will wait to see what happens."

Unlike the exiled Greek royal family, the house of Savoy has not petitioned for a return of its property, which includes several confiscated estates. "I am only asking to be able to go back to my country and be a citizen," says Vittorio Emanuele. "The fact that my son never had the right to visit Italy is madness."

Although the Italian border is not far away, the young prince—who would face deportation if he entered illegally—says he has never been tempted to sneak in. "I would like to go with permission, without having to hide myself," he says, "and see for the first time the most beautiful country on earth."

Michelle Tauber
Simon Perry in Geneva and Praxilla Trabattoni in Rome

  • Contributors:
  • Simon Perry,
  • Praxilla Trabattoni.