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Sicilian Heraldry Part 2: Coats of Arms
by Luigi Mendola

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Coat of arms of the House of Bourbon of the Two Sicilies, which ruled Sicily from 1734 until 1860, explained below. (See Best of Sicily's heraldry links page for additional articles on heraldry-related topics and Sicily's armigerous families.)

The first part in this series was an introduction to Sicilian heraldry and the functions of heralds. The essential principles of heraldry are not difficult to understand or learn. In addition to the basic tinctures (colours) there are various geometric designs (ordinaries such as the chevron, chief, fess and bend), smaller designs known as subordinaries, and numerous charges (symbols). Over time, however, heraldry became somewhat more complex --a development which owed much to the introduction of printing in Europe (it had already been invented in China) and the artistic influences of the Renaissance. In view of such simplicity, how did we arrive at complex designs such as the coat of arms of the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies shown here?

Quartering, Differencing, Augmentations
Initially the practice of "quartering" (dividing a shield into at least four sections to display the arms of two or more ancestors) was primarily an aristocratic affectation. True, most coats of arms were borne by aristocrats, but not all these people were descended from numerous armigers; the typical case was the simple country squire who, upon purchasing a small estate, assumed arms during the fifteenth century, not being descended by the titled nobles or enfeoffed knights of the Middle Ages. Instead, those whose great-grandfathers were all armigerous wanted to show their connections on their mothers' side of the family, thus distinguishing themselves from the "new men." In England the method used to quarter an escutcheon was fairly complex; for example, only a heraldic heiress could transmit her arms to a son. In Italy the practice of quartering certainly existed but was less common and far less rigid than in England.

With this evolved the practices of "differencing" for cadency; in other words using symbols to indicate Chief of the Holy Roman Empire, left, and chief of Anjou.the relationship of brothers to an ancestral armiger (i.e. their father). More precisely, cadets are the younger brothers of a king, nobleman or armiger, constituting "junior" branches of a family. Again, this was known in Italy but it never became very popular, though the label (see the red charge in the figure at right) was occasionally used. More often, a simple change of tincture (perhaps changing the field from azure to sable) was sufficient. Sometimes a minor charge would be modified; the Mantegnas of Gangi bear stars of eight rays while their cousins, as counts of Assaro, bear stars of six rays.

An augmentation was a charge or ordinary added to a coat of arms by royal authority to indicate an armiger's loyalty or military merit. A distinctively Italian development in this direction was the chief of allegiance: three golden fleurs de lis between a red label on a blue field for the Guelphs and a black eagle displayed on a gold field for the Ghibellines. These were based on the arms of the Angevins (the gold fleurs de lis on a blue field) and the Hohenstaufens (the crowned, uncrowned or double-headed black eagle displayed upon a gold field). The chief of allegience was virtually unknown in Sicily, a key region contested by both factions, but these chiefs (a chief is an "ordinary" that occupies the upper horizontal third of the shield) made their way into the coats of arms of many families of northern and central Italy.

This brings us to the question of symbolism in coats of arms. As we've seen, a coat of arms can be "canted" for a surname, in effect representing it graphically: a mulberry tree for Moro, a castle for Castello or Casati, a caldron for Calderone, a lion for Leone, a sword for Spada, a bridge for Ponte, a palm tree for Palmeri or de Palma, an oak branch for della Rovere, mountains for Montini, a horseshoe for Maniscalco, a fleur de lis (lily) for Giglio, a horse for Cavallo, a cross for della Croce, a dove for Colombo, and so forth. The list seems endless. It is true that many of these charges may represent a virtue or characteristic symbolically. The significance of the cross seems obvious enough, but what about the greyhound, the dove, the lion or the castle? It is impossible to generalise. Some coats of arms were intentionally designed to make a symbolic statement; most were not. The lion, for example, represents ferocity, nobility and regal courage, but it is so frequently encountered in heraldry (it is the most common of the heraldic beasts) that its significance cannot be considered at all exceptional in most cases. While symbology is an interesting field in itself, its application to heraldry is often less practical --and less impressive-- than one might expect.

Many Italian coats of arms are more "pictorial" than those of other regions, a trend which seems to have begun during the middle of the thirteenth century and continued into the Renaissance and beyond, though as an artistic movement the Renaissance per se had far less influence in Sicily than it did in Italy's northern cities.

Graphic Representation
In the Middle Ages coats of arms were recorded as paintings on sheets of parchment (rolls of arms) or as written descriptions (blazons) in scrolls. Illustrations were rendered in water-based paint or dark ink. It was possible to print simple designs using block printing, but by 1470 printing with type was becoming popular, and copper-plate engraving soon developed as well. An Italian monk named Silvestro Pietrasanta conceived the idea of representing each heraldic tincture in Tinctures represented by line patterns and dots. Principal ordinaries.black-on-white engraving through the use of a specific pattern of lines and dots (argent was represented by unmarked white space), and this remains part of heraldry today. (See figure at right.)

Still later, during the sixteenth century, the first armories were published in book form, transcribed from the blazons recorded in scrolls. In England serious attempts were made to control heraldry (eventually heralds conducted "visitations" of remote regions to ensure that armorial abuses were not being perpetrated by usurpers claiming to be armigerous), but in Italy this did not occur. Indeed, while most courts had heraldic officers there were also "independent" heralds in Italy. These "heralds errant" made their services available to any nobleman or other armiger (or aspiring armiger) willing to pay them.

Seals for wax impressions became popular among important armigers, such as those who had to sign feudal documents. By 1700 these were increasingly popular in the form of heavy silver or gold rings which by their nature were more portable than heavy seals attached to handles, and offered the added advantage of serving as ready identification as well. Surprisingly few of these signet rings have been preserved; those in the greatest families rarely date from before 1800. Yet even many of those engraved in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries reflect a touch of traditional artistry.

Coats of arms were also carved into stone, especially above the entry portals of aristocrats' homes, or in effigies of stone sarcophogi.

Armorial Achievements and Crest Coronets
It was previously explained that a crest is a symbol, such as a beast, placed upon a helmet in a full achievement. What is an achievement? This is the complete design forming the context in which a coat of arms (or escutcheon) is usually displayed. It consists of an escutcheon (shield) surmounted by a helm (helmet) upon which a torse (narrow wreath of fabric twisted like rope) is placed which (if the arrangement were an actual three-dimensional model) would secure the mantling (representing a torn surcoat) to the helmet. If it exists (for fewer than 25% of all Italian achievements have them), a crest is placed atop the torse. Italian heraldry, however, shares with Continental heraldry a feature absent in English, Scots and Irish armory: the crest-coronet.

Having mentioned the general absence of indications of cadency in Italian escutcheons, it is important to describe how an armiger's position in his family is depicted in his full achievement. In Italy a system of coronets (crowns) is employed to this end. A different coronet exists for each rank: noble prince (principe), duke (duca), marquess (marchese), count (conte), viscount (visconte), baron (barone), patrician (patrizio), untitled nobleman (nobile), hereditary knight (cavaliere ereditario). The arms of an armigerous but non-noble "citizen" (cittadino) do not include a coronet; this is a rare form of armorial recognition comparable to the degree of esquire in England or burgher in central Europe. Unless an armiger happens to be the head of his family (for example a count), his full achievement indicates his rank as an untitled nobleman atop the escutcheon, with the familial coronet of rank atop the helm. The crest --if there is one-- is placed atop this coronet. The example shown here is the achievement of a "nobile dei conti" who might be the younger son, younger brother or younger male cousin of a count. The blazon of arms, as indicated by the hatching, is "argent a bend gules."From top: full achievement, women's armorial bearings, 
Bourbon-Sicilies quarterings explained.

The style and angle of the helmet varies according to the armiger's rank, and certain stylistic characteristics distinguish Italian heraldry from that seen elsewhere. The torse, for example, is usually only about half as thick as what would be seen in an English or German coat of arms.

The mantling is rendered in two tinctures; the outside is the principal enamel and the lining is the principal metal. The first colour shown in the torse (on the left side) is usually the principal metal, though that is not the case in the example shown here. The helmet usually faces the left. In Italian heraldry a helm facing the right traditionally indicated "bastardy" (a son born outside marriage), but there are few cases known of this usage in practice.

Some heraldic achievements are more complex, featuring a figure on each side of the shield (outside of it) supporting it as if to hold it in place. Such supporters, invariably animate figures such as humans or animals, are reserved to royalty and the most important noble families.

Helms are usually silver in colour (as though made of silver or steel), perhaps with some gold ornamentation or details. Coronets are gold for the most part (the ring, rim and stems if rendered), embellished with jewels (alternating sapphires, rubies, emeralds) and topped with pearls (rendered white) or light grey. The inside lining of the coronet is usually colored deep red or deep green, as if it were formed of plush velvet fabric. The number of pearls and/or strawberry leaves (the latter for princes, marquesses and dukes) indicates the armiger's nobiliary rank.

Armigers of the nobility (in Italy representing 90% of all armigers and including some untitled families) sometimes display the coronet set atop the escutcheon, without helm, torse and mantling.

Recent centuries have seen a trend toward the squarish "scudo sannitico" but traditional curved forms, such as those shown on this page, are acceptable, especially in simpler "medieval" designs.

A lady may display the coat of arms of her father's family until she is married, when she assumes her husband's arms if he has any. In Italian heraldry this usually takes one of three forms (shown here) rather than a shield. The oval is traditional; this is also used in central Europe. The lozenge, a diamond shape, is also seen, and this is used not only in Continental Europe but in England, Scotland and Ireland. Less frequent, but equally appropriate, is the "oval-lozenge," pointed on the bottom but curved at the top; however, this is sometimes confused for a shield, which may be rounded at the top to represent three dimensions.

The coat of arms of the Two Sicilies (Kingdom of Naples and Sicily), shown at the beginning of this article and keyed at right, is highly unusual as a king's coat of arms rendered in an oval form. Several explanations have been advanced to explain this. Whatever the reason, it is in that sense unique among the arms of the principal ruling families of nineteenth century Europe. In the event its use as the symbol of a reigning dynasty, despite pretensions to numerous other realms, was rather short-lived, from 1734 until 1861. It is, of course, still displayed by the princes of this dynasty.

Composition and Rendering
Heraldic art has its own styles and conventions. As interpretive, realistic or "dimensional" as heraldic renderings may be, they must be faithful to blazon and to the traditions of heraldry. The limbs of "rampant" beasts, for example, must be placed in specific positions, with the right fore and hind legs higher than the left ones. The rose is a highly stylised symbol, and trees are drawn with the foliage being disproportionately large compared to the length of the trunk. Like religious icons, heraldic symbols should be representational but not literal. True, some drawings and sculptures are particularly Baroque in style, but a photographic realism is not usually compatible with armorial art.

Filadelfo Mugnos (Teatro Genologico 1647) and Antonino Mango (Nobiliario di Sicilia 1912) compiled reliable Sicilian armories. Giambattista di Crollalanza's work (Dizionario Storico-Blasonico 1888) encompassed all of the newly-united Italy, while that of Vittorio Spreti (Enciclopedia Storico-Nobiliare Italiana 1928) concentrated on the new nation's titled families. There exists no single source or compendium that includes all Sicilian coats of arms, and there is no impartial scholarly body which can assist with research. (As mentioned in the previous article, heraldry is unregulated in Italy, where coats of arms are not recognised by law.) The field remains eclectic in that there are various sources and usages, especially where the untitled but armigerous aristocracy is concerned. If a researcher finds a coat of arms represented in architecture or an obscure document from before 1700 but no published reference mentioning or confirming it, does this mean that the arms are in some way false or illegal? Hardly, since they clearly existed and were used by somebody, probably without censure. (This is the case of the arms of Guccione of Alia.) Eight centuries of Sicilian heraldic use and tradition cannot be considered solely in view of eight decades of unification, and attempted regulation, under the Kings of Italy.

Heraldry as Familial History
As was mentioned earlier, Italian coats of arms may properly be considered familial rather than individual, with cadency not clearly indicated. In the black and white example shown here, most legitimate descendants in the male line could display this coat of arms; only the achievement of the titled head of the family (in this case a count) would be different as he would use a specific coronet of rank. This is quite different from English, Scots and Irish heraldy (where coats of arms are personal) but similar to that of Germany.

How many Sicilian families are entitled to historical coats of arms? Mango's Nobiliario di Sicilia includes most blazons but by no means all of them. The most generous estimate is around three thousand blazons, spread evenly across the island, about half of which belong to the titled nobility.

The next article in this series explains titles of nobility.

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 second in a series.

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© 2007 Luigi Mendola