Siciliana: Studies on the Sicilian Ethos and Literature by Gaetano Cipolla


Book Review by Marco Scalabrino

Siciliana 2 cover correctedThe present volume, which has a moving image by Giulia Di Filippi on the cover and which the author dedicated to his wife Florence, is number 27 in the “Sicilian Studies” series, published by Legas and directed by Gaetano Cipolla.
This is a revised and expanded edition of the volume published with a slightly different title in 2005. Following the introduction, the book is divided in two parts: the first part contains eight chapters regarding questions dealing with the characteristics, the traditions, the history and the language of the Sicilian people; the second offers nine studies on representative Sicilian poets and writers.

Siciliana 2 cover corrected copy
Professor Gaetano Cipolla

A Professor Emeritus at St. John’s University, President of the American cultural organization Arba Sicula, as well as editor of the Arba Sicula journal as well as of Sicilia Parra, Gaetano Cipolla, in spite of the fact that he was born in Sicily in 1937 and emigrated to the US in 1955, had not written a single word on Sicily, nor had he devoted himself to the study of the language and culture of Sicily.

Around 1980 he met a group of people who had founded Arba Sicula, an organization devoted to the study, preservation, and promotion of Sicily in the world. After reading the famous poem by Giovanni Meli’s “Ucchiuzzi niuri” at a recital of dialectal poetry, (a poem that W. Goethe translated into German), Professor Cipolla felt an indescribable emotion. And this episode made him understand the importance of one’s roots whose call he no longer could ignore. Form this point on he started to devote more time to the study of Sicilian poetry. He delved into aspects that went beyond his role as an Italian professor: not being trained as a translator, he learned how to translate; not being a linguist, he studied the Sicilian language more closely; not being a sociologist or a historian, he examined the traditions and the history of Sicily. And more importantly, in trying to define Sicilians and express the essence of the Sicilian people, he had to question himself, he had to come face to face with his own identity, managing to overcome his own prejudices against the dialect.

The book, which contains many beautiful images of the island, is written in English (professor Cipolla is convinced that each of the writers he presents deserves to be better known abroad and in their own country), and represents an additional proof of his keen interest and of his passion for the culture and language of Sicily. Each chapter is very interesting and it’s difficult to summarize the content of a 288-page book so rich with history, customs and analysis.

In the United States Sicily does not enjoy a good reputation. When people think of Sicily they imagine a violent and criminal environment. That is so in spite of the fact that many foreign poets and writers, especially in the Nineteenth century visited Sicily and regarded it as a land of rebirth: from Shelley to Byron, from Wagner to Hölderlin, from De Maupassant to Goethe, who wrote in his book on Italy: “Italy without Sicily leaves no trace upon the soul: Sicily is the key to everything.”

One of the most obvious traits of the Sicilian character, evident to foreigners, is their great pride in themselves as individuals and as representatives of the island. All Sicilians believe they are the best in everything they do, or as Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in his Leopard, they regard themselves as gods. Their merits to tell the truth are undeniable. Sicilians have contributed a lot to western civilization in many fields: in poetry they reached excellence with Jacopo da Lentini who invented the sonnet, with Antonio Veneziano, who was admired by Miguel de Cervantes, with Salvatore Quasimodo, Nobel Prize for 1959; in philosophy with Empedocles; in science with Archimedes, in politics with Frederick II, stupor mundi (the wonder of the world); in the arts with Antonello da Messina; in music with Vincenzo Bellini; in the theatre with Luigi Pirandello, Nobel Prize for 1934; in literature with Giovanni Verga, Tomasi di Lampedusa, Leonardo Sciascia e many, many others.

The Triskeles, commonly known as the Trinacria, that is, the head of the Medusa whose snake hair is intertwined with wheat stalks from which three running legs bent at the knee emerge, is the historical symbol of the Sicily bearing witness to its mythological roots on the island. Its name is derived from the Siculi, but the Greeks put their marks on the island and created its culture. Greece and ancient Sicily are inextricably bound by their common past. In fact, Sicily was the most important part, if not the largest, of the entity known as Magna Grecia.

From 827 to 1092, the island was governed by the Arabs who made it an ideal place in which to live: they introduce the system of irrigation in agriculture. They were the first to use the concept of latitude and longitude in geography; in cooking they introduced the couscous, still prepared in western Sicily but completely alien to the gastronomy of eastern Sicily, which is understandable considering that their presence there was less pervasive. They also introduced the use of zero and the numbers we use today replacing the Roman system; the Sicilian language contains numerous terms derived from Arabic: cassaru, càlia, zibbibbu, zotta, giarra, bazzariotu, and many others.

Three typical prefixes used by the Arabs to identify locations gave rise to hundreds of name places in Sicily. The word qal’at meaning castle, fortress is probably the most common. From it we get the names for Caltanissetta, Caltavuturo, Caltagirone, Caltabellotta, Calascibetta, Calatafimi, etc. The word rahl, which identified a stopping lace, a rest station generated such name places as Racalmuto, Regalbuto, Regalpetra, etc. The word manzil has the same meaning as rahl and many names are derived from it such as Mezzojuso, Misilmeri, Mussomeli, etc.

As regards the language we reiterate that Sicilian is not a corruption of Italian or an inferior form of it (this has been maintained by scholars for a long time). Sicilian has its roots in Greek and Latin and in succeeding eras gained additional vital lymph from Arabic and from the languages of the various people who have dominated the island. It is a noble idiom possessing dignity and worth so much so that Giacomo Devoto stated that “Sicily beginning in the XII century, during the period of its two great monarchies, the Norman and the Swabian, elaborated the first literary language of Italy.” And Dante in his De Vulgari Eloquentia had affirmed that “everything that the Italians have done in terms of poetry is called Sicilian.” It’s worth noting that the Sicilian Regional Assembly in 2011 approved a law that foresees the study of the Sicilian dialect in public schools.

In 1492 the year of Cristopher Columbus’ discovery of the new world, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain expelled the Jews from all their realms, including Sicily. Unlike the others, the Jews had not conquered Sicily. They lived there for fourteen centuries, however. The were 5,000 Jews living in Palermo at the time; in the cities of Trapani, Messina, Catania, Marsala, Sciacca, Agrigento and Mazara del Vallo 2,000 Jews lived and in Bivona, Caltagirone, Caltabellotta, Mineo, Modica, Noto, Salemi, Taormina, Erice there were over 350 of them. After their expulsion the Jews never returned to Sicily.

Cicero defined the Sicilians as “An intelligent race, suspicious endowed with a wonderful sense of humor.” Pirandello, in his essay on humor of 1908 identified that humor as “il sentimento del contrario” (the sentiment of the opposite). Sicilians according to Cicero can come up with a witty remark to make light of any situation. Santi Correnti related a couple of examples: a woman was parking her car when another car came from behind and took her spot. The woman angrily approached the driver and hissed: “Chi fa u spettu?” a sentence that can mean “What are you doing, the wise guy?” or it could mean “What are you doing, should I wait for you?” The man understood perfectly what she meant but brazenly replied: “No, Madam, don’t wait for me, I have a lot things to do today.” The second anecdote is about Angelo Musco. Being at a restaurant with a colleague and being both without much money, they ordered one plate of sausages for both, stipulating that they should name a saint for each section of sausage that they took. Musco was hungry and said “Saint Peter and Saint Paul” and two sections of sausages. His colleague got the hint and said “St, Alphio, St. Cirino and St. Filadelfo” and took three pieces of sausages. Musco then upped the ante and declared “Tutti i santi” (All Saints) and took all that was left on the plate. That Sicilians have a sense of humor should not be surprising. After all Plato identified Epicharmus, who lived between 528 and 453, as the inventor of comedy.

Antonio Veneziano (1542-1593) is the highest expression of Sicilian poetry in the Renaissance. His canzuna, made of eight lines of hendecasyllables with alternating rhyme, is the most typical of Sicilian poetry forms and his compositions are primarily written in this form. His terrible reputation as an arrogant and violent person accompanied him throughout his life. (He was once accused of murdering someone and he presented his defense written in Sicilian). Captured by the pirates and taken to a prison in Algiers he met another illustrious prisoner: Miguel De Cervantes, author of the Don Quijote de la Mancha. They became friend. Cervantes considered Veneziano’s Celia poetry “worthy of paradise.” On August 19, 1593, while imprisoned in the Fortress of the Castello a Mare, Veneziano died when there was a fire that ignited the powder kegs. He was buried under the rubble of the explosion.

Giovanni Meli (1740-18150 is considered one of the most important figures of his time. Typical of his talent is the poem “Lu labbru” which has the curious distinction of being the first poem ever translated into Finnish. He wrote The Origin of the World, in 75 octaves that Prof. Cipolla translated into English and published in 1986. Meli’s most ambitious project was the Don Chisciotti e Sanciu Panza, a mock epic poem consisting of 14 cantos and a Vision which he published n 1787. Meli’s inventiveness, his freshness of language, his subtle irony and the liveliness of his description touched Cipolla’s soul who translated the work in 1986. The translation took him four years to complete while Meli had taken only two years to write the mock epic. Cipolla regards the Don Chisciotti and Sanciu Panza as an important statement that goes beyond the representation of the poet’s inner conflicts between his pragmatism and his idealism. It is a poem that reflects both the personality of the author and the conflicts typical of Sicilians: a longing for a better worlds against the conviction that the status quo is too strong for people to change it.

Nino Martoglio (1870-1921) was famous primarily for his activities in behalf of the Sicilian language theatre. He was a theatrical impresario, a poet and playwright. He founded the literary journal D’Artagnan and gained notoriety thanks to his humorous and biting satirical poems. He wrote some of the most memorable comedies of all times in Sicilian: I civitoti in pretura, San Giuvanni decullatu e L’aria del continente which were enormously successful and which are still represented today. He wrote two plays with Luigi Pirandello La Vilanza and Cappiddazzu paga tuttu, in 1917. He published his Centona, a universally admired collection of poems in 1899, a book that brings to readers the smell and sounds of Sicily, the passions that torment their hearts as well as the memories of the beloved and tragic land.

All the essays in this work (including the ones on Francesco Lanza, whose Mimi siciliani, Gaetano Cipolla translated into English in 2008), can teach us something new about the island, as Cipolla says, adding in their diversity another piece of that complex puzzle that Sicily is.

LEGAS 2014, ISBN 978-1-881901-97-6, 288 pages, $ 18.00, available from Legas, PO Box 149, Mineola, NY 11501 or from

The Editor
The Editor
Times of Sicily | Sicily in English

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