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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Italy's Royal Family Returns Home

ROME -- The male heirs to Italy's throne returned home Monday for a lightning visit, ending more than half a century of exile imposed on the family as punishment for collaborating with fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Prince Vittorio Emanuele, 65, and his son Prince Emanuele Filiberto, 30, arrived at a Rome airport in the morning and headed straight to the Vatican for a 20-minute private meeting with Pope John Paul.

"This audience is very important for us, it's almost a page of history," Vittorio Emanuele, the son of Italy's last king, told the pope.

The Savoys flew back later in the day to Switzerland, where they have lived for much of their exile. They will return to Italy on a permanent basis in 2003.

The Italian parliament voted earlier this year to allow the princes back to their ancestral homeland, overturning a ban imposed on them after Italians voted in a 1946 referendum to abolish the monarchy and create a republic.

However, their return was delayed by more than a month because of a serious back injury sustained by Vittorio Emanuele in a car rally accident in Egypt.

The prince, accompanied by his wife Marina Doria, last saw Italy when he was just 9 years old while his son had never set foot in the country.

The family fled Rome in 1943 following the fall of Mussolini, leaving the city at the mercy of occupying German troops.

Ostracized by Italian politicians for so long, Vittorio Emanuele made clear the first place he wanted to visit on his return was the Vatican. He gave the pope two books on the history of the Savoys and received a rosary in turn.

Facing pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, Italy's parliament voted in July to rewrite the constitution to allow the male heirs back home as ordinary Italian citizens. Their exile came to an official end in November.

Both Vittorio Emanuele and his son have pledged their allegiance to the republic and say they have no plans to recreate the monarchy, unless the Italian people desire it.

That seems unlikely given the damage dealt to the family's reputation during the fascist rule.

King Victor Emanuel III signed Mussolini's race laws that led to the murder of thousands of Italian Jews in Nazi death camps, then fled Rome to escape the German occupation.

Victor Emanuel abdicated after the war in favor of his son in a bid to restore public belief in the monarchy, but this move was not enough to sway the 1946 referendum.