Street names are something we pass every day without giving them a second thought, yet hidden within a simple plaque are the sagas and histories of the towns we inhabit. By way of example, we’ve decided to focus on our Sicilian home town, Caccamo. Since 2008, we’ve spent part of the year in this microcosm of Sicilian history and have become increasingly fascinated by the names that appear on the signs posted up on every corner. Just who was de Spuches and what can Spatafora tell us about Sicilian, or for that matter, Italian history? Clearly, a bit of investigation was in order.
Before we start the ball rolling, a couple of explanations. Caccamo, like most other Italian towns, has a fair share of vie named after the kind of figures who need no introduction – Dante, Cellini, Galileo – therefore, despite their intrinsic interest, we’ve omitted them from the list. Secondly, for ease of ordering, we’ve grouped the streets and squares into categories. In some cases, the ambiguity of the nomenclature has required a bit of educated guesswork. If anyone has their own ideas or stories from other towns, we’d love to hear them. Lastly, the article is far from exhaustive – we wouldn’t want to bore the reader! Please feel free to pick and choose the names that interest.
Artists, musicians and writers
Via Procopio Serpotta
Procopio Serpotta was a sculptor who chiefly worked in the medium of stucco. He was the son of the more famous, Giacomo. The family were based in Palermo and their work can be seen in various religious institutions, notably the Oratory of San Lorenzo, which has a white Rococo blizzard of statuary appearing to climb the walls and windows of the building. Procopio died in 1755.
Well, we had to have a Via Bellini! Sicily’s most famous composer, Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania in 1801. Living a lamentably short life, he died in 1835, leaving 11 completed operas for posterity. His most famous, Norma, was based on a play by the French writer, Alexandre Soumet. There is no better accompaniment to a glass of Nero D’Avola than Maria Callas singing ‘Casta Diva’. Bellini toured a great deal with his works, throughout Italy and to Paris. It’s little known that he also spent 5 months in London.
Via M. Amari
Michele Amari, aside from his work as minister of education, was a Palermitan historian who specialised in the Arabic period and translated many works. In 1854 he published Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia, his account of Muslim rule on the island; now considered a classic of the genre. His investigation into the war of the Sicilian vespers also gained international acclaim, receiving a swift translation into English in 1850.
Beloved of the Romantics for his bucolic poetry, Theocritus was a 3rd century BCE Greek writer born in Syracuse. Steeped in the theology of his day, Theocritus’ poems are populated with cyclopes, nymphs and shepherds, including Daphnis the original Sicilian herdsman and supposedly the originator of pastoral verse.
Via Antonio Faso
There are two choices for this character and our verbal enquiries haven’t clarified matters. The street seems to belong to either Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta, architect and writer, or Antonio Lo Faso, a 16th century bishop of Cefalù. We have plumped for the former because he’s more interesting. Domenico Antonio was the Duke of Serradifalco and the writer of several tracts on Sicilian antiquities. He was a key figure in the 1848 uprising, acting as a proto-Foreign Minister for the Sicilian Parliament.
Via San Nicasio
Nicasius or Nicasio Camuto de Burgio was born on the island, possibly in Palermo. Decapitated during the siege of Acre, whilst on the Third Crusade, or taken prisoner at Hattin by Saladin’s forces and thus beheaded for refusing to convert, Nicasio is venerated as a martyr. Caccamo afforded him special attention due the local aristocracy’s penchant for the saint and due to the de Burgio holding land in the area. Some say his warrior hand was behind the diminution in plague victims. His painting can be found in the Sacristy of the town’s Chiesa dell’Annunziata.
Via Beato Liccio
A Caccamese born and bred, Giovanni Liccio was a Dominican beatified in 1753 some 300 years after his birth. A considerable theologian and wandering preacher, he was also named vicar of the reformed Dominican monasteries in Sicily. Now considered the principal patron saint of the town, his relics are conserved in the Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli.
Ursula, whose name derives from the Latin for bear, is a Romano-British saint who has, somewhat spuriously, been handed a royal lineage. The ‘Princess’ accompanied by 11,000 virginal handmaidens!! was shipwrecked in Gaul on her way to meet her betrothed. From there, she decided on a pilgrimage to Rome, which was brutally interrupted by the Huns in Cologne who had her killed along with her numerous companions. We can only surmise that the Anglo-Norman connection led to her street in Caccamo.
Kings, Noblemen and Aristocrats
Via Giovanni Randazzo
Also known as Giovanni d’Aragona, he was the Marquis of Randazzo and a Regent of Sicily, owing to the minority rule of his nephew Ludovico. Thanks to his influence, the town of Randazzo became a seat of power. His diplomacy had a significant effect on calming the aftermath of the 13th century war of the Sicilian Vespers, which had an impact on the power base in Caccamo castle.
There are many candidates for this one, as the Spataforas (Spadafora in Italian) are a family with a long heritage in Sicily that can be traced to the Byzantine era. Domenico Spatafora of Randazzo was a 15th century saint, Giovanni Spatafora was a secretary to Emperor Frederick II, Alonso Spatafora was baron of the nearby town of Ciminna. Unless the street is named for all of them, the most likely candidate is Antonino Spatafora, artist and mapmaker, who tutored the Caccamese painter, Nicasio Azzarello and died in neighbouring Termini Imerese in 1613. Interestingly, the English wine barons, the Whitakers, had married into the clan, with Joseph resounding in the full name of Joseph Isaac Spadafora Whitaker.
Via Enriquez and Via Cabrera
As the names suggest, they are families of Spanish origin who intermarried producing something of a dynasty. In 1644, at the height of power, Giovanni Alfonso Enriquez de Cabrera (Juan Alfonso in Spanish) became the Spanish Viceroy on the island. Among his many titles, he became the Count of Modica, an Admiral of Spain, a gentleman of the chamber and Captain General of the Spanish army. Both the Cabrera and Enriquez shields are on display in Caccamo castle.
Via de Spuches
Another Sicilian family of long lineage who originally bore the Catalan name of Despuig (pronounced Despuch). One branch of the family became the Dukes of Caccamo, notable among whom was Giuseppe de Spuches, the 19th century poet, translator and politician, whose father Antonino was a Knight of Malta. Families like these have trawled through Sicilian history collecting titles in their increasing web of familial connections and aristocratic alliances.
Corso Umberto I
A name common to many Italian towns. Umberto I of Savoy, born in 1844, was the King of Italy from 1878 until his death in 1900. The owner of a ludicrous handlebar moustache, Umberto was liked and loathed in equal measure, depending on the political perspective. He met his fate at the hands of the anarchist, Gaetano Bresci, who assassinated him in return for his support of the repression of an uprising in Milan.
The Prefoglio family counted amongst their number a Count of Caccamo, Federico, brother of the Marchioness Prefoglio who married into the Chiaramonte family. The Chiaramontes considerable influence lasted many centuries, which accounts for the numerous fortifications they left in their wake. Their name has become so associated with the fish-tail crenelations of Normanno-Sicilian Gothic, the style is now known as Chiaramontan.
The admiral and lord of Trafalgar fame. Nelson is also inextricably linked to Sicilian affairs. He evacuated King Ferdinand from Naples to Palermo during an uprising, the repercussions of which led to his receiving the Duchy of Bronte from the King and saw him put down a subsequent rebellion in Naples. As D H Lawrence once memorably wrote, Nelson was made a duke by the Neapolitans ‘because he hanged a few of them’.
Ruggero or Roger must surely refer to King Roger II of Sicily, the Norman monarch who united the southern Italian realms and lived like an Arab satrap. He commissioned the famous Tabula Rogeriana in 1138, the map and text created by al-Idrisi, the Muslim geographer. The king encouraged scholars from disparate regions who spoke differing languages. Perhaps not the tolerant paradise some claim, his reign was, nonetheless, an era of cross-cultural understanding.
Hannibal the Carthaginian military commander, famous for his journey across the Alps with a troop of elephants. He formed an alliance with Hieronymus of Syracuse when the Greek cities in Sicily rebelled against Roman control. His father, Hamilcar, also had extensive knowledge of the island, in 260 BCE attacking the town of Thermae, now Termini Imerese, 7km from Caccamo.
Via Pier delle Vigne
Pietro or Pier was secretary to Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily. As a diplomat, the height of his career was brokering the marriage between Isabella of England and the Emperor, which included a two month stay in her realm. After a poisoning incident in 1249 which saw an attempt on Frederick’s life, Pier delle Vigne was imprisoned. Some say that Stupor Mundi had the unfortunate secretary’s eyes gouged from his head, after which he cracked his own skull on the stone flooring. Delle Vigne also makes an appearance in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Eureka! The Syracusan, Archimedes, a scientist and philosopher, is most recognised for his ‘Principle’ of water displacement. It was a technique he applied to ascertain the quality of metals in a crown. Legend has him running naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “I have found it”. He also turned his hand to weapon development, the claw, and bilge water extraction, the screw, not to mention his mathematical investigations.
Via Aldo Moro
This street remembers Aldo Moro, the assassinated Christian Democrat politician and former Prime Minister of Italy. He was kidnapped in 1978 by the Red Brigades, eventually being found dead in the boot of a car. Mystery still partly surrounds the exact details of the case, which has led to an array of conspiracy theories. The Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, even wrote a book about the incident, L’Affaire Moro.
The queen who founded Carthage, known in English as Dido. Historians say that Dido first appeared in the now missing works written by Timaeus of Taormina. The Roman writer, Virgil, has Dido partaking in a fateful love affair with the Trojan Aeneas, although historical accuracy blows this touch of poetic licence out of the water.
This is one of Caccamo’s most evocative names. A macello is essentially a place where animals were slaughtered and their meat made ready for sale. It is closely related to mattatoio, which can be rendered into English as abattoir or slaughterhouse. Anyone who knows Caccamo will realise it is famous for its meat products. In the autumn of every year the town celebrates its own Sagra della Salsiccia.
A name that occurs in many other Sicilian borghi, notably in a suburb of Agrigento. It’s the area of Montelusa visited by Commissario Montalbano in The Shape of Water. The word has Arabic origins and would have originally been used to apply to a fortified area within a particular settlement.
Via Porta Euracea
The adjective Euracea comes from the alternative name of Caccamo’s neighbouring Monte San Calogero. The mountain is also known as Monte Euraco. In 1774 an academy was established in Termini Imerese with the title, Accademia mediterranea euracea, named after this mountain haunt of ancient Himeran shepherds.
Nothing to do with coffee, at least not directly. At the end of Via Cappuccini is a Capuchin friary. If you have visited Palermo you will probably have heard of the catacombs, where mummified corpses are on display – these were instituted by the Capuchins. The monks live a strict and simple life, wearing the modest brown robes that have led to their association with a particular style of Italian coffee and, for that matter, with a cheeky monkey.
Piazza dei Caduti
This square commemorates the fallen in World War I, a war in which Italy fought with the Franco-British Alliance and its ANZAC and North American allies against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Many Sicilians were called to the northern fronts, fighting the Austrians in the bitter war in the Dolomites. One such figure was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who was taken as a prisoner of war at the Battle of Caporetto. He escaped and literally walked back to Italy.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.
Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.