The Paradox of Sicilian Identity

Written by: Lila Ovington & Emanuela Lipari /Edited by: Sanjna Menon

The Ball scene: from the 1963 motion picture Il Gattopardo, by Luchino Visconti.
This famous scene portrays Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) and Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) dancing together. It signifies the union between the old aristocracy, Don Fabrizio, and the emerging new bourgeoisie, which foreshadows the upcoming unification of Italy.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Sicily? The mafia jokes? Probably almost naturalized in any Sicilian’s passport. Or could it be the lemon trees and vast vineyards? The sunsets? Those that have inspired the German poet Goethe. No answer is likely to truly resonate with the way in which Sicilians think of themselves. It is no coincidence that a long tradition of Sicilian literature – both in poetry and fiction – asserts issues of cultural identity, of sicilitudine, as main thematic threads. In fact, the Sicilian case is one of a group of people who are seen both as conservative and suspicious, spiritual and individualistic, baroque yet austere – walking contradictions, who suffered from what Gesualdo Bufalino described as ‘an excess of identity’. Sicilian identity cannot be understood in terms of ethnicity or citizenship. The people are the true essence of a place and understanding the Sicilian people is a hard task. Someone who may have succeeded in doing so was Giuseppe Tomasi in his acclaimed historical romance Il Gattopardo; a book that explores the meanings of decay, time and the indifference felt by Sicily for the birth of Italy.

In the book, the Piedmontese Chevalley is sent to Donnafugata – a region of Sicily – to officially offer to Don Fabrizio, the main character, a seat in the senate of what will be the future Regno d’Italia. The liberal Chevalley sincerely believes that the unification will uplift Sicily’s underdevelopment to the advanced and modernised status of its Northern counterpart. Don Fabrizio, however, does not fall for the charming idealism of his guest, and can only see the colonial character in the project of unification:

‘Since your Garibaldi arrived in Marsala, too many things have been done without our consent, for asking now to a member of the old order to follow up to those things and make them work […] I have my strong doubts that the new kingdom [of Italy] will bring us any joy’.

Il Gattopardo is a pessimist reading of history. Beyond critiquing the process of ‘piemontizzazione’, it focuses on the historical and cultural inertia characterizing Sicily’s attitude towards change. Interestingly enough, the same immobility characterizing Sicilian political attitudes is also reflected by the absence of the ‘future tense’ in the Sicilian language. Perhaps this is the cultural default of a historically-positioned subaltern, a position inherited by the Sicilian people from a long past of domination.

Antonio Gramsci defined subaltern status as the condition in which a group of people within a society is subject to the hegemonic power of its dominant class. This is an experience very familiar to Sicily, which has suffered the domination of the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Habsburgs, Bourbons, and many others over the past two thousand years. Don Fabrizio’s concerns in Il Gattopardo that these dynamics would return with the unification of Italy were not unfounded. Gramsci himself read Italian unification as a process that would generate inequalities, by which one’s victory had to result in another’s loss. This would occur on multiple levels. For instance, the industrial development of the North that accompanied unification meant a proportional impoverishment of the South. Equally, internal tensions were exacerbated as deeply-rooted cultural differences led to mistrust and resentment.

The relationship between Italy and Sicily today is not typically seen as one between coloniser and colonised. Even talk of Sicily as a postcolonial subject, which is seemingly undeniable, is limited as a result of postcoloniality’s typical white/non-white and First/’Third’ world binaries. That said, the unification of Italy imposed top-down from Piedmont has created clear hierarchical divisions. Most obvious is the divide between North and South. Sicily, in turn, has come to represent an almost hyperbolic embodiment of the already-disadvantaged South. A certain subaltern essence appears to remain in Sicily. This is no longer a subaltern position under foreign rule, but a subaltern position within the Italian state.

A fundamental driver of Sicily’s ongoing subaltern status is the notion, and issue, of identity. The island’s multidimensional character and its long history of interactions amongst various incoming cultural waves have translated into an inability for Sicily to produce a clear image of itself. In this sense, the complex cultural layers constructing the essence of Sicilianity are both representative and misleading of the Sicilian experience at large. Consequently, this lack of self-identification paves the way for Northern Italian nationalism to increase its power over Sicily by constructing the island’s identity itself. Mainland Italy itself has equally been confronted by problems of identification, in that it lacks a cohesive national identity as claimed by so many other European states. As such, attempts to unite North and South may be seen as continually ongoing. When it comes to Sicily, however, it is not a desire for union that enters the nationalist mind. Rather, it appears that Italy’s quest for national identity has led to the construction of Sicily as an ultimate ‘Other within’, against which the nation-state can define itself.

It is Sicily’s complex history of cultural encounters, those same encounters that prevent Sicilian self-identification, that fuel Italian nationalist myths of the island. Seemingly paradoxically, but in a manner that is typical of European processes of Othering those they deem inferior, Italy has both exoticised and demonised Sicily. Most prevalent in shaping Italian discourse towards the island has been its demonisation, and this is an Othering that operates within a deeply racial framework. What might be seen as Sicily’s ‘ethnic ambiguity’ has been exploited to misleadingly associate the island with vague North African origins. This mythical racialisation has, in turn, structured the normative Italian discourses that create Sicily’s Othered identity in the modern nation-state. Whether it be the island’s supposedly inherent criminality, embodied by the Sicilian Mafia, or its apparent character of stagnation, these are framed as natural tenets of Sicilian identity rooted in its ‘racial backwardness’.

Sicily has consequently been constructed by mainland nationalism as a threat to Italy, specifically to Northern Italy, on two levels. On the one hand, Sicily’s stereotyped criminality and backwardness are presented as a threat to Northern Italy’s contrastingly progressive nature. This disparity is naturalised in ethnic difference despite being historically contingent on the political context surrounding unification. On the other hand, the island’s “complex interplay between overlapping and multilayered identities” frustrates efforts at consolidating a cohesive national identity. Rather than trying to overcome this, Italian nationalists (e.g: Lega Nord) have exacerbated Sicily’s difference. They have positioned the island as a subaltern Other within, against which they can then consolidate their efforts (such as by stressing the Sicilian threat to Northern Italian progress) to cement a mainland-exclusive national identity.

Not only were Don Fabrizio’s fears not unfounded, but they appear to have materialised. Italian unification has further cemented Sicily’s subaltern position. The island’s history of colonisation has created a lack of, or an ambiguous, self-identity. This has enabled Italy to address its own identity insecurity by demonising Sicily as an Other within. In Sicily today, younger generations who seek a more tangible sense of belonging are turning towards a broader Italian identification – perhaps, facilitated by the chance of studying in Milan, Torino or Pisa. Despite Italy’s own lack of identificational cohesiveness, being Italian is still easier to make sense of than being Sicilian. The national identity may be ill-defined, but to be Italian, rather than Sicilian, at least places one within that identity instead of antagonistically outside of it. This may be interpreted as the syndrome of the defeated, where those who are incapable of resisting any longer would rather simply give up and adapt.


Agnew, John. “Italy’s Island Other: Sicily’s History in the Modern Italian Body Politic.” Emergences: Journal for the Study of Media & Composite Cultures 10, no. 2 (2000): 301-311.

Bufalino, Gesualdo. Cere perse. Palermo: Sellerio, 1985.

Cimatti, Tania. ‘Sicily: waves of cultures’. The Glasgow School of Art (2016).

Drell, Joanna. “Cultural syncretism and ethnic identity: The Norman ‘conquest’ of Southern Italy and Sicily,” Journal of Medieval History 25, no. 3 (1999): 187-202.

Giangiulio, Maurizio. “Deconstructing Ethnicities: Multiple Identities in Archaic and Classical Sicily.” Babesch 85 (2010): 13-23. doi: 10.2143/BAB.85.0.2059887

Gramsci, Antonio. The Southern Question. Toronto: Guernica, 2005. Print.

Màndala, Giuseppe. “The Sicilian Questions.” JTMS 3, no. 1-2 (2016): 3-31.

Poggioli-Kaftan, Giordana, “Sicilian Intellectual and Cultural Resistance to Piedmont’s Appropriation (1860-1920)” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2016.

Schneider, Jane and Peter Schneider. “Mafia, Antimafia, and the Plural Cultures of Sicily.” Current Anthropology 46, no. 4 (August/October 2005): 501-520.

Tomasi di Lampedusa, Giuseppe. Il Gattopardo. Translated. Feltrinelli: Milan, 1958.
Verdicchio, Pasquale. “The Preclusion of Postcolonial Discourse in Southern Italy.” In Revisioning Italy: National Identity and Global Culture, edited by Beverly Allen and Mary Jo Russo, 191-212. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s