La Bedda Sicilia

Image from Wikipedia

Background song by Carlo Muratori.   For the complete song, go to



Sicilia, Sicilia,
canta 'na pasturedda.
Sicilia, Sicilia,
gioca la funtanedda.
l’aria e lu suli
l’arma  di puésia.

Sicilia, Sicilia,
tu si la patria mia!
Sicilia, Sicilia, the young shepherdess sings;
Sicilia, Sicilia,
plays the little spring;
The air and the sun
fill every
soul with poetry.
Sicilia, Sicilia, fatherland, homeland to me!

Transaltion by Gaetano Scamacca and Angelo Coniglio



       This is a history of Sicily.  In 1912 and 1914, Gaetano and Rosa Alessi Coniglio emigrated to America from Serradifalco, Caltanisetta, Sicilia (Sicily, Italy).  Other locations on this site address their home village of Serradifalco (Sicilian Serradifarcu), but this page is devoted to their country of origin, Sicily.   The latter statement may be taken as ambiguous.  Wasn't Italy their country of origin?  Isn't Sicily in Italy?  Well, yes and no.  Sicilia (See-CHEE-lee-uh) today is an 'autonomous region' of the Italian Republic.  When Gaetano and Rosa lived there, it had been officially a part of the Kingdom of Italy only since that country's creation in 1861, less than thirty years before Gaetano was born.  Gaetano's parents were born well before that date. His four grandparents were  born before 1812, while the feudal system that began in the Middle Ages was still being practiced in Il Regno dei Due Sicilie (the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) and the land was still under the destructive and demeaning yoke of Spain.
      Before that,
Sicilia's political status ranged from that of a lowly penal colony to the heights of an independent kingdom, with a variety of conditions in between.  Its rich history makes it one of the most culturally sophisticated and diverse places in the world, while at the same time some regions of the island bear a long tradition of misery and hardship.  Because it is an island,  because of its proximity to the African continent, and because of its history of domination by other cultures, Sicilia is unique, and different from 'Italy'.   As a child of Sicilians, I feel a strong bond to Sicily.   To me, though Sicily is now part of Italy, "Sicily is not Italy, and Italy is not Sicily."

      Sicily was a distinct nation seven hundred and thirty-one years before the present nation of Italy existed.  This map from 1860, just prior to the 'unification of Italy', shows that there was no nation called Italy, and that the largest nation in the region was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a direct successor of the original Kingdom of Sicily (Il Regno di Sicilia) established by the Normans in 1130.  That nation, the first 'modern' state with a tri-partite government, was so renowned that it was referred to throughout Europe simply as Il Regno: The Kingdom.  No other description was necessary.


       An early name given to Sicily by the Greeks was Sicania, reinforcing the hypothesis that a people called Sicans or Sicani were indigenous.  The name Sicilia was also derived from the name of another of the early tribes to live there, the Siculi.  Because of its obvious shape, the ancient Greeks gave it the name Trinakrias (Triangle).  The ancient Romans changed that to Trinacrium, and the later Italians called it Trinacria as well as by its ancient and present name, Sicilia.
      It's likely that most Sicilian-Americans today rarely think of themselves that way.  American culture counts the descendants of Sicilians, Romans, Neapolitans and Venetians alike, as 'Italian-Americans', and only when they are pressed (and if they remember) do the Sicilian-Americans concede a difference.   It should be noted, however, that American descendants of mainland Italians are often careful to note a distinction between themselves and those of Sicilian descent.
      This page is to give Gaetano and Rosa's descendants (and anyone else who is interested) some sense of what it means to be
Sicilianu.  Some of this is from my experience as a Sicilian-American, and from reading texts and on-line reports of Sicilian history, politics, and culture.  Some of it is factual, some is my opinion, based on several different views of the same information.  Rather than giving references, generally I link a word or phrase from the discussion to a page or site that addresses the topic at hand.  Because of my heritage, associations with the 'comune' (town) of Serradifalco and its 'Provincia' (Province) of Caltanissetta are inserted at various appropriate points.
      I start with a general description of the island/country, and then give historical highlights I find intriguing, and which shed light on the development of the character of modern Sicilians and the descendants of Sicilians.  A link to a page listing interesting Siculo-centric sites is presented at the end of the history. 

       Sicilia is a mountainous triangular island in the southern Mediterranean Sea, just about ten miles off the 'toe' of the 'boot' of the Apennine Penisula and only about 100 miles from Tunisia, Africa.  It's about 150 miles across at its widest, and has a surface area of about 10,000 square miles, about the same size as North America's Lake Erie.  Most of the island's surface is mountainous and hilly, with some level coastal areas and a large plain, in the east, near Catania.  
        Though heavily deforested over the ages,
Sicilia continues as a source of citrus, olives, and wine grapes.  Through the centuries, its sulfur, now greatly depleted, once provided major income to the island, and during the invention and prominence of gunpowder weapons, was a driving force behind various intrigues to control the Island. 
        For millennia, the bluefin tuna (tonno) has returned from the Atlantic Ocean, to enter the Mediterranean Sea to spawn.  Since pre-Moorish times, Sicilian fishermen have organized tuna hunts, called by the Spanish name mattanza, to trap thousands of tuna (during peak years) in tonnara, a complicated system of nets which lead the fish into the Camera delle Morte, the Chamber of Death, in which a movable bottom is raised to allow fishermen in small boats to gaff and capture the giant fish.  The methods, now modernized, still incorporate elements that are thousands of years old, and the event is as much ritualistic as physical, with fishermen chanting songs so old that even they don't know the meanings of many of the words.  The leader of a team of tuna fishermen, is called a rais, an Arabic word meaning 'chief'.  Because of overfishing and pressure by competing modern foreign fishing vessels, few mattanza still occur.  A famous one survives, a shell of its former self, with a tonnara at
Sicilia's western offshore island of Favignana.  During the late 19th and early twentieth century, it was an important element of Sicilian economy, with its canned tuna shipped worldwide.   Teresa Maggio's book Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily is an absorbing description of the spectacle.
Sicilia's population at the start of the twenty-first century was five million.

SicilyLocation.jpg (100769 bytes)


        Sicilia was a point of convergence between North and South, East and West, between Europe and Africa, and eventually between the Latin world and the Byzantine.   But before incursions from all points of the compass, Sicilia had been inhabited since prehistoric times, as attested by human (or pre-human) fossils believed to be a half-million years old.  Cave drawings exist from about 12,000 years ago, but it's not known whether the people responsible (the first inhabitants of the Italic region), were originally from the north (Europe) or south (Africa). 
          The first identifiable culture of
Sicilia existed about 8,000 years ago (6,000 BC, about the time of the first records of civilization in Egypt): the Sicani (See-KAH-nee), Sicans or Sicanians, reputedly from the area of present-day Libya in Africa, developed a culture on the southwest coast and the central interior of the island, and likely overspread the entire island at one time.   The name Sicani is derived from the Greek word 'sika' (Italian 'selce'), meaning chalcedony, a quartz-based type of rock that includes agate and tiger's eye, and which was plentiful in the areas inhabited by the Sicani.  Indeed, probably the earliest external name for the island was the Greek Sicania.  Kokalos was a legendary king of the Sicani.  An alternate version of the origins of the Sicani is given by the greek historian Thucydides in about 420 BC, claiming that they were from an area near the River Sicanus in the Iberian peninsula (today's Spain).  Some sources say the Sicani were the dominant culture for about 4,500 years until being joined by the Siculi (SEE-kooh-lee), or the Sikels, Sicels or Siculiani, in about 1,400 BC (the time of Moses).  The Siculi originated in the North, on the Apennine Peninsula, and settled in the eastern part of the island, closest to the toe of the peninsula's 'boot'.   They worshiped their own god, Adranus, said to live under Mount Etna.  Adranus, for whom the town of Adrano is named, grew to be worshipped throughout the island, by native Sicani and Siculi alike.  The island's name seems to have been a combination of the names of these two peoples: Sicilia, 'Land of the Siculi and Sicani'.  In about 1,200 BCE (about the time of the Trojan War), the Elami, or Elymians, possibly of Trojan (modern Turkey) origins, settled in northwestern Sicilia.
The map below shows the location of these early cultures with respect to the nine present-day provinces of Sicilia, each with its capital city of the same name.  It is not evident whether the Elami, Sicani and Siculi were physiologically different peoples, or whether they were essentially the same stock, with cultures differing due to varied external influences in the east and west of the island.  Serradifalco and its provincial capital Caltanissetta are essentially at the geographic center of the island, the lands of the ancient Sicani.  The map shows, however that those towns are also close to the borders of the Elami and Siculi.  Prehistoric tombs can be found in Serradifalco's Grutta d'acqua (Cave of water) district.  While today's Sicilians, in general,  are certainly a mix of the many races, peoples and cultures that have infused the island over the millennia, it is not difficult to imagine that some residents of the interior could be direct descendants of the ancient Sicani, Elami and Siculi.

         These three cultures, the Sicani, Elami and Siculi, were the oldest known in Sicilia and can be considered the 'indigenous peoples' who thereafter were beset by invaders, captors, and conquerors from virtually every part of the known world.  Before this onslaught, several native centers of population existed, including the Sikel town of Cale Acte (now Caronia) on the northern coast; the Elymian inland towns of Segesta and Entella (Contessa Entellina); the Sikel's eastern towns of Agyrium (Agira), Aetna (Adrano), and Tauromenium (Taormina); and the central city of Enna, originally a Sicanian stronghold.  The earliest names of these towns are lost in the mists of time, except for that of Enna, established in about 1200 BC. This was the name of the ancient town, much later changed to Castrogiovanni (John's Fort), and still more recently returned to its earlier name, Enna, which evidently derives from 'Henna', its Sicanian appelation.   As such, it bears the distinction of being Sicilia's oldest and highest major city, and seat of the only Sicilian province without a coastline.  Like Caltanisetta, only twenty-two miles distant, it is near the geographic heart of Sicilia.   On the boundary of the areas first populated by the Sicani and the Siculi, control of Enna was once contested by both those peoples.  The area of the present Serradifarcu may also have been a boundary of these tribes, as ancient tombs found in its Grutta d'acqua district have variously been attributed to either culture.
           Unfortunately, other than Elami writings using Phoenician symbols but in the (to date) un-deciphered Elamian language, all written history of the three aboriginal Sicilian groups is to be found only in the texts of other cultures, mainly those of the Greeks.

THE PHOENICIANS (1,300 ~ 800 BC)

             One of the early foreign incursions to Sicilia, before 1300 BC, was by the Phoenicians, from a Semitic civilization on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. There, it had established the cities of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre, in the area of present-day Lebanon.  The Phoenicians were master seafarers, and over the next few centuries, they established trading posts, and influence, around the shores of the Mediterranean.  They introduced a written alphabet, precursor to the Greek version.  They had contact with the native Elami, who used the Phoenician alphabet, but wrote in their native Elymian language, so that remnants of their written records have yet to be translated.

          There were Phoenician settlements on the coasts of Sicilia by about 1000 BC (the time of King David of the Israelites, who referred to the Phoenicians as 'Canaanites').  These were often in the areas previously occupied by the Elymians, and  included Sis (or Ziz), the city called by the Greeks 'Panormos', by the Romans 'Panormus', or modern Palermo). The Phoenicians also established Drepanum (Trapani); Lilybaeum (Marsala); Eryx (Erice); as well as Soloeis near the site of present-day Bagheria, and Motya (later Mozia) on an island north of modern Trapani. 
          A question to ponder is whether Sis was so named because it was on the island of Sicilia, or whether Sicilia simply meant 'the island where Sis is'.  By 814 BC, the Phoenician 'city-state' of Carthage was founded at the site of the present city of Tunis in Africa.  Though founded by Phoenicians, Carthage became an independent power in the development of northern Africa and Sicilia, and controlled much of western Sicilia by 800 BC.  There are indications that as early as the Phoenician occupation, sulfur (zolfo, Sicilian zulfuru) was being exported from Sicilia to northern Africa.


      In the Phoenician language, 'Karthadasht' means 'New City'.  The name now used by historians is Carthage.  The term 'Punic', meaning 'Phoenician', is used to described the city-state of Carthage, its culture, art, as well as the language (a dialect of Phoenician) spoken there. 
      Carthage grew to be a power in its own right, controlling the Mediterranean from the central portion around Tunisia, west to France and Spain (that is to say, portions of the regions today occupied by those nations). 
       From about 800 to 200 BC, Carthage had a major influence on Sicilia, though its settlements were mainly coastal, and it began to be pressured by another group of insurgents from the east, the ancient Greeks.  The native Elami, Sicani and Siculi adopted the Phoenician alphabet, and during this period, in about 500 BC, the first uniquely Sicilian coins were minted by Punic authorities at Motya and other Carthaginian cities.  The Motyan coin, with its three dolphins, heralds a long tradition of three-sided images representing Sicilia. At about the same time, coins were beginning to be minted by the Greeks at Segesta and other Greek-controlled Sicilian cities.

Motya didrachm coin ~ 425 BC

Segesta didrachm coin ~ 480 BC

THE GREEKS (800 ~ 241 BC)

       Concurrent with the Punic development of Sicilia's northwest in 800 BC, the ancient Greeks established a presence on the island, heavily colonizing the eastern shores and the interior previously occupied by the Siculi, as well as the southern reaches of the Italian peninsula.  This was before Greece existed as a unique nation, and here 'Greece' (their name for it was Hellas) refers to a region rather than a country.  It was the area between Italy and Asia minor, where many independent, powerful city-states such as Athens and Sparta vied for power.
        The first Greek settlement in Sicilia was in 735 B.C.E. by colonists from Chalcis and Ionia, who stopped at a bay of the Ionian Sea, near the foot of a small headland peak they called Ταύρος (Tauros, or the Bull).

         Although the group was made up mainly of Chalcidians, evidently some of their party were from the Greek island of Naxos, for Naxos was what they named their first settlement, on the seaside lowlands.  A town inhabited by indigenous Siculi sat on the slopes near the peak of Tauros.  The Greeks eventually overtook the town, which became known as Tauromenion, today called Taormina.
         Greek-Sicilian settlements were known as 'Siceliot' cities, and often warred among themselves just as their forebears did in Athens and Sparta.  These wars often resulted in complete destruction and leveling of the losing city-state, and massacre, enslavement, or diaspora of its residents.  Some city sites lay abandoned for generations before being re-settled and rising again, sometimes with the previous name, sometimes with an altogether different identification.
         As reported by, the main language of the Siceliots was the ancient Greek variant, Doric, spoken mainly in the cities they founded in eastern Sicilia.  The contribution made by the Siceliot Greeks in literature was remarkable. Some forms of 'Greek literature' actually developed in Sicilia: it would seem that the Sicilian-Doric comedy, whose main exponents were Epicarmo and Formide, served as a model for later classical Greek (Attic) comedy of the fifth century BCE.
         Many native Sicani, Siculi and Elami assimilated with the Greek settlers, and adopted their culture.  If these natives were in a Siceliot city that was on the losing side in a war, they too were killed, sold into slavery, or sent elsewhere.  As an alternative, many native Sicilians escaped to the interior of the island to avoid them.  This influx to the hills was to be a recurring theme as settlements of Sicilians, invaded or conquered by some new master, fled to the central expanses to avoid subjugation.
          Although the Greek presence in Sicilia spanned the lifetime of Alexander the Great (356 - 323 BC), Alexander's conquests were to the East and South of Macedon.  He never set foot in Sicilia, though prior to his early death he had laid plans to conquer the island.
        The map below, from 'LIVIUS ~ Articles on Ancient History', shows the indigenous, Phoenician/Punic, and Siceliot cities during the period.  Some still exist with similar names, some have been lost.  Click on the map for a more readable image.

         The Greek-colonized area to the west of Hellas in the southern Apennine Peninsula and Sicilia  came to be known as Megara Hellas, or 'Greater Greece'.  It was called Magna Graecia by the Romans, who themselves were just beginning to develop into a distinct culture.  Much Greek influence on Rome came from Magna Graecia in the south, and contrary to the Romulus/Remus legends, Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius Patavinus) recounted that the city of Rome was founded by the Trojan refugee Aeneas, who escaped to the Apennine Peninsula and found the line of Romans through his son Iulus, namesake of the Julian dynasty of Julius Caesar. The Greek culture on the Italic peninsula began to decline by about 500 BC, but the island Sicilia remained Greek for another 240 years.   However the region from Neapolis (Napoli, Naples) south, comprised of Italy's 'foot' and the island of Sicilia, were to be linked throughout history.  Even today, that region, the 'Mezzogiorno' is referred to as 'le due Sicilie' (the two Sicilies).
        Nowadays, many think of Sicilia as an Italian island, but in in these years, it was in great part Greek, and many of the traditions, myths and great thinkers we associate with ancient Greece were in fact Sicilian.  Eventually, there were more Greeks in Sicilia than there were in 'Greece' itself!  Sicilia had cities such as Syracuse (now Siracusa), its name derived from the Greek 'Sirakous', ('sirako', 'swamp').  It was founded shortly after Naxos, by settlers from the Greek city of Corinth.  The later Roman philosopher Cicero called Syracuse "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all".   Sicilia's most recognizable icon, Mount Etna, was named for the Greek goddess Αίτνα (Aetna), who bore the Palikoi, children of Hephaistos, the keeper of the gods' forge, inside the volcano.  The Palikoi were the gods of the thermal geysers around Etna.

         By about 300 BC, the Greeks began representing Trinakrias, or Sicilia, on coins as a triskelion, a three-legged figure, with the face of Medusa at the junction of the legs.  The triskelion almost certainly represents the physical shape of Sicilia: a natural triangle with a cape accessing the North and Europe via the Italic peninsula, from Messina (Capo Peloro); one extending towards the East and Greece near Siracusa (Capo Passero); and to the West, a cape at Lilibaeum (Marsala) or Capo Lilibeo, which meant, literally, 'opposite Libya' or Africa. 
        Some express dismay over the use of the 'horrible' face of the Gorgon to represent a nation, however, there seem to be valid reasons.  One is that Medusa was, in some legends, a goddess of Libya, whence may have come the first Sicilians, the Sicani.  Another is that in the classic Greek myth, Athena turned the golden hair of the beautiful Medusa into serpents.  Perseus later slew Medusa at Athena's command and presented the head to her.  The goddess attached the head to her Aegis or shield, where it then became a symbol to ward off enemies, who were turned to stone if they looked upon the head.  The symbol was then used to show that its bearer was under the protection of Athena.  Since Athena was the patron goddess of Trinakrias, the Medusa on the symbol of the island would ward off its enemies.
        I propose a third explanation: that the head is not that of Medusa, but of Demeter (Roman Ceres), goddess of wheat, and the mother of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) of Enna.   Persephone, as the wife of Hades, was the patroness of birth, death, and rebirth; goddess of the changes of the seasons. 

Sirakous (Siracusa) Coin ~ 336 BC

Panormos (Palermo) Coin ~ 241 BC

Autonomous Region of Sicily ~ 2000 AD
Variations of the Triskelion

        Since the triskelion has also been interpreted as representing these cycles, could the symbol of Sicilia be the representation of the mother Demeter protecting her daughter Persephone, while showering her with the abundance of the earth?   Corns of wheat, rather than serpents, are shown  in some early representations, as well as in the most recent flag of Sicilia.
         Sicilia was like a huge mixing bowl.  Around the edges, there were continual cycles of settlement, rich commerce, war and disruption.  This served sometimes to homogenize the population of the coastal cities, and at other times to eliminate whole groups of people.  The interior was less rich, but safer, if not from natural dangers, from those imposed by man.  Even in the interior, there was probably a certain degree of ethnic mixing, as poor Greeks or Carthaginians might also hide there to avoid the latest war or purge that befell their cities.  But if remnants of the Sicani, Siculi or Elami remained past ancient times, they would most likely be found in the interior.
         As a portent of future suppression, often the natives were used as laborers and field workers for the more educated and prosperous immigrant Greeks.  The Greeks were resisted by the Phoenicians and later Carthaginians who controlled the northwest portions of Sicilia.   From 800 to 400 BC, conflicts were frequent between the Greeks in the east and the Carthaginians in the west.  By 500, Syracuse had become the island's major Greek city-state, with control over Akragas (now Agrigento), Gela, Catane (Catania), Himera (Termini Imerese), and Messana (Messina). 
West of Catane, the town of Mene, now Mineo, was reportedly founded by one of the few native leaders of Sicilia known from this period, Ducetius.   He was a native Siculan born near Catane and educated in the Greek culture. He united his fellow Siculi in a revolt against the Greek-Sicilian cities in about 460 BC, and by 452 had occupied Morgantina, Etna, and Motyon, and founded the city of Palice, a site of geysers, and of temples to the 'Palici', or Palikoi gods.  The Siculi believed the Palici were sons of their ancient Sicilian fire god, Adranus.  Palice was a place of refuge for many runaway Siculan slaves.  Oaths taken in Palice were said to be sacred, and breaking them reportedly brought dire consequences, a theme to be repeated throughout Sicilian history. 
           In 450, Ducetius was defeated by the Siracusans and exiled to Greece proper.  He returned to organize Sicilia's northern Siculi and founded Cale Acte east of Messina, but when he died in 440 BC in a battle against the Siracusans, his 'native Sicilian Empire' came to an end.  The Siculi kept no recorded history, so what little is known of them was preserved in the writings of their conquerors, the Greeks; in this case by Diodorus Siculus, or 'Diodorus the Sicilian', ironically, a Greek who was born, raised and died in Sicilia.


This was the first gold coin to be struck in Sicily, possibly by Ducetius in about 455 BC to fund his military exploits.  On the obverse, it depicts the nymph Messana in a chariot, holding a whip and the reins of a team of mules; the back shows a rabbit and the inscription (starting at the lower left and proceeding counter-clockwise) 'MESSENION', which was the Greek name for the site now occupied by the city of Messina.

            I have no explanation for the rabbit; it seems a serendipitous coincidence that my name, Coniglio, means 'rabbit' in the Italian language ('Cunigliu' in Sicilianu, 'Cunigghiu' in some dialects).

         The influence of Greece on the culture of Sicilia seems immeasurable.  Nor did Greek history and culture develop without significant impacts from this robust island. 
         In Greek mythology, there are numerous references to Sicilia: the goddess Athena dropped the island of Trinakrias (Sicilia) on Enkelados, one of the Giants who had warred with the Gods, and buried him under Mount Aetna Persephone, wife of Hades and goddess of life, death and rebirth, was born in Henna; Daedalus, after his son Icarus' waxen wings were melted by the sun, flew to Sicilia and joined the court of Kokalos, king of the Sicani; Arethusa, the beautiful nymph, was transformed by the goddess Artemis into a river that flowed underground from Greece and emerged at Ortygia, an island off the city of Syracuse;  Hephaistos, the god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, armorers and fire, had his mythical forge inside Mount Aetna, according to Sicilian Greeks; the myth of Medusa, one of the Gorgons, originated in Libya, whence came the Sicani, and images of her head have adorned insignia of Sicilia for thousands of years. 
         Sicilia played a role in ancient literature, as well.   The blind poet Homer wrote that during Odysseus' long journey home after the Trojan war, he and his men were held captive by the giant  Polyphemus of the shepherd Cyclopes tribe of Sicilia.  Homer also tells of the dreaded Scylla and Charybdis, the monsters guarding the ramparts of the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicilia, were Odysseus' ship was destroyed.  And the Aeolian Islands, from which the Sirens and their songs enticed Odysseus' crew, are Sicilia's Isole Eolie.  
Thucydides claims that the human Sicani tribes were preceded on Sicilia by the giant, somewhat mythical Laestrygonians and Cyclopes.
          The still-used phrase "under the sword of Damocles" originated in Sicilia during the time of the Greeks.  The tyrant of Syiracuse, Dionysius, was a Sicilian-born ruler who extended his control over most of Sicilia by the end of his reign in 367 B.C.E.  One of his advisors was the courtier Damocles, also Sicilian-born.  Once, to demonstrate to Damocles the fear that Dionysius himself felt, he had Damocles sit at dinner with him, under a sword that was suspended by a single horse- hair. Since then, anyone under threat or fear of uncertain fortune is said to be "under the sword of Damocles".
          Aside from the mythical and legendary, in Sicilia, Greek philosophy and science were nurtured by Archimedes, the father of invention, who was born and lived his life in Sicilia.  Among his other contributions to science, this native Sicilian from Syracuse was the first to develop the concept of
P  or pi, the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter, and the basis of virtually all rational mathematics that followed. He invented the water screw for lifting water, and developed the concepts of buoyancy and fluid pressure.  Aeschylus, the great Greek dramatist and author of 'Prometheus Bound', was not born in Sicilia, but he lived there when he developed methods of production, acting, set design and other theatrical concepts that revolutionized the art.  Sicilian Greek artists Kimon and Euainetos produced coins that remain among the most coveted in the world

Sicilian olive tree Leontinoi (Lentini) coin,
Apollo with olive wreath, 440 BC
Sicilian grapes Sicilian coin with grapes

          The Greeks left a profound heritage on the island, including the introduction of the cultivation of olives and grapes (how would we make 'Italian' dressing without them?), and the construction of classic Greek structures such as the Amphitheatre at Syracuse and, in the Valle dei Templi (Valley of Temples) in Agrigento, the Temple of Castor and Pollux.  The the temples are actually on a hill, but the area was called a "Val" (region) by later-arriving Saracens. The Arabic word "Val" is similar to the Sicilian "valle" (valley), so we have the contradiction of the "Valley" of Temples being situated on a hill! Near that Sicilian hill also stand the remains of the largest Greek temple in history, the Temple of Zeus
           Greek, though Sicilianized, became the common language, and even after the Roman conquest, when Latin was the 'official' language, Greek was spoken by a multitude of Sicilians, well into the Middle Ages.  And though Greek power was on the  decline while Roman fortunes were rising, the impacts of the Sicilian Greeks on Roman culture and civilization grew in the south and moved northward, starting from the shores of Sicilia and spreading throughout the Italian peninsula.   Sicilia, which would one day be subjugated by Rome, was, during its early Greek occupation, more civilized than the Rome of the same time.
            Carthage continued its overtures on Sicilia with attacks on Himera and later on Syracuse, each led by different rulers named Hamilcar.  In 406 BC, the first Hamilcar's admiral, Nicia, conquered a high rampart in central Sicilia, and built a fort there, named after him: Castro Nicia (Fort of Nicia, later to become Caltanissetta).  However, the Siceliot cities generally prevailed, and until 264 BC, most of Sicilia was controlled by Greeks, except for the far eastern reaches still held by Carthage.  The ports and larger towns were inhabited mainly by Greek colonists, their descendants, and native Sicilians who had been assimilated.  The interior held those natives who could eke out a living without incursions by outsiders.  The main language spoken throughout the island was Greek.  Sicilia, essentially, was Greek. Then came the Romans!

THE ROMANS (264 BC ~ 476 AD)

          Legend (and Livy) has it that Aeneas, a Greek ally of Troy, fled to the Apennine Peninsula after the Trojan War and founded Rome in about 1100 BC.  The Roman version says that Romulus founded the city in 753 BC, and murdered his brother Remus in the process.  Whichever version is true, the fact remains that as Rome developed, a great influence on its politics, its pantheon of gods, its ideals and even the fashions worn by its citizens was Hellas and its closest region to Rome, Magna Graecia, including Sicilia. Conversely, Rome's major influence on the island Sicilia did not begin until centuries later, in 264 BC, when Rome began hostilities against the Carthaginians there, waging the First Punic War.  After twenty-three years, by 241 BC, Rome had won the war, and the island Sicilia became the first external province of the Roman Empire.
        While 'Rome' is considered by many to be synonymous with 'Italy', and since Sicilia today comprises an autonomous region of Italy, some may believe that Sicilia remained under Roman or 'Italian' rule for most of its history.  The facts speak otherwise.  After the seven-hundred or so years of Roman dominance, Sicilia saw a wave of rulers from various other cities, states, or nations for nearly one and a half millennia, before becoming a part of the "reunified" nation of Italy.  That is not to say that the Romans' stay did not have ineradicable effects on the people, the culture, and the very fabric of Sicilia.
         With the Romans came their language, Latin.   Official, or 'High' Latin was spoken by the ruling classes, the nobility and privileged 'cives', or 'citizens'.  The common people, that is the subjects or slaves of Rome during this period, continued to speak Greek.  A local tongue developed slowly, with nuances of ordinary, 'vulgar' Latin.  
         Because of the closeness of the lower Appenine Peninsula to Sicilia, and the numerous social and political connections between the island of Sicilia and the region of the "two Sicilies" (not the least of which was the original influx of Siculi from the mainland), the language that developed throughout the region, including the southern mainland, was very similar to Sicilian.  Today, Calabrian, or Calabresi, is virtually a co-dialect of Sicilian.
.        The stage had been set for Rome's first expansion outside the Apennine Peninsula in 288 BC, when the Mamertines, southern peninsular Campanians who were former mercenaries of the Greek king of Syracuse, captured the strategic Siceliot town of Messana (now Messina), killing most of its citizens and making it a raiding base. After twenty years, when the Greeks tried to suppress the Mamertine activity, the raiders appealed to both Rome and Carthage for help.  When Carthage sent troops, Rome reacted by invading Sicilia, and the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage began in 264 BC.  The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (father of Hannibal) was successful in his battles on land in in Sicilia, but the Carthaginians lost at sea, and by 241 BC, Rome had not only won the war with Carthage, but weakened the control of the Greeks.  Rome's position was solidified after the Second Punic War (311 BC).  Because Sicilia had sided with Carthage, Rome conquered and subjugated the island, which thus became Rome's first external province.  During the Third Punic War, fought outside of Sicilia, Rome further weakened Carthage and eventually eradicated it.
          The Roman Empire was in the midst of major expansion, and needed wheat, both to feed and quiet the populace at home, and to support its far-flung armies.  During this period, Sicilia became known as the granary of Rome, for its heavy production of grain.  Grain grew easily, with little oversight by landowners and little ingenuity required by the field hands.  Sicilia's wheat was, and still is,  grown during the winter to avoid the blazing sun of summer.  This winter wheat, or durum, is dense and hard and can be stored for long periods or shipped on equally long voyages, qualities that created a great demand for it in the ancient world. 
          The Romans wreaked ecological havoc, felling thousands of the island's trees to build ships for their navy, to gain farmland, and even to export lumber for construction of buildings in Rome itself.  Sicilia became a 'sub-colony', and the non-Roman inhabitants became slaves or servants, living in poverty.  Slave revolts broke out periodically, but were brutally suppressed.  In 63 BC, Roman general Pompey sacked Jerusalem and transported 30,000 Jews to Sicilia as slaves.  The role of slave and free Jews, and even of early Christians is not well recorded during the period of the Roman occupation of Sicilia; however it is known that Saint Paul preached in Siracusa on his way from Judaea to Rome.  Sicilia
was evidently particularly receptive to Christianity, perhaps because of the large slave population, and among the earliest Christian martyrs (circa 250-300 AD) were Santa Agata of Catania and Santa Lucia of Siracusa.

          During this period, wealthy Roman citizens had 'latifundia', large estates surrounding their villas, in Sicilia.  The estates were vast, and the villas were in the Roman design with large buildings, baths and halls with Roman mosaic floors and walls, such as the Villa Romana del Casale near the present town of Piazza Armerina.   Often the Roman nobility and upper classes enslaved the Sicilian Greek natives as servants in the villas and workers in the fields; cruel class distinctions that would last for millennia.  The latifundia would eventually become the huge holdings, 'feudi', or fiefs of the medieval barons of ages to come.  Thus, he heritage left by the Romans can be summed up in this way: "land grabs, deforestation, and subjugation."  

'Bikini room' at Villa Casale, 325 AD

              While rich individual Romans built luxurious estates such as the Villa at Casale, these were private enterprises. The vast public works of aqueducts, roads and temples that were iconic in Rome were not undertaken in Sicilia.  Rome used Sicilia as its breadbasket, and in doing so enslaved (that is, those that they did not kill) most of its Greek-Sicilian and remnant Carthaginian populace. Rome also imported to Sicilia tens of thousands of slaves from other conquered lands.  The more slaves, the more wheat was grown, to ship to Rome and its military legions.  And just as Sicilia became the first colony of Rome, it was the first place to have popular revolts against her, in 135 BC. when the slave Eunus led thousands in a revolution which marched from Enna to Siracusa, and again in 104 BC when the slave Salvio instigated an uprising in across the island.  Needless to say, both revolts were violently and mercilessly put down.  Some of Salvio's rebels were promised they would live if they surrendered.  They did so, only to be sent to Rome, to be torn apart by wild animals in the Coliseum's spectacles. 
          During this period Rome appointed governors, each of whom would oversee Sicilia for a one year term, ruling from Siracusa.  The great Roman lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero spent time in Sicilia in the first century BC, and admired the land and its people.  A contemporary  of Cicero was the governor Gaius Verres, who managed to serve for not one, but three years, during which, according to Cicero, he plundered and raped his way through Sicilia, appropriating untold treasure which he sent back to Rome for his personal collection.  He stole priceless statues of Greek gods from Agrigento, Termini Imerese and Segesta, and in their place had statues of himself and his family erected at taxpayer's expense.  In her book Sicily - Three Thousand Years of Human History, Sandra Benjamin states: "Though he [Verres"] showed great talent in stealing from the Sicilians, he was just one such official in a long line that extends to the present day."    
          When Rome's first dictator Gaius Julius Caesar was killed in 46 BC, his great-nephew and nominal successor Octavian fought a war over his succession, with Pompey and his allies. The war was fought and won by Octavian in Sicilia and the seas around it, and Octavian emerged the victor.  He later was known as Augustus Caesar, the first to use "Caesar" as a title, meaning "Emperor".
           More and more often, Rome sent patricians and politicians to manage and populate Sicilia's larger cities.  These cities were taxed according to the favor they had curried with Rome. To the residents of those that had supported Rome in its conquest of Sicilia, Roman citizenship was granted.  Not so for cities that opposed Rome, or for the pre-existing Sicilian populace, whether they be "native" Greeks; aboriginal Elami, Sicani or Siculi; or slaves brought in from the far reaches of the empire.  Many of those "non-citizens" were relegated to the small interior towns and the lonely hills.  The Roman elite, including many absentee landlords, slowly absorbed the plots of most small farm-holders, growing wheat almost exclusively on ever-larger tracts, the latifundia.  Thus, northerners from the Apennine Peninsula ran the richest cities and the vast farms, while the Sicilians took orders and did the heavy labor.  Another theme that was destined to be repeated.
            It is said that the period of Roman dominance in Sicilia represents the longest period of 'peace' (if slave revolts are not counted) in the history of the island, as foreign incursions were few after the Second Punic War.  Yet for many, it was the peace of subservience and obedience.
Slaves were generally treated harshly and fed poorly, and sometimes their recourse was to become 'briganti' (brigands) in small groups that hid in the hills and sustained themselves by poaching, stealing, and robbing whatever and from whomever they could.  This 'brigandage' was to haunt the hills of Sicilia into modern times.  Often the citizenry was fearful to report or punish the brigands, who were owned by powerful landlords, in fear of reprisal by their owners.  This practice of authority in essence condoning the brigandage also persisted, with variations, for generations.   Eventually, there grew to be two types of brigandage.  One was simple banditry, into which which some men felt forced, in order to survive in the face of brutal, unjust authority.  These bandits were outlaws without involvement or interaction with the "rightful" authorities.   The other form of brigandage was that which eventually developed into the Mafia, which used threats and force to serve its own purposes. It infiltrated and often was encouraged and even directed by elements of Sicilian authority: the nobility, the Church hierarchy, or the police.  
            And the great estates, the latifundia, would characterize the countryside for a millennium and more, from their ownership by Roman nobles until the twentieth century, when descendants of medieval nobility continued to own vast tracts, often poorly managed or even lying fallow.  Individual or family ownership and management of small tracts of land, or 'smallholding' was virtually non-existent.
            While Latin was used by the establishment, ordinary folk throughout the island still spoke Greek as their everyday language.  The strength of Greek influence was reflected in the fact that while its masters were Roman, the bulk of Sicilia's citizens followed Greek customs, spoke Greek, and considered themselves Greek.  One of the greatest Greek historians was Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus the Sicilian), born in Agyrium (Agira), who wrote a Library of World History in about 60 BC.  The remains of the Library of World History are the largest surviving corpus of any ancient Greek historian.
           Vernacular language was tinged by the previous languages spoken by the masses, and by their unique local customs and culture.  These variations eventually became identified, each with a particular region, as a 'dialect' or language of that region.  So the beginnings of the first 'Romance language' appeared in the mixture of Latin and Greek spoken in Sicilia, with roots in the now forgotten Sicanian, Siculan, and Elymian tongues, as well as sprinklings of Phoenican.  The most persistent of these effects may be in names of places: Erice was the Eryx of the Elami; Enna the Henna of the Sicani; Mozia  and Lilibeo were the Phoenicians' Motya and Lilibaeum; and Trapani was Drepanon, Greek for 'sickle', the shape of its harbor, while Messina was the Greek's Messana.   Dozens of other examples exist. 
         The language of the masses eventually developed into a version of the modern Sicilian language.  That language, sadly, is not the 'official' language of Sicilia, since the Italian government now requires that 'Italian' be taught in Sicilian schools.  Young Sicilians now speak 'Italian', and 'la lingua Siciliana' (the Sicilian language) is an anachronism, spoken by the elderly, and by tourists from America and other lands; descendants whose forebears brought the Sicilian tongue with them when they emigrated. 


           By about 396 AD, the great Roman Empire began to decline and break up, besieged by barbarians (so-called because they wore 'barbi', or beards) including the Vandals and Ostrogoths.  The Empire split into a Western Roman Empire and into an eastern, or Byzantine Empire, which encompassed much of the ancient Greek lands in Hellas and Asia Minor.  Sicilia remained under the domination of the Western Empire for a few more years, but by about 476, Germanic barbarian tribes like the Heruli and the Vandals overtook Sicilia This was the start of Europe's 'Dark Ages', which would last until 800 AD.  In 493 AD, Theodoric the Great and his Ostrogoths swept over and controlled the island.  According to Vincenzo Salerno, 'Historians now recognize that many of the invasions in the declining Western Roman Empire were actually not wars but reasonably peaceful migrations which did not necessarily disturb the existing population, at least initially. In certain isolated (rural) communities the change of government may not even have been obvious for years or even decades. This appears to have been true of the Ostrogoths' migrations into Sicily'.


               The culture of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, was at the same time Greek and Roman: it was Greek culture that had been adapted and overtaken by the Romans, but returned to its roots in the Eastern Mediterranean.   They called themselves 'Romans' but spoke Greek, although some Latin was also spoken.  Linguistically and culturally, their society was not very different from that of the contemporary Sicilians.  In 535 AD, Sicilia, which had been part of the Western Roman Empire when it fell, was recaptured from the Ostrogoths by general Belarius of the Byzantine Empire, then ruled by Emperor Justinian I.   Thus, while Western Europe was under the shadow of the Dark Ages until Charlemagne unified it in 800 AD, Sicilia remained 'civilized' under the Byzantines.  The Byzantine Empire was a Christian empire: it was the Roman Empire, whose capital was moved from Rome to Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul) by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.   At first, although Christian, it displayed religious tolerance for Jews, pagans and Muslims.  Its major religion grew into the Orthodox Christian religion, while the Christian remnants of the Western Roman Empire followed the Latinized, or Roman Catholic version.  Sicilia during this time was Orthodox.
            Vincenzo Salerno
states 'Not all Sicilians were Christians.  Sicily had numerous Jewish communities, even in certain small and remote towns.  In Sicily, the Jews dominated certain fields, particularly some of the textile trades. Though (largely by choice) they lived in certain districts, the Jews were not very different, socially speaking, from the Orthodox Christians of Sicily.'  Justinian's law was the basis for many legal systems still used today, but eventually his defense of Christianity led to intolerance and persecution of 'heretics', including pagans and Jews.

THE SARACENS (827 AD ~ 1072 AD)

              Saracens, Moors, Arabs - the rulers of Sicilia during this period, at the end of the 'Dark Ages', were called by various names, applied generally to the peoples united under the practice of Islam, and those who spoke Arabic.   Because they included both dark-skinned Caucasians and sometimes negroes, 'Moor' often is taken as synonymous with 'black', but the equivalent Sicilian term 'Mauro' evidently was used to describe appearance, not racial background.  The two-and-a- half centuries of Arab occupation of Sicilia were to bring profound influences on agriculture, science, engineering, cuisine, and social interactions. 

          In 827 AD, over ten thousand Arab and Berber troops landed at Cape Granitola near Mazara in the western part of the island.  The siege was a result of the Byzantine admiral Euphemius' offering the governorship of the island to Ziyadat Allah, the Aghlabid Emir of Al Qayrawan (in Tunisia) in exchange for his support against the Byzantine emperor. 
          The practical result of the 'Arab assistance' was that the Arabs eliminated all the Byzantines (including Euphemius), and by 965 AD the Moors had completely taken over the island of Sicilia, which became known as the Emirate of SicilyPanormos became Bal'harm (it is now Palermo); Enna became Kasr' Yanni, then Castrogiovanni, and is now once again Enna; Marsala is from the Arabic Mars' Allah, Port of Allah.   Castrum Niciai, where the Moors reconstructed the castle of Pietrarossa (Red Rock), was the 'Fort of
Nicia', a Carthaginian admiral who invaded Sicily.  'Fort' in Arabic is 'qalat', and the Moors thought Niciai sounded like the Arabic word 'nisaŕ' (which means 'women'), so it was renamed by them Qalat al Nisaŕ (Fort of Women), which today is called Caltanissetta.

Ruins of Pietrarossa

          The Arabs introduced irrigation qanats or canals, cotton agriculture, and the silk industry.  They introduced yasmin, or jasmine (gelsomino) for its sweet-scented flowers and use in tea. They also brought asparagus, oranges, lemons, limes, figs, dates, spinach and eggplant, rice, and sugar cane, all of which in turn affected Sicilian cuisine.  The Sicilian word for a fried dessert, sfinci, is from the Arabic sfang, fried dough;  the Sicilian aranciu (orange) and the English word for the fruit are from the Arabic naranj.  The Sicilian word for artichoke, carciofu, is of Arabic origin (al’qarshuf), as is the plant itself, as well as its relative, the thistle artichoke, or cardoon Spinaci or spinach is from the Arabic esbinakh; limone (lemon) from laimun; riso (rice) from ar-ruzz; and cotone (cotton) from qutn.  Many of these words, somewhat modified,  have since been absorbed into the English language.
          A sweet Sicilian confection with sesame seeds and almonds (torrone, in Italy) is cubbaita, from the Arabic concoction qubbayt.  The Arabs made sharbat (sherbet, sorbetto) from the snows of Mount Etna, flavored with the essences of flowers and citrus ('Italian ice'!).  The name of those beloved
giuggiulena (sesame seed) cookies is from the Arabic giulgiulan; and babbaluci, or snails, are babus in Arabic. Magazzino, "warehouse" or "stockroom" is from the Arabic mahzan.  The quintessential Sicilian dessert, cannoli, is the plural of cannolo (little cane), so called because its shape (and taste) emulated the Arab sugar cane.  The Sicilian custom of breaking bread, rather than slicing it with a knife as in Italy, is an Arabic heritage.  
          The Arabs also started organized the tuna fishing or 'hunts' which became an important industry, in the Mediterranean Sea, near the island.  These tradition-steeped hunts still take place at a few sites near Sicilia's west coast.  The tuna hunt is la mattanza, from the Spanish for 'the killing'. Its leaders are still called rais (Arabic for 'chief'), and the fishing parties use chants so ancient that the fishermen themselves do not know the meaning of some of the words, probably archaic Arabic.
          Perhaps one of the most enduring contributions of the Arabs was the introduction of thoroughbred horses, and promulgation of breeding methods for the animals, for which Sicilia is world-renowned to the present day.  The prototypical Sicilian horse is the San Fratello, a strong, powerful breed, usually black or bay, known for its endurance.
          Like Caltanissetta, place names beginning with 'Calta' are from qalat, the Arabic word for 'fort', as in Caltabellotta, Caltagirone, Caltavuturo, and several others.  The word zero, in Sicilian and English, is from the Arabic sifr; ragazzu and ragazza, meaning 'boy' and 'girl', are from the Arabic raqqas, meaning 'messenger'.   The Sicilian word tazza, meaning 'cup' and zuccheru, as well as its English translation sugar, are derived from Arabic.  The Arabic kameesh (shirt) became camisa in Sicilian, and meskin (poor person) became mischinu.  And the Arabic word mahias, meaning 'bold man', is believed by some to be the origin of the Sicilian word mafia.
          In part due to the practice of male polygamy, the population of Sicilia doubled under Arab rule, and by 1066, about half its citizens were Muslim.  Arabic was widely spoken and it was a major influence on the developing Sicilian language.  Muslim practices dating from the medieval Arab domination of the island continued to be reflected in Sicilian nuptial customs, particularly as they existed before the twentieth century. The church may have eventually 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.        


           Arabic art and architecture from this period does not remain in many places in Sicilia. However, the next conquerors of the island, the Normans, were great admirers of the Arabs. They tolerated and even encouraged Arab artists and scientists, and incorporated Arabic principles in their architecture, much of which survives.  A remnant of Arabic architecture was Kas'r Iahia (Castle of John) in Bal'harm, which was rebuilt in the Palermo of the Normans as the church San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi (St. John of the Lepers), retaining the Arabic-style cupolas.


St. John of the Lepers

              The map below is from a later time period, but it shows how the influence of the Saracens lasted for centuries after their fall from power.  The Arabic word pronounced "Val" means "region", or "district".   Sicily was divided into three Vals: Mazara, Noto and Mona.  The Vals were dilineated by water; either the coastline or a river.  Because of the similarity of "val" to the Sicilian word "valle" (which means "valley"), these three districts or early provinces began being called Valle di Mazara, Valle di Noto and Valle di Mona or Valle di Demona. They were clearly not valleys, as valleys are bounded by ridge lines, rather than by waterways.
            In 1709, when this map was published, the Valle were still the major subdivisions of Sicily.

THE NORMANS (1061 AD ~ 1194 AD) Inroads by the Church and the British

              The name Normans literally means Norsemen, or Men from the North.  It was applied to the Scandinavians, including, in some cases Vikings, who raided, conquered and settled much of Europe during and after the Dark Ages.  One stronghold of these fair-haired, fair-skinned transplanted northerners was Normandy, in what is now France, where through intermarriage they acquired Frankish, Roman, and Celtic blood.  Though descended from Scandinavians, they spoke French.  From Normandy, they made excursions to other parts of Europe, west to the British Isles, and south to southern Italy, where Roger de Hauteville became Ruggieró d'Altavilla Conte di Calabria (Roger de Hauteville, Count of Calabria), on the "toe" of the peninsula.
           The de Hauteville family were important leaders of the Normans, and in 1061, landed a small armed force on Sicilia.  By 1066, while his cousin William the Conqueror was winning the Battle of Hastings to conquer Britain, Ruggieró (Roger) and his brother Roberto Guiscardo (Robert the Cunning) were well on their way to controlling Sicilia.  This took place with the blessings of the Papacy (the Latin, Catholic faction of the Christian church), which encouraged the suppression of Islam and Orthodox Christianity.  Thus, although Sicilia was not actively involved in the Crusades, Ruggieró's exploits were a prelude. 
           A history of the rulers of Sicilia starting with this period might also properly include 'THE POPES'.  Medieval Europe had a 'tripartite' organization consisting of the Roman Catholic Church, the nobility, and 'citizens'. ('Citizens' were only a privileged few: peasants, serfs and slaves had no franchise).  In many instances the rulers of nations or states were vassals of the popes, doing their bidding for heavenly rewards, and, more practically, for earthly gains.  It was important to the papacy that Sicilia, then considered essentially a part of Africa, be brought into the European (papal) sphere of influence.  Further, the Church owned vast lands and continually strove to add to its holdings, causing frequent disagreements between popes, kings and barons about to whom the land actually belonged (that is, who could use it, tax it, rent or sell it).


Roger the First




           In 1086, Ruggieró conquered Pietrarossa in Caltanissetta, where he established the Royal Abbey of the Holy Spirit, and by 1091, the Normans, led by Ruggieró and Roberto, had complete dominance over the island.  Ruggieró introduced, not always with Papal approval, the most enlightened, tolerant, and cosmopolitan period in the history of Sicilia.  This is not to say that such benevolence extended to all, since the period also saw the introduction to Sicilia of the European feudal system, which would last over 750 years.  Ruggieró embellished Caltanissetta with buildings, and he and the other Normans endowed their retainers with rich gifts throughout Sicilia: feudal fiefs and parcels of land, the latifundia of old, given or leased to vassal nobles for their military support, and

cultivated by the lower classes, though strict serfdom did not exist.  Land was inseparable from the concept of feudalism, and the struggle for ownership of the land by rulers, vassals, and even the Church was to shape European states for centuries, and effect Sicilia possibly most of all.        
          Under Roger, Arabs in the cities, who had often negotiated terms of surrender with the Normans, commonly retained their culture; their mosques, kadis (judges), and freedom of trade.  But those in the country became serfs in the new system, most likely along with indigenous Sicilians descended from the servants and slaves of the Romans. The conditions and prevalence of serfdom were generally less severe in Sicilia than in Europe proper, and in general, during the Norman reign, freedom of speech and literacy came to be considered every Sicilian's birthright.

        Ruggieró became known in Sicilia as Ruggieru Primu (Roger the first) or Gran Conte Ruggieru (Grand Count Roger) and his brother as Duca Rubertu il Guiscardu (Duke Robert the Cunning).  Ruggieró tolerated the Orthodox churches (Greek), but to mollify the papacy, he created new Latin-rite dioceses at Siracusa, Girgenti (Agrigento) and elsewhere, nominating the bishops personally; and he changed the diocese of Palermo from 'Greek' to 'Latin' (Orthodox Christian to Roman Catholic).  In the rest of Europe, vassals swore fealty to kings who 'ruled' over regions where their barons and dukes, in fact, determined and administered the local laws.  Consequently, uniform rule over a large territory was non-existent.  Thus, the death of kings or major vassals often threw their holdings into disarray and decline.  Ruggjeró's signal accomplishment was to create the world's first nation-state.  He ruled Sicilia and the southern Italic peninsula through his law, which was administered in his name by his barons or princes. Inevitably, however, that control was slowly eroded during the reign of his heirs, by pressures from various factions including the the Popes (through their agents, often English subjects), the barons, the Lombards, the French and others.
         Ruggieró died in 1101 and his wife Adelesia (Adelaide) held power until his son Ruggieró II reached maturity in 1112.  A measure of Count Ruggieró's success at nation-building was the smoothness with which the country continued to be administered by his heir, and Sicilia was to become a model for future successful nation-states.  Ruggieró II ruled for 42 years.  During that rule, in 1139, he was declared by Pope Innocent II as Re di Sicilia (King of Sicily), establishing the island as an independent Regnu (Kingdom, Realm) for the first time.  His reign established a true Sicilian nation, inhabited by a 'Sicilian people'. During this time Sicilia at last became identified as a region of Europe, and not Africa, as it was under the Moors, or a part of Asia, as it was under the Byzantine Greeks.
         Ruggieró II's kingdom grew to include portions of the Balkans, northern Africa, and the islands of Malta and Corfu.  The Kingdom included Napoli (Naples) and the southern Italic mainland, where Ruggeru eventually took control of Calabria and Apulia (Puglia), and considered himself  'Ruler of Sicily and Italy'.   Thus the southern peninsula, with all the other holdings was part of Sicilia, and with it, was called the Mezzogiorno.   Ruggieró II's kingdom was then known simply as 'il Regnu' (the Kingdom).  References here to the Sicilia of this time therefore include Napoli, which was part of the Kingdom of Sicily, and was ruled from the capital at Palermo.  Ruggieró II supported numerous scholarly projects, including the Saracen scholar al Idrisi's Book of Roger, considered one of the greatest geographical achievements of the Middle Ages. One concept espoused by the book was that 'the Earth is round like a ball': a revolutionary idea at the time.  Men of letters from many lands were always welcome at court. 
Another fallacy put to the lie by al-Isidri is that "Italy" invented macaroni, after noodles were brought back from China in 1295 AD by Marco Polo.  But the earliest evidence of a true macaroni occurred at the juncture of medieval Sicilian, Italian, and Arab cultures.  In his Book of Roger, completed in 1154, al-Idrisi  referred to Sicilian vermicelli nearly a hundred and fifty years before Polo returned from China. This twelfth-century Sicilian pasta, the earliest clear Western reference to macaroni, was exported to Calabria, and commercial contracts from Genoa between 1157 and 1160, recorded by the notary Giovanni Scriba, show large imports of Sicilian pasta.
multicultural society and Ruggieró II's administration were unique at that time in history, as Norman administration co-existed with older Arab institutions, and official documents were published in Greek, Latin, Arabic and even sometimes in Hebrew or Norman French.  Arabic-speaking subjects, whether converted Arabs, Jews or Greek orthodox, enfolded Latin vernacular, or "vulgar Latin" into the common tongue, further evolving the first 'Romance language', Sicilian.   

         Thus, while northern and central Europe were under the shadow of the 'Dark Ages', Sicilia was, literally, an island of culture, diversity, tolerance and civilization, as the era witnessed a proliferation of cultural activity.   The 'poets school', of which Ruggieró II was a patron, was frequented by many famous writers. The most prominent of these was Cielo D'Alcamo (Michele or 'Michael' of Alcamo), who reportedly wrote the most beautiful Medieval love poem, 'Il Contrasto' ('the Quarrel').  The school was to develop into the influential 'Sicilian School'.  The first sonnet, whose invention is attributed to Sicilian Giacomo da Lentini, was composed in the Sicilian language.

Author and critic Anthony Di Renzo summarizes Roger II's exceptional life as follows:

Roger II, Sicily’s greatest king, died 860 years ago on February 26 [1154]. The nephew of Robert Guiscard and son of Count Roger I, Roger II came to the throne at the age of nine and wrested control from his regent when he was sixteen. Crushing all opposition, Roger ruled Sicily until his death at the age of fifty-eight. Contemporaries claimed that he accomplished more in his sleep than other people did when awake.

Raised by Greek and Muslim tutors and secretaries in an island populated by Arabs and Greeks, Roger was more sophisticated than his hard-bitten, rough-and-ready Norman ancestors, most of whom were illiterate. Through shrewd diplomacy and sheer audacity, he outmaneuvered his lunkish Hauteville cousins and annexed Apulia and Calabria. He still lacked a royal title so when Innocent II and Anacletus II squabbled over the papacy, Roger supported the latter in return for a coronation on Christmas Day, 1130 in Palermo Cathedral. When Anacletus died, Roger defeated Innocent’s army the following year, took Innocent prisoner, and forced the pope to confirm his position as King of Sicily and overlord of Southern Italy. In a mosaic in Martorana Church Roger had himself depicted like a Byzantine emperor, being crowned by Christ.

Roger built and beautified churches, most notably the Cathedral of Cefalů, but most of his subjects were Muslims and Jews, who adored him. Much to the Rome’s dismay, Roger was a paragon of religious tolerance. His scarlet and gold-embroidered mantle was inscribed in Arabic and dated according to the Islamic calendar. His kitchen was staffed with Sephardic chefs, who kept the Christian king kosher. He flirted with Greek Orthodoxy, whether out of piety or spite. To project divine munificence, Roger kept an ostentatious court. Behind the scenes, however, he counted every penny to create an efficient civil service and a powerful navy. His fleet captured every North African port between Tunis and Tripoli, seized Malta and Corfu, harried the coasts of Greece, and abducted numerous Theban workers to staff Palermo’s silk factory. The king steered clear of crusading, but his ships sailed up the Bosphorus and impertinently fired arrows into the Byzantine Emperor’s garden.

Roger, however, valued peace more than war. Known for his intellectual curiosity and his regard for learning, he presided over Europe’s most glittering court among scholars from both the West and the Arab world. He discussed everything under the sun with philosophers and mathematicians, doctors and geographers, in French or Latin, Arabic or Greek, and he appointed a commission to collect, sift, and assemble all available knowledge about the physical world. After fifteen years, the commission produced “The Book of Roger,” which John Julius Norwich rightly calls “the greatest geographical work of the Middle Ages.”

“The earth,” it begins, “is round like a sphere.” And for forty years Roger made Sicily its center. When he finally died of overwork, he was buried in Palermo Cathedral in a porphyry tomb fit more for an emperor than a king, dressed in Byzantine royal robes and crowned with a tiara hung with pearl pendants. His third and last wife bore him a posthumous daughter Constance, who married Emperor Henry VI. Roger’s grandson Frederick II (called “Stupor Mundi,” the Astonishment of the World) would rule the Holy Roman Empire from Sicily. Many historians consider his reign the beginning of the Renaissance.

           With Ruggieró II's death in 1154, the Kingdom passed to his heirs, some abler than others.  His son Guglielmo Primo, in Sicilian Guglielmu Primu (William I) was known as "William the Bad", and his grandson Guglielmu Secunnu (William II) was called "William the Good", more to differentiate the two than because of any merits of the second.  Under the influence of his advisor, the English churchman Walter of the Mill (Gualtieri Ofamilio), William II married Joan Plantagenet, sister of the future King Richard Lion-Heart, and daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, further involving English influence in Sicilia's affairs.
            The realm was essentially ruled by Walter of the Mill, as 'Emir and Archbishop of Palermo', but Guglielmu II was responsible for the construction of Sicilian marvels including the mosaic-encrusted Basilica of Monreale, a world-famous cathedral near Palermo.  When he died without an heir, the barons of Sicily installed an illegitimate grandson of Ruggieró II, Tancredo II, as their king, and imprisoned Guglielmu II's wife, Joan of England.  This led to invasion of Sicilia by Philip Augustus of France, and shortly afterward by his Crusader ally Richard Lion-Heart, who demanded the release of his sister Joan. After capturing and sacking Messina, Lion-Heart negotiated with Tancredi for Joan's release.  The terms included the promised betrothal  of Tancredi's daughter to Lion-Heart's nephew, as well as a gift from Lion-Heart to Tancredi: a sword reputed to be King Arthur's Excalibur.  

Monreale Basilica

Lion-Heart's Arms

            Tancredi and Lion-Heart's agreements were moot, because in 1194, Ruggeru II's daughter Constance (Costanza), claimed the Sicilian throne by right of descent, and married Holy Roman Emperor Henry (Enrico) IV. The reign of Sicilia passed to his Swabian family, the Hohenstaufens.  But to this day, the Normans and their predecessors the Moors are memorialized in the common talk of the Sicilian people: if a girl or woman is swarthy, with dark eyes and black hair, she is called 'maura' or 'morra' (Moor); if she is pale, with blue eyes and light hair, she is called 'normana' (Norman).
               Though his Sicily was to be ceded to and dominated by numerous rulers, some from the island itself, but most from foreign capitals, Roger established the boundaries of Il Regnu as they would be recognized over the next seven hundred years; so beginning with the reign of the first Roger, for eight hundred years before the formation of the country know known as Italy, in one form or another there was a Kingdom of Sicily.  After the Normans, it passed first to the Hohenstaufens, whose crest is shown at the right.


             In 1194, the region today known as Germany was comprised of several duchies, one of which was Swabia.  The Holy Roman Empire included these German-speaking states, and its ruling family was the Hohenstaufens of Swabia.
           The Dukes of Swabia became Kings of Germany during the rule of the distinguished Frederick I "Barbarossa" ("Redbeard") in 1152.  From 1138 until 1254, the Hohenstaufens (from their ancestral home, the Castle of Stauf) ruled as emperors of a loose feudal confederation known as the Holy Roman Empire. The sovereign state of Swabia, in the 1190s, was the focal point of a vaguely defined German unity which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, but it was Europe's most powerful monarchy, having been founded by Charlemagne in 800. 
           Enrico (Henry) IV was the second son of Barbarossa, and through his marriage to Ruggieró II's daughter Constance, claimed the throne of Sicilia Constance gave birth to Federicu Secondo who, like his grandfather Ruggeru II, was one of Europe's most enlightened rulers.  Though he was in fact Federicu II, he was the first King Frederick of Sicilia.  Later kings named Federicu further confused this naming process.  Enrico IV died in 1197. His widow raised their young son in Sicily, but many of his vassals reneged on their feudal obligations. Reaching the age of majority, Federicu II sought to remedy this in a realm which included regions from Saxony to Palestine.  He ruled from Palermo, though he traveled almost continually. To appease the papacy, which feared loss of power (and land) to a 'Holy Roman Empire' that might have included Sicilia and parts of Africa and Asia Minor, Federicu II ruled his kingdoms of Sicilia (which included Naples and the southern Italian peninsula) and Jerusalem separately. They were not strictly a part of the Holy Roman Empire; they were distinct realms which happened to be ruled by the same monarch, Federicu II.  In the early 1200s Federicu II passed important legislation, the Constitutions of Melfi, defining the world's first absolute monarchy, only a few years after the English had constrained the concept of their monarchy, with the Magna Carta.
          Some Norman influence continued under the Swabians.  What was to become the Italian language was developed in Sicilia, by the scholars of La Scuola Siciliana, "the Sicilian School", at the Palazzo dei Normanni (the Norman Palace) built by Ruggieró II.  La Scuola was a group of authors and poets who frequented the sumptuous halls of the palace under the reign of Ruggieró's grandson Federicu II. Because of his multilingual ability and his patronage of art and culture, Federicu II was called Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World.  The influence of the Sicilian poetic school was felt as far away as Tuscany, where at the end of the 13th century Dante Alighieri incorporated its principles in his work.  The father of the modern Italian language, Dante, in his De Vulgari Eloquentia, said "In effect, this vernacular [Sicilian] seems to deserve a higher praise than the others, since all the poetry written by Italians can be called Sicilian". The new vernacular Italian, strongly influenced by the Sicilian language, as opposed to official Latin, was adopted and further refined by Dante into the Tuscan dialect, which was eventually selected as the one 'language' of the diverse states that later became 'unified Italy'
But Sicilia changed profoundly under the Swabians.  Federicu II quarreled with the Papacy, leading to frequent excommunications, which affected him little.  But in spite of his seeming contempt for things religious, during his long reign, the Church in Sicilia became almost completely Latinized (Roman Catholic). He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1220, and ruled Germany and Burgundy in addition to Sicilia, though he deferred to the papacy's fears of hegemony by reigning Sicilia as a separate nation, not part of the Empire.  He gained Jerusalem in a bloodless Crusade, and when the papal representative refused to crown him, he placed the crown on his own head, becoming King of Jerusalem.
         In Sicilia, there were no Byzantine parishes by the year 1250, and only a few Orthodox monasteries remained. Thousands of Sicilian Muslim Arabs who had revolted were 'exiled' to the 'heel' of the Italic peninsula (at that time part of the Kingdom of Sicily).   They were sent to Lucera, in Apulia (Puglia), along with many Jews.  Thousands more Muslims and Jews remained on the island portion of Sicilia, but converted to Catholicism.  Mosques were a rare sight in Sicilia by 1250.  When Enrico IV had begun his reign, Sicilia was a multicultural kingdom; a mere half-century later, by the end of the Swabian era, it was  essentially 'European'.  Its customs, language (Sicilian), and law now were almost 'Italian', even though all bore the mark of Greek, Arab and Byzantine influences. 
          Federicu II's Kingdom of Sicily, with its capital at Palermo, still extended onto the Italian mainland to include most of southern Italy.  He returned to the Italic peninsula in 1237 and stayed there for the remaining thirteen years of his life, represented in Germany by his son by Yolande of Jerusalem, Conrad.  And, in a dark portent of the future (Hitler's yellow star), in a land that had known the greatest religious tolerance in all of Europe, Federicu II required Jews and other non-Christians  to wear identifying clothing.
          There was evident dislike of Federicu II by the Sicilian people because of his rapacious taxes.  Because he claimed all land as property of the crown with barons holding temporary rights which must be renewed after every generation, the nobility was often in philosophical if not physical rebellion.  Nevertheless, because of Federicu's force of personality and his power as Holy Roman Emperor, a stronger national identity was being forged among Sicilians, continuing what had begun in Norman times.  But Fredericu II died in 1250, and had weak successors: his son Conrad, his grandson Conradin, and his illegitimate son Manfredo (Manfred).  They were suppressed by the French pope Clement IV, who eventually installed a papal vassal, Charles I of Anjou, son of Louis VIII of France, as the king of Sicilia (Carlu Primu d'Angiu, Ré di Sicilia).  Carlu acceded to the pope's claim on the crown's lands, which further alienated the Sicilian barons.  This was the reign of the Angevins (Angioini) (kings from Anjou), who ruled from mainland Napoli (Naples), with a Viceré (Viceroy) in place in Sicilia.  Thereafter, the island rarely had a resident king.


           The brief Angevin era represented the eventual decline of Sicilia, especially Palermo, as a center of political and economic power.  Although he acknowledged that greater Sicilia was a kingdom in its own right, Carlu I ruled the Kingdom of Sicily from Napoli, which though prosperous, had been politically less important than Palermo
           Carlu I garrisoned thousands of French troops on the island portion of Sicilia and raised taxes.  For the first time in centuries, Sicilia was the dominion of a foreign ruler who saw no reason to visit the island. Worse, Sicilians were treated as subjects rather than citizens.  In the years following 1268, religion in Sicilia was almost entirely Latinized. Except for a few Orthodox monasteries in the Nebrodi region, the Christians were Catholic, and with Carlu's help a later pope, Gregory X, attempted to subjugate the Eastern (Orthodox) Church of Constantinople. The new regime openly resented the Arabs of Lucera in mainland Puglia, and on the island of Sicilia.  Mosques were gradually abandoned; many were converted to churches.  Jews were tolerated, though their communities became fewer outside the major cities.
            The Angevins became the victims of the first widespread feudal revolt in history.  Starting at vespers on Easter Monday in 1282, thousands of French soldiers and castellani (castlekeepers) as well as French civilians throughout the island were spontaneously and almost simultaneously attacked, and in a matter of days, killed by their Sicilian 'subjects'.  The cities of Palermo and Corleone were two centers of the revolt.  A 'shibboleth' or password used by the Sicilians was ceci or ceciri (chickpeas).  The Sicilian pronunciation is CHEE-chee or CHEE-chi-ree.  The French pronounced the words as SEE-see or SEE-sih-ree, and were killed on  the spot if they could not say the Sicilian versions.  Another password used by the Sicilians was 'antudo', an acronym for the Latin
ANimus TUus DOminus, meaning "courage is your only master", a catch-phrase still used by Sicilian patriots.  The subsequent 'War of the Vespers' effectively ended French involvement on the island of Sicilia, though France still controlled the mainland portion of the kingdom, which the Angevins continued to reign as the Kingdom of Sicily (without the island, which also was a Kingdom of Sicily!), but was commonly known as the Kingdom of Naples.  For a few brief months, the island of Sicilia was without a foreign ruler.  But it would be the last time, for centuries to come.


            'Spain' did not exist as a nation at the time of the War of the Vespers, but at that time a powerful region in the northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula, bordering on present-day France, was the Kingdom of Aragon (Aragona).  Sicilian nobles sought outside support in keeping the Angioini out of power.  They  turned to King Peter III of Aragon (Pietro III d'Aragona) who had married Constance, daughter of Sicilia's former king Manfred, and an heir of the Hohenstaufen regime that had ruled Sicilia before the Angioini.  Pietro fought against the Angioini during the War of the Vespers, which lasted until 1302, when a treaty called the Peace of Caltabellotta was signed.  The red and yellow of this Aragonese coat of arms have since been adopted as the official colors of Sicilia.

Aragon arms

                The red-and-yellow of Aragon were prominent in the flag of the Kingdom of Sicily, although some historians claim that the colors were Sicilia's answer to the ill-fated reign of the Angevins, and that the colors stood for the two cities most prominent in the rebellion against the French - red for Palermo, and yellow for Corleone.  There are conflicting reports over the use of the 'Trinacria' flag shown here, and later versions show the colors reversed.

Flag of Sicily
1282 - 1816

             With the treaty of Caltabellotta, the rulers of the mainland Kingdom of Sicily (Kingdom of Naples), the Angioini descendants of Carlu I, as well as the pope, Boniface VIII, finally recognized the Aragonese as rulers of Sicilia, in the person of Federicu II d'Aragona, (Federicu III di Sicilia) Pietro III's son and great-grandson of the great Stupor Mundi, Federicu Secondo.    Now Sicilia was no longer il Regno that had once ruled over far-flung territories, but an island under the authority of distant kings.  It was also now separated not only physically but philosophically from mainland Italy and Naples, which, though still ruled by the Angioini, was just entering the golden age of Dante and Giotto.  Thus, as Naples and the mainland moved toward a renaissance, the 'Kingdom' of Sicilia began its sad decline as a remote Spanish possession.  To differentiate between the 'Kingdom of Sicily' that was in actuality the Angevin's peninsular 'Kingdom of Naples', the island Kingdom of Sicily was called 'il Regno di Sicilia di lŕ dal Faro' (the Kingdom of Sicily beyond the lighthouse of Messina).
             Taken together, the rule of the Aragonese (1282 ~ 1492) and of Spain (1492 ~ 1860, with brief interruptions) represents the longest period of domination by one foreign power over Sicilia, other than that of the Romans.  At first, a peaceful Sicilia prospered under the Aragonese, although the often discontented Sicilian nobility periodically caused unrest.  Federicu II of Aragona reigned until his death in 1337, but in no way should he be confused with Federicu II of the Swabians, grandson of Ruggieró II.  Though they were both descendants of the great Ruggieru, there was little similarty in the cultural, social and economic policies of Federicu II of the Hohenstaufens, and he of the Aragonese.  To further complicate (or perhaps simplify) matters, the Aragonese King took the name Federicu III di Trinacria (the name Trinacria was a condition of recognition imposed by the Angevins of Naples, who still called the Italic peninsula from Naples south 'Sicily', still claimed rights to the island of Sicilia, and commanded tribute from Federicu III).  Roads and byways in modern Sicilia with names like 'Via Federico Secondo' are named for the Norman/Swabian ruler of Il Regno, not the foreign Aragonese king. 
             On his coronation in 1296, Federicu III bestowed the title of Conte di Caltanissetta to Pietro Lanza, grandson of the Chief Justice of the Kingdom. In 1396, Eleanor of Aragon, descendant of Lanza, was invested as Contessa di Caltanissetta.

             Most of the castles and medieval palaces that still remain in Sicilia were constructed during Aragonese rule. The styles of these structures were sometimes strictly Gothic as in mainland Europe. However, in Sicilia mostly Romanesque styles were favored, but called 'Gothic' because of  inclusion of some typical Gothic features. The Chiaramonte family built one of the most redoubtable castle-fortresses, the Castello Manfredonico, in 1391, in Mussomeli, in central Sicilia.  It included the prototypical Medieval castle elements: a drawbridge; a dungeon; a trap door that dispatched foes into the 'camera delle morte' (room of death); a torture chamber; 'stumbling blocks' in doorways; crenellated outer walls for guards and archers, and so on.  It even has a legend of princesses imprisoned in a tower room, and a ghostly knight who haunts the castle still.  The only element lacking is a moat, which was entirely unnecessary, since the castle was built on a huge monolithic outcropping of rock that was virtually unscalable.

Castello Manfredonico

              In churches, bas-reliefs and two-dimensional icons gave way to full statues. The arts were to some extent supported by private patrons outside the church, but Sicilia under the Aragonese did not approach its former status under the Normans.  There were few social advances, and the island's economy was exploited to feed the coffers of Aragon, while its nobility did little to support economic development.  There was virtually no middle class, and the advances in literacy gained during the reign of the Altavilla family were lost or even reversed, and even the barons were largely illiterate.  Social woes were further deepened in the mid-14th century by the bubonic plague, which killed one in three people in cities like Trŕpani and Catania, whose populations fled to the hills.          

             There was underlying conflict between the Sicilian nobility such as the Houses of Chiaramonte, Ventimiglia and Palazzi, called the 'Latin' nobles who had ruled before the onset of the Angioini and the Aragonese,  and those who arrived from Aragon, the 'Catalan' nobles such as the lords of  Montcada (or Moncada) of Barcelona, (originally from Béarn, just north of Aragon), as well as the House of Alagona.  With the king usually in faraway mainland Aragon, this friction was characterized by one noble House or another attempting to seize fiefs previously the property of the defeated Angioini nobles. The mark of a baron's power was the extent of his holdings, even if the major portion of the land was held uncultivated and unproductive.  The result was a series of disagreements, sometimes violent, often accompanied by the degradation or destruction of property, and exacerbated by frequent bouts of

  Steri Palace ~ Palermo

famine or plague.  The Steri Palace, shown here, was built by the recalcitrant Chiaramontes in Palermo as a fortress, but the last of the Chiaramontes was hung in its courtyard and it was converted to the residence of the Spanish Viceroy.

             After brief reigns by his sons Peter, Louis, and Frederick, Federico III was succeeded by his daughter Maria, who was underage and yielded control of Trinacria to her husband Martino, a noble of Aragon.  He took the name of Martino I di Trinacria (the Younger) and on his death his father, Martino King of Aragon took the name, illogical as it sounds, of Martino II di Trinacria (the Elder)!  So Martin the First was succeeded by his father, Martin the Second.              

             The Moncadas were a powerful family that had gained favor with King Giacomo (Jaime, James) of Aragon during his war against the Moors, when during a scarcity of supplies, Guglielmo Moncada had given the king his last seven loaves of bread.  Giacomo gave six of the loaves to his Barons, and split one in half to share with Moncada.  This was memorialized in the coat of arms of the House of Moncada, with six whole loaves, and one that is halved.
             In 1407, the Contea di (County of) Caltanissetta, given by Martino the Younger to Sancho Roiz, Grand Admiral of the Kingdom, was traded to Matteo Moncada ed AlagonaIncluded was land that would become the feudo (fief) of Serra del Falco.  This marked the beginning of a series of exchanges, according to Giuseppe Testa,
in which the fief was "lost, sold, and reacquired in a cycle of sale and re-purchase without end" by the noble House of Moncada, actually over a period of two centuries.


   Moncada coat of arms

              Positive contributions by the Aragonese included encouragement of foreign complements, including merchants from Catalonia (Spain), and from the Italian mainland, traders from Genoa and bankers from Venice.  Enclaves of foreigners resulted in still-extant churches like St. Joseph of the Neapolitans and St. George of the Genoans, both in Palermo.   But the voracious demand for lumber to build Aragonese ships caused further serious deforestation of the island for economic gain by the Chiaramontes and Ventimiglias. 
                 Martino II
ruled until 1410.  He had no children and his rule passed to his nephew Fernando I (in Sicilia called Ferdinandu Primu).  Fernando's son Alfonso V of Aragon conquered Napoli in 1442, and that nation was again politically joined with Sicilia, but unlike the glory days of Il Regno, they were together under the rule of a foreign king.  Corruption flourished under Alfonso.  No crime was so serious that a pardon could not be bought; tax-gatherers stole from both the populace and the king; away from the coastal cities, peasants existed under anarchy and near-slavery, subject to 'the law of the strongest'; the barons held monopolies on grinding wheat, baking, slaughterhouses, and the wine and oil presses.  As a result of their mismanagement and avarice, periodic famines began to occur in what was once the granary of Europe.  The peasant classes' ties with the Church were strengthened during this period, as religious feasts offered them periodic brief respites, when the the common man might enjoy the all too rare music, food and distraction from their labors.
              Aragon and other Iberian states began to be subsumed into the Kingdom of Spain after several decades of wars, including the expulsion of the Moors from Granada; disagreements over sovereignty; and intermarriage between Iberian nobles. King Fernando II of Aragon (grandson of Fernando I) married Queen Isabella of Castile in 1469, and they combined to control essentially all of Spain, as well as the holdings of its incorporated kingdoms, which included Trinacria (Sicilia), which he ruled as Ferdinandu Secundu
              At about this time, Ottoman (Muslim) pressure on the Balkan country of Albania, east of the heel of Italy, across the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, caused thousands of Orthodox Christian Albanians to flee to southern Italy and Sicilia, rather than convert to Islam.  Many settled in Sicilia, in towns such as Piana degli Albanesi (Plain of the Albanians), Santa Cristina Gela, Mezzojuso, and Contessa Entellina.   A dialect of Albanian is still spoken in some places, and the immigrants' name for themselves was
Arbëreshë: for example, their name for Piano degli Albanesi is Hora e Arbëreshëvet (Town of the Arbëreshë).  The Albanian immigrants were often called 'Greeks' by the locals, not referring to their origins, but to their Greek Orthodox beliefs.  By Fernando II's time, nearly a thousand Albanian families had settled in Sicilia, and a myriad of modern Sicilians are their descendants.  Even hundreds of years later, whole villages of Albanians were brought to Sicilia to populate and convert rural fiefs into economic centers for their noble Sicilian owners (see Marianopoli, later in this history).

SPAIN (1492  ~ 1713 AD; 1733 ~ 1860 AD),

             In 1492, two world-changing events were promulgated by Ferdinandu and Isabella.  One was the voyage west and the discovery of America by Cristoforo Colombo (Cristóbal Colón) of Genoa (then a part of Spain); the other was the expulsion from Spain (as well as from Sicilia, also part of Spain) of all Jews and Muslims who did not convert to Catholicism.  The former turned the interest of Europe away from the Mediterranean towards the treasures, real or imagined, of the 'New World'; the latter, by rejecting thousands of skilled merchants, businessmen, scholars and patrons of the arts, seriously diminished Spain's economic strength and its culture.
          The Roman Catholic Church for centuries had already had a profound impact on Sicilia, through its manipulation, approval, disapproval or outright control of the nobility, from the coronation of Ruggieru II by Pope Innocent in 1139, to the installation of the Angioini as Sicilian rulers by Pope Clement IV, to the feudal custom of granting high religious posts to those secondary sons and daughters of nobles who did not inherit noble titles. The Church was a major owner of property, paid no taxes, and its hierarchy was generally exempt from the law.  Bishoprics often had their own armies and enforced their privileges by strength of arms.  Until the late nineteenth century, the Church and the state were intertwined and jointly responsible for sanctioning marriages, recording births, and other vital statistics.  Generally, what was sanctioned by the Church was deemed legal and proper by the state.
           The Spanish Inquisition, an organization meant to ferret out heretics, was a creature of Spain, not of the Vatican.  It was a quasi-independent organization which owned property (often stolen from its victims, the Jews and Muslims it killed or expelled).  It imposed its own law, and existed as an entity until the 18th century.  The signature activity of the Inquisition was the 'auto da ' or 'act of faith', supposedly a penance by heretics.  The term became synonymous with what was imposed after the recanting: burning the heretic at the stake.  The Inquisition not only murdered or expelled the Jews and Muslims, it suppressed progressive philosophies, change, and foreign intercourse, bad and good. 
           Some portions of Europe, including the Italian peninsula, permitted some non-Catholics to remain, although under severe restrictions.  But in Sicilia, the pogroms were so devastating that Jews and Muslims essentially disappeared. Along with them, as lamented by Sicilian author Vincenzo Salerno, went the things that had made the island a unique, 'multicultural land of ancient Greek philosophers, Arab sages, Norman monarchs and Swabian emperors -- disappeared with the waning of the Middle Ages, never to return.'  The legacy of Spain in Sicilia is a sad one.  Many of the persecuted remained, as 'secret Jews', called Marrani in Sicilian and
B'nei Anusim (children of the coerced ones) in Hebrew. The first auto da in Sicily took place in Palermo in June 1511, when the Inquisitors executed nine Sicilian B'nei Anusim for secretly practicing Judaism.  If discovered, Marrani were killed, but remnants of their culture still exist in Sicilia, and have begun to be re-invigorated.  B'nei Anusim refers not only to the children of the 'secret Jews', but to all the subsequent descendants.
          Salerno says that artists, philosophers and writers during the height of power of the Inquisition could not openly challenge accepted conservative aesthetics or thought, and 'the island was becoming isolated from the world's great social, scientific and artistic developments.' While the Protestant countries of northwestern Europe moved towards increasingly higher levels of literacy, more efficient industrialization, higher per capita income and ever greater individual rights, Spain and its holdings, including Italy and Sicilia, suffocated under the legacy of the Inquisition, reflected in the Roman Catholic Church's intolerance of progressive social change through the late 1800's.  By then, the Church was the largest landholder in Sicilia, with more property than the king and the richest noble families, such as the Lanzas and Paternňs.
            From 1492 through 1713, Spain's 'ownership' of Sicilia was uninterrupted.  Its kings remained in Spain or Naples, while Viceroys represented them in Palermo.  To quote Giuseppe Testa, the role of Sicilia in those years was '
saziare l’ingorda lupa della Corte di Spagna': 'to sate the greedy wolf of the Spanish Court'.

             William Shakespeare lived during this period, and the English bard wrote his plays from 1585 through 1613.  One-third of his works were set in one or more of the many city-states and duchies located in the Apennine peninsula, and even in Syracuse, Sicilia.  But NONE were set in "Italy", since as can be seen from this map covering 1350 through 1600, there was no country called Italy at that time.


             Because of the scorching summer sun, the southern Apennine peninsula and the island of Sicilia became known as the Mezzogiorno region (Mazziurnu, in Sicilian, meaning 'mid-day'). The coasts of the Mezzogiorno in the 16th and 17th centuries were infested with pirates; poor land management led to frequent protracted famines; cholera epidemics raged; Etna had devastating eruptions; in Sicilia, taxes were heaped upon taxes. 
             In an attempt at land reform, Sicilian nobles were encouraged to cultivate their large estates (latifundi) which in many cases had lain fallow for generations.  They were issued permits (Licenzia per popolare) to found new centers (u
niversitŕ) of population.  For each permit, of course, a fee was paid to Spain.  In the 17th century, eighty new towns (comune) were established in SiciliaOne of them was Serradifalco, licensed in 1640 to Donna Maria Ventimiglia, grandmother and guardian of Barone Francesco Grifeo, of the family that had, in 1617, purchased the fief of Serra del Falco from the Moncadas [Note: In Medieval documents, the family name was mis-spelled 'Graffeo', but the correct spelling is Grifeo, as confirmed by the griffin on the family coat of arms.] In 1652, the fief and the town were acquired in turn by Doctor Leonardo Lo Faso of a noble Lombard (northern peninsular) family which had settled in Palermo.  In 1666, King Filippo of Aragon, Sicilia, Jerusalem, Portugal, Hungary, etc., etc. conferred the title Duca (Duke) on Lo Faso and Ducato (Duchy) on Serra del Falco.


  Grifeo arms

 Lo Faso arms

             The latifundi were so vast and undeveloped that the population of new centers, or universitŕ, was characterized as colonization, much as other nations colonized foreign lands.  Often driven by the Spanish Court's need of permit fees, and by the local Barons' desire for profit,  this feudalism had numerous negative aspects.  However, the enterprise that formed the soul of today's Sicilian interior was this colonization of long-fallow estates with towns and all their appurtenances: mills, jails, shops, and so on; and populated by their necessary inhabitants: cobblers, carpenters, barbers, doctors and artisans, along with sharecroppers and laborers. 
             Another bright spot in Sicilia's Spanish history was Antonio Veneziano (1543-1593) of Monreale, just south of Palermo.  He was called the 'Sicilian Plutarch' for his earthy poetry combining the Sicilian, Italian, and Spanish languages.  He was once captured by pirates and jailed in Spain, where he was a cellmate of Cervantes, who praised his collection of poetry entitled 'Celia'.
               But during the Spanish reign, Sicilian nobles became more and more corrupt.  Society was exploited for the gain of the nobles: the Church and the king effectively acted as one to keep the general population ignorant, and illiteracy was the norm.  This sad legacy extended beyond the rule of Spain, until after the 'unification' of the Apennine peninsula, when even in 1870, less than twenty percent of the population could read and write.  Thousands of civil records from the early 1800's bear the clerk's statement: 'Letto il presente atto agli intervenuti, si e da me sottoscritto solamente, avendo detto il dichiarante e testimonii di non sapere scrivere' or 'This record was read to those in attendance, but is signed only by me, the declarant and the witnesses having said they don't know how to write'
              This illiteracy has led to confusion in countless descendants of Sicilians, about the 'proper' spelling of their family surnames.  Because the majority of people were unable to read or write, their names appeared on official documents with whatever spelling the clerk felt was correct.  Thus, for example, a man's surname might be recorded as Puleri on the birth record of his son Diego, and as Pileri two years later on his son Carmelo's record, filed by a different clerk.  This could result in the two brothers and their descendants having differently-spelled surnames!
               If the common man managed to satisfy the demands of the Church and the Barons, he still might be struck down by the Inquisition because a neighbor coveting his property or desiring revenge might bear false witness against him and have him condemned as a heretic.
               The greed and corruption of the nobility during the long Spanish domination of the island led to contempt for authority by the common folk, which in many ways is  still reflected today.  Many say that a true middle class never evolved in Sicilia until after WWII.  Under the feudal system, which lasted legally until 1812 and much longer in all but name, large farms (latifundi) and forests were controlled by a few powerful noble families, while the property, if any, of commoners was restricted to ownership of a house, a small plot of land, and household animals.   There was no universal system of civil or criminal courts, nor due process of law.  Instead, along with their titles of prince, baron, etc., the king granted the feudal lords civil and criminal jurisdiction over their fiefs, as well as rights referred to as 'misto e mero' (complex and simple); which gave them the power of life and death over their subjects.  To enforce this power, the lords employed compagnie d'armi, small private armies, to enforce their authority.  The brutal punishments doled out by these hired thugs, and their closed, 'honored' associations, resulted in their evolution into 'families' that imposed 'respect' (that is, fear) in order to control Sicilia's cattle and pasturelands, slaughterhouses, fruit plantations, market gardens and ports: in other words, the so-called 'mafia'.
                 During its dominance over Sicilia, Spain was usually preoccupied with 'bigger fish': its conquest, settling and colonization of the Americas; Pacific exploration and conquest of the Philippines; naval conflict with Great Britain, and so on.  Periodically some families of Spanish craftsmen, soldiers and farmers settled in Sicilia, in addition to Spanish titled nobility, but most of the island's population was derived from local stock that was present when the Aragonese took over.  Though there are claims of noble titles descended from those early proto-Spanish lords, the Spanish surnames carried by some modern Sicilian families are generally those of ancestors who arrived from Spain after 1500, or simply adoption by commoners of the surnames of their lords or barons.
                 Sovereignty of Spain passed among rulers of various noble houses of Europe including the Habsburgs (present-day Germany) from 1516-1700, and thereafter the Borboni (Bourbons) (present-day France).  At various times, there were again references to the 'Kingdom of Sicily', but these were simply names of the holdings of foreign kings, and did not constitute an independent nation.  These kings went into the history books with a plethora of confusing names, because of the varied languages of the nations they ruled, and the complicated rules of succession of each.  Thus the man referred to in English texts as Bourbon Charles III, King of Spain was called, in Spanish, Carlos III de Borbón, and in Sicilian was Carlu VII Borbonese, Re di Napoli ed Sicilia (Charles VII, Bourbon King of Naples and Sicily); his son, Ferdinand IV (Fernando IV) of Spain became Ferdinandu III di Sicilia.  I have tried to use the names and suffixes as they were used in Sicilia.

SAVOY (1713-1720)

                  In the early 1700 Bourbon King Charles III died without an heir.  In the wake of his death, much of Europe became involved in wars over the disposition of Sicilia.  The House of Savoy (Savoia), a Duchy of western Europe (present-day France) had eventually sided with the victors, so in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht Sicilia was given to the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II.  His reign was brief, but reflected a theme that had continued since Frederick II.  Amadeus refused to be subject to the pope's appointment as papal legate and ruled that papal decrees would be void in Sicilia unless approved by him, the king.   The pope excommunicated Sicilian churchmen who supported Amadeus, and the king imprisoned or exiled those who followed the pope!  Amadeus involved Sicilia in a war between Spain and Austria (the island's worst war since ancient times), the end result being that Amadeus exchanged Sicilia for Sardinia! 
                 During this period, Spain's long-time rival for empire, Britain, began an association with Sicilia that would last for centuries. 
The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 had resulted in the international recognition of Philip V as the King of Spain. Part of the Treaty's agreement was that Spain ceded Sicilia to Savoy, and Sardinia to Austria. Due to its losses, Spain was deliberately excluded from the Italian peninsula, Sardinia and Sicilia by the Utrecht settlement.  [Note: Modern summaries may state that Spain was excluded from 'Italy'.  Since there was no nation known as Italy at that time, the term 'Italy' refers to the Apennine peninsula, plus Sardinia and Sicilia.]
The map below depicts Sicily in 1717, with the cities and towns that existed at the time.  Some no longer exist, and the names of some have been changed, but many remain.  On this map, the three vals are called Val di Mazzara, Val di Noto and Val Demone.

                  Spain then tried to regain Sicilia and Sardinia, and to place them again under their authority, and not simply for commercial interests, since Sicilia had ceased to be a chief partner for Spanish traders.  By the end of May 1718, five Spanish men of war sailed towards Barcelona.  Approximately two weeks later, Amadeus, Duke of Savoy, sent a letter to George I, King of Great Britain. In the letter he claimed that the Spanish fleet had sailed from Barcelona to Palermo in Sicilia, where they had landed their troops to reclaim Spanish sovereignty.   Some maintained that it was fully appropriate for Britain to protect Sicilia's neutrality by apprehending the Spanish fleet.  By late July the British Admiral Sir George Byng and his fleet had arrived in Port Mahon, Minorca, from where they were to sail towards Naples to intercept the Spanish.  
argued that it was Spain's aggression towards
Sicilia which remained the principal reason for the ensuing war, and that it was “absolutely necessary” for Britain to intervene.  Although Spain believed it could reclaim Sicilia with its new naval power, the British won a decisive victory at Capo Passero, the cape at the southeastern point of Sicilia, on the 11 th of August 1718.   By the middle of October the first of Byng's naval squadron sailed homeward.  What was later called the ‘Sicily Crisis' dissolved back into the ‘status quo', a state of affairs which most European powers tried to maintain.
                 Amadeus had thus involved Sicilia in a war (the island's worst since ancient times) among Britain and Spain, Austria, and the Ottomans.
 When it became evident that Savoy hadn't the strength to defend as remote a place as Sicilia, Austria had stepped in and exchanged its Kingdom of Sardinia for Sicilia. Victor Amadeus protested this exchange, Sicilia being a rich country of over one million inhabitants and Sardinia a poor country of a few hundred thousand, but he was unable to resist his "allies".  Spain was finally defeated in 1720, and the Treaty of the Hague ratified the changeover.  Sicilia belonged to the Austrian Habsburgs, who already ruled Naples, the end result being that in effect Savoy was forced to trade Sicilia to Austria for Sardinia


                  This period of Sicilian history goes virtually unmentioned by scholars.  Both Naples and Sicilia were conquered by a Spanish army during the War of the Polish Succession in 1734, and Carlu, Duca di Parma, a younger son of King Philip V of Spain, was installed as King of Naples and Sicilia in 1735.

BOURBON SPAIN (1734-1860)

                  By 1735, Spain, through Carlu VII, again had sovereignty over the kingdoms of Naples and Sicilia, and the island was once again under the Spanish yoke, ruled by the Bourbons (Borboni).  After Carlu's death in 1759, his eight-year-old son Ferdinandu III became the Bourbon ruler of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily.  The regent of the minor Ferdinandu's reign was Bernardo Tanucci, who intentionally limited the boy-kings' education, to reinforce his own power.  This ploy was successful and even in adulthood, Ferdinandu was content to let Tanucci run things.  In 1768, Ferdinandu married Maria Carolina of Austria, the sister of France's Marie Antoinette.   By the marriage contract, the queen was to have a voice in the council of state after the birth of her first son, and she soon availed herself of that power, to which her husband acceded.  She saw to it that Tanucci was dismissed, after which she was strongly influenced by the Briton Sir John Acton.
                 Then, along came Napoleon Bonaparte.  Napoleon, son of minor nobility originally from Firenze (Florence), was born on Corsica, a French holding, as Nabulione Buonaparte in 1769.  Three years earlier, Michelangelo Alessi, an early ancestor of Rosa Alessi, had been born to Calogero and Grazia Alessi in Marianopoli, a town that had been founded in 1726 by Baron Lombardo della Scala, near the site of the ancient Greek town of
Mytistratos.  Ironically, the new town was populated with colonists from Albania, or as they were called because of their Orthodox faith, 'Greeks from Ipeiros'.  In about 1768, while Sicilia was still under Spanish rule, Gaetano Coniglio, great-grandfather of the author's father Gaetano Coniglio, was born in Serradifalco.  The late 1700's saw the emergence of the use of gunpowder in warfare, and Sicilia's abundance of sulfur made the island a valuable asset coveted by combatant nations.  Serradifalco was a sulfur-mining center, and the Coniglios were early miners there.

                  It was also under Bourbon Spain's dominance that the gifted opera composer Vincenzo Bellini emerged.  He was born in Catania, Sicilia in 1801, and raised to young manhood there.  His works, including Norma, I Puritani, and La Sonnambula are considered among the 'Bel Canto' period's finest examples of that style of opera.  He is memorialized in Catania's Museo Belliniano, and his work is honored more prosaically by the name of a dish popular throughout Sicilia: pasta with red sauce and eggplant, called 'pasta alla Norma'.


               After the French revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte opportunistically rose from First Consul of the French Republic in 1799, to Emperor of the French in 1804, and in 1805 he proclaimed himself King of Italy, a minor northern Apennine kingdom which did not include Naples or Sicilia.  In 1806, to escape the advance of the Napoleonic forces, Ferdinandu III and Queen Maria Carolina fled to British-occupied Sicilia, becoming its first monarchs in centuries to actually reside there.  It was occupied by a military force of the British, commanded by Lord William Bentinck.   Britain ostensibly supported Bourbon Spanish interests, but its motivation was, at least in part, its interest in the island's sulfur and other economic resources including its vineyards. 
                 At this period in history, there were actually TWO nations called Sicilia, with one faction claiming sovereignty in the north at Naples, and the other in the south, at Palermo.  Both variously were called "The Kingdom of Sicily" or "The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies".    Northerners
commonly referred to the island of Sicily as Sicilia al di lŕ del faro (Sicily beyond the lighthouse) and to the rest of the kingdom on the southern boot of the Apennine peninsula (where the capital city of Naples was located) as Sicilia al di qua del faro (Sicily on this side of the lighthouse).  The reference was to the lighthouse at Messina on the peninsular side of the strait between the "toe of the boot" and Sicily.  This north-centric way of considering the mainland as "here" and Sicily as "there" continues to this day.
                 To lessen the confusion, modern-day scholars simply refer to the former Sicilian kingdom of the north as "the Kingdom of Naples". 
Napoleon installed his brother Giuseppe Bonaparte as the king of Naples.  Ferdinandu attempted to reign from Palermo as king of Sicilia, but Bentinck replaced him with his son Francescu as regent, and had Maria Carolina exiled to Austria.  In 1808, Napoleon named his brother-in-law Joachim Murat "King of Naples and Sicily", but the island was never under his control. In 1812, influenced by Bentinck, Sicilia's parliament, often ineffective, passed a constitution modeled on Britain's, calling for a house of Peers, a house of Commons, an English-style jury system and the abolition of feudalism.           

                But in 1814 Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to Elba. In 1815 the British left Sicilia.  The Bourbon Ferdinandu regained power, suppressed the constitution and returned to Naples.  After 1816, he reigned from there as Ferdinandu I, Re delle Due Sicilie (Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies).  So he went from being Ferdinand IV of Spain, to Ferdinand III of Naples and Sicily, to Ferdindand I of the Two Sicilies!   The boundaries were still essentially as they had been in Roger's Il Regno, but rather than being ruled by a native king from Palermo, the island was now considered on the fringes of the nation ruled by Bourbon Spain, from a distant city. 


                 During Ferdinandu's brief stay in Sicilia, Bentinck had forced the abolition of the feudal system there.  This, however, should not be viewed as an action sympathetic towards the peasants, but rather, an indication of the greed of the absolutist monarchy; a way to take the large estates out of the hands of the barons, and give the king more control over them.  The changes in the structure of Sicilian society after this action were to weaken the nobility but encourage speculators and opportunists to replace them as landowners.  The peasants in many cases simply went from working for the barons to working for the ruthless entrepreneurs (some of them former peasants) who took over the latifundi.  This further muddied the complex concept of 'mafia'.  The struggles to achieve an advantage over the nobles, or the church, or the king; to obtain what one could by force if necessary; to achieve 'honor'; all may have led many an otherwise honest but powerless peasant to seek aid from or even to aspire to inclusion in the 'mafia'.
                A positive influence by Napoleon was that when he took over much of Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he instituted a system of law, the Napoleonic Code, which included the recording of civil vital statistics. This system introduced new, standard formats for the recording of births, marriages, and deaths, similar to the forms used for the registration of these events to this day, and in many cases more detailed than modern records.  Even though Napoleon never entered or held sway over the island of Sicilia
, its Bourbon masters adopted the so-called 'Napoleonic format' for these records, which now are a boon to genealogists and to descendants of Sicilians searching for information about their ancestors.   Generally speaking, as a researcher moves from north to south through Italian towns, the amount and quality of civil records improve. Those of Sicilia are the best, and civil records in fact are relatively uniform in format throughout all of the towns of the former Kingdom of Sicily, from the provinces of Naples and Abruzzo in the north to Messina and Palermo provinces on the island itself, where the greatest uniformity exists.
               In 1816, Sicilia was once more officially merged with Naples as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies but that year saw the first of the island's three 'revolts' i
n the early 19th century. The most serious occurred in 1848, a year in which numerous insurrections took place across Europe.  On January 12, 1848 in Sicilia, the nobles tried to reinstate the 1812 constitution,  including the principles of representative democracy and the centrality of Parliament in the government of the state.   At that time the Two Sicilies were ruled by Ferdinandu I's grandson, Ferdinandu II.  After the Sicilian revolt, the island functioned as an independent state for 16 months.   A former admiral and senator, activist Ruggieru Sčttimu, Prince of Castelnuovo (1778-1863), was the effective head of state during this brief period of Sicilian independence. The name Ruggieru Sčttimu literally means 'Roger the Seventh', but although he was a nobleman, it is not clear if he was a descendant of Gran Conte Ruggieru.  Regardless, Ferdinandu II ruthlessly bombarded the rebel strongholds of Palermo and Messina, earning him the nickname 'Re Bomba' (King Bomb).  By force, the army of the Borboni re-established control of the island in 1849, and Ruggieru Sčttimu went into exile in Malta. 
                  After Ferdinandu II's death in 1859, his son Francescu II was the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies ~ until 1860, and the coming of Garibaldi.


                  Giuseppe Garibaldi played a major role in the Risorgimento, the consolidation of states called the 'Unification of Italy'.  I find it virtually impossible to conceptualize that role without referring to a map of the regions involved.  Below is such a map, showing political boundaries in 1860. Note that there was no nation or state called 'Italy', and the largest nation in the region was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which traced its roots to 1130 AD, as Roger II's Kingdom of Sicily.




The region included the following states:


  the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (called simply Piemonte), comprised of the island of Sardinia, and on the mainland in the Alps foothills, with the former duchies of Piemonte (Piedmont), and Genoa, as well as Savoia (Savoy); and also Nizza (Nice), which had long been claimed by France. The Kingdom of  Piedmont-Sardinia had become a nation separate from France after Napoleon's abdication, and had been ruled by King Vittorio Emanuele II of the House of Savoy since 1849;.


    Lombardia (Lombardy) and Venetia, two Austrian holdings in the north;


    several small northern duchies, south of Lombardy, as well as;



    the state of Tuscania (Tuscany);



    the 'Papal States' of Romagna, Marche (the Marches) and Umbria;


    the Papal State of Latium and the city of Roma (Rome); and


    the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies ruled by King Francesco II of the Bourbon Spanish Empire.


                 In the fifth century, various barbarian rulers (including the Ostrogoths and the Lombards) in the north of the Italian peninsula called their state the 'Kingdom of Italy', and that usage was continued by various rulers of the general region until the seventeenth century.  None of those 'kingdoms of Italy' included any significant territory south of Rome.  Between 1648 and 1802, there was no nation or kingdom named Italy'Italy' referred not to a country, but to the area south of the Alps, and the unique boot-like peninsula extending into the Mediterranean.  In 1802, Napoleon had renamed the Cisalpine Republic, an area including the northern states of Lombardia and Romagna, and called it the Italian Republic.  After he assumed the title of Emperor of the French in 1805, he changed the Italian Republic to the Kingdom of Italy and acted as its king.  When he abdicated in 1814, the Austrian Empire took over much of the kingdom, and most of the remainder reverted to the church.  Once again, there was no such nation as 'Italy'.
                  Giuseppe Garibaldi
was born in 1807 in Nizza (NEE-tsa) (Nice), a region of Piedmont-Sardinia which had been claimed by France in 1793.  He had had a checkered career prior to his involvement in the Resorgimento.  In 1859, after adventures in Russia, Tunisia and South America,  he was appointed as a Piedmont-Sardinian major-general in the war with Austria. Garibaldi formed a volunteer unit named the Hunters of the Alps and with them won victories over the Austrians at Varese, Como, and elsewhere.  One outcome of the war that displeased Garibaldi was that his home city of Nizza was surrendered to the French, in return for crucial military assistance.
               Then, in April, 1860,  there were popular uprisings in Palermo and Messina, in reaction to the absolute monarchist policies of the Borboni of Spain in Sicilia.  Garibaldi pounced on this opportunity and invaded Sicilia with a force of only a thousand men (i Mille, 'the Thousand') known also as the
Camicie rosse (Red Shirts).  After early victories, he declared himself dictator of Sicilia in the name of Vittorio Emanuele II 'of Italy', and, joined by many local dissidents, who with his troops were called 'Garibaldini', went on to capture Palermo and Messina.  Garibaldi then crossed the Straits of Messina to Reggio and went on to conquer Naples and set the stage for the formation of a new nation. In October 1860 Garibaldi met Vittorio Emanuele at Teano, north of Naples.  He presented Emanuele with Sicilia and Naples, proclaimed him 'King of Italy', and retired. Thus, Garibaldi relinquished his hopes for a republic, for the sake of Italian unity under a monarchy.  Garibaldi was lionized by some in Sicilia, which was freed by him from Bourbon rule. But in the end, Sicilia remained the 'possession' of other nations: first Piedmont-Sardinia and then Italy.  There are indications that many Sicilians supported Garibaldi because they believed he would institute a republic (as was his desire) but were unhappy with his subsequent capitulation to the monarchy. 

           By 1861, the supporters of Vittorio Emanuele II had defeated or absorbed Lombardy, Venetia, the northern duchies, Tuscany, and the Papal States, except Latium (Rome).  Savoia and Nizza were ceded to the French Empire. Including Garibaldi's 'gift' of the Mezzogiorno, there was a 'unified' Regno d'Italia (Kingdom of Italy) with Vittorio Emanuele II as king.  Latium was added in 1870, excluding  Vatican City in Rome.  The small eastern nation of San Marino remained independent. Trento and Trieste were annexed after the First World War.
            Sicilia had been the victim of deforestation, exploitation, neglect, forced illiteracy of the masses and willful illiteracy of the baronial class, 'brigandage' or banditry in the interior, economic decline and a host of other natural, social and political ills. Joining a 'unified' Italy did not improve local conditions.  The legacy of Spain's failed stewardship was manifested in many ways, including 'inbreeding' which  exacerbated the prevalence of genetic diseases,  not  only  among commoners,



but in the nobility as well.   Spain's harsh rule also fostered the clannishness and mistrust of authority and strangers that characterizes many Sicilians to this day.  With unification, Sicilia went from the rule of a Bourbon king to the rule of a Savoy king.  New class distinctions began to evolve, spawning conditions which would hinder the island's development for generations. 

ITALY (1861 AD to 1922 AD) ~ HOUSE OF SAVOY

             Garibaldi was unhappy with the exclusion of Rome and the Papal States from the new, unified Italy.  He raised a troop to attack and take over Rome, but was opposed at Aspromonte, on the mainland, by forces of the new Kingdom of Italy, which he had actually helped create.  He refused to fire on them, but nevertheless was himself shot, and his dream failed.  After he recovered, he retired to Caprera, his small private island off Sardinia.  There, after several other forays into European conflicts and politics, he died in 1882.  As for Sicilia, from the first days of unification, there were signs of unrest there.  Rather than enfranchising the local populace, 'the North', as the mainland is called, sent military forces, police officials and public functionaries to Sicilia to fill important posts.  Rather than a partner that had contributed greatly to the unification, Sicilia was instead treated as a conquered nation.
            A grievance that sparked revolt was compulsory military service, which had not existed even under Spanish rule.  The king was a Sabaudu (a Savoyan, of the House of Savoy), and the Italian government was referred to as 'Sabaudu' or 'Piemontese' (Piedmontese).  The youth of the commoners were conscripted to fight for the Piemontese government on war fronts far to the north from Sicilia, while the nobility and privileged classes were allowed to purchase exemptions for their sons.  Many peasants were sent off while their fields lay fallow and their families had no means of support.  On New Year's Day in 1862, a crowd in Castellammare del Golfo in Trapani province attacked the Italian National Guard and killed the commandant and others, with cries of 'Out with the Savoy (Vittorio Emanuele)!', 'Down with the mercenaries (the Garibaldini)!', and 'Long live the Republic!'.  Guards and soldiers at Calatafimi and Alcamo in Trapani were beaten and chased by rebels.  Two days later, Sabaudu riflemen landed and put down the insurgents, killing hundreds, including some non-combatant women and children as well as priests.  Alfonso Maria Cerrati, who described the revolt, claims that such incidents were not reported, but rather 'covered up' by the government.
            Into this mix came Sicilia's greatest author-playwright, Luigi Pirandello, born in Caos, near Girgenti (Agrigento) in 1867.   He was the son of wealthy parents who had supported Garibaldi against the Borboni, but were disillusioned by the realities of unification.  Pirandello's works, especially the dramas written in his native Sicilian, echoed that climate of disillusion, eventually earning him the Nobel Prize for Literature.  A near-contemporary,
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa of Palermo, wrote 'Il Gattopardo' ('The Leopard'), which related the life of a fictional Sicilian noble during and after the Risorgimento.  'The Leopard' was acclaimed as the Sicilian 'Gone With the Wind', and was the basis of an award-winning 1963 motion picture starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.
             The period following the Risorgimento was marked by massive emigration from the Mazziurnu (southern Italy and Sicilia).  Some of the reasons for this efflux are explained by Nicola Colella, who writes:


       'The Italian government was dominated by northerners, and southerners were hurt by high taxes and high protective tariffs on northern industrial goods. Additionally, much of southern Italy's problems can be attributed to its lack of coal and iron ore which was needed by industry; extreme scarcity of cultivable land, soil erosion, deforestation, and overpopulation. For the North, a higher level of industrialism meant less poverty and agricultural difficulties. On top of all that, several natural disasters rocked southern Italy during the early 20th century: Mt. Vesuvius erupted burying an entire town near Naples; Mt. Etna's eruption; and the 1908 earthquake and tidal wave that swept through the Straits of Messina, which killed more than 100,000 people in the city of Messina alone.'


             A long, extensive guerrilla campaign (1861-1871) against unification took place throughout the southern Italian peninsula, and in Sicily. The new Italian government responded with martial law and ferocious military repression. Sicily (and southern Italy) were ruled under martial law for many years, and were ravaged by the Italian army that summarily executed thousands of people, made tens of thousands prisoners, destroyed villages, and deported people. The resulting collapse of the Sicilian economy was further worsened by the discovery of sulfur in America's Texas and Louisiana, which began less labor-intensive mechanical mining of the mineral by the turn of the century.
             At about this time, numerous Mutual Aid Societies or
Societŕ were formed by miners, field hands, and other workers with mutual interests. These societies contributed in part to the formation of the Fasci dei Lavoratori (Cohorts of Workers), which promulgated socialist concepts among the commoners, who had never had the right (nor enough organization) to strike. In 1894, labor agitation by the radical Fasci Siciliani again led to the imposition of martial law in Sicilia. While the word "fasci" is the root of the word "fascism", the later Fascist movement in Italy had only the word in common.  Although the Fasci Siciliani existed as political entities only in 1893 and 1894, the combination  of repression by the north, poverty, and social and political unrest led to an unprecedented wave of emigration from Sicilia.  In 1913, the year my father Gaetano Coniglio emigrated to America, he was one of over 146,000 others, the largest-ever single-year Sicilian emigration, comprising almost seventeen per cent of the total population of the Kingdom of Italy.

             This is a history of Sicilia, not of America, but it must be noted that during this period about four and a half million Italians emigrated to the United States, from a country with only about 14 million people. Over three and a half million of them were from the Mazziiurnu region, the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies!  Unable to earn a living in southern Italy or Sicilia, many became migratory laborers.

             In the period just prior to 1900, nearly eighty percent of Italian immigrants were men in their teens and twenties, who planned to work, save, and eventually return to their homeland.  In fact, only twenty to thirty percent of these immigrants permanently returned to Italy.  Whether they ever planned to return or not, the fact remains that millions of young Sicilian men (as did many from other lands) left their fathers, mothers, and siblings, often never to see them again, to travel thousands of miles under severe conditions to a foreign land.   And often those who decided to remain in America were later joined by their wives: teenage girls with babes in arms, who sailed in the fetid holds of steamers plying waters infested with warships and hostile submarines.

       Rosa Alessi Coniglio
, age 21, and her son Gaetano Coniglio, 11 months, sailed on the steamship 'Patria' from Sicily to Ellis Island, from November 28 through December 14, 1914.  They traveled in "steerage" with 1,848 other souls.

             It has been said that during this period a 'criminal element' also emigrated, forming the basis for the 'American Mafia'.  However, it is plausible to assume that for many honest workers and peasant farmers, the growth of the 'mafia' in Sicilia was just one more reason to leave.  Those who remained were subject to conflicting social forces.  Most Church holdings, in all of Italy and Sicilia, including schools, were confiscated by the Piemontese government. There were strong anti-clerical feelings among the populace because of long-standing abuse of power by the church, but these feelings were conflicted with support of Church customs which had provided them with snatches of happiness during town religious festi, or feast days.
             During this period, marriages performed by the Church were not recognized as legal by the state.  Thus, a couple married in church received its blessings and the moral right to cohabit, but unless they were also married in a civil ceremony, their union was illegitimate, as would be their children.  Couples would marry in church, and later that day, or on the next day, would visit the town's offices to have a civil marriage performed and legally recorded, legitimizing any heirs.
            Schools were closed for long periods during the transfer from Church authority, and illiteracy became even more widespread.  Important new industries gradually emerged in the North, but not in Sicilia, where a majority of the greatest resources, the vast estates and the sulfur mines, were still owned by the aristocracy and exploited for their own gain.  Many contadini, or peasant, dirt farming sharecroppers, scratched out a meager existence on the depleted land, paying the 'noble'  landowners rent, forced to purchase equipment and supplies from them, and then to share half the land's produce.  Those who could not rent or own land turned to work as sulfur miners, or zolfatai, but their economic lot was even worse than the contadini, with a sulfur miner earning the equivalent of about $1.50 for a day's labor, from before dawn, until after dusk.   
            Officials and law officers from the north found themselves among a people they considered boorish and ignorant, notwithstanding the fact that if there had been no Sicilian uprisings, there would have been no Resorigmento, and no Kingdom of Italy.  The northerners scorned those who spoke Sicilian, erroneously considered by them to be not a true, history-filled language, but a corrupt 'dialect' of the 'refined' Italian spoken in the north.  Conditioned by centuries of repression by foreigners, Sicilians were mistrustful of the Italian National Police, or carabinieri, most of whom were from northern Italy.  The 'old ways', of protecting one's self and family, of honor, and of distrust of newcomers or strangers were deeply bred.  Omert
ŕ, or 'manhood' and the silence that accompanied it were a code of honor.  Sicilians did not inform the carabinieri of wrongs committed against them.  Many brought their complaints to local 'mafia' chiefs, who for a price would adjudicate disagreements, settle arguments, and even exact vengeance.  Ironically, if the chiefs were aligned with the authorities, or the perpetrators of the injustice, or if those paid more, it might be the victim who suffered the vengeance! 
            Italy's involvement in World War I had important impacts on Sicilia.  Conscription of the flower of Sicilian youth further reduced the worker base and caused more land to lie fallow, worsening already poor harvests.  Sicilian peasants went to war in the north, often with a few sons of Sicilian barons as commanders.  This led to some feeling of unity and hope of enfranchisement, if the workers ever returned safely.  However, because the northern factories must be kept productive, many northern youths were allowed to remain civilians, manning the factories, while poor Sicilians saw more and more of their fellows ordered into the trenches of war.  The end of the costly, mostly inconclusive war brought more social unrest and calls for reform in the north as well as the south.
             Amid the turmoil of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some existing Sicilian social 'institutions' strengthened, and new ones grew:  the 'modern' mafia as well as its competing
Societŕ, or Mutual Aid Societies, and even the socialist Fasci dei Lavoratori were essentially Sicilian in character and developed locally, while Fascism, which developed in the north with Mussolini, eventually enveloped Sicilia as well.  It is also ironic that in the early nineteen-twenties, two forces came to be that would, in the following years, impact both Sicilia and the Mafia: one was Fascism, the other was Salvatore 'Turiddu' Giuliano, called by some "The Sicilian Robin Hood".

            The mafia's goals and activities were intertwined with those of the traditional masters of Sicilia: the church, the nobility, the government, and the police; and in fact individual mafiosi were often members of that powerful quartet. Their interests were mutual. The evidence does not support the offhand claims by some that Giuliano was a mafioso.  Rather,  he appears to have been an independent bandit leader who struggled against the repressive authorities, including the Mafia and its influential patrons, for motives that may have been noble, or personal, or both. 


               Born in northern Italy in 1883, Benito Mussolini, the self-styled "Il Duce" (the Leader) began formulating his Fascist credo after WWI, in Milan. Mussolini's Fascism (as differentiated from the earlier, socialistic Fasci Siciliani) called for an authoritarian state which subverted the rights of individuals to those of the party or the state.  It engendered nationalism through militarism, autocracy and opposition to liberalism. Mussolini and his henchmen formed armed groups called Blackshirts or Squadristi, who enforced their policies by threatening and terrorizing socialists and communists, while the formal government looked the other way. By 1921, Mussolini had formed the Italian National Fascist Party, and been elected to the nation's Chamber of Deputies.
             Though Italy was a monarchy under the Savoy king Vittore Emanuele II, its government was run by a Prime Minister, at the time Luigi Facta.  In 1922, Mussolini led a coup d'etat against Facta and was declared by the king as the Prime Minister of Italy.   With threats and force, Mussolini then had himself elected dictator, and the effective head of Italy, though the puppet Savoy monarchy  remained to rubber-stamp his policies.  Initially, he even had support from Sicilian quarters, where the barons as well as the mafiosi sought relief from the monarchy's excesses.
              Mussolini soon recognized the Mafia as a threat to his own domination of Sicilia, and moved to eradicate it.  While suppressing the Mafia and Masonic elements associated with it, Mussolini mollified the Catholic Church, making it the official church of Italy, and a partner in his rule, essentially a government agency.  Sicilians, ever wary of government in any form, often resisted the Church as an entity, while accepting priests as individuals.  Priests and monks had suffered like the general populace after reunification, with their lands, churches, schools and monasteries taken by the northerner-controlled government.   Many priests sided with the populace against the "establishment", which in these years included both the Fascists and the Church hierarchy.
              Sicilians in general did not support Mussolini, a situation not improved by his failed economic and social policies.  And though Sicilian emigration to the United States fell to a trickle because of that nation's restrictive limits of the late 1920's, in the early 1930's hundreds of thousands of Sicilians moved to northern Italy because of its greater industrial development and opportunity for work.
               Foreshadowing Mussolini's eventual liaison with Adolph Hitler, in 1938 he expelled Sicilia's few remaining Jews, mostly doctors and educators, further weakening the island's viability.  Other nations withdrew from contact with Sicilia: the British curtailed their popular tourist visits, and the expatriate Sicilians in America greatly reduced the funds they sent back to their home towns.  Eventually, Mussolini drew closer to Hitler, in philosophy and in fact, annexing Ethiopia, Libya, and Albania, contributing to the outbreak of World War II in 1941.
               Because of the obvious lack of support from Sicilians, Mussolini had armed and conscripted few of them.  In September, 1942, the Comitato per l'Indipendenza della Sicilia (CIS) (Committee for the Independence of Sicily) was formed, with a variety of sympathizers including socialists, centrists, and right-wing aristocrats, as well as criminal elements.
                Although the Allied (British and American) invasion of Sicilia in July 1943 was one of the largest military campaigns in history, with over 400,000 men on each side, it was fought mainly by the Allied forces against the German and northern Italian troops.  Sicilians, anxious to be rid of Mussolini and Hitler, were essentially non-combatant observers.  As had been the case for millennia, in many rural towns, life was no different under Mussolini or during wartime than it was under other regimes.  The peasants worked for the landowners, 'per un piatto di lenticchie' (for a dish of lentils); that is, 'for peanuts'.  Nonetheless, during the Sicilian campaign there was significant loss of civilian lives and heavy damage to infrastructure, concentrated in the larger cities and primarily due to Allied bombing of German supply lines and depots in Messina, Catania, and Augusta in the east, and Palermo and Trapani in the west.   Sicilia fell on August 17, 1943, and formally surrendered with the Treaty of Siragusa on September 3, as a part of the Armistice of Cassibile, which forced Italy to abandon the island, while the U.S. troops still were on the verge of completing its military occupation.
                Once again, Sicilia was ruled by foreigners, this time the British and the Americans.

Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory ~ (1943 AD to 1944 AD)

               The CIS gained support after the armistice, and demanded the abdication of King Vittore Emmanuele III, but disbanded in 1944 with the formation of the Movimento Indipendentista Siciliano (MIS) (Sicilian Independence Movement).   Though the Allies ostensibly prohibited political activity, they tolerated the existence of the MIS, which adopted a flag showing the ancient trinacria, and nine alternating stripes, one for each Sicilian province, in the colors of Sicilia, red and yellow. 

               The MIS developed an armed force known as Esercito Volontario per l'Indipendenza della Sicilia (EVIS) (Volunteer Army for the Independence of Sicily). The popular hero, separatist and bandit Salvatore Giuliano was an MIS member and flew its flag.  Giuliano became a legend of mid-twentieth century Sicilia, and his persona is shrouded in controversy.  It seems evident, however, that like the Mafia, he was a phenomenon whose emergence was the result of millennia of subjugation of the Sicilian common man.  As it did for so many of his forebears, his life ended tragically and violently, with even the nature of his death in question.

ITALY (1944 AD to 1946 AD) ~ HOUSE OF SAVOY

               After the end of World War II, in late 1945, EVIS operations led the Italian central government to send its troops in Sicily. Following an armed clash with the Carabinieri (Italian State Police, under control of northern Italy), Antonio Canepa, head of EVIS, was murdered. Vittore Emanuele III reigned as King of Italy (including Sicilia) until his abdication in April, 1946, when he was replaced briefly by his son Umberto II.  A special council started working on a special autonomy statute for Sicilia. It was approved by Umberto on May 15, 1946.  Umberto stepped down on June 2, 1946, when the modern Republic of Italy was formed.

REPUBLIC OF ITALY (1946 AD to 1948 AD)

                Although Sicilia was part of the Italian Republic, it was not until February 2, 1948 that its status as the Regione Autonoma Siciliana (Siclian Autonomous Region) of Italy was finally approved by the Italian parliament .  The MIS was not well-supported in the 1946 and 1948 general and regional elections.

(1948 to the Present)

                This period of the history of Sicilia is as contentious and violent as its past, and it will take the author some time to sort fact from fiction. 
                But even in 2015, the Italian parliament recognizes a need to protect and enhance every possible minority language that is spoken within its national territory, BUT IT EXCLUDES the SICILIAN Language, which is spoken by over 10 million people (5.6 million in Sicily, and then in central-southern Calabria and Salento, as well as an unknown number of emigrants or descendants of immigrants from geographical areas where the Sicilian native speakers, particularly those who moved in the past centuries; in the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Germany and southern France.)  Steadfast Sicilians suggest that this is because, as usual, Italy does not even consider Sicily as part of its territory!
                Sicilian patriots to this day bemoan the fact that there is no official jurisdiction called Sicilia, but rather only a 'Sicilian Region'.  The island, however, retains the name, and the loyalty of its expatriate sons:
Sicilia, Sicilia, tu si la patria mia!

(UNDER CONSTRUCTION, more to come)




BLUE GUIDE: SICILY ~ by Ellen Grady ~ W.W. Norton, New York

MILOCCA: A Sicilian Village
by Charlotte Gower Champion ~ George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London

SERRADIFALCO by Giuseppe Testa ~ Partially translated history of a small comune in central Sicilia

SICILY: Three Thousand Years of Human History by Sandra Benjamin ~ Steerford Press, Hanover, NH

A brief Sicilian tour by travel writer Rick Steves


For LINKS to other venues about Sicily, click here >>>



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