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Sicilian Heraldry Part I: An Introduction
by Luigi Mendola

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Sicilian roll of arms. (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.

Early Use
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 nobility.Sicilian medieval royal heraldry.

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 shown above.

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 other regions.

Heraldic Regulation
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 Heralds and heraldry: Bogus coat of arms, 
Sicily Herald, armory on coin, Purple Heart with Washington arms.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 ridiculous.

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. Genealogy 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 series.

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© 2007 Luigi Mendola