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"For the significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, in its vital memories, and he,
the Prince, was the last of his house
to have any unusual memories, anything different from those of other families.
His grandson, Fabrizietto, would have only banal ones... embittered by the gadfly
thought that others could outdo him in outward show."
Like the Romans and Byzantines before them, Sicily's Saracens (Arabs) had an aristocracy, and while Sicily itself eventually became an emirate, the Arabs had nothing similar to the feudal system.
For several decades following their arrival in 1061, the Normans gradually introduced the feudal system throughout Sicily. By 1100, the transition was nearly complete. Except for demesnial towns, whose feudal rights and taxes appertained directly to the Crown, most of Sicily was a patchwork of towns and large farms (fiefs) belonging to the companions of Roger I and the various knights who followed him into Sicily. They held these estates in return for military service, but over the centuries it became common for the barons to render a tax (scutage) in lieu of this service.
An early twelfth-century record called the Catalogus Baronum lists the nobles of southern Italy and their feudal rights and duties. This is Italy's Domesday Book, but it deals only with the southern part of the peninsula, not Sicily. Nevertheless, it is clear from the Catalogus that the members of the new aristocracy based their surnames on toponyms. In other words, their surnames were in most instances the names of places they owned in Italy, rather than Normandy. This is why among the Sicilian aristocracy there are few surnames of Norman derivation. It is obvious that most of these knights, and even the de Hauteville dynasty itself, were of minor families of Normandy's nobility. Some might not have even been of the landed class of Normandy. Like their Viking forebears, many were simply adventurers in search of fortune. The more important families sent their sons to conquer England, not Italy. Over time, a number of Longobard families also arrived in Sicily.
In Sicily, feudalism did not entail serfdom. It did, however, permit the nobles (at first enfeoffed knights, then lords and vassals, and then barons) to tax and control the lands they held in fee from the King. This policy, however, applied only to feudal towns. Cities, and certain demesnial towns, such as Calascibetta and Piazza Armerina, appertained directly to the Crown, and thus fell outside the jurisdiction of the nobility.
The War of the Vespers (1282) spawned the earliest Sicilian "parliaments," most of which were little more than meetings of nobles. The first true parliament, a genuine legislative body, wasn't founded until the nineteenth century, based on the British model, and it included only the more important noblemen, designated "peers of the realm," whose estates had had particularly high revenues until feudalism was abolished in 1812.
The extinction of the de Hauteville and von Hohenstaufen dynasties by 1266 led to the brief Angevin rule of Sicily until the War of the Vespers. The Crown then passed, by consent of Sicily's nobles, to Peter of Aragon. This made it clear that the nobility, as a group, held effective control of Sicily, whomever the King or Viceroy might be.
Frankish succession (inheritance by male primogeniture) became the standard means of transmitting land and titles, though Longobard succession (inheritance by all heirs male) was practiced in certain Lombard families for some years.
Roger I was known as the "Count of Sicily." His son, Roger II, became a king, and with him Sicily became a kingdom. By the fourteenth century, the titles of baron and count were in wide use, whereas formerly the vassals were either seigneurs (lords) or cavalieri (knights). Under the Normans, the title seigneur was used to refer to most landed nobles. By the nineteenth century, these signori were designated baroni (barons), their holdings baronies, but from the fourteenth century onward frequent reference is made, collectively, to "barons" and "the baronage."
Contrary to popular belief, the title cavaliere ereditario (hereditary knight) was a late medieval development, though its name is based on the much older title of enfeoffed knight. Not being heirs, the younger sons (as opposed to the eldest sons) of feudatories (vassals) often went off to serve in the military orders, of which the best-known was the Order of the Hospital. This established the Sicilian practice, which existed into the nineteenth century, of referring to a titled nobleman's younger sons as "cavalieri" even though they were not actually knights.
Over the centuries, many prominent noble families were gradually promoted through the aristocratic ranks. By the eighteenth century, the titles of Noble Prince, Duke and Marquis were held by many men whose ancestors, just two centuries earlier, had been barons or signori.
The titles used in Sicily were: Prince, Duke, Marquis, Count, Baron, Lord, Noble (untitled nobleman), Hereditary Knight. Viscount, a rare title anywhere in Italy, was not a Sicilian title, and Patrician (Patrizio) was used primarily in the city-states and eventually Naples and Rome.
Certain families emerged as nobili (untitled nobles), something akin to England's landed gentry. They had coats of arms, aristocratic homes, and in some cases feudal rights. A number of these families descended from Sicily's Norman or Angevin nobility, perhaps from nobles who had lost their lands. Others resided in demesnial towns where several families emerged as local aristocrats as a result of their wealth and education. These families often remained in the countryside in spite of the exodus of the greater families from the country to the cities during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Rural mayors, town aldermen and other officials were often chosen from among such families.
In abandoning its affairs to surrogate managers, the greater aristocracy implicitly renounced much of the social power it had previously exercised in the countryside. In the Middle Ages, local lords (vassals) administered justice. By 1700, the stage was set for Sicily's rustic bandits to establish their own local power structure, though it took them decades to do so effectively.
At first, the absentee landlords entrusted management of their estates (latifondi) to trusted administrators, often members of the untitled noble families described above, but by 1800 many of the estates were managed by gabelloti, lesser-educated local men who hired farm workers and dealt with other day-to-day operation of the farms. Seen as little more than unrefined opportunists, the gabelloti were resented and disparaged by every social class but their own. In fact, their infiltration into rural society fostered development of the Mafia.
Until the abolition of feudalism, a man who purchased feudal property became the titular lord of that fief, usually a small barony. In this way, many gabelloti were ennobled in the late 1700s. It is for this reason that a degree of snobbery existed on the part of the greater nobility toward lesser nobles such as barons. This nouveau class exercised little real control in the Sicilian economy; usually, their fiefs were little more than large farms. Larger towns and villages usually appertained to princes, dukes, and the occasional marquis.
With the abolition of feudalism, the nobility lost its last important privileges, particularly the right, with royal consent, to tax the residents of feudal townships, but the abolition of feudalism coincided with the establishment of a Sicilian Chamber of Peers based on the British model. This happened during the king's sojourn in Palermo, along with thousands of British troops, during the Napoleonic occupation of Naples. It was seen as compensation for the loss of feudal perquisites.
In 1860, Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Italy with the help of a rigged referendum allegedly "confirming" that 98 out of every 100 eligible male voters favored annexation. By then, the old nobility had lost much of its traditional power. A new bourgeoisie was rapidly emerging as an important social force, and with it a new criminal class.
Giuseppe Di Lampedusa's book, The Leopard, described these historical events at some length. Nobody could have predicted that his novel, written almost a century after the unification war of 1860, would top bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. If nothing else, the book's popularity indicates that there was still some interest in the Sicilian nobility long after its demise.
The Italian Senate, consisting almost entirely of titled aristocrats, was appointed by the king. In Sicily, the nobility still exercised a certain amount of political and economic control until the early 1900s. In terms of social prestige, perhaps, the nobility remained the most important class. In some ways it still is.
The Constitution of the Italian Republic did not abolish the use of noble titles, but established that they would not be recognized for use in legal documents after 1948. Furthermore, the Consulta Araldica, the government agency which regulated the use of titles of nobility, was abolished.
The Royal Family of Italy (the House of Savoy) still exists, of course. Prince Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, son of the last King, Umberto II, lives in Switzerland, while his son Emanuele Filiberto, resides in Rome. Prince Carlo di Borbone (de Bourbon), the head of the House of the Two Sicilies, heir of the dynasty that ruled Sicily and most of southern Italy until 1860, divides his time between Rome and Monaco, with occasional visits to Naples and Palermo. His dynasty serves as a point of reference for the Sicilian nobility, and two royal residences in Palermo (the Chinese Villa) and Ficuzza (the Royal Hunting Lodge) are a silent testament to the family's past presence here. Both dynasties maintain the tradition of chivalry by bestowing honours in orders of knighthood.
The twenty-first century descendants of the Sicilian nobility comprise a fraying, loosely-woven tapestry of their caste. Membership in their club in Palermo, the Circolo Bellini, is reserved to descendants of titled noble families, but the aristocracy itself has suffered the effects of modern social ills; divorces and unwed births are not unknown, and many children of aristocratic families behave in a profligate, even promiscuous, way that makes them indistinguishable from "everybody else." The effects of such behavior are especially obvious since most of the noble families have lost the other trappings that formerly distinguished them from the middle classes - their great homes, for example.
A few noblemen have preserved some vestige of traditional dignity as knights of the chivalric orders, which are still largely aristocratic organisations, but little else remains of their former grandeur. Even coats of arms, which in times past distinguished noble families from ordinary ones, can now be created and sold. At fairs, they are even printed using computers and sold to the general public, so that anybody coincidentally named Lanza can hang an image on his wall implying that he is a descendant of the Lanzas who were Princes of Trabia. (And so vast is the market in bogus titles of nobility that one can never be certain whether the man introduced as a count really is one.)
To some extent, it is a sense of historical memory, if not continuity, that distinguishes Sicily's aristocratic families from others, but here we are reduced to generalities. For example, most noblemen did not support the revolution of 1848 or the arrival of Piedmontese troops twelve years later, and in many noble families a certain oral tradition of these facts has been passed down to descendants born in the twentieth century (at variance with the nationalist revisionism taught in Italian schools). This is the kind of historical knowledge less likely to be passed down in other families. It is also true that certain noblemen - being quite secure socially - don't share most Italians' obssession with the superficial; don't expect a nobleman to base his self-esteem or social status on possession of a Rolex watch. Today, the main distinction of Sicily's great noble families are their histories and the titles they bear.
One of the best general books on the history and traditions of the European nobility is Robert Lacey's Aristocrats (London, Boston, Toronto 1983), which describes titled families of five countries, including Italy.
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