Sights & Activities
Localities • Places
Good Travel Faqs
Sicily's Top 12
Hotels • Planning
Maps of Sicily
Weather • Climate
Nature • History • People
Food • Wine • Dining
Arts • Literature • Culture
Contact • Follow
Marriage Sicilian Style
Yesterday and Today
Christianity was firmly established in Sicily by the fifth century. The early Church was Byzantine (Orthodox), and much of its tradition is preserved in the Eastern Rite parishes of Sicily's Albanian communities. As recently as the thirteenth century, many of Sicily's ecclesiastical traditions were Eastern, though the "Western" Church of Rome was gradually evolving into a distinct entity, making inroads in Sicily since the Norman dominion.
In successive centuries, there evolved in Sicily a form of nuptial ritual heavily influenced by the newer Latin customs and rural folk traditions. By the eighteenth century, most of the aristocracy had migrated to larger cities, particularly Palermo and Catania, and began to develop its own ceremony and protocol influenced by the practices of the Neapolitan (and Spanish) nobility, but aristocratic weddings were remarkably similar to folk weddings in many respects.
To a certain extent, however, some Sicilian wedding practices were also influenced by much older practices, such as those of ancient Greece and Rome. An example is the use of witnesses. The idea of a "best man," or male attendant of the male spouse ("groom"), was a Germanic and Slavic custom which originated with the practice of a man's being accompanied by a close friend if he wed a woman in a neighboring village. This was part of central European tribal tradition and continued long after the Roman conquest of much of central Europe and the Balkans. The use of bridesmaids, called damigelle (literally "damsels") in Italian, is also a medieval Teutonic custom. It is probably rooted in the practice of an aristocratic bride taking with her two or three close friends (ladies-in-waiting) when she went to live in the castle or manor of her new husband. Since feudalism was not introduced in Sicily until the eleventh century, this practice never became very widespread on the island, which had been ruled by Muslims for more than two hundred years and had previously been part of the Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") Empire. Of course, Sicily's "recent" feudal heritage was more Norman than Longobard, but certain older feudal institutions, such as the serfdom of Normandy, were never widely introduced here. Italian spouses each have a witness ("best man" and maid of honour), but these attendants' social functions derive from a practice based on Roman Law and Canon Law rather than Germanic Law.
Some interesting customs have survived in the countryside. In some towns, a group of friends and relatives accompany the bride in procession from her house (usually her parents' home) to the church, where the groom and his witness are waiting. In prominent noble families, until recently, a wedding might be celebrated in a chapel in the family's palace. A few southern Italian wedding customs have found their way into other nations' nuptial traditions. For example, both forms of confetti (from the Italian for "candy"), the small bits of coloured paper as well as the filled candy, originated in Italy's South.
Engagements and Courtship
Considering these realities, debutante balls (or even formal dances for teenagers) obviously would have been superfluous in a place like Sicily, and remain a rarity today. In some aristocratic families, a young woman's "debut" may be marked by a formal dinner. In the past, her attending a ball (also a rarity in today's Sicily) would have indicated a girl's coming of age.
The twentieth century, with its less restrictive courtship practices, saw the use of the "fedina" (from the term "fede di matrimonio" for a wedding band). This is a ring similar to a wedding band but thinner, and therefore less costly, that young unmarried lovers exchange to indicate an "engagement." In reality, these are not usually formal engagements but just extended romances. The long "engagements" (fidanzamenti) in Sicily today, which, incredibly, often span five or ten years, result from particular customs and circumstances. Nowadays, when non-marital sex is commonplace, it lends more dignity to a couple's relationship (at least in the eyes of some traditionalists) to say that they are "engaged," even if they are not. Particularly in the South of Italy, where unemployment is high, long engagements are defended with the explanation that the man wants to find a secure job before marrying, but it is clear that many men take advantage of these long-term courtships to avoid matrimonial responsibility. "Nobody buys the cow when they can milk it for free," and a Sicilian woman is understandably disappointed to be abandoned by a man with whom she has been "engaged" for six or seven years. In few other parts of the world (or in other parts of Italy) is this bizarre practice of extremely lengthy courtship so widespread as in Sicily.
When the couple announces their formal engagement, usually a year or two before the wedding, the groom's parents might invite the bride's parents to a small dinner or dessert in their home. This way, they can meet if they haven't already. The bride's family usually defrays the cost of the wedding, and may purchase a home for the couple. Bridal showers are not routine, though bridal registry is, and wedding gifts are usually quite expensive. As Sicilian couples prefer to move into a home that is completely furnished, the betrothed will spend much time purchasing what they want. One might refer to the items a bride receives from her family as a trousseau, though actual dowries don't exist except in some of the most aristocratic families.
The simple fact is that, given the long history of arranged marriages --at least until the 1920s in some families and localities-- romantic courtship may be considered something of a novelty in Sicily; in the past there simply wasn't any reason for it. This helps to explain some of the seemingly "unorthodox" dating practices noticed by any foreigner (or northern Italian) who lives in Sicily for very long.
We should mention that the large number of foundlings placed in orphanages, and sometimes given arbitrary surnames like Esposito (from ex positum, literally "of this place"), Trovato ("found"), Proietti ("cast out") and d'Ignoti ("parents unknown"), reflects the reality that births to unwed mothers were not particularly unusual. Research in nineteenth-century vital statistics registers confirms this, though a law passed in 1928 prohibited the assignment to foundlings or out-of-wedlock children those surnames that indicated the circumstances of their births. It is obvious that young unwed mothers did not always marry the fathers of their children.
Older Men and Younger Women
Truth be told, many Sicilian nuptial customs, particularly as they existed before the twentieth century, were based on Muslim practices dating from the medieval Arab domination of the island. The church may have supplanted the mosque, but the idea of a young bride being betrothed, without her consent, to an older man she barely knew, was remarkably similar to the marital traditions that still exist in Saudi Arabia and several other Muslim countries. In certain respects, Sicilian men's attitudes toward women have not changed radically in the last hundred years. Divorce was legalised in Italy only in the 1970s, and in some ways the advent of the miniskirt has only accentuated a certain sexism; many young Italian women entering the workplace are discouraged by the reality that shapely legs and a pretty face, rather than genuine credentials, seem to be the main qualifications for employment in a private sector overwhelmingly dominated by males. (An obvious reflection of this is Italian television, especially variety and game shows, where fat or ugly men are surrounded by beautiful young women.) In Italy, a woman is unlikely to hold a high position in business unless her father owns the company where she is employed, though many women work in their husbands' family firms.
Foreign Spouses in
One day one of the (male) editors of this website was having a conversation with an American woman (married to a Sicilian) who was complaining about her husband and his annoying "Sicilian" behavior, speaking about certain difficulties of living in Sicily and raising a family here. At a certain point, her American friend asked her, "Before marrying and moving to Palermo, didn't you ever consider that the social situation of women in Sicily might be different from what you had experienced in the United States?" She had no response. Another American woman in Sicily, raised in a Jewish family and now married to the (Catholic) father of her two children, complained to a group of expatriate American women that there were no synagogues in Sicily! If she had read something of the history of our island, she would have known that this had been the situation since 1492.
Some of these love affairs accentuate strong social and cultural differences. Life for a woman in most countries is not much like life in Sicily. But love was never logical. Most Sicilians share essentially similar social backgrounds and lifestyles. Understandably, there are those who seek something different even in love. While a few Italian men think of the sexual conquest of a pretty foreign girl as a sign of success, others view a foreign wife, without a trace of Italian blood, as an "exotic" status symbol. Often, a young woman from England, Poland, Norway or elsewhere, who can barely speak Italian, marries a local man without knowing him --or Sicilian social culture-- very well. Then there are the Sicilian women who for whatever reason, prefer foreign men...
Whatever his relationship with his mother, the "typical" Italian husband tries to exercise a subtle degree of authority in his marriage. With younger couples, this is often too subtle to be observed, but it is clearly linked to a prevalent sexism in Italian society, where women still have a long road to travel in terms of equality with men. Rather few Sicilian women hold gainful employment for which higher education is required, and this prompts many to marry men who are well-paid. (Ben posizionato is the local term.) Italian women who don't like overbearing males sometimes choose to marry foreign men (American men stationed at the Sigonella military base find no dearth of prospective Sicilian brides), while attractive ones who feel that getting a job should be based on qualifications more substantial than shapely legs and a willingness to flirt with the boss may seek employment outside Italy.
Exceptions prove the rule. There are some Sicilian men who view women as social equals. Typically, such men are better-educated and relatively young, or may have lived in places like the United States or northwestern Europe for extended periods during their formative younger years. Whatever their experience, they usually understand that female companionship can be based on more than catering for a husband's culinary and prurient appetites.
Why does such a status quo persist? It's a question of conformity and the momentum of centuries. Despite occasional travel, and exposure to "foreign" ideas via television and popular culture generally, many Sicilian women simply do not know any other way of life. A wife's choices are based on a kind of social conditioning that says she "must" be Roman Catholic (at least nominally), give birth to at least one male child, have her husband's dinner on the table for him promptly and ape his political opinions, however bizarre. Yet, Italian feminist organisations like Arci Donna have fought hard to achieve something akin to social equality, and to impress upon their sisters that real equal rights depend on more than being able to choose your sex partner.
Top of Page