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knightly orders, carbonari, freemasons, religious confraternities, mystical
secret societies. Hidden headquarters. Esoteric symbols. Arcane initiation
rites. All part of Sicilian society into the nineteenth century? Maybe the
time has arrived to clear the air on some of these matters, which are beginning
to be "revealed" in privately-published (but widely distributed)
books on Sicilian "history."
Pseudo-history may be a better description. Sicily has had more
than its share of secret societies, the Mafia
and the Beati Paoli among them. But looking further
into the past, the Sicilian commanderies of the Templars (the closest thing
ever to a "secretive" order of knighthood) were confiscated by
Frederick II in the thirteenth century, partly due
to that order's poor treatment of the Sicilian sovereign --who was also
King of Jerusalem-- during his bloodless "crusade" to the Holy
Land. Much later, the colorful charlatan Cagliostro
made a career of the Esoteric, achieving greatest success far from his native
Sicily --where, one presumes, his fellow citizens might have recognised
him for the fraud he was. Here in Sicily, the Freemasons, led in times past
by Count Federico, were recognised publicly only with the initiation of
Giuseppe Garibaldi in Palermo in 1860. Like the pseudo-masonic Carbonari
of the nineteenth century, the Freemasons were officially banned in Sicily
until the 1860s, though a few small local lodges existed, necessarily in
Truth be told, the Freemasons and local Catholic fraternities were rarely
any more secretive than the Catholic Church's Holy Inquisition, which in
Sicily was a particularly unpleasant social force. It should also be recognised
that an event's being "private" does not necessarily make it "secret."
Much of the recent public interest in such matters has resulted from The
Da Vinci Code, a work of bestselling fiction set in France and the United
Kingdom. As none of the pseudo-historical ideas advanced by its author are
at all new, many having been presented elsewhere long ago in books such
as Holy Blood-Holy Grail, it is amazing that a curious (if poorly
informed) readership has embraced so much fiction as if it were fact.
Few of these ideas are, strictly speaking, "New Age," though a few certainly embrace principles which have come to be associated with the New Age movement. We now see the publication in Italy of imaginative books alleging, while
presenting no supporting documentary evidence whatsoever, that certain Sicilian
churches once hosted arcane "knightly" initiation rituals. Citing
as proof the presence, in several of Sicily's Norman-Arab churches, of geometric
astrological, Muslim or Judaic symbols reflecting the island's multicultural
past, certain authors have asserted (though hardly demonstrated) that "secret"
rites once took place here. Some authors have even suggested that certain
Catholic knightly orders (the Order of Malta prominent
among these) are arcane bastions of esoteric "mysticism." It has
all the trappings of a paranoid conspiracy theory. In fact, knightly investitures
are celebrated during the day or early evening in churches open to the public.
In scientific and historical circles, the burden of proof to establish
"fact" falls to the scientist or would-be historian who must demonstrate,
beyond reasonable doubt, that a certain event did indeed take place. The
inventive authors of works claiming the past existence of events such as
secret initiation rituals in Sicilian churches simply have not presented
anything more than highly speculative, circumstantial evidence to make their
case. Most of their books and articles lack anything resembling a reliable,
historically-authenticated account of such events. Historians debate the
details of many events of the past, but anybody who proposes the clear revision
of history, or speculation involving minute particulars, should support
such ideas with realistic evidence. That evidence must be based on specific
records (chronicles, literature, art, architecture) in their proper social
context (language, customs, lifestyles, natural events). Anything less is
a disservice to those interested in history's true legacy.
The rebuttal to this reasoning, naturally, is that a secret society
would not leave a paper trail of its existence, and that's why symbols are
so important. There is some logic in this, but certain symbols, even the
fleur de lis and the heraldic lion of England, have
varying meanings, depending on their historical (and geographical) context.
In medieval Sicilian art and architecture, the "Star of David,"
for example, has various meanings, ranging from its Judaic symbolism (as the Magen David) to
its use as a geometric motif by Muslims and Christians, but it does not
represent anything more unusual than that. History, of course, is eclectic,
and perspectives are individual. To a woman forbidden entry into a mosque,
Islam might seem "secretive."
Sicilian history already boasts a number of "arcane" social
movements. It doesn't seem necessary to create new ones. The Sicilian historical
phenomenon most often romanticised is the Mafia. This form of organised
crime, partly a product of many Sicilians' suspicious attitudes towards
authority --and each other-- has existed in its present form only since
the late 1700s or early 1800s, but some authors claim a medieval origin
Despite occasional claims to older roots, Freemasonry began in the early
1700s, and has been present in Sicily only since the 1840s. The Catholic
proscription officially resulted from what were viewed as quasi-theological
characteristics such as Masonry's non-sectarian definition of God, but in
effect the Vatican's position cast suspicion upon any organisation which
might challenge the established social order. Freemasonry, like the Catholic
Church itself, has changed since the eighteenth century. Until the twentieth
century, however, the Papacy rarely voiced open support of anything "new,"
such as newly-founded democratic republics (i.e. France and the United States)
or populist movements (universal voting rights, representative government).
It's not surprising that Freemasonry would be discouraged. Conversely, the
Church was often adamant, if not reactionary, in its support of clearly
repressive monarchies, rarely standing at the vanguard of social progress
in matters such as ecumenism or women's rights. Few would argue that the
Catholic Church and the Freemasons of today bear little resemblance to their
predecessors of the nineteenth century.
In Sicily, the successful invasion by Piedmontese forces in 1860 had
more to do with external factors (such as the refusal of British
naval officers to stop Garibaldi's landings) than with any "secret"
group in Sicily, Masonic or otherwise. Likewise the War of the Vespers in
1282, planned with the help of exiled Norman and Swabian nobles friendly
with the King of Aragon. The Mafiosi who collaborated with American forces
before and after the Allied invasion
of 1943 were of very little help during the actual military campaign.
Yet these events and others are often the object of "fantasy history."
The Beati Paoli probably existed as a reaction
against the Inquisition, but very little is known of the brotherhood, whose
purported exploits were popularised by just a few authors, usually as fiction,
long after that fraternity had ceased to exist.
Catholic and dynastic orders of chivalry (both
real and imagined) have members in Sicily, as do religious fraternities.
Opus Dei and similar Catholic lay organisations may have a few eccentric
members given to unusual practices, but that is not the primary scope of
such associations. In Sicily, Opus Dei has a prominent academic --though
not intellectually exceptional-- component represented by professors in
some of the island's undistinguished universities.
Dogmatic and secretive they may well be, but they pose a threat to nobody
other than a few students, who may find themselves penalised for expressing
overly "secular" or "non-Catholic" views in (for example)
a political science course. Unfair. Unpleasant. Perhaps even mediocre. But
Italy's short-lived, revolving-door governments manage to exhaust themselves
without outside help from special-interest organisations, even when the
quasi-masonic P-2 Lodge is the alleged culprit. The last political coup
in Italy came with Mussolini and his Fascists
in 1922, and even then it was sanctioned by the royal authority and parliament
of the day. The Neo-Fascists of today are not very
secretive; they actually seek members and promote public events, including
an annual Catholic mass in Palermo.
The arcane mysticism of history will continue to fuel the imagination,
finding its way into contemporary literature. It's not surprising to see
the spirit of the medieval Knights Templar in the Jedi Knights of Star
Wars fame, but it would be silly to attribute secret knowledge to men
who lived in the Middle Ages unless there were tangible proof of it.
In the minds of fantasists, an ordinary artistic motif becomes a secret
"Esoteric" symbol. A stone inscription becomes a "secret
code." Orders of chivalry and Catholic fraternities become sinister
"secret societies." There's something Freudian --and perhaps even
curious-- in all this bizarre analysis, but real history remains interesting
enough without embellishment. It has been so for thousands of years.
About the Author: Architect Carlo Trabia has written for this publication and others.