ROME — Italy is bracing itself for an unseemly court battle over who has the right to call himself the head of the country's royal family.
While the titles and honors of the Italian royal family have not legally been recognized since 1946, when the republic was founded, Prince Victor Emmanuel, 70, has ruled over the House of Savoy since the death of his father, Umberto II, in 1983.
However, his cousin, Amedeo, 63, the Fifth Duke D'Aosta, strenuously maintains it is he, not Victor Emmanuel, who is the true heir to the defunct monarchy.
Last summer, Amedeo declared that he had changed his name to Savoy and would assume power. However, his attempt to seize control will be fiercely fought by Victor Emmanuel in a closed hearing at a court in Arezzo at an undisclosed date this month.
Victor Emmanuel has said Amedeo's membership of the dynasty has now been cancelled, "because of his gravely injurious behavior toward the honor of our royal person." In addition, he denounced Amedeo and his son Aimone to the court for usurping the name of Savoy and the position of family head.
The quarrel between the two men has raged for several years and once even resulted in a fist fight. Three years ago, Victor Emmanuel punched Amedeo twice in the face during a dinner given by King Juan Carlos I of Spain to celebrate his son's wedding.
Amedeo believes his cousin gave up the right to call himself Umberto II's heir when he married a Swiss biscuit heiress and champion water-skier without his father's permission in 1971.
To back up his claim, he has produced letters between Umberto and Victor Emmanuel, in which the last king warned his son about the consequences of marriage without his express permission. "It could bring about the loss of all your rights to succeed as head of the House of Savoy and your claim to the throne of Italy, reducing you to the status of a private citizen," Umberto wrote. When Umberto heard that Victor Emmanuel had married Marina Doria secretly in Las Vegas, he wrote again in panic, reminding him "word for word" of what he had said.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Filiberto, the son of Victor Emmanuel, dismissed Amedeo's claims as "sterile provocations" and said he possessed documentation countering the claim.
"It makes me laugh. I think Italians have plenty of other problems and are not even slightly interested in the issues raised by the duke.
"If he wants to crown himself, let him. All of Italy will laugh," he said.
Despite the acrimony, many Italians still look upon the House of Savoy with fondness and respect. Amedeo announced that he wanted to settle the matter because of a series of scandals that have tarnished the Italian throne, but that he did not want to bring the matter to court earlier because it might have held up Victor Emmanuel's return from exile.