What are Sicilians like? Ingenious, conceited, generous, tenacious, loud, affectionate, extrovert and undisciplined. It’s not easy to describe us and many are the ones who tried. The first time more than 2000 years ago! Since then, pages and pages have been written. And if so much has been said about this, it might simply be because Sicilian are just different from anyone else!
An intriguing personality
Cicero was the first one who described us in 70 b.C. In the the trial against Verres, governor of Sicily accused of concussion, the latin orator described us as people endowed with tenacity and thrift, extraordinarily industrious and diligent. But what is interesting is that Cicero already noted a rather fiery character and a certain inclination towards quarrelsomeness. In fact in one of his works, the Brutus, he says that rhetoric was born in Sicily because Sicilians are “acute people with an innate taste for controversy“. Has anything changed in 2000 years? Perhaps not.
Speaking of Cicero, Leonardo Sciascia, a 20th century Sicilian writer, states that the island has remained the same and that nothing has changed in centuries of history.
Between public and private
Another interesting description is that of a mid-16th century writer from Messina: Scipio Di Castro, who wrote the Avvertimenti a Marco Antonio Colonna quando andò viceré in Sicilia (Warnings to Marco Antonio Colonna when he became viceroy in Sicily).
It is a work that became almost an official guide on Sicilians and all the reports on Sicily of the time were based on it. Scipio Di Castro warns that this is a land of contradictions, difficult to govern and to understand. As far as Sicilians are concerned, he says that they are shy when dealing with private interests, but reckless when managing public goods. He recommends a cold and detached attitude towards them in order to avoid undue intrusions.
The Grand Tour: Sicilians seen by foreigners
Since 18th century, many writers have visited Sicily during their journey across Europe and they describe us as:
- restless and impatient, violent and jealous (Johann Hermann von Riedesel)
- talkative, ingenious and skilled in trade (John Galt)
- independent, vital and contradictory (Auguste da Sayve)
- volcanic like the Etna (Fedor von Karaczay)
The most famous traveller is without doubt Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who visited Sicily in 1787 and who wrote in his Italian Journey: “Italy, without Sicily, leaves no image in the soul: here is the key to everything!“. The German writer noted some main features in the Sicilian people: resignation to things that don’t work, humour and ability to play down.
Sicilians in the Leopard
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote one of the masterpieces of the 20th century’s literature about Sicily: The Leopard. Some passages of the book clearly explain several psychological aspects of the islanders. In the dialogue between Chevalley, secretary of the prefecture, and Don Fabrizio, prince of Salina, the latter says:
“We Sicilians have been accustomed by a long, very long hegemony of rulers who were not of our religion and did not speak our language, to split hairs. If we had not done so we’d never have coped with Byzantine tax gatherers, the Berber Emirs, with Spanish Viceroys. Now the bent is endemic, we’re made like that“.
Moreover, Don Fabrizio adds:
“In Sicily it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of doing at all. We are old, very old“. And then again: “sleep, dear Chevalley, sleep, that is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful of gifts“.
Sicilians: an ambivalent soul
Luigi Pirandello, one of the most famous Sicilian writers, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934, said: “All Sicilians are sad after all, because of their tragic sense of life […]. They perceive with mistrust the contrast between their closed disposition and the open nature around them”.
Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, finally, gave a description of the Sicilians’ soul: “The inferiority complex and the spirit of greatness appear almost without exception in the individual psyche. Pride, and also banal haughtiness, jealousy, impetus of love and hate, constancy of fidelity and revenge, loyalty even in evil, generosity, if there can be generosity, even in crime: these traits are proverbial”.
We can certainly say that describing Sicilians is not a simple task! But surely there is one characteristic that distinguishes us: contradiction. We are everything and the opposite of everything!