Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
Map of Sicily
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.
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
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.