The San Luigi Orders and Italian law

The San Luigi Orders had established a membership in Italy by at least the 1930s and there are records of appointments in the Orders there throughout the ensuing decades. A Grand Priory of the San Luigi Orders was erected in Sardinia under Roman Catholic priest Canon Giovanni Maria Chessa, and his list of members in 1963 counts some nineteen knights, in addition to several others who were located elsewhere in the country.

Titles of nobility, whether domestic or foreign, are unrecognised under the 1948 Constitution, but continue to be widely used by Italians socially. The position concerning the acceptance and use of foreign chivalric distinctions is more complex in Italian law. Law 178 of March 3 1951 as originally enacted sought to proscribe Italian citizens from using within Italian territory any foreign chivalric honours not approved by the Republic. However, enforcement of the law is the business of the Italian courts, and they have on several occasions determined that the conferral and use of seemingly “proscribed” orders is in fact legal. Moreover, subsequent amendments to the 1951 law as well as several court judgements have served further to clarify its intent and applicability.

A highly relevant decision is that of the Court of Appeal of Pistoia of 5 June 1964, which considered whether the bestowal of the Military Order of the Collar of St Agatha of Paterno was in breach of this law. This Order, which is bestowed by the Royal House of Aragon (in exile) has been the subject of proscription by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it might be thought by an uninformed observer that it would be precisely the sort of Order that would fall foul of the 1951 law.

However, the decision of the Court of Appeal of Pistoia of 5 June 1964 served to clarify the application of the 1951 law, as well as concluding that the bestowal and acceptance of this Order was, in fact, fully legal. The court’s decision reads,

“Truly it should be noted that according to the terms of Articles 7 and 8 of the said Law, while the conferring of honours decorations and chivalric distinctions is forbidden to organisations, associations and private individuals and the practice is to be punished, be it in whatever form or manner in which it is carried out, the acceptance of honours is sometimes permitted to Italian citizens when conferred by non-national Orders or by foreign states and this practice is only forbidden in so far as it lacks the authorisation of the President of the Republic as proposed to him by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Without the application of such an interpretation, the terms in question should remain without significance because the mention of non-national orders, in connection with the possibility that the practice of the relative concessions may be authorised, necessarily signifies that the same concessions may exist and be accepted. Such an interpretation was confirmed by Parliament, with the result that the phrase “non-national orders” has been added to the original text of Article 7 and that the expression “cannot be accepted” has there been substituted with the other phrase “cannot be used in the territory of the Republic”. In substance, with the terms in question the legislator has wished to forbid that various subjects be able to take the initiative to make themselves the distributors of honours and decorations without an effective pre-existent title or faculty; and moreover that such concessions should remain in the private ambit of the distinguished subject, unless he has permission to use it in public, without which these same concessions should remain matters inconsistent with the internal right of the State, which forbids such external manifestation in order justly to safeguard the merits reserved and represented by the honours recognised by the State.”

It should be noted that a number of the other orders that are seemingly proscribed by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, notably the Order of St Lazarus, have maintained highly active Italian branches up to the present day.

It can be seen from the above that Italian law makes a distinction between acceptance of an Order and its public use, reserving that public use to Orders recognized by the Republic. It is therefore legal for an Italian citizen to accept an Order that is not recognized by the Republic, providing it is genuine, and providing he does not then wear it in public.

The San Luigi Orders thus fall into this category of Orders that may be accepted by Italian citizens, and it is clear (not least from the example of the Order of St Lazarus) that so long as their insignia are worn only at private ceremonies of the Order the holder will remain within the law.