Once upon a time there was a princess who adored donkeys, but they had disappeared from her realm in Italy.

They used to be everywhere. Big black ones roamed Italy's heel. There were white ones on the little island of Asinara and gray ones with brown rings on their legs and a brown cross on their backs in Tuscany, where the princess lived. On Sardinia, they grew to be just two feet tall.

At death, medieval peasants were buried with their deceased donkeys, in a nod to the beasts' value. St. Francis, the patron saint of Italy -- and animals -- rode one. Priests blessed them. Renaissance painters put them in their frescoes.

Then came the combustion engine. Carts and plows were replaced by trucks and tractors. Donkeys were sold for meat. The princess missed them.

So she and like-minded Italians are now trying to revive the donkey through methods used to preserve many things to which Italians are attached: identifying a niche market, creating a tourist attraction and, above all, going to the government and European Union for money.

Donkeys, a symbol of Italy's impoverished past, might not seem as important as, say, Venice or family farming, both under threat -- unless you see something profoundly Italian in them, as Princess Nicoletta d'Ardia Caracciolo does.

"Italy isn't Italy without donkeys," she said, gazing lovingly at the herd of 17 she keeps on land near Magliano, a hilltop town in far western Tuscany. "Italy without donkeys is like Italy without churches."

It's a tough sell, but breeders across the country are beginning to take steps to preserve the animals. In Sardinia, where the donkey population shrank from about 20,000 in the 1940s to a few score by 2000, researchers are keeping breeds of both the Sardinian ass and the Asinara donkey in a national park on Asinara island, once the site of an Alcatraz-style prison.

The Martina Franca donkey, from the instep of Italy's boot, once numbered in the thousands but declined to 96 by 2,000. The stock has climbed back to 207 through the efforts of private breeders, who preserve embryos in freezers to facilitate in vitro fertilization.

In late May, the Tuscan town of Grosseto hosted National Donkey Day to show off the local Miccio Amiatino, the breed raised by Princess Caracciolo, as well as other stock from all over Italy. The town became a virtual time machine, filled with carts and little boys leading braying animals on rope halters.

Donkey owners hawked donkey milk, which they touted as a substitute dairy product for people allergic to cow's milk. Ugo Corrieri, who heads the psychiatric department at Grosseto hospital, explained the possibilities of "onotherapy," the use of donkeys to improve the motor skills of disabled children and help children and teenagers who have difficulty relating to their surroundings. imilar programs employ horses for the same purpose.

"I think donkeys are better than horses, which are more high-strung," Corrieri said. "They are very human-friendly. They also seek out human contact and are more patient than horses."

Maria Patrizia Latini, who keeps five donkeys for the use of both tourists and disabled children, said she was trying to persuade investors to explore the legendary cosmetic properties of ass's milk. The historical testimony is convincing: Cleopatra, Nero's wife Poppea and the Austrian Empress Sissi all soaked in baths of donkey milk. "I don't see why we Italians should go around worrying about saving whales and tigers while our own donkey goes extinct," Latini said.

Despite these niche possibilities, donkey breeding depends on subsidies, and the European Union is one source. Under a five-year-old program, during which Italian donkeys have been declared endangered species, the E.U. makes money available for their preservation.

Paolo Falchi, president of the Micci Amiatini Breeders Association, said breeders receive an E.U. annual subsidy of about $240 for each donkey they own over the age of six months. Regional governments dispense the money solely for donkeys native to the area; a Sicilian Ragusano donkey gets no help if it is born and raised in Tuscany. The Tuscan region also pays ranchers about 25 percent of what it costs them to maintain their donkeys. "It doesn't make you rich, but it helps," said Falchi.

Five years ago, there were about 70 Amiatino donkeys in Tuscany, and the number has grown to 700, Princess Caracciolo said. She tends to her own herd, identifiable by their tan color, brown rings on their forelegs and a brown stripe across their shoulders. "Eat, eat!" she cries, calling them by their names: "Fausta! Caterina! Stellina!"

Caracciolo, whose aristocratic Neapolitan and Tuscan lineage dates back centuries, is more interested in donkey breeding for its sentimental, rather than commercial, value. She notes that the donkey was the preferred mode of transport for Christ.

Caracciolo defends the donkey against a reputation for being, well, asinine. "The donkey is not stupid," she asserted. "It is smarter than the dog and pig. People say it suddenly stops in the middle of a path for no reason. No, it's because it is contemplating the situation. It's not like a horse that runs off at the first sign of trouble."

Mostly, the donkey reminds her of time past, when Italy was a rural land of simple farmers, dirt paths and ruling aristocrats. "The donkey stands for some of the good things that Italy used to be. Slow. Patient. Hard-working. The donkey is the same as ever," she said. "It is we who have changed."

Princess Nicoletta d'Ardia Caracciolo feeds her donkeys at her Tuscan farm.