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(See Best of Sicily's heraldry links page for additional articles on
heraldry-related topics and Sicily's armigerous families.)
The term "heraldry" (in Italian araldica) refers
to the functions of court officers known as heralds (It. araldi)
and particularly the field of armory, the study of coats of arms.
Heraldry, as we understand it today, originated around the middle of the
twelfth century, coinciding (in Sicily and in England) with Norman rule,
but it may not have been an explicitly "Norman" development. It
is generally believed that coats of arms originated as little more than
identifying insignia, so that heralds could distinguish the helmeted knight
by the design painted on his shield, just as the knight himself, whose face
was concealed by his helmet, could distinguish friend from foe in the heat
of battle. It has also been suggested, more credibly, that the tournament,
rather than real combat, gave heraldry its strongest impetus. This theory
implies that from its inception heraldry was more decorative than utilitarian,
existing more for the spectators than for the knights or heralds.
By the 1180s knights had begun to assume and use coats of arms, initially
as colourful designs on their shields which were repeated in embroidered
surcoats, and by 1200 heraldic signets and seals were not uncommon. Like
surnames (initially the exclusive perquisite of the landed aristocrats of
the Middle Ages), these "heraldic" designs soon became hereditary,
passed from father to son. The lawful bearer of a coat of arms is an armiger,
while a person (or family) legitimately entitled to a coat of arms is said
to be armigerous. Coats of arms were initially a mark of gentility
and nobility, and in time these were regulated by royal authority to prevent
abuse and usurpation. In an age of widespread illiteracy, a coat of arms
became, in effect, a readily-comprehended ensign of the bearer's social
status as well as knighthood past or present. By the end of the Middle Ages
a certain snobbery was --perhaps understandably-- often attached to the
bearing and use of a coat of arms, but this changed when virtually anybody
could design his own or usurp (usually with impunity) that of somebody else,
a situation commonplace by the end of the nineteenth century. In some countries,
such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, burghers eventually bore coats
of arms as familial insignia rather than, strictly speaking, ensigns of
Why is heraldry important to our study of history and art? During the
thirteenth century coats of arms first appeared widely on seals and coins,
as well as architecture. The oldest western European cities are full of
heraldry. The coats of arms of the first kings of Sicily are shown at right,
with photographs of their actual use on medieval structures in central Palermo.
Heraldry as Art and Science
Heraldic records traditionally took two forms. Rolls of arms (such
as the Sicilian example shown above) were scrolls of parchment containing
the shields of numerous knights. Armouries were written records in
which shields were described in a prescribed style called blazon.
In England blazon is based on Norman French, so the shield (or escutcheon)
showing the red castle on a white (or silver) field is described most simply
as "Argent a Castle of one Tower Gules." In Italian it is "D'argento
un castello rosso." The artistic style of coats of arms varies from
one region to the next. The very pictorial shield with the tree (shown in
the medieval roll on this page) is typically southern Italian.
Medieval coats of arms were often "canted" for a surname,
representing it in some way. In the designs above, the red castle is canted
for the Casato (or Casati) family, whose surname refers to a castle or,
quite literally, a noble's house. Bearing simple geometric designs such
as stripes (known as ordinaries), symbols such as stars or animals
(called charges) or canting references to surnames, the oldest coats
of arms are some of the most beautiful.
Heraldry has its own rules. There are seven principal colours or tinctures:
red (gules in English or rosso in Italian), blue (azure, azzurro),
black (sable, nero), green (vert, verde), purple (purpure,
porpora), gold (or, oro) and silver (argent, argento).
The last two, known as metals, are often rendered (respectively)
in yellow ochre or white; the other tinctures are sometimes called enamels.
A rule of tincture dictates that metal may not be placed on metal
or enamel upon or enamel, but this does not apply to small details or to
objects rendered as "proper," i.e. in their natural colours. In
the fifteenth century tinctures became associated, at least symbolically,
with specific gemstones (azure with sapphires, vert with emeralds, gules
with rubies, etc.) and, on a more astrological note, planets. Le Blason
des Couleurs, the principal work describing this planetary-zodiacal
symbolism, was authored by "Sicily Herald" (Jean Courtois) in
1414, and republished in French in the nineteenth century.
Charges (symbols) abound, with the lion and eagle being the most common
beasts, while trees, stars and castles predominate among inanimate symbols.
How is Sicilian armory (and Italian heraldry generally) different from the
heraldry of other regions? Apart from the specific use of crest coronets
and other ornamentation (to be discussed in a subsequent article), it is
sometimes slightly more "pictorial," as indicated by the blue
shield (showing the tree, comet and greyhound) in the middle of the roll
A crest is part of a full coat of arms or armorial achievement
(not the shield) based on the wooden ornamentation that was sometimes worn
by knights on their helmets to deflect direct downward blows to the head.
It is incorrect to refer to an armorial shield (escutcheon) as a
"crest," though this misnomer often occurs.
Strictly speaking, armory is the branch of heraldry pertaining
to coats of arms. More generally, "heraldry" relates to
all the functions of heralds, who were court officers charged with keeping
various nobiliary records. As trusted --and unarmed-- officials outside
the military hierarchy, medieval heralds were sometimes pressed into service
as diplomats or even royal messengers. In Great Britain and Spain they still
have ceremonial court functions. (The usage and nuances of Sicilian heraldry
will be explained in greater detail in future articles.)
Royal Heraldry in Sicily
In Sicily, as elsewhere, heraldry is readily visible in the coats of arms
carved above the entrances of aristocrats' historic homes, but the heraldry
of the first kings of Sicily is especially beautiful, and reflects the importance
of Europe's most important dynasties (and Sicily's important political role)
during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The earliest coats of arms were designed and used by medieval knights,
but by the end of the Middle Ages (in the middle to late 1400s) specific
designs could be "granted" or recognised only by monarchs, even
if the more common use of arms eventually emerged in central Europe and
Traditionally, it was the job of heralds to control heraldry and the bearing
of coats of arms, though in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (until 1860)
this was haphazard and enforcement rather lax. In fact, into the 1700s some
Sicilian families of the landed gentry which were aristocratic but not titled
based on actual feudal tenure (i.e. generic "nobili" rather
than barons or counts) were known to assume coats of arms at will; armories
by Mango and Crollalanza list numerous blazons for such families. Until
1812 the purchase of a small piece of feudal property (typically a barony)
in Sicily entitled the owner to style himself "baron" following
royal confirmation of his ennoblement (feudal investiture), hence the snobbery
of noble princes, dukes and marquesses in the face of the lower-ranking
counts, viscounts and barons. In the Kingdom of Italy (1860-1946) the Consulta
Araldica del Regno d'Italia (Italy's "College of Arms," formally
abolished in 1948) exercised control not only of coats of arms (at least
in theory) but, in a more active way, nobiliary titles.
In principle, no two coats of arms born by unrelated knights in the same
kingdom could be identical (and within families an effort was made to "difference"
otherwise identical arms through subtle changes in design), but with the
unification of states in modern times this rule necessarily became difficult
to apply to armigers whose ancestors had borne certain coats of arms since
antiquity. The Kingdom of Sicily, for example, was divided in 1282 (between
the island and the Italian peninsula south of Rome) and united much later,
so for centuries a few coats of arms of simple design devised in one realm
("Naples") were identical to those in the other (Sicily), and
with the further unification of Italy circa 1860 there were instances of
Piedmontese, Tuscan and Sicilian families bearing the same coat of arms,
while the Consulta Araldica regulated only those of titled families
or a few untitled ones. A similar situation developed with the unification
of the German states during the same period.
Though heraldry was initially associated with monarchs, knights and nobles,
somebody resident in a nation where heraldry is unregulated by law (this
now includes Italy) could design his own original coat of arms.
Despite what you may occasionally read, personal heraldry --historically
a monarchical tradition-- is not regulated officially in Italy, France,
Russia or most countries which are no longer monarchies. Canada (which has
a queen) has a heraldic authority that grants new coats of arms to individuals,
while the United States does not. However, Ireland and South Africa have
heraldic offices and grant new coats of arms (or legally recognise old ones),
as do the United Kingdom and Spain. At best, a specific design can be copyrighted,
but the blazon itself cannot be protected, so anybody could create a new
design patterned on it.
For those from families which are not traditionally armigerous, the personal
"introduction" to familial heraldry may not be firmly rooted in
historical fact. Therefore, the unfortunate phenomenon of "arms mongering"
should be explained. Obviously, not everybody bearing the same surname is
related by blood in the male line, but many commercial firms prey on the
ignorant by implying that everybody named (for example) Sullivan, Smith,
Williams, von Keppel, Alvarez, Rossi or Lanza is descended in the male line
from historical armigers bearing these surnames and therefore entitled to
use that historical coats of arms. This is deceptive because a historic
coat of arms can be claimed ethically only if legitimate descent from an
armiger who used it can be proven. This abusive practice flourishes even
in nations (such as the United Kingdom) where heraldry is regulated in some
way. The statement or "disclaimer" on a bogus "heraldic report"
that a coat of arms purchased (usually at low cost) in this way is "genuine"
but that "no genealogical connection is intended or implied" is
In Italy intentional fraud of this kind became especially frequent in
the 1950s (and persists to this day) when two well-known genealogical "institutes"
in Florence began attaching coats of arms to all the lineal genealogies
they completed, implying that every Italian family that paid them was an
aristocratic one; in these cases the genealogies were usually reasonably
accurate, and presented in attractive book form, but the heraldry included
with the lineages was not actually associated with the clients' ancestors.
An example of the kind of product provided by these firms is shown here,
complete with a ridiculous "seal" which "certifies"
a simplified narrative of a "family history" based on information
regarding people who happen to share the client's surname but little else.
is the framework used to support a claim to a historic coat of arms, for
there exists no other practical means of demonstrating direct, legitimate
descent from an early armigerous ancestor. Unless a family's historical
lineage were already known, genealogical research from circa 1900 into the
early 1700s (usually a sufficient span of time to determine if one's Italian
ancestors were nobles and therefore entitled to heraldic arms) would cost
hundreds or perhaps thousands of euros, dollars or pounds.
So closely related are heraldry and genealogy that stemma, the
Italian word for a coat of arms, is the Latin for pedigree.
In some --but not all-- European countries the bearing of an inherited
coat of arms for a certain number of centuries is considered an ipso facto
indication of a family's nobility or gentility, though this generality must
be considered in the light of heraldic regulation in some nations having
been much more rigid than in others. In England nowadays all coats of arms
emanate from the Crown and are noble, though the only distinction they confer
upon the armiger (unless created a knight or peer) is the title "esquire,"
a word which in common usage has lost its medieval connotation.
In the Kingdom of Italy the Regolamento Tecnico Araldico and other
statutes determined compositional standards of armorial heraldry, such as
the accepted forms of the coronets of rank (described in the second
part of this series). Thus rules implemented between 1860 and 1945 attempted
to regulate the slightly varying usages of the Italian regions into a uniform
standard. The result was not as arbitrary as it may seem, and for the most
part armigers in specific regions (Piedmont, Tuscany, Sicily, the former
Papal States, etc.) were in practice permitted to display their arms in
the manner to which they were accustomed.
During the final decades of its history the Consulta Araldica
was part of the Interior Ministry, and its archives are retained at the
Archivio Centrale dello Stato in the EUR district outside Rome. When
Italy became a republic the regulation of personal (familial) heraldry and,
for the most part, titles of nobility, ceased to exist. The Italian constitution
explicitly states that the latter "are not recognised" though
the predicati (the names of former fiefs) attached to some aristocrats'
surnames may still be used in legal documents. The various self-appointed
"nobility associations" and "heraldic organisations" in Italy,
which publish nobiliary registries (among which the blue Libro d'Oro of Rome's
Collegio Araldico, a heraldry society, is the best known while the red Annuario
della Nobiltà Italiana is also published occasionally) have established
their own "rules" regarding which titles and heraldic insignia
they choose to "recognise," often with little regard for historical
accuracy. Of course, as merely private associations they function unofficially.
Until 1983 the "patronage" of the late King of Italy (Umberto
II) of organisations such as the Corpo della Nobiltà Italiana
lent a certain cachet to these groups, which attempted --if inadequately--
to maintain heraldic standards in Italy.
Today, however, both the House of Savoy (which
ruled Italy until 1946) and the House of the Two Sicilies
(which ruled Sicily until 1860) are divided by bitter dynastic rivalries
resulting from competing claims to headship (Prince Vittorio Emanuele of
Savoy versus his cousin Prince Amedeo, and Prince Ferdinando of Bourbon-Two
Sicilies versus his Spanish cousin Prince Carlos), and therefore the Italian
aristocracy itself is divided on such issues as heraldic law and authority.
In the case of the Savoys, one cousin recently challenged (unsuccessfully)
in Italian courts the right of the other to use the family surname "Savoia,"
and in a similar case (equally unsuccessful) the eldest son of a pompous
Sicilian titled aristocrat zealously contested a cousin's legal right to
use the predicato (territorial designation in the form "di name-of-town")
lawfully born by all men of the family. It's easy to imagine what would
occur if, in addition to these ridiculous legal cases, Italians were also
able to resort to legal actions over who could bear a particular coat of
arms! One doubts that the knights of old could have imagined what would
become of traditions that began with a few simple designs painted on a shield,
and a parcel of land held in fealty from the king.
In the public mind the use of armorial heraldry remains largely misunderstood.
Though rooted in the feudal system of the twelfth century, modern personal
heraldry, with its links to individuals and families as an identifying distinction
of an artistic and hereditary nature, does not necessarily carry with it
the strictly monarchical or class overtures of the past. For this reason
George Washington and other early Americans descended from England's landed
gentry continued to use coats of arms long after the United States was established.
Washington's coat of arms (upon which the United States flag is thought
to have been based), with its two red bars (stripes) and three red mullets
(stars) on a white background is even featured on the Purple Heart (shown
here), the decoration he founded in 1782, revived by a later president in
1932. The United States Constitution prohibits the government's bestowal
or recognition of titles of nobility but does not thereby forbid the use
of coats of arms, which are a form of expression. The Italian constitution does not
address the topic of heraldry except to abolish the Consulta Araldica, effectively
"liberating" heraldic use completely.
Today only very few countries protect coats of arms as a form of incorporeal property except
through the copyright of a specific graphic illustration, and Italy is not one of them.
Let's take a closer look at Sicilian coats of arms.
This article is the first in a series. The second
part is also online.
About the Author: Luigi Mendola is one of the foremost experts in the field of Italian
heraldry, and his work has been published since the early 1980s in the United
Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere. This article is the first of a