I’m Sicilian, Dagnabbit!!

Giovanni Verga

What do the scholar Archimedes, composers Vincenzo Bellini and Alessandro Scarlatti, and authors Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana have in common?

They were all born in Sicily, before a nation called “Italy” existed. That is, they were all Sicilians.

Yet Archimedes is called a Greek, and the others are invariably called “Italian composers” and “Italian authors”.

Archimedes was born in Siragusa, Sicily, and admittedly was part of the Greek culture of ‘Magna Graecia’ (Sicily and the boot of the Italian peninsula), which at the time had more Greeks than did Greece itself. It’s the sobriquet of “Italian” that is usually applied to the others that riles me the most, however.

As the Sicilian Autonomous Region, the island of Sicily is now part of the nation called the Italian Republic. So today, someone born in Sicily is an Italian. But the Italian Republic has existed only since 1946. Its predecessor was the Italian Social Republic under Mussolini, and prior to that, it was the Kingdom of Italy, which was formed after the Risorgimento, the ‘Unification of Italy’ which commenced in 1860.

Italian Peninsula 1796That unification took a number of separate states and duchies like Lombardy, Tuscany, Venice and Genoa (there was no state or nation called Italy at the time) and joined them together with Piedmont and Sardinia, two regions ruled by the king of Savoy, to enlarge the Savoyan Kingdom of Sardinia.  The name of the “unified” nation was then changed to the Kingdom of Italy. The key to this merger was Garibaldi’s conquest of the largest nation in the region at the time, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, (today’s ‘Mezzogiorno’) which extended south from Naples and included the ‘boot’, plus the island of Sicily.

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in turn, had evolved from the Kingdom of Sicily (Il Regno di Sicilia), which was founded as Europe’s first modern nation with a tripartite government, by Roger II in 1130 AD. Thus, Sicily had been a nation seven hundred and thirty years before the Kingdom of Italy was formed. If I could change history, the unified country would have been called Sicily, not Italy! And regardless whether it was or not, Bellini, Scarlatti, Verga and Capuana, all born before 1860, were Sicilian!

After the unification, notwithstanding the promises Garibaldi had made that common Sicilians would be able to own property, and that the new nation would be a republic, it simply became a monarchy under a different king. The peasants of Sicily were left landless, overseen by carabinieri from the north, with the flower of Sicilian youth conscripted for duty in “Italian” wars. These conditions led to the ‘Great Migration’ in which millions emigrated from the ‘Mezzogiorno’ (the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) to America and elsewhere. Most of those emigrants were from the island of Sicily.

So in America, the bulk of descendants of immigrants from “Italy” are not only ‘Italian Americans’, they are Sicilian Americans. Most, if asked what language their immigrant parents and grandparents spoke, would respond “Italian.” Most would be incorrect, because their pre-genitors spoke the Sicilian language, the first romance language, brimming with expressive words from the Greek, Spanish, and Saracen cultures that once suffused Sicily, and different from the Tuscan dialect that today is called “Italian”.

I’m a bit saddened when friends tell me they’re planning a trip to Italy, or have already visited there, and I ask them, “Where.” Many reply,‘Tuscany’, or ‘Rome’ or ‘Venice’. Then I ask “Where were your parents/grandparents born?” When they answer ‘Racalmuto’, or ‘Campobello di Licata’ or ‘Montedoro’, I query: “Have you been to Sicily?” and many diffidently respond “Well, no, but maybe someday.” As the German philosopher Goethe (1749 – 1832) famously said, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the key to everything.”

Angelo Coniglio

…….. The Lady of the Wheel
Angelo Coniglio
Angelo Conigliohttp://www.conigliofamily.com
Angelo F. Coniglio is a retired civil engineer and university adjunct professor. Today Angelo is a genealogy researcher and author of the historical novella The Lady of the Wheel, set in 1860s Sicily. Details on the book and information on ordering can be found at www.bit.ly/ruotaia. For genealogy questions, Coniglio may be contacted at genealogytips@aol.com Coniglio is a proud son of parents who emigrated to America from Serradifalco one hundred years ago. He has traced his family, as well as his wife's, back seven generations to the early 1700's, and each and every one was Sicilian. See his history of Sicily at www.bit.ly/LaBeddaSicilia Order the paperback or the Kindle version at http://amzn.to/racalmuto

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  1. What a great article!
    I have had my own funny experiences with “Italian Americans” who think they talk Italian at home with their family yet, when trying to communicate with them, it turns out they are actually talking Sicilian.

  2. Angelo,
    What great piece. You are truly remarkable. I don’t like doing this because it seems as if I’m calling attention to myself but you’re my friend and you know better. Missing from your list of Sicilian born greats was playwright, author, Luigi Pirandello, who in the 1930s was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature – the only Sicilian ever to reach that pinnacle.

  3. Joe:
    Pirandello should be included of course, and there are dozens, hundreds, THOUSANDS of others the world knows as Italians, who were/are SICILIANS or Sicilian Americans: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa; Salvatore Quasimodo (who also was a Nobel laureate); Leonardo Sciascia; Andrea Camilleri, Gaetano Cipolla; Frank Capra; Giuseppe Tornatore; Sonny Bono; Steve Buscemi; Joseph Barbera; Ben Gazzara; Iron Eyes Cody (!); Frankie Laine; Chuck Mangione; Bobby Militello; Sal Mineo, Joe Mantegna; Al Pacino; Mario Puzo; Louie Prima; Martin Scorsese; Frank Sinatra; and on and on and on ~ see http://bit.ly/SicilianAmericans

    And, lest I forget, there’s Joey Giambra!! http://bit.ly/JoeyGiambra

  4. Bravo Ange. My dad’s family is originally from Augusta – Brucolli. It’s located in the area near Siracusa. It’s ironic that my dad and most of his family all have more of a resemblance to the Greeks than the Italians.

  5. It is always a pleasure to hear this important commentary. From the Dons & Donnas to the contitinos, all made us very proud of our ancestry. To date I have connected more than 7200 family members dating back to the 1650’s all in North Central Sicily. Thank you to all of you, Gabriele (Sorci) Sorgi.

  6. Nice piece, Angelo, and I’m with you. As an Irish woman, in my head Sicily is not really ‘Italy.’ Yet, when I insist on putting ‘Sicily’ on all my envelopes to home, my next door neighbour objects to this and insists that Sicily IS Italy, but I disobey, because I disagree.
    I also have a romantic idea, from childhood perhaps, that Sicily is a special place, not associated with the naughty North! But, rather, with a much more grandiose and intellectual heritage, a bit different and removed from anywhere else.

    • Hi Bernadette,
      I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and met many people from Scotland, Cataluna, Ireland etc. “Unfortunately”, you cannot compare a Scottish or a Catalan with a Sicilian. I must admit that I’m convinced that a Scot remains a Scot. He will not wake up one day and say “I’m Scottish”, and another saying “I’m British-American” … Same for a Catalan, he won’t change, one day Spanish, the next Catalan.
      Sicilians are a bit “confused” 🙂 We are 100% Sicilian when we talk about Pirandello, but then when Italy wins the world cup or Benigni the Oscar, as per “magia”, we become Italian 🙂
      Italian interests and “Made in Italy” are too strong to ignore. I really have proof of that. I know very few REAL SICILIANS!
      Anyway, we can’t fight that and by the way, Times of Sicily is not fighting that either … just to set the record straight. I’m just happy we still feel Sicilian, too, after all.
      See you soon in Palermo, in the real Sicily 🙂

  7. Great post and my father and my mother’s parents we from Racalmutu, Sicily … They spoke ” La Nostra lingua” … IU SUGNU SICILIANU!” ……

  8. Dear Bernadette:

    As I noted in my article, Sicily is, unfortunately, politically a part of Italy. But anyone who knows Sicily knows that “L’Italia nun è la Sicilia, e la Bedda Sicilia nun è Italia!!”

  9. Angelo, thank you for this article….I am forever explaining the difference between my Sicilian heritage and Italian.
    Can we add to the list a trio of young singers who have made their way to America and many other places across the world over the last three years. Two are Sicilian and one is Italian…Il Volo! Just listen to them belt out O SOLE MIO once and you will forever be a fan.

  10. Thanks, Laura:

    There are innumerable Sicilians and Sicilian Americans who deserve recognition and praise. The list http://bit.ly/SicilianAmericans is from Wikipedia, which can be added to or modified by any reader. I suggest Siculophiles surf Wikipedia and add information where appropriate to enhance the reputation of La Bedda Sicilia.

  11. Great article. The first time I Learned about the Kingdom of Two Sicilies was in a novel by Susan Sonntag called The Volcano Lovers. Lots of history in it. My maternal grandfather is from Campo Bella di Licata. I was there in 2012. Sicily was truly beautiful and grounding for me.

  12. Thanks, Carol:

    I’ll have to get The Volcano Lovers.

    For reference, if you want to look up records of your ancestral town, it’s ‘Campobello di Licata’ (‘Campubeddu’ in Sicilian). You can view images of original civil birth, marriage bann, marriage and death records for Campbello for the years 1866 – 1941 at the free page http://bit.ly/CampobelloRecordsOnLine

    Records for 1866 – 1910 are also on the subscription site Ancestry.com

    Earlier records (1820 – 1910) are available to rent on microfilms from the Mormon church and view at your local Mormon FamilySearch Center (also called Family History Centers). To find a Center near you, go to http://bit.ly/LocateFSCs

  13. I Am also the daughter of a Sicilian immigrant . I’ve visited my fathers town of Cianciana and I haven’t been the same since !!

  14. My late Sicilian-American father, Joseph Giallombardo (1917-2011) was honored as the Italian-American Athlete of the Year in 1940, was a finalist for the 1940 Sullivan Award (Best Amateur Athlete in US), is in the Guiness Book of World Records for winning 7 NCAA titles in gymnastics-most ever-, and is in the Cleveland(OH) Sports Hall of Fame, USA Gymnastcis Hall of Fame, USA Gymnastics Coaches Hall of Fame. His parents were from Sant’Agata di Militello. My sisters and cousin and I visited our grandparents home town on the 100th anniversary of their immigration to the US(2013) and found the house where our grandfather was born in 1880!! An amazing trip that has forever changed us. Our grandparents surnames are Giallombardo and Sberna.

  15. Very nice article Angelo: I have always called myself a Sicilian-Italian, or just Sicilian. My grandmother was from Caltabellotta, Agrigento, Sicilia; grandfather was from San Pietro Avellana, Molise, Italia. I have been to Caltabellotta many times since reconnecting in 2001 with family disconnected from the 40’s/50’s. I felt as if finally home, the missing piece of my persona was found. The language familiar, the food delightful, and great pride for the history of the town and all of Sicilia.

  16. Susan and Shirley:

    My father also immigrated in 1913. I, too have seen the house in which he was born, and I met a first cousin in Serradifalco who was born in the same house!

    Anyone with roots in Sicily should visit our patria.

  17. My parents always claimed they had a mixed marriage, Dad’s family was from Sicily and Mom’s family was from near Milan.

    They took adult ed classes to learn how to speak to each other in Italian when they realized that their parents could communicate among themselves in a language similar to but different from what was spoken in their households.

  18. please give me the Email address of ShirleyColianni Truncaci-Sinclaire so that i may request and convey info in re Calta, thank you

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