Is Sicily 'Italy'? 

The geographic region recognizable as a 'boot' has long been known as 'Italy'.  But when the Norman knight, Count Roger the Great (Gran Conte Ruggieru) was conquering the southern Apennine peninsula and the island of Sicily in 1108 AD, there was no nation of ‘Italy’. 

The North was made up of a variety of small duchies, principalities and city-states such as Venice, Florence and Genoa, each with its own separate government, each in competition with the other for resources and power.  That situation was to last until 1860, by which time there still was no country called ‘Italy’.

Meanwhile, Roger and his descendants created the first parliamentary government in history, Lu Regnu di Sicilia (The Kingdom of Sicily).  This first modern nation was not confined only to the island of Sicily.  It reached from Abruzzo on the mainland to Palermo on the island.  The present-day regions that were a part of the Kingdom of Sicily comprised Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Napoli, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, and the island of Sicily. In 1130 AD, all were ruled from the capital, Palermo.  While the north was the locale of squabbles, disagreements and wars between various princes and dukes, Lu Regnu, as the Kingdom of Sicily was popularly called, was the heart of Western culture, art and science.  An inclusive society that welcomed diversity, it benefited from the knowledge of the Moors, whose government it replaced, but whose philosophers and scientists were retained in the Court of Stupor Mundi, the Wonder of the World, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, Federicu Secunnu (Frederick II).  

While the rest of Europe was sinking into the depths of the 'Dark Ages', the Kingdom of Sicily was a beacon of enlightenment.

Lu Regnu drew literary students from around the known world to its Sicilian School of poetry, and inspired Dante Alighieri to apply the techniques he learned there to his development of the new Tuscan dialect, which was to become the 'Italian' language, well after the first Romance language, Sicilian, had developed.

This origin of the 'Italian' tongue is ironic, considering that most modern-day 'Italian' speakers demean Sicilian, having no concept of the fact that it preceded and significantly affected that Northern dialect.
 
 

Wars, political intrigue, papal meddling and other factors temporarily led to a division, with Naples ruling the mainland regions and Palermo the island provinces.  For this period there was still no country known as ‘Italy’, but there were two nations, both calling themselves the Kingdom of Sicily!  Think of cold-war East Germany and West Germany.  We called them that, but both nations called themselves just ‘Germany’.  To distinguish between the two Sicilies, historians now refer to the historical island nation as the Kingdom of Sicily and to the mainland one as the Kingdom of Naples.

In 1816, the two kingdoms made nicey-nicey and re-formed as one nation.  To strengthen the idea that both were now included, the new country took the name Lu Regnu di li Dui Sicilii ~ The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.  A holding of the Spanish Bourbons, it again comprised the territory from Abruzzo and Napoli through Messina, to Palermo.  There still was no nation known as ‘Italy’. 

 
 

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, by that time ruled from Naples, had its own government, customs and language (Sicilian, with dialects of Sicilian in the various regions). Those of us with roots in Abruzzo, or Bari in Puglia, San Fele in Potenza, Reggio in Calabria, or any of the towns and cities in the provinces of the combined kingdoms, will find that if we extend our family trees to before 1860, our ancestors were ‘regnicoli’: subjects of the realm of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies or even earlier, of the Kingdom of Sicily – that is, our ancestors were Sicilian.  Upwards of 80% of ‘Italians’ in the great migration of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were from the regions that formerly comprised the Kingdom of Sicily.  Today those southern regions are called, collectively, 'lu mazzijiurnu' or 'high noon', reflecting the hot climes experienced there.  Most present day ‘Italian’-Americans had ancestors from the mazzijiurnu

 
 

In spite of the poverty and forced illiteracy of the common people, the treasury coffers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies far exceeded the holdings of all the northern duchies and city-states combined.  For this and other geopolitical reasons there was a groundswell for ‘uniting’ the overall region and establishing a new nation.  Then came Garibaldi.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was the quintessential ‘soldier of fortune’.  He was born in Nizza (now Nice) which had been recently annexed by France, but whose citizens had loyalty to the Italian-speaking city-state of Genoa, part of the Kingdom of
Sardegna (Sardinia).   Garibaldi, who had fought in revolutions in Brazil and Uruguay, dreamed of his birthplace Nice being a part of a united ‘Italy’.  In 1860, he led his army in attacking the island portion of the Two Sicilies, gaining some support from the property-poor peasants by promising land reforms and the establishment of a republic to replace the monarchy of the Bourbons.  In his conquest of Sicily, it must be remembered that the casualties he caused were Sicilians.  Some were loyalists, supporting what they saw as their rightful ruler. 

An example of the terror the Sicilian populace suffered is the occurrence at Bronte.   Bronte was and is a small village in Catania Province.  After some unrest in the village, Garibaldi sent one of his trusted generals and fellow Genovese Nino Bixio to Bronte to establish the peace.  Bixio ordered a kangaroo court and had five Bronteans summarily shot, earning him the sobriquet ‘the Butcher of Bronte’.   During the Sicilian campaign, he wrote to his wife: "In these regions (i. e. Sicily) it is not enough to kill the enemy, it is necessary to torment them, to burn them alive in a slow flame... they are regions that need to be destroyed or at least depopulated, their people sent to Africa to become civilized."  Bixio went on with Garibaldi to conquer the Sicilian portion of the mainland.  Garibaldi presented the Two Sicilies to Vittorio Emmanuele, King of Sardinia, who incorporated them, along with the northern city-states, into the
Kingdom of Sardinia.  And that was the name of the ‘unified’ country, until in 1861 the name was changed to the 'Kingdom of Italy’ and Emmanuele was declared its king.  So the 'Kingdom of Italy' came into being seven hundred and thirty-one years after the Kingdom of Sicily was formed.

The upshot was that Garibaldi’s birthplace, Nice, was not included in Italy, but permanently ceded to France; and instead of the democratic republic he had promised to the peasants of Sicily, they simply went from the yoke of the Bourbons to that of another supreme monarch, Vittorio Emmanuele.  ‘Land reforms’, rather than enabling common folk to become property owners, instead stripped land from former nobility and the Catholic church and transferred it to opportunists and venture capitalists.  Not trusting locals to manage their own affairs, administrators and government officials were sent from the north, along with carabinieri (national police) to keep the peace.  These northern expatriates did not speak or understand Sicilian and many shared Bixio’s contempt for the region, feeding the Sicilians' innate distrust of strangers and corrupt officialdom. 

Another unpopular result of unification was the imposition of something never before seen in Sicily: the military draft.  All able-bodied male citizens of the unified country were required to report for military duty on turning twenty years of age.  The wars that they fought and died in were mostly in the Alps, along the northern border of the new ‘Italy’.  Sicilians saw the flower of their youth taken from the fields, where they were needed in family enterprises, “to fight in northern wars”.

These conditions all contributed to the ‘Great Migration’, in which millions emigrated from the lands of the former Kingdom of Sicily in search of a better life in Belgium, France, Australia, and in the U. S. and Canada.  Many settled here in Western New York, and helped build our community, in a wave of immigrants that can be considered a back-handed tribute to Garibaldi.  Giuseppe Garibaldi, a hero to Italians.  To Sicilians, not so much.

It's this history that leads me to give a curt response whenever a new acquaintance asks: "Coniglio, eh?  Are you Italian?"

Invariably, my answer remains the same: "No, I'm Sicilian."

Check this map: you may be, too!

A condensed version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Per Niente Magazine.

 
 
  ~ The Lady of the Wheel (La Ruotaia), my first book, inspired by my genealogical research of Sicilian families.  It's a historical novella about foundlings and sulfur mine workers in 1860s Racalmuto, a town in central Sicily.
 
 
SICILIAN LINKS Sicilianità Is Sicily 'Italy'? The Sicilian Languge
Cognomi ~ Sicilian Surnames Ngiurii ~ Sicilian Nicknames Place-names as surnames Sicilian Coats of Arms
Foundlings The Sicilian Naming Convention
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Convert Latin given names to Sicilian
La Bedda Sicilia ~ My history of Sicily Heritage Path: original Sicilian records Civil Record Format ~ 1820 - 1910 I'm a Sicilian American
My Lectures on Sicilian Genealogy Sicilian Occupations in Civil Records Sicilian Records at the Buffalo FHC The Thing
 
 

 
 

Generations:

Genesis

1 (Siblings)

2 3 4

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Gaetano & Rosina

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Guy

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Len

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Ray

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Phil

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Millie

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Connie

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Mary

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Tony

9
Ange

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