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Sicilian Peoples: The Spaniards
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Peoples of Sicily

Some Terms
Albanians - Various peoples of Albania; some settled in Sicily in late 1400s.
Aragonese - People and dynasty of Aragon in northeastern Spain.
Inquisition - ecclesiastical tribunal and judicial system established in 1233 but popularized in 1400s to suppress heresy and other 'crimes,' often through torture.
Italy - Nation state established as a monarchy in the 1860s, a republic since 1946. Includes Appenine peninsula, Sicily and Sardinia.
Latin - Language of Rome, also Italic culture of Rome, the Western Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
Orthodoxy - Relating to the original Christian Church and its traditional teachings maintained in the East, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church of the West.
Roman Catholic - Church of Rome, particularly following the Schism of 1054.
Spain - Nation of the Iberian peninsula except for Portugal and Andorra, established in late 1400s.


Saint Mary of the Chains, Palermo. Renaissance Gothic style.The Sicily one sees today is an essentially "Latin" region which, as part of Italy, has a distinct yet Italian character. For the most part, the people are Roman Catholic (at least nominally) and superficially those of Palermo and Catania don't seem too different from those of Naples or Bologna. The unification of Spain led to a degree of stability and forged a powerful European state prepared to defend its interests, both in Europe and in the emerging New World colonies. Sicily, however, was essentially a Spanish "possession."

Dynastically, the rulers of Aragon and then all Spain occasionally controlled not only Sicily but much of southern Italy (the Kingdom of Naples). Several, including the remarkable Charles V, were Hapsburgs who ruled not only Spain and her possessions but also Austria and various lands of central Europe. This period lasted for over two hundred years, until the War of the Spanish Succession and the brief reign (1713-1720) of Vittorio Amadeo of Savoy.

Except for diplomats, military personnel and the occasional immigrant, it could not be said that this modern era saw a great influx of "foreigners" in Sicily. The Albanian refugees who founded several towns late in the fifteenth century represent the last historical wave of immigrants to arrive in Sicily. There were occasional revolts, but for the most part Spanish Sicily was a reasonably prosperous --if highly taxed and poorly administered-- place, at least for the privileged few. For those who enjoy comparing historical statistics, it's worth noting that into the nineteenth century, Naples and Palermo --not Rome and Milan-- were the wealthiest cities of "Italy," even if little of this wealth filtered into the hands of the masses.

Differences in "civic" responsibility between Italy's northerners and southerners are not easily explained, but it has been suggested that a historically strong central administration, as opposed to the comparatively "localised" governments of Milan, Genoa, Turin, Venice and Bologna, have left the southerners with a lesser sense of citizenship. This is difficult to describe in practical terms, but it partly explains why, for example, a Palermitan seems more likely to litter the streets of "his" city than would a native Milanese in Milan. Foreigners as well as Italians often note that Italy's northern cities seem cleaner and better maintained than southern ones. Why are Treviso and Brescia cleaner and better preserved than Caltanissetta and Messina? There's no simple answer, but perhaps the Trevisans consider themselves to be the proud masters of their own city, while the Caltanissettans take less pride in public areas considered the domain of the "padrone" (master). At least this is the logic advanced by historians and sociologists, and it represents conventional wisdom on the subject.

From about 1400 until the brief sojourn of a Bourbon king in Palermo around 1800, few kings of Sicily ever visited Palermo, let alone reside in the city. Sicily, for the most part, was administered by viceroys --most of whom were foreign. The Sicilian nobility became corrupt as never before, and exploited society in every way. Illiteracy became rampant; it was convenient for both the Catholic Church and the Kingdom of Sicily to keep the populace ignorant. As recently as 1870, only about fifteen or twenty percent of the population could read and write, though this was as true in Lombardy and Piedmont as it was in Sicily. Yet most of the "old" churches and palaces in Sicily were constructed during this period. Initially, these were Catalan Gothic or Renaissance Gothic in style, but this soon gave way to the "Baroque" styles so noted in southern Italy.

Catholicism was the only religion; even the immigrant Albanians were soon converted from Orthodoxy, and the Jewish Sicilians (a small but prosperous community) were forced to convert or emigrate in the 1490s. In practice, the distinctions between Church and State were few. A series of "parliaments" achieved little except for the continued concentration of power in the hands of a few. Bishops and the Holy Office had influential voices in government and everyday life. The Inquisition led to many abuses; a greedy landholder who coveted the property of his neighbor might denounce him as a heretic. Witchcraft thrived alongside Catholic folk customs bordering on the absurd. Serfdom no longer existed, but the feudal order (formally abolished only in 1812) meant that most large farms and forests were controlled by a few hundred powerful families, even though a "common" family might own a house and a small plot of land. Both Church and State treated nobles better than ordinary citizens. The greatest social reforms arrived only with Bourbon "home rule" during the reign of Charles III in the eighteenth century.

The common people's contempt of the titled nobility, which endures in some ways to this day, can be traced to the long Spanish domination of Sicily. It is often lamented (with reason) that in Sicily a true middle class failed to develop until after the Second World War.

Spain was an important force against the Turkish and Arab pirates of the Mediteranean, and was supported by the Genoese, Venetians and knights of Malta. In the 1500s, piracy along the coasts was commonplace. But banditry (brigandage) inland was far worse, and it persisted well into the nineteenth century, when it evolved into a violent form of organized crime (the Mafia). A population boom left Sicily with (by the 1650s) something approaching two million people, mostly resident in towns rather than cities. But the cities of Palermo, Catania and Messina were large.

Suppressed in Sicily only in 1782, the Inquisition, not the Reformation, was the order of the day. Its effects on society were devastating. It has been claimed, with much justification, that by the twentieth century the Protestant countries of northwestern Europe, boasting increasingly high levels of literacy, more efficient industrialization, higher per capita income and ever greater individual rights, were more socially advanced than Catholic Italy and Spain. If so, the horrific legacy of the Inquisition, reflected in the Catholic Church's intolerance of progressive social change throughout the nineteenth century, may well be one of the causes. As recently as the 1780s, the viceroy Domenico Caracciolo observed that Sicily was "inhabited only by either oppressors or the oppressed." Whether the Catholic influence was causal or coincidental to such conditions, such a reactionary institution clearly had no interest in altering the status quo, either in 1500 or in 1900. At the end of Spanish rule in the early years of the eighteenth century, the Catholic Church (embodied in diocesan interests or the religious orders) was the largest single landholder in Sicily, her properties exceeding those of the Crown and the most influential noble families such as the Lanzas and Paternòs. No Industrial Revolution, and no Enlightenment, ever reached Sicily until very late in the nineteenth century, and even then these remained the exclusive province of a tiny literate --and largely unmotivated-- social class.

In the Spanish period and its immediate aftermath, artists were appreciated so long as, like Serpotta, their work did not openly challenge accepted conservative aesthetics, while great writers and philosophers of the day were met with suspicion, even disdain. In architecture, many great medieval churches were given new facades and interiors of concrete and stucco ornamentation, as it was believed that emerging Baroque styles were the epitome of Human expression; in Sicily movements such as the Gothic (even when they resulted in Milan's splendid cathedral) were wrongly viewed as "Protestant" or, worse, "foreign." In certain important respects, the island was becoming isolated from the world's great social, scientific and artistic developments.

A popular uprising in 1516 was instigated not only by the people at large but by nobles annoyed with a viceroy's request for money. When necessary, the populace was easily placated with grain. As early as the 1600s, viceroys and foreign visitors were reporting the general Sicilian tendency toward bribery, corruption, self-interest (rather than the common good) and the willingness to bear false witness (even in courts of law). Clannishness, suspicion of foreigners, and pre-arranged marriages between close cousins became commonplace. It was probably during the Spanish period, with its sudden population increase, that certain genetic diseases became widespread. No social class was immune to the social and biological effects of "inbreeding" and mediocre education. The nobles migrated to the large cities, abandoning their rural estates to the day-to-day management of others, and married among themselves.

Tragically, the same social tendencies cited during the Spanish era were noted by the British and Americans during the Allied occupation of 1943, and some cynics have observed that little has changed to this day. The social and economic implications of such conditions were (and are) nothing short of catastrophic, and have fostered widespread criminality and corruption while hindering economic development. Palermo, a city of fewer than a million people, has two large prisons and a thirty percent unemployment level. The presence of hundreds of thousands of post-war Sicilian immigrants in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Germany, as well as northern Italy, reflects terrible econiomic realities at home in Sicily.

What is truly amazing (as a broad generality) is how little the Sicilian mentality seems to have changed in the last few centuries, and much of the present sociological profile can be traced to the Spanish period. It's an unflattering picture, to be sure, but an accurate one. Only in the 1990s were serious efforts made to change common attitudes toward bribery, payoffs and organized crime, and the results are yet to be realized. The effects of a retarded economy are ubiquitous and profoundly unfortunate; in the twenty-first century emigration for economic reasons is still normal in Sicily.

It would be simple (and perhaps simplistic) to compare Sicily to regions such as Scotland or Ukraine which are closely linked to larger countries on their borders. If the Sicilians were to be viewed as a subjugated people, the roots of their bondage (and lack of independent spirit) would be found in the Spanish era. Never again (not even in the "revolutionary" uprisings of 1848) did the Sicilians collectively express a national consciousness. In 1713 they became Savoyard subjects. Eight years later they fell under Austrian rule. In 1734, the reign of Charles de Bourbon brought a distinguished resident monarch back to Naples but not Palermo, where viceroys continued to govern. The unification of 1860 brought with it rule from Turin and then Rome. Sadly, those things that made Sicily unique --as a multicultural land of ancient Greek philosophers, Arab sages, Norman monarchs and Swabian emperors-- disappeared with the waning of the Middle Ages, never to return.

On several occasions, groups of Spanish migrated to Sicily, mostly as craftsmen, soldiers or farmers. A number of Spanish surnames borne by Sicilian families were those of ancestors who arrived after 1500 and not, as is sometimes claimed, during the medieval Aragonese period.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2005 Vincenzo Salerno