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All the King's Men
by Vincenzo D'Urso


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Constantinian Order, Order of Sts. Maurice & Lazarus, Order of Merit of Savoy, Order of Malta Medal.
From left: Constantinian Order, Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, Order of Merit of Savoy, Order of Malta Medal.
Is chivalry dead? Not in Sicily, where puppet shows featuring marionettes of medieval characters, and horse-drawn carts decorated with scenes of jousting knights, proclaim the adventure and romance of the Middle Ages. But what about the real knights? Not the jousting ones who lived in castles, but the living ones. Italy isn't a monarchy anymore, but that hasn't stopped our government from knighting thousands --sometimes more than ten thousand-- citizens each year. Being decorated with the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, Italy's largest order of knighthood, isn't quite as prestigious as being knighted by the Queen of England, and there's no kneeling or dubbing involved. In Italy, this "democratic" honour involves little more than receiving an inscribed document, a medal or rosette (lapel pin), and, of course, superficial mention in the government's published list of laws and decrees. Oh yes, and it permits its recipient to be called "Cavaliere" (Knight) or "Dama" (Dame). But there's another, arcane, world of knights and ladies whose role has more to do with noble tradition and charitable works than with recognition by the state, and they're anything but superficial. A world of anachronistic --even bizarre-- situations, rooted in history, whose main players are aristocrats who have been invested ("knighted") by the Church or by Italy's royal families.

Royal families? Italy has a few. Gone but never forgotten, the ones that survive today reigned over the Duchy of Parma, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily) until around 1860. Then there's the House of Savoy, which ruled all of Italy until 1946. Italy's royalty situation is not unique; Germany has a number of families that ruled over sovereign principalities before the unification of that nation. An idiosyncrasy of international law allows the heads of such dynasties, long
Prince Carlo of the Two Sicilies with his wife, Princess Camilla.
Carlo di Borbone of the Two Sicilies, Duke of Calabria, with his wife, Camilla.
after they have fallen from power, to go on knighting people, and except in the case of the Savoys the right of each of them to do so is officially recognised by the Italian government. The Order of Malta, the elite elective monarchy that ruled the island of Malta until about two centuries ago, and, naturally, the Vatican, still award knighthoods likewise recognised in Italy. Amazingly but true, the honours and decorations bestowed by each of these authorities carries more social cachet than those awarded by the Italian state itself. Their knights are shy about being interviewed, but we can tell you where they celebrate their annual ceremonies, and the ambience of these churches reflects an unabashedly medieval flavour. You'll feel as if you're back in the Normans' Kingdom of Sicily.

Without doubt, the most "Sicilian" dynasty, and the one most cherished by the Sicilian aristocracy, is the Royal House of the Two Sicilies, a branch of the House of de Bourbon which ruled from Naples from 1734 until they were ousted by pro-unification forces in 1860. The head of the family, Prince Ferdinando "di Borbone," Duke of Castro, lives in the south of France. A direct descendant of King Ferdinando II of the Two Sicilies, who died in 1859, Prince Ferdinando bestows the Order of Saint Januarius and the Constantinian Order of Saint George. The latter includes many aristocrats in Sicily, and is associated with the Basilica of the Magione, a splendid medieval church well worth a visit. The archway leading into the Magione's courtyard bears the coat of arms of the Constantinian Order. Ferdinando's son, Prince Carlo, manages the family's affairs in Italy.

The Savoys, who ruled the Kingdom of Sicily for a few years early in the eighteenth century, were nearly forgotten by most Sicilians before Garibaldi's invasion in 1860, which made the Royal House of Savoy the Royal House of Italy. Prince Vittorio Emanuele, Duke of Savoy, son of King Umberto II of Italy (the last Italian monarch, who died in 1983), bestows the Order of the Annunciation, the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus and the Order of Merit of Savoy. Vittorio Emanuele and his son, Prince Emanuele Filiberto, live in exile outside Geneva, prevented by the 1948 Constitution from entering Italy. Born in Switzerland, Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia is the only living European who for an entire lifetime has been forbidden from entering his own country. Long before the Order of Saint Lazarus came to be associated with the Dukes of Savoy in the sixteenth century (a historically complex chain of events), it sponsored the hospital of Saint John of the Lepers,
St. John of the Lepers Church, Palermo.
Church of Saint John of the Lepers
whose beautiful Norman-Arab church still stands in Palermo. Like the Magione, it's worth visiting, though it is usually open only for religious services. A number of Sicilians have been knighted by the Savoys. The titles of those decorated before 1951 are recognised officially by the Italian government.

The Order of Malta, now based in a seventeeth century palace in the via Condotti, off Rome's Piazza di Spagna, actually governed Malta until two centuries ago. Expelled from that island by Napoleon's navy, they obtained refuge in Sicily thanks to King Ferdinando I of the Two Sicilies, ancestor of the Prince Ferdinando mentioned earlier. This explains the Order's traditionally close association with the Bourbons of Naples. Treated as though they were a nation, the "knights of Malta" have sovereign territory in Italy and observer status at the United Nations, and embassies in many nations --though not in the United Kingdom or the United States. They're a Catholic order of chivalry and charitable organisation of knights from around the world. The present head of the Order, its "Grand Master," is Andrew Bertie, an Englishman. In Sicily, most knights of Malta are from noble families. Their Baroque chapel is located behind the apse of the Basilica of San Domenico in Palermo.

Compared to the Order of Malta, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre seems to have less social status in Italy, even though it is bestowed on the authority of the Pope. It sponsors charitable work, and its Sicilian knights celebrate their religious ceremonies in the austere medieval Church of San Cataldo, near the Martorana Church in central Palermo.

Whoever said chivalry was dead hadn't been to Sicily recently.

About the Author: Palermo-born Professor Vincenzo D'Urso, who teaches in Germany, specialises in Sicilian medieval history.

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© 2001 Vincenzo D'Urso