The Sicilian Vespers

Sicilian Vespers – Francesco Hayez


     After the death of Frederick II, king of Sicily, his son Conrad was to succeed him to be, by his father’s decree, the next king of Sicily. Because of his death in 1254, Manfred, Frederick’s illegitimate son, made himself Regent of the kingdom. Aided by Saracen allies, he defeated the army of pope Innocent IV and had himself crowned King of Sicily in the Cathedral of Palermo. Pope Urban IV, in 1263, terrified by the fact that Manfred obtained power in Central and Southern Italy, called the French against Manfred, and precisely Charles I of Anjou, brother of Louis IX, king of France. The French army faced the forces of Manfred, and in the battle of Benevento, Manfred was defeated and all his army was passed by the sword, including Manfred himself, who by Charles order, was thrown under a bridge. His soldiers, being of a better heart, covered the corpse with rocks, but Charles, irate, had them unearth the body and put it on the bank of the river as food for the animals.

     In 1266 Charles of Anjou finally entered Palermo. He immediately installed hard laws by which heterrorized Sicily, Italy and even all of Europe with his cruelty. He persecuted the Sicilians, the Moslems, the Greeks, the Latins and all who were not French. He fired everybody from public office in Sicily, and installed all French employs. The Sicilians and all from southern Italy were taken away their land, their belongings, their freedom and even their women. The hate against the French grew fuller than an overflowingriver, it was coming off every Sicilian’s pore.

     In Sicily was and still is a custom to celebrate with a picnic the day after Easter. That day is called Pasquetta (Little Easter). In that day people swarm to the countryside with baskets full of food and drinks to have a good time. The 20 of March 1282, the people of Palermo were swarming outside the city limits to celebrate the Pasquetta. To the Sicilians was forbidden to bear arms, while the French went always armed. That afternoon a big group of people were assembled in a clearing, around the church of the Holy Spirit, there were today is the great St. Ursula cemetery. A French soldier, with the name of Drouet, eyed a pretty young girl, went to her, and with the excuse of checking for arms proceeded to search her. The young lady embarrassed, fainted. A Sicilian young man, outraged, threw himself at the French soldier, and before anybody could stop him, took the sword away from the soldier and killed him. It was like a match: In a lightning all the French soldiers around were killed, and the crowd, having become an infuriated mob, overran the city, running and screaming all night: Death to the French!, and all night was a carnage of French soldiers.

     It is said that even in encountering persons in civilian clothes, they were asked to pronounce the Sicilian word ciciri (chick peas), and if one happen to be French, he could not pronounce such a word correctly (The French pronounced that word kikiri) and he or she was killed. The insurrection, already secretly in the making, spread very quickly to every part of the island, and in very little time the French were thrown out of Sicily. All this started in Palermo at the time that the church’s bells were tolling the Vesper, the end of the work day, and for this reason this insurrection remained in the annals of history as The Sicilian Vespers.

A popular poem expressed the way the Sicilian people felt toward the tortures and repression of Charles I D’Anjou:

(unknown author)
Nun v’azzardati a viniri in Sicilia,
ch’annu juratu salarvi li coria,
e sempri ca virriti ‘ntra Sicilia,
la Francia sunira` sempri li martoria.
Oggi a cu dici kikiri in Sicilia,
si ci tagghia lu coddu pi so Gloria;
e quannu si dira` “Qui era Sicilia”,
finira` di la Francia la mimoria.

To Sicily don’t you dare to come,
there to preserve your skin in salt swore,
if an attempt to come to Sicily you make,
the death bells France has to ring.
Today if kikiri in Sicily one says,
his neck will be cut to his glory,
when they say ” Here Sicily once was”,
that’s when the memory of France will cease.

Nino Russo

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  1. I’ve been waiting for this piece! I heard this tale from my parents so many times and was starting to wonder if it was truth or fiction. What a magnificent contribution to European history. Bravo Professuru Russo. Kudos!!!

  2. Very interesting article. Like the story about the chickpeas. Many cultures have used linguistic keys as a form of ID. Northern Ireland is one example.

  3. Great story. My father-in-law, who was born in Sicily used to tell me the same, exact story about chick peas.

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