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by Giovanna Guccia

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Antique signet ring as worn by genuine or fake aristocrats.The full-page photograph in the glossy magazine showed a twentysomething man with onyx eyes gazing out from a swarthy face framed by ebony hair. He stared directly at the reader, his chin resting comfortably on clasped hands. On a slender, intertwining finger was an ancestor's gold ring bearing a coat of arms and coronet deeply carved into lapis lazuli, rotated a quarter-turn so that its flat face was tilted toward the viewer. The only element missing from the posed image was a liveried footman standing at the ready holding a stick of sealing wax for his lord. Is this the twenty-first century face of the Sicilian aristocracy?

They make up less than one percent of Sicily's population, and for centuries they were nothing if not privileged. If much debased, they are still, for the most part, better off than much of the middle class and the impoverished popolino, the Sicilian underclass they exploited for so long. But if Sicily boasts great opera houses, exceptional art and historic homes, it is largely the result of the efforts of
"Italian law strictly regulates the inheritance of property, so it is no longer possible to leave a stately home to one's eldest son as universal heir."
this most singular of social classes.

What's an aristocrat?
By definition, an aristocrat is a member of a privileged social class whose position is hereditary. In Europe it is usually thought to be somebody of the nobility --itself sometimes an abstract concept in practice. The word, which comes to us from the Greek, has its roots in the phrase "rule by the best."

Where did they come from? Despite what the "nobs," or their paid family historians, will tell you, few of Sicily's noble families are descended in the male line from the hardy Norman and Swabian knights who swore fealty to Roger II or his grandson Frederick II. Blue eyes and red hair are at least as common among the popolino as among the aristocrats, most of whom are descended from nothing more than ancestors who managed to purchase feudal property (and with it the ducal or baronial title attached to that piece of land) at some point long after the Middle Ages. Yes, most of these nobles are the descendants of the same kind of social climbers they condemn.

Times change. Italian law strictly regulates the inheritance of property, so it is no longer possible to leave a stately home to one's eldest son as universal heir. That's the way most noble titles were transmitted when Sicily was a kingdom, but today many aristocratic homes are owned by a coterie of cousins, while others were sold long ago.

Fame and Shame
Sicily's aristocrats seem to garner their share of press attention, often in connection with their homes, but the pictorial articles and profiles in magazines make me wonder whether the person interviewed would be considered interesting or noteworthy if he or she were not an aristocrat. No doubt the patina of a refined personality enhances the story. On the other hand, who wants to read about a rich, and possibly unsophisticated, upstart who bought somebody else's castle or palazzo but has nothing to do with its rich heritage? You can buy a piece of history, but owning a relic doesn't make you part of it. The other side of the coin is that more aristocrats should hold on to their homes.

A number of aristocrats have opened their palatial town or country homes to paying guests, permitting rich foreigners a bit of luxury for a week or two. Many families lack even this, so they haven't much to remind the world of their social status. Actually, it's sometimes better not to.

I remember a friend who went to university and qualified as a school teacher. Diploma in hand, she applied for a position. When the leftist administrators realised who she was they rejected her categorically. In Sicily's parlous economy envy is the aristocrat's worst foe. A low profile can be good for survival.

There are as many ways to lose family homes as there are aristocratic families, and I've heard many stories over the years --adventures ranging from gambling debts to mundane apathy about maintaining a precious patrimony. My family, like many others, lost several palaces and villas through simple mismanagement of finances, but I know of a Palermitan family that lost a large estate and gardens because, following the Second World War, the head of the family (and sole owner) become a communist and sold everything, showing little consideration for his children. His heirs live in comfortable but anonymous apartments in town. Their bitter experience is a perennial reminder that in Sicilian families --aristocratic or otherwise-- sincere attachment between parents and children can rarely be presumed. When the ancestral home is the single visible trace of past grandeur its preservation is paramount. Just one foul-up by one generation and all is lost. Knowledge and professional qualifications aren't hereditary, and the aristocracy no longer has a monopoly on books and tutors, so the young aristocrat who chooses ephemeral pleasures over an education ends up being just as ignorant as anybody else.

"Sicily's aristocracy is like a bad reality show - a few of the cast are intelligent but silly while the majority are blissfully ignorant yet presentable to the public."
Aristocracy is all about roots, but in Sicily not all nobles bore titles, which today are not officially recognised in Italy. Many were descended over generations from landholders who had feudal rights regardless of bearing titles, such as the giurati (aldermen) of Sicily's demesnial towns, or boasted descent from important judges or generals of centuries past. By the eighteenth century the barons, on the lowest rung of the ladder of titled nobility, were arrivistes or gabelloti (administrators of the rural estates of absentee landlords) who had managed to purchase small feudal estates; most of the more important families were princes, dukes, marquesses or counts. The history of the Sicilian nobility and heraldry are topics unto themselves.

In its purest form the nobility was part of the feudal system, with kings at its summit and enfeoffed knights at its foundation. By the fifteenth century the nobility was no longer an exclusively military phenomenon based on the legacy of feudalism. Certain lawyers, bishops, bureaucrats, bankers and merchants came to be regarded as part of the nobility, and then the general aristocracy.

Keeping up appearances
My grandmother, who is nearing ninety, remembers the decades before the birth of Italy's "beach culture," when most aristocrats had lighter complexions than the lower classes. That's because they stayed out of the sun while the poor toiled under it. The idea that a nobleman's blood was blue comes from thirteenth-century Spain, where a knight would show the blue veins of his forearms, visible against pale skin, to any doubters who thought he might be part Moor. In Sicily some of the invading northern European knights married Arab women, and by the time of the Vespers (1282) there were few Muslim or Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) communities left. Over time, marriages based on endogamy and blood purity morphed into convenient unions between cousins to keep large estates in certain families. Inbreeding was the result.

Historians tell us that in Britain the Industrial Revolution brought an influx of new blood into the aristocracy as industrialists imitated the lifestyle of the landed gentry. But not in Sicily, where there was no technological or social evolution to speak of until the twentieth century. Well into the twentieth century most Sicilians were still referred to as "peasants," and with good reason, as illiteracy and poverty ran rampant. It was convenient for the aristocracy (and the Church) to maintain this situation as long as it could. Terrible as this was, the plutocracy which in many ways supplanted Italy's aristocracy was even less palatable. It initially consisted of bureaucrats and gabelloti, but soon swelled to include corrupt politicians and semi-reformed mafiosi.

While most nobs would agree that a certain wealth is necessary to maintain an aristocratic lifestyle, money alone can't make somebody an aristocrat. In the 1960s the Getty family was among the world's wealthiest, but owning an aristocratic villa near Rome didn't make them aristocrats and wasn't sufficient to get italophile J. Paul Getty into La Caccia, a noblemen's club in Rome.

And what about today's nobs? In The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa's prescient Prince of Salina lamented the fact that his grandson would think that others, coming up from the bourgeoisie or nouveaux riches, could outdo him in outward display. Today, when anybody with a bit of money can buy nice clothes and a flashy car --and when most of us have to work for a living-- it's not as easy as it used to be for a highborn lady or gentleman to run ahead of the pack. In the old days it was only the aristocrats who spoke English or French, or ever visited London or Paris to put their linguistic skills to the test. In today's world the hoi polloi can do just about anything an aristocrat can do, and sometimes do it with more finesse. They can even join the ranks of orders of chivalry like the Order of Malta, once the exclusive purview of noblemen. The Florio family didn't begin its existence among the nobility, but nobody would say that by 1900 they were not aristocrats, and as industrialists they were exceptional among their class. Count Giuseppe Tasca of Almerita, credited with elevating Sicily's table wine industry to a new level in the 1950s, was equally impressive.

Located in a square made famous by the War of the Sicilian Vespers, Palazzo Gangi (shown) is one of western Sicily's most renown Rococo palazzi, and its mirrored ballroom was used as a scene in Luchino Visconti's motion picture of The Leopard starring Burt Lancaster as the prince. Britain's Queen Elizabeth, who knew the last Princess of Gangi, once stayed there. Palazzo Gangi is not alone in its distinction as a Sicilian stately home which has hosted foreign royalty.

On the other side of Palermo, Villa Malfitano, the residence of the Anglo-Sicilian Whitaker family, hosted the likes of Edward VII. The Whitakers were members of the English landed gentry who helped to develop the Marsala wine industry and other businesses; they built Palermo's Anglican church. Clearly, Sicily's aristocrats were once a class apart. Part of being an aristocrat means that you're different from almost everybody else.

Rococo grandeur: Palazzo Gangi.Great expectations
What makes them different? A keen sense of family history. Perhaps a historic home. It would be nice to say that good breeding and a good education are part of the mix, and as a class aristocrats usually are well-behaved when on public display. In Sicily such social niceties as the debutante ball have, apart from the odd exception, gone the way of the white elephant. Time was when a man from a "good" family behaved like a gentleman while his sister acted the part of a lady, at least in public, and lived well enough from the profits of a prosperous family business. Today many a young aristocrat gets mediocre grades at university and then seeks a position in a bank and spends far too much precious free time at idle pursuits --just like the common mass of semi-educated Sicilians.

Shouldn't we expect more from somebody born into a social class that for generations exercised absolute control over the economy than from someone whose parents or grandparents could barely read? Noblesse oblige.

Sicily's aristocracy is like a bad reality show --a few participants are intelligent but silly while the majority of the cast are blissfully ignorant but attractive enough to be presentable to the public.

The former royal family, the House of Savoy, is only the most offensive example. They're fighting an internecine feud over who should be the head of their non-reigning dynasty, one "prince" having fathered children out of wedlock while another was once seen slapping his date (an attractive young starlet) in public. Maybe it's time the prince turned back into a frog.

The son of a titled nobleman moved to London where he worked as a sales representative for an Italian pasta firm. His English was good but his title didn't cast the spell on Londoners that it may have on New Yorkers, so the girls he dated there were decidedly down-market. It seems that peers' daughters wanted to marry a "real" title, recognised in their own kingdom. This frog hid his warts well enough during the day, but rumour has it that he was a lizard with the young ladies after dark. True chivalry is dead, fallen prey to unharnessed libidos.

The general public isn't as ignorant as they used to be. I remember a young Italian man in London saying that he respected the British royal family because they stayed in London during the Second World War instead of "fleeing their capital like 'ours' did in 1943." He made a good point.

The Leopard remains the bestselling Sicilian novel internationally, although in Italy it was challenged a few years ago by an erotic novel written in the form of a sex diary by a teenage girl from a town near Catania. (So much for high-minded literature winning the day.) While it stands on its own as a work of literature, The Leopard has unfortunately become a Sicilian cliché, a kind of social and literary crutch too often cited by too many writers as a barometer of aristocratic life in Sicily.

Long before Giuseppe di Lampedusa penned The Leopard about the declining fortunes of a noble family in Palermo, Federico de Roberto wrote a book (The Viceroys) about the fall of a family in Catania during the same period --the last years of Bourbon rule in the middle of the nineteenth century. I suppose that that's as good a benchmark as any for somebody looking to define a key period of transition, a time when complacency began to set in as the nobs assimilated with the rest of the population. Or perhaps that was when the up-and-coming began to encroach upon the domain of the nobility, literally as well as figuratively. It's reached the point that now some of Sicily's "better" private (Catholic) schools, such as Palermo's Gonzaga, are full of the sons and daughters of wealthy mafiosi, and many nobs now send their children to public schools.

In the old days the aristocrats had live-in domestic help. Until the 1950s Palazzo Butera, one of Palermo's largest palazzi, had a staff of dozens including maids, butlers, cooks and others. Today the owner of such a home is fortunate to be able to hire somebody part-time from eastern Europe or western Africa. Yes, times have certainly changed.

Social suicide
Anthropologist Giuseppe Pitré made folklore and peasant traditions popular. Things like the coppola cap were once the province of the popolino, and it's fair to say that before Pitré cultural studies of the "common folk" attracted little attention because, at least where personalities were concerned, the focus of written history was usually the aristocracy. They once ran society, but aristocrats seem to have less than the popolani have to bind them together as a caste.

It would be ridiculous to imply that aristocrats are morally superior to anybody else, but while endless criticisms can be levelled at them, in their public behaviour they do seem slightly more civilised than some of Sicily's other social classes. Their children are better behaved, something exceptional in Sicilian families. They show more respect for the environment and the cities; they don't litter the streets. You are not likely to ever read a newspaper report of an aristocrat committing a murder, robbery or assault, and only rarely has one been implicated in white collar crime. Of course, representing such a tiny part of population gives the nobs a statistical advantage in this regard.

Saving graces
If there were a rôle for them, what would it be? Perhaps a duchess from a well-known family could become a leading spokesperson for the Red Cross or some other philanthropic charity in Sicily, or the "patron" of an arts foundation. This would be an improvement over the present strategy, which is to leave these symbolic tasks to anybody who happens to be a friend of the well-placed politician in charge.

Whatever power and influence the recognised nobility was able to salvage after the change of monarchies in 1860 was lost in 1946 when Italy became a republic, but snobbery is alive and well in the arcane world of the Sicilian aristocracy. There is a hierarchy among aristocrats. Just as the Catholic Church has cardinals and monks, the nobility has its ranks. In England, where some baronial families, such as the Mowbrays, are very old and distinguished, there's little enhancement in prestige in bearing one title over another except that dukes enjoy a higher place in the order of precedence and hereditary peers are typically more "aristocratic" than life peers. Here in Italy higher titles usually imply that a family had greater importance in times past, being "promoted" over the centuries from barons and counts to marquesses, dukes and then princes. But a title like prince or duke has greater lustre only if it is sufficiently old, having been created long before the unification of Italy (1860). I've heard of Italian aristocrats in London mistaking higher titular rank for greater antiquity, so an Italian unschooled in the subtleties of English history may assume that the Grosvenors, as dukes, are an older family than the Mowbrays (barons since 1283) or the untitled Ardens (landed gentry). It's a question of Italy's parvenu barons presuming that the status of those of the same rank in Germany, France or England must be comparable to the Italian baronage in insignificance.

Then there are people who could charitably be called "fake" aristocrats. Eccentric and colourful, they are a breed unto themselves, claiming titles to which they're not entitled. Italy's last king, Umberto II, during his long exile once joked that these poseurs were worthy of respect if only because, unlike many of the real nobs, they preserved the traditions of his erstwhile kingdom.

About the Author: Italian-born Giovanna 'Joanna' Guccia, who divides her time between London and Palermo, has written several articles which have been published in Italy and abroad.

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© 2009 Giovanna Guccia