British Entrepreneur Advances Historical Novel with Anglo-Sicilian Theme

While Building Global Cultural Ties to Sicily, Debra Santangelo

 Champions Book about the Island’s Shattered Past


Debra Santangelo

      (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England) Debra Santangelo, director of Sicilian Connections, promotes the island of Sicily worldwide. A travel journalist, cultural guide, and networker, Santangelo schedules lectures and conferences, organizes tours, and even sells jewelry honoring her adopted country. Now she is midwifing a book about Sicily’s fascinating but troubled past with a distinctly Anglo-Sicilian theme.

      “I never dreamed of being a literary godmother,” confessed Santangelo, referring to Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily. This historical novel, written by Anthony Di Renzo, chronicles the destruction of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and questions the official myths of the Risorgimento, the War of Italian Unification. Santangelo launched and is helping to promote the book, to be published Guernica Editions next November. “I feel like I’m running a salon in 19th-century Palermo,” she said.

      This latest project, however, does not surprise Santangelo’s colleagues. For over a decade, the British entrepreneur has educated the public about Sicilian art and culture. Dividing her time between England (her birthplace) and Sicily (her second home), she celebrates the Mediterranean island’s unique art, history, and geography through various enterprises. The center of her activities is Sicilian Connections, a website serving as a cultural clearinghouse and blog, a photo gallery, an art store, an Italian advertising depot, and finally, an online boutique for Santangelo’s Mt. Etna Collection, a jewelry line made from real volcanic lava.

      The inspiration for Sicilian Connections reflects not only Santangelo’s passion for cultural exchange but her prowess for networking. “I have met many people of Sicilian origin,” she elaborated, “who, for various reasons, have emigrated and live in different locations worldwide, but the passion they feel for their homeland has remained strong. It was my aim to create a community where Sicilians could come together and share their wonderful stories of the island and memories of their ancestors.”

      Ancestral memories certainly dominate Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily. The book’s title derives from the ancient Greek name for Sicily. Trinàcria refers to the island’s triangular shape and the three-legged gorgon on its regional flag. It is also the nickname of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Zita Valanguerra Spinelli (1794-1882), Marchesa of Scalea, whose turbulent life mirrors Sicily’s rocky transition from feudalism to capitalism.

      At the book’s core lies the tragic relationship between Donna Zita and Benjamin Ingham, the British merchant who comes to Sicily during the Napoleonic Wars and corners its fledgling Marsala industry. Their failed romance represents Sicily’s lost opportunities under British colonization and its subsequent betrayal during the Italian Revolution. “It’s a fascinating story,” Santangelo remarked, “but it almost never saw the light of day.”

      Like Sicily, Trinàcria has had a difficult history. Originally part of another novel, the manuscript suffered a string of rejections—forty, to be exact. According to author Anthony Di Renzo, U.S. publishers “wanted a book that catered to commercial stereotypes about Sicily.” One dismissive editor declared: “Nobody wants to read about a Sicilian marchesa, even a dead one, unless she’s written a cookbook.”

      “That’s when I gave up,” said Di Renzo. “Granted, my protagonist Donna Zita makes a mean pasta Bellini, but she is no Anna Tasca Lanza,” referring to a more contemporary culinary marchesa, who started a cooking school at Regaleali. “Fortunately, colleagues encouraged me to solicit publishers in Canada and England.”

      Michael Mirolla, editor-in-chief at Guernica Editions, an independent press based in Toronto, Ontario. Mirolla immediately recognized its merit. “As a publishing house dedicated to shattering stereotypes and promoting new works of global literature, Guernica considered Trinàcria a timely book, particularly after the international controversy surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento,” said Mirolla.

      Guernica Editions’ interest, however, soon proved “a mixed blessing.” The good news was that Guernica was committed to Di Renzo’s story and characters. The bad news was that Guernica’s government funding does not extend to non-Canadian authors. Trinàcria would need a sponsor. At this point, Debra Santangelo (whom the author had met through Sicilian Connections) intervened.

      “I wanted to tangibly express my support for this project,” Santangelo said, “because of the book’s cultural significance and potential impact. It deserves a very wide audience.”  She recommended Di Renzo contact Roberto Ragone, a New York arts and business consultant known for his proven track record.

      Ragone was astonished to be recruited by Santangelo. “The compatibility and professionalism in our communication are obvious,” he said. “Yet, part of me could not believe that someone I had met over the course of a few Facebook exchanges and two long distance phone calls was creating a more significant opportunity for me than many people I had networked with for years. I jumped at the chance to work on the Trinàcria project.”

      With Santangelo’s encouragement, Ragone and Di Renzo considered several organizations as sponsors. “Casa Belvedere emerged as our sponsor because of its mission,” Ragone explained: “to preserve and promote an appreciation of Italian language, arts, literature, history, fashion, cuisine, and commerce.’ It was a perfect fit.” The book’s author called the partnership “a stroke of fate, la forza del destino.”

      “I’m grateful for Casa Belvedere’s and Guernica’s support and hope my novel will contribute to their success and prestige,” said Di Renzo, associate professor of writing and Italian American history at Ithaca College. “By uncovering buried stories about our collective past, the foundation and the publishing house position themselves to play a unique role in telling the story about post-Risorgimento Southern Italian history.”

      Louis Calvelli, Casa Belvedere’s executive director, who last year organized a series of lectures and debates on Italian Unification, “absolutely embraces this initiative.”“While proof of Italy’s past cultural achievements is abundant,” Calvelli said, “Casa Belvedere actively works to sponsor current creative projects. Once the restoration of our mansion is complete, we look forward to providing a venue for Italian and Italian American artists to showcase their work. Our renovated campus will make the perfect setting for Trinàcria’s book launch party.”

Meanwhile, Debra Santangelo continues to support the project. Besides donating her own money, she has discounted two items from her jewelry line to those who contribute $300 to the book’s online campaign: the black Etna Collection and the turquoise Giardini Naxos. Both sets consist of necklace, bracelet, and pair of earrings. Forged from the heart of Mount Etna itself, this jewelry line is, in Santangelo’s words “[her] personal Valentine to Sicily.” For those unable to contribute $300 directly, Santangelo offers a more accessible option: buy the jewelry set at full price, and she will contribute $25 in the buyer’s name towards Trinàcria.

It is difficult to imagine someone so enamored with Sicily’s distinctive beauty remaining so fully aware of the island’s tragic history, but the paradox makes complete sense to Trinàcria’s author. “It’s a concept dating back to Empedocles,” Di Renzo said. “Beauty, he believed, always falls on the threshold of catastrophe. That’s why those Sicilians built their cities on the slopes of Mount Etna.

  Santangelo, a modern business woman rather than an ancient philosopher, is slightly more risk-averse than Empedocles.  Nonetheless, the same classical Sicilian sensibility characterizes her travel journalism, her educational and tourism programs, her patronage of the arts, and of course her role as literary godmother to Trinàcria’s publication. “Essentially,” she said, “I’m continuing a 200-year-old cultural exchange program between England and Sicily, whose origins are discussed in Anthony’s book. It’s a way to redeem the island’s past and to build its future.”

To make this dream come true, Santangelo is relying on the marketing skills of consultant Roberto Ragone.  Ragone, whose professional motto is “Transforming Vision to Value,” is managing the novel’s online fundraising campaign. Based on their giving level, the site bestows donors with an aristocratic rank from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (e.g. Baron/Baroness, Count/Countess, Prince/Princess, King/Queen). Each title offers its own gifts and privileges, from bookmarks, calendars, and posters to formal acknowledgment in the printed novel and an invitation to its official book launch.

      This book campaign will run until December 13, 2012The campaign has raised over $5,480 in two months, the halfway mark of the campaign, and already has been written about in various periodicals and blogs. All future royalties will benefit the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere. For more details, visitàcria.

Roberto Ragone
Roberto Ragone
ROBERTO RAGONE has undertaken a variety of activities related to cultural education. Former executive director of the New York’s Lower East Side Business Improvement District, Roberto served as marketing director for the Ciao America Film Project and president and publicist for FIERI, an organization of college students and young professionals interested in celebrating and promoting Italian culture. His professional motto is “Transforming Vision to Value.”

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