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.
That 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.”