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History and Significance of Heraldry
The term "heraldry" (in Italian araldica) refers to the functions of court officers known as heralds (It. araldi) and particularly the field of armory, the study of coats of arms. Heraldry, as we understand it today, originated around the middle of the twelfth century, coinciding (in Sicily and in England) with Norman rule, but it may not have been an explicitly "Norman" development. It is generally believed that coats of arms originated as little more than identifying insignia, so that heralds could distinguish the helmeted knight by the design painted on his shield, just as the knight himself, whose face was concealed by his helmet, could distinguish friend from foe in the heat of battle. It has also been suggested, more credibly, that the tournament, rather than real combat, gave heraldry its strongest impetus. This theory implies that from its inception heraldry was more decorative than utilitarian, existing more for the spectators than for the knights or heralds.
Why is heraldry important to the study of history and art? During the thirteenth century coats of arms first appeared widely on seals and coins, as well as architecture. The oldest western European cities are full of heraldry. The coats of arms of the first kings of Sicily are shown here, with photographs of their actual use on medieval structures in central Palermo.
Heraldry as Art and Science
Medieval coats of arms were often "canted" for surnames, representing them graphically as a kind of rebus. The Grifeo family displayed a griffon, the Leone a lion, the Chiaramonte (light mountain) white mountains, Oliveri an olive tree. Bearing simple geometric designs such as stripes (known as ordinaries), symbols such as stars or animals (called charges) or canting references to surnames, the oldest coats of arms are some of the simplest and most aesthetic.
Heraldry has its own rules. There are seven principal colours or tinctures: red (gules in English or rosso in Italian), blue (azure, azzurro), black (sable, nero), green (vert, verde), purple (purpure, porpora), gold (or, oro) and silver (argent, argento). The last two, known as metals, are often rendered (respectively) in yellow ochre or white; the other tinctures are sometimes called enamels. A rule of tincture dictates that metal may not be placed on metal or enamel upon or enamel, but this does not apply to small details or to objects rendered as "proper," i.e. in their natural colours. In the fifteenth century tinctures became associated, at least symbolically, with specific gemstones (azure with sapphires, vert with emeralds, gules with rubies, etc.) and, on a more astrological note, planets. Le Blason des Couleurs, the principal work describing this planetary-zodiacal symbolism, was authored by "Sicily Herald" (Jean Courtois) in 1414, and republished in French in the nineteenth century.
Charges (symbols) abound, with the lion and eagle being the most common beasts, while trees, stars and castles predominate among inanimate symbols. How is Sicilian armory (and Italian heraldry generally) different from the heraldry of other regions? Apart from the specific use of crest coronets and other ornamentation (to be discussed below), it is sometimes slightly more "pictorial," though Sicilian armory also has its more traditionalist side – reflected in the Abatellis arms shown at the beginning of this page, sculpted above the entrance to their castle circa 1490.
A crest is part of a full coat of arms or armorial achievement (not the shield) based on the wooden ornamentation that was sometimes worn by knights on their helmets to deflect direct downward blows to the head. It is incorrect to refer to an armorial shield (escutcheon) as a "crest," though this misnomer often occurs.
Strictly speaking, armory is the branch of heraldry pertaining to coats of arms. More generally, "heraldry" relates to all the functions of heralds, who were court officers charged with keeping various nobiliary records. As trusted - and unarmed - officials outside the military hierarchy, medieval heralds were sometimes pressed into service as diplomats or even royal messengers. In Great Britain and Spain they still have ceremonial court functions. (The usage and nuances of Sicilian heraldry will be explained in greater detail below.)
Royal Heraldry in Sicily
The earliest coats of arms were designed and used by medieval knights, but by the end of the Middle Ages (circa 1450) the monarchs of certain countries, such as England, arrogated to themselves the right to "grant" or recognise arms. In central Europe and elsewhere, however, heraldic insignia were simply assumed by nobles or even burghers.
In principle, no two coats of arms born by unrelated knights in the same kingdom could be identical (and within families an effort was made to "difference" otherwise identical arms through subtle changes in design), but with the unification of states in modern times this rule necessarily became difficult to apply to armigers whose ancestors had borne certain coats of arms since antiquity. The Kingdom of Sicily, for example, was divided in 1282 (between the island and the Italian peninsula south of Rome) and united much later, so for centuries a few coats of arms of simple design devised in one realm ("Naples") were identical to those in the other (Sicily), and with the further unification of Italy circa 1860 there were instances of Piedmontese, Tuscan and Sicilian families bearing the same coat of arms, while the Consulta Araldica regulated only those of titled families or a few untitled ones. A similar situation developed with the unification of the German states during the same period.
Though heraldry was initially associated with monarchs, knights and nobles, somebody resident in a nation where heraldry is unregulated by law (this now includes Italy) could design his own original coat of arms. Traditionally, in fact, heraldry was not rigidly controlled in the Kingdom of Sicily as it was in England, where strict laws developed to govern usage and where (until 1945) there was a small annual tax levied on coats of arms.
Despite what you may occasionally read, personal heraldry - historically a monarchical tradition - is not regulated officially in Italy, France, Russia or most countries which are no longer monarchies. Canada (which has a queen) has a heraldic authority that grants new coats of arms to individuals, while the United States does not recognise personal heraldry. However, Ireland and South Africa have heraldic offices and grant new coats of arms (or legally recognise old ones), as do the United Kingdom and Spain. At best, a specific design can be copyrighted, but the blazon itself cannot be protected, so anybody could create a new design patterned on it.
For those from families which are not traditionally armigerous – in Italy coats of arms are familial and transmitted undifferenced to all legitimate heirs male – the personal "introduction" to familial heraldry may not be firmly rooted in historical fact. Therefore, the unfortunate phenomenon of "arms mongering" should be explained. Obviously, not everybody bearing the same surname is related by blood in the male line, but many commercial firms prey on the ignorant by implying that everybody named (for example) Sullivan, Smith, Williams, Keppel, Alvarez, Rossi or Lanza is descended in the male line from armigers bearing these surnames and therefore entitled to use those historical coats of arms. This is deceptive because a historic coat of arms can be claimed ethically only if legitimate descent from an armiger who used it can be proven. This abusive practice flourishes even in nations (such as the United Kingdom) where heraldry is regulated in some way. The statement or "disclaimer" on a bogus "heraldic report" that a coat of arms purchased (usually at low cost) in this way is "genuine" but that "no genealogical connection is intended or implied" is ridiculous.
In Italy intentional fraud of this kind became especially frequent in the 1960s (and persists to this day) when two well-known genealogical "institutes" in Florence began attaching coats of arms to all the lineal genealogies they constructed, implying that every Italian family that paid them was an armigerous or aristocratic one; in these cases the genealogies were usually reasonably accurate, and presented in attractive book form, but the heraldry included with the lineages was not actually associated with the clients' ancestors. An example of the kind of product provided by these firms is shown here, complete with a ridiculous "seal" which "certifies" a simplified narrative of a "family history" based on information regarding people who happen to share the client's surname but little else. Genealogy is the framework used to support a claim to a historic coat of arms, for there exists no other practical means of demonstrating direct, legitimate descent from an early armigerous ancestor. Unless a family's historical lineage were already known, genealogical research from circa 1900 into the early 1700s (usually a sufficient span of time to determine if one's Italian ancestors were nobles and therefore entitled to heraldic arms) would cost hundreds or perhaps thousands of euros, dollars or pounds.
So closely related are heraldry and genealogy that stemma, the Italian word for a coat of arms, is the Latin for pedigree.
In some - but not all - European countries the bearing of an inherited coat of arms for a certain number of centuries is considered an ipso facto indication of a family's nobility or gentility, though this generality must be considered in the light of heraldic regulation in some nations having been much more rigid than in others. In England nowadays all coats of arms emanate from the Crown and are noble, though the only distinction they confer upon the armiger (unless created a knight or peer) is the title esquire, a word which in common usage has (like the Italian signore meaning "lord" but now also "Mister") lost its medieval significance.
In the Kingdom of Italy the Regolamento Tecnico Araldico and other statutes determined compositional standards of armorial heraldry, such as the accepted forms of the coronets of rank (described below). Thus rules implemented between 1860 and 1945 attempted to regulate the slightly varying usages of the Italian regions into a uniform standard. The result was not as arbitrary as it may seem, and for the most part armigers in specific regions (Piedmont, Tuscany, Sicily, the former Papal States, etc.) were in practice permitted to display their arms in the manner to which they were accustomed.
During the final decades of its life the Consulta Araldica was part of the Interior Ministry, and its archives are retained at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato in the EUR district outside Rome. When Italy became a republic the regulation of personal (familial) heraldry and, for the most part, titles of nobility, ceased to exist. The Italian constitution explicitly states that the latter "are not recognised" though the predicati (the names of former fiefs) attached to some aristocrats' surnames may still be used in legal documents.
One may well question the legitimacy of a nobility lacking a monarchy. Several "nobility associations" and "heraldic organisations" flourish in Italy, and a few publish nobiliary registries having varying degrees of accuracy. The blue Libro d'Oro of Rome's Collegio Araldico, a heraldry society, is the best known and has been published since 1910; it takes its name from the official registry (the Libro d'Oro del Regno) of the Consulta Araldica, a fact which creates confusion as the blue book is not an official publication. The red Annuario della Nobiltà Italiana has a longer publishing history, having been founded in 1879 by the distinguished heraldist Giovan Battista Crollalanza.
Until 1983 the "patronage" of the late King of Italy (Umberto II) of organisations such as the Corpo della Nobiltà Italiana lent a certain cachet to these groups, which attempted – if inadequately – to maintain heraldic standards in Italy. Sadly, they now spend much time and effort debating who is (or is not) a "real" nobleman and which prince of Italy's historic dynasties should be "king" of a hypothetical kingdom. It is here that we leave history behind and step into an arcane realm worthy of Dante Alighieri or perhaps Monty Python.
Today, both the House of Savoy (which ruled Italy until 1946) and the House of the Two Sicilies (which ruled Sicily until 1860) are divided by bitter dynastic rivalries resulting from competing claims to headship (Prince Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy versus his cousin Prince Amedeo, and Prince Carlo of Bourbon-Two Sicilies versus his Spanish cousin Prince Carlos), and therefore the Italian aristocracy itself is divided on such issues as heraldic law and authority. In the case of the Savoys, one cousin recently challenged (unsuccessfully) in Italian courts the right of the other to use the family surname "Savoia," and in a somewhat similar case (equally unsuccessful) the eldest son of a pompous Sicilian titled aristocrat zealously contested a cousin's legal right to use the predicato (territorial designation in the form "di name-of-town") lawfully born by all men of the family. It's easy to imagine what would occur if, in addition to these ridiculous legal cases, Italians were also able to resort to legal actions over who could bear a particular coat of arms! One doubts that the knights of old could have imagined what would become of traditions that began with a few simple designs painted on a shield, and a parcel of land held in fealty from the crown.
Armorial heraldry (with its focus on coats of arms and simple inheritance) was never meant to be too complicated.
The closest thing Sicily has to a herald is a Spanish gentleman who divides his time between Mexico City and his native Madrid, with the occasional visit to Naples or Palermo. In addition to his heraldic expertise, Fernando Muñoz Altea is a historian specialised in the study of the aristocratic Spanish colonial families of the Americas (including not only Latin America but the regions which are now the American states of California, New Mexico, and Texas). He was made King of Arms of the Royal House of the Two Sicilies by Prince Ranieri of the Two Sicilies – a nephew of King Francis II – in 1962. The Kingdom of Sicily did not have actual heralds (to grant coats of arms) in recent times, but rather a Commission for Titles of Nobility based in Naples until 1861, so the appointment itself recalls medieval traditions rather than modern ones. Certifications of arms issued by his office are, in effect, heraldic documents of a quasi-official nature; Muñoz Altea is effectively a "private" herald and does not have the authority of any governmental position as (quite obviously) the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies no longer exists.
In the public mind the use of armorial heraldry remains largely misunderstood. Though rooted in the feudal system of the twelfth century, modern personal heraldry, with its links to individuals and families as an identifying distinction of an artistic and hereditary nature, does not necessarily carry with it the strictly monarchical or class overtures of the past. For this reason George Washington and other early Americans descended from England's landed gentry continued to use coats of arms long after the United States was established. Washington's coat of arms (upon which the United States flag is thought to have been based), with its two red bars (stripes) and three red mullets (stars) on a white background is even featured on the Purple Heart (shown here), the decoration he founded in 1782, revived by a later president in 1932. The United States Constitution prohibits the government's bestowal or recognition of titles of nobility but does not thereby forbid the use of coats of arms, which are a form of expression. The Italian constitution does not address the topic of heraldry except to abolish the Consulta Araldica, effectively "liberating" heraldic use completely.
Today only very few countries protect coats of arms as a form of incorporeal property except through the copyright of a specific graphic illustration, and Italy is not one of them. Let's take a closer look at Sicilian coats of arms.
Sicilian Coats of Arms
Thus far, we've discussed Sicilian heraldry and the functions of heralds. The essential principles of heraldry are not difficult to understand or learn. In addition to the basic tinctures (colours) there are various geometric designs (ordinaries such as the chevron, chief, fess and bend), smaller designs known as subordinaries, and numerous charges (symbols). Over time, however, heraldry became somewhat more complex - a development which owed much to the introduction of printing in Europe (it had already been invented in China) and the artistic influences of the Renaissance. In view of such simplicity, how did we arrive at complex designs?
Quartering, Differencing, Augmentations
With this evolved the practices of "differencing" for cadency; in other words using symbols to indicate the relationship of brothers to an ancestral armiger (i.e. their father). More precisely, cadets are the younger brothers of a king, nobleman or armiger, constituting "junior" branches of a family. Again, this was known in Italy but it never became very popular, though the label (the red horizontal charge separating the three fleurs de lis in the figure shown) was occasionally used. More often, a simple change of tincture (perhaps changing the field from azure to sable) was sufficient. Sometimes a minor charge would be modified; in a rare example the Mantegnas of Gangi bear stars of eight rays while their cousins, as counts of Assaro, bore stars of six rays.
An augmentation was a charge or ordinary added to a coat of arms by royal authority to indicate an armiger's loyalty or military merit. A distinctively Italian development in this direction was the chief of allegiance: three golden fleurs de lis between a red label on a blue field for the Guelphs and a black eagle displayed on a gold field for the Ghibellines. These were based on the arms of the Angevins (the gold fleurs de lis on a blue field) and the Hohenstaufens (the crowned, uncrowned or double-headed black eagle displayed upon a gold field). The chief of allegience was virtually unknown in Sicily, a key region contested by both factions, but these chiefs (a chief is an "ordinary" that occupies the upper horizontal third of the shield) made their way into the coats of arms of many families of northern and central Italy.
Symbolism and Canting
Many Italian coats of arms are more "pictorial" than those of other regions, a trend which seems to have begun during the middle of the sixteenth century and continued long afterward, though as an artistic movement the Renaissance per se had far less influence in Sicily than it did in Italy's northern cities.
Graphic Representation and Blazonry
Still later, during the sixteenth century, the first armories were published in book form, transcribed from the blazons recorded in scrolls. In England serious attempts were made to control heraldry (that country's heralds conducted "visitations" of remote regions to ensure that armorial abuses were not being perpetrated by usurpers claiming to be armigerous), but in Italy this did not occur. Indeed, while most courts had heraldic officers there were also "independent" heralds in Italy. These "heralds errant" made their services available to any nobleman or other armiger (or aspiring armiger) willing to pay them.
Seals for wax impressions became popular among important armigers, such as those who had to sign feudal documents. By 1700 these were increasingly popular in the form of heavy silver or gold rings which by their nature were more portable than heavy seals attached to handles, and offered the added advantage of serving as ready identification as well. Surprisingly few of these signet rings have been preserved; those in the greatest families rarely date from before 1800. Yet even many of those engraved in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries reflect a touch of traditional artistry.
Coats of arms were also carved into stone, especially above the entry portals of aristocrats' homes, or in effigies of stone sarcophogi.
Armorial Achievements and Crest Coronets
Having mentioned the general absence of indications of cadency in Italian escutcheons, it is important to describe how an armiger's position in his family is depicted in his full achievement. In Italy a system of coronets (crowns) is employed to this end. A different coronet exists for each rank: noble prince (principe), duke (duca), marquess (marchese), count (conte), viscount (visconte), baron (barone), patrician (patrizio), untitled nobleman (nobile), hereditary knight (cavaliere ereditario). The arms of an armigerous but non-noble "citizen" (cittadino) do not include a coronet; this is a rare form of armorial recognition comparable to the degree of esquire in England or burgher in central Europe. Unless an armiger happens to be the head of his family (for example a count), his full achievement indicates his rank as an untitled nobleman atop the escutcheon, with the familial coronet of rank atop the helm. The crest – if any – is placed atop this coronet. The example shown here is the achievement of a "nobile dei conti" who might be the younger son, younger brother or younger male cousin of a count. The blazon of arms, as indicated by the hatching, is "argent a bend gules."
The style and angle of the helmet varies according to the armiger's rank, and certain stylistic characteristics distinguish Italian heraldry from that seen elsewhere. The torse, for example, is usually only about half as thick as what would be seen in an English or German coat of arms.
The mantling is rendered in two tinctures; the outside is the principal enamel and the lining is the principal metal. The first colour shown in the torse (on the left side) is usually the principal metal, though that is not the case in the example shown here. The helmet usually faces the left. In Italian heraldry a helm facing the right traditionally indicated "bastardy" (a son born outside marriage), but there are few cases known of this usage in practice.
Some heraldic achievements are more complex, featuring a figure on each side of the shield (outside of it) supporting it as if to hold it in place. Such supporters, invariably animate figures such as humans or animals, are reserved to royalty and the most important noble families.
Helms are usually silver in colour (as though made of silver or steel), perhaps with some gold ornamentation or details. Coronets are gold for the most part (the ring, rim and stems if rendered), embellished with jewels (alternating sapphires, rubies, emeralds) and topped with pearls (rendered white or light grey). The inside lining of the coronet is usually colored deep red or deep green, as if it were formed of plush velvet fabric. The number of pearls and/or strawberry leaves (the latter for princes, marquesses and dukes) indicates the armiger's nobiliary rank.
Armigers of the nobility (in Italy representing 90% of all armigers and including some untitled families) sometimes display the coronet set atop the escutcheon, without helm, torse and mantling.
Recent centuries have seen a trend toward the squarish "scudo sannitico" but traditional curved forms, such as those shown on this page, are acceptable, especially in simpler "medieval" designs.
A lady may display the coat of arms of her father's family until she is married, when she assumes her husband's arms if he has any. In Italian heraldry this usually takes one of three forms (shown here) rather than a shield. The oval is traditional; this is also used in central Europe. The lozenge, a diamond shape, is also seen, and this is used not only in Continental Europe but in England, Scotland and Ireland. Less frequent, but equally appropriate, is the "oval-lozenge," pointed on the bottom but curved at the top; however, this is sometimes confused for a shield, which may be rounded at the top to represent three dimensions.
The coat of arms of the Two Sicilies (Kingdom of Naples and Sicily), shown here, is highly unusual as a king's coat of arms rendered in an oval form. Several explanations have been advanced to explain this. Whatever the reason, it is in that sense unique among the arms of the principal ruling families of nineteenth century Europe. In the event its use as the symbol of a reigning dynasty, despite pretensions to numerous other realms, was rather short-lived, from 1734 until 1861. It is, of course, still displayed by the princes of this dynasty.
Composition and Rendering
Heraldry in Familial History
How many Sicilian families are entitled to historical coats of arms? Mango's Nobiliario di Sicilia includes most blazons but by no means all of them. The most generous estimate is just under three thousand blazons, spread evenly across the island, about half of which belonged to the titled nobility at one time or another. Our armory, the most complete list ever compiled, lists over two-thirds of Sicily's armigerous families, some of which are now extinct.
Titles of Nobility
Until 1948, the Consulta Araldica (College of Arms) governed heraldic matters in the Kingdom of Italy. Based first at Turin and later at Rome, this agency was part of the Ministry of the Interior. Italian heraldic law was rather complex - full of regulations and other provisions attempting to preserve certain heraldic practices of the realms which had existed in Italy before 1860. Indeed, various regional heraldic commissions had spent decades to ensure that the entrenched nobilities of the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papal State, and the grand duchies of Tuscany, Parma and Modena, as well as certain formerly Austrian territories, would not be unduly offended by the body of heraldic law of the newly-unified Italy.
In general, heretofore unrecognised noble families, whether titled or not, were required by law to petition for recognition of their ranks or titles by the Crown if such was desired. The names of the heads of these families were inscribed in the Libro d'Oro del Regno, a series of large, handwritten registers maintained at the offices of the Consulta Araldica. (This should not be confused with the Libro d'Oro published by the Collegio Araldico today; the Collegio Araldico is a private heraldic society, not a governmental entity, and its "Libro d'Oro," though reasonably reliable if incomplete, includes many fantastic histories and, particularly in cases of alleged untitled nobility, dubious claims to aristocratic lineage.)
Although the terms of decrees of creation issued prior to 1860 were respected, general regulations were instituted to establish national norms based on the Sardinian (Savoyard) model. While a few titles devolved to heirs male general, titles the subject of new creations were stipulated to be transmitted by legitimate male primogeniture. In certain realms, such as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, female succession (the so-called Sicilian Siccession established by Frederick II) had been permitted in cases where male heirs were lacking, and this policy was abrogated by a decree of 1926 – though henceforth a specific royal decree could recognise female succession. Transmission of titles to adopted children required royal rescript and was otherwise illegal.
The last Italian monarch, King Umberto II (1904-1983), was deposed by popular referendum in 1946. Though its results have been disputed in certain quarters (particularly by fervent monarchists and by several Italian regional courts), this referendum – remarkably, the first occasion for Italian women to vote – was held under American auspices during the Allied occupation and established the Italian Republic as a legitimate state recognised internationally and, eventually, by the United Nations and by all of the former ruling dynasties, the Vatican, the Republic of San Marino and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
While the micro-nations within Italy (Vatican City, San Marino) may have recognised certain Italian titles of nobility at one time, it is clear that Italy itself does not. When Italy and the Vatican updated their concordat in 1984 (based on the Lateran Treaties of 1929), the clause obligating Italy to recognise titles of nobility created by the Vatican for Italian citizens was abrogated. The position of the Vatican is that (theologically) all the children of God are equal in His eyes; as a matter of courtesy the Vatican may occasionally cite or mention the nobiliary title of somebody whose title is recognised in his/her own country of citizenship, a policy which obviously excludes Italians, but neither the Vatican nor the Holy See itself "recognises" titles through certification. While the Order of Malta is trerated as a state by Italy and some other countries, it is merely a Catholic organisation without ecclesiastical authority (it is not part of the Church) and as such may "recognise" Italians' titles of nobility with the same effect as any other private group, such as the Corpo della Nobiltà Italiana or the former ruling families. The Order of Malta is not recognised diplomatically by the United States or the United Kingdom.
Article 139 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic codifies the exile of the King of Italy and his male heirs, a provision abrogated only fifty years later. It also abolishes the Consulta Araldica and official recognition of predicati (territorial designations or "seats") if recognised during the Fascist era (i.e. after 28 October 1922). Subsequently, these designations could be suffixed to surnames as a result of individual petitions to provincial courts having jurisdiction in such matters. Eventually, Italian high courts would issue still more rulings to attenuate the status even of those titles recognised before 1922, but local courts would uphold the rights to identity of titled aristocrats in cases where impostors claimed the titles and territorial designations of living persons whose immediate forebears had been recognised by the Consulta Araldica before 1922. In other words, somebody setting up, for example, a winery with the name "Principe di Trabia" might be prosecuted civilly by the Lanza family (descendants of the historical Princes of Trabia) for a form of fraud akin to identity theft.
In the 1960s a few descendants of noble families tried to circumvent the Constitution of 1948 by attempting to register their former titles as a legal component of their surnames (as is done in Germany) and to legalise the use of certain predicati recognised after 1922. In a landmark decision, Italy's Constitutional Court (with Sentence 101, rendered on 26 June 1967), signed by fourteen sitting justices, denied this petition and incidentally ruled that most heraldic-nobiliary decrees of the nation's Savoy kings between 1887 and 1943 are "unconstitutional." Such a ruling regarding the laws of a predecessor state may be debated, but if the Italian Republic could repeal the infamous anti-semitic laws decreed by the King of Italy in 1936, as well as numerous statutes in the civil, commercial and penal codes, it is clear that laws favoring a hereditary social class (the nobility) could be abolished. An important underlying principle cited was that expressed in Article 3 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic: "All citizens are accorded equal social rights before the law." Incidentally, under this constitutional principle, courts and other authorities (such as those issuing passports) are not required to mention or record a citizen's professional titles, such as professor or doctor, or religious ones (bishop, monsignor, father, sister).
The Italian Republic's recognition (for cultural purposes) of royal dynasties other than the House of Savoy to bestow honours (knighthoods) fostered an appreciation of pre-1860 nobiliary laws insofar as the heads of these houses (Bourbon-Sicilies, Tuscany, Parma) "recognise" titles of nobility, but this is largely hypothetical in the world of non-regnant dynasties and their social-climbing followers. Heraldic laws governing the use of coats of arms and titles of nobility in the Kingdom of Sicily, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Kingdom of Italy are mere relics of the past lacking any recognition or enforcement.
The sale of Italian noble titles is entirely fraudulent; a titled Italian cannot divest himself of a title of nobility, even with a notarised document, and under Italian heraldic law an adoptive child could not become the heraldic or nobiliary heir of his adoptive father.
Examples abound of people who – either intentionally or out of simple ignorance – claim titles to which they have no right. This phenomenon is not unique to Italians, and in recent years a number of individuals (including some in the Americas) have even falsified lineages to successfully convince the Order of Malta or other organisations of their ancestral "nobility."
On a grander stage stand various Sicilians who claim to be Byzantine, Norman, Aragonese or Swabian "princes" of long-extinct medieval dynasties that ruled Sicily in centuries past. This kind of misrepresentation is nothing new, and a few of these claimants have been in business for decades; in at least two families some enterprising ancestors managed to accumulate official-looking documents seemingly recognising or "validating" their fantastic pretensions during the nineteenth century. For a fee, these eccentric "pretenders" create titles of nobility, grant coats of arms and bestow knighthoods which, of course, are completely fake. Yet they manage to deceive otherwise well-informed people.
An underlying problem in many instances is that a publisher (of a directory of "noble" families), institution (such as a university president) or individual (the newly-ennobled "count" or "baron") who has been deceived in this manner is not likely to wish to admit it in a public way, so the charlatans are not always identified.
In the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, one of the few remaining institutions to recognise armigerous or nobiliary ancestry, heraldic fraud is rampant. In one case a Sicilian man falsified several certificates of baptism and marriage to (deceptively) prove his descent from a baronial family to the satisfaction of the Order. In another, a man presented to a European heraldic authority, and in turn to the Order, a lineal pedigree in which three successive 18th-century generations of alleged ancestors (linking him to an aristocratic family) were purely hypothetical. In another astounding case, a Sicilian descended illegitimately in the male line from a prominent but now-extinct noble family was accepted. These pedigrees were accepted by "experts" who should have known better – and who should have demanded certified scans or photocopies of actual supporting documents (easily compared to those retained in archives) instead of certificates. In this connection, and to make clear that Italians are not the only offenders, it should be mentioned that a number of Americans (of non-Italian ancestry) whose "ancestral nobility" has been recognised by the Order of Malta are in fact "heraldic impostors" whose pedigrees do not actually support their claims for admission to the grades of Honor and Devotion or Grace and devotion. (Here we refer to cases after 2000.)
The majority of feudatories were simply signori (from the French seigneur, a title introduced into Italy by the eleventh-century Normans), vassali (vassals) or cavalieri (knights). Eventually, this class came to be known collectively as the baroni (barons), as in Italy barone was not always a title descriptive of a particular feudal rank. During the fourteenth century, most minor feudal lands became baronies, their holders barons. It must be observed that the use of these titles usually required some form of sovereign sanction or feudal tenure.
Though they had been used rarely, titles of nobility had certainly existed before circa 1300, but these were usually military ranks and not hereditary. During the fourteenth century, nobiliary titles became hereditary in most of Italy, usually transmitted by male primogeniture and almost invariably linked to land.
Under the Longobards and their residual civilization (the Lombards) in Italy, a fief might devolve to heirs male general of the feudatory, which is to say, to all of his legitimate sons. Yet, this was not a uniform or universal practice. With the Norman influence, Frankish law, dictating male primogeniture as a means of feudal succession, supplanted the Longobard norm in most of Italy. With very few exceptions, Italian titles are inherited only by eldest sons.
By tradition, certain titles, usually dukedoms, are vested in the persons of royal princes. The Head of the Royal House of Italy, though a royal prince, is the Duke of Savoy. The Head of the Royal House of the Two Sicilies, also a royal prince, is the Duke of Castro. These titles are analogous to the royal dukedoms (York, Kent, etc.) accorded to members of the British Royal Family.
Until 1812 the purchase of Sicilian lands designated "feudal" ennobled the buyer ipso facto; the purchaser of a comital fief (a county) thus became a count. This practice ceased with the abolition of feudalism. (Serfdom, a feudal institution, was abolished in Italy during the Middle Ages.) A number of families still own portions of their traditional feudal holdings, but feudal rights and prerogatives of any kind were finally abrogated throughout the country by the time that Italy was united in 1860. Although most Italian titles are attached to nominal "seats" (territorial designations), usually the names of former fiefs (manors) or dimore, the ranks and titles are incorporeal. That is to say that, like an idea, name or copyright, the titles constitute a form of intangible property, but property nonetheless. In fact, this is true of nobiliary titles in most nations; the Duke of Westminster, for example, would retain his ancestral title even if he had no actual property in the dukedom of Westminster.
In the Kingdom of Italy, titles of nobility did not accord their holders parliamentary seats or, indeed, any particularly noteworthy privileges save for some purely heraldic (armorial) ones, such as the legal use of a title and coat of arms and precedence at the Royal Court. The principle that the person of a "peer" or other nobleman was inviolable was not applied in nineteenth-centuruy Italian law, for it did not exist. That a titled nobleman ("pari" or "peer" in common parlance though "peers of the realm" were actually greater nobles elected to the Sicilian Parliament beginning in 1812) might enjoy freedom from attachment was likewise an unknown right.
One reason for this is that with the introduction of liberal Savoyard (Piedmontese) law throughout most of Italy by 1870, the Neapolitan and Papal attitudes toward the rights of the nobility had already begun to disappear, and in the event were no longer supported by statute.
Titles and Ranks
Principe, Principessa. (Prince, Princess). From the Latin princeps, meaning first, this is the highest Italian title of nobility, and also the title accorded members of the royal families. Many of Italy's noble princes, particularly in northern regions, are princes "of the Holy Roman Empire," and lack feudal territorial designations attached to their titles. Some southern princes descend from the most ancient medieval feudatories. In most cases, the holder of a princely title in Italy is the descendant of forebears who in antiquity were barons or counts, the family having been elevated through the nobiliary ranks over the centuries. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, princes were addressed most formally as "Your Excellency," a form of address that may be compared, in this instance, to the British use of "Your Grace" for a duke or duchess. The wife of a prince is a princess. The younger son of a prince, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei principi di (seat), namely a "noble of the princes of" some place. Use of the honorific appellations don (lord) and donna (lady) for the son and daughter of a prince is obsolete except in formal documents issued by institutions that recognize Italian titular nobility. Princes and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and territorial designation. The heraldic coronet of a noble prince is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by four visible pearls between five visible strawberry leaves. In most representations, the deep red tasselled cap is not rendered within the coronet.
Duca, Duchessa. (Duke, Duchess). Derived from the Latin dux, a military leader, this title originally was reserved to the sovereign rulers of important territories, such as the Duchy of Spoleto. Like princedoms, dukedoms are sometimes borne by nobles whose early medieval forebears were barons, enfeoffed knights or other feudatories. Like princes, dukes were formerly accorded the address "Your Excellency." The younger son of a duke, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei duchi di (seat), namely a "noble of the dukes of" some place. Dukes and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and territorial designation. The heraldic coronet of a duke is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by five visible strawberry leaves. Usually, the crimson tasselled cap is not rendered within the coronet.
Marchese, Marchesa. (Marquess, Marchioness). The term derives from the Old Italian marchio, referring to the man charged with guarding a march, or border territory, and the French marquis shares the same origin. The Marches region, which borders Umbria, is so-called because it was once such a territory. Some attribute the origin of this word to the Middle Latin marchisus, a prefect. Most marquessates are of modern foundation; one reads of few marchesi before the fifteenth century, and the title is quite rare even today. The younger son of a marquess, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei marchesi di (seat), namely a "noble of the marquesses of" some place. Marquesses and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and surname; since in Italy a woman usually continues to use her own father's surname even after marriage, a marchesa may bear a surname other than her husband's. The heraldic coronet of a marquess is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by three visible strawberry leaves, the central leaf flanked by two rows of three pearls each, supported by stems or set directly upon the rim.
Conte, Contessa. (Count, Countess). The word traces its origin from the Latin comes, for a military companion. Comital territories were large in the eleventh century, but virtually indistinguishable from baronies by the fourteenth. For purposes of precedence, there is no contemporary distinction between a feudal count and a count palatine; the latter was usually a court officer who lacked a fief or territorial designation attached to his title, and in Sicily there are several counts of the Holy Roman Empire, such as the Testa family. It is noteworthy that conte is one of the few Italian titles sometimes – though rarely – inherited by all heirs male, depending on the terms set forth in the patent of creation. The younger son of a count, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei conti di (seat), namely a "noble of the counts of" some place. Counts and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and surname. The heraldic coronet of a count is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by nine visible pearls, supported by stems or set directly upon the rim.
Visconte, Viscontessa. (Viscount, Viscontess). Originally vice comes, for the attendant of a count, this is the rarest of the modern Italian nobiliary titles, almost unknown in some regions. The younger son of a viscount, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei visconti di (seat), namely a "noble of the viscounts" of some place. The standard crest coronet of a viscount is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by five visible pearls, the middle and outer ones supported by stems, the remaining two rendered in a smaller diameter and set directly upon the rim.
Barone, Baronessa. (Baron, Baroness). The title is probably of Germanic origin; the Latin root baro referred to a simpleton, but by the Middle Ages baronis was a title of nobility or, more often, a nobiliary rank employed in reference to holders of feudal property. Most seigneuries (see below) were eventually elevated to baronies. In the South, the most important medieval baronies were elevated to princedoms or dukedoms by the eighteenth century. Though often employed loosely in the remote past, the title barone was by 1800 established to be a creation or recognition resulting from royal prerogative, not an honorific privilege to be appropriated by any wealthy landholder. Heraldic regulation in the Kingdom of Italy further established that the sons of barons could no longer appropriate cavaliere as a courtesy title. Barone is the most frequent of the modern Italian noble titles. The younger son of a baron, and the heir before succession to the title, is a nobile dei baroni di (seat), namely a "noble of the barons of" some place. The standard heraldic coronet of a baron is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by seven pearls, supported by stems or placed directly upon the rim.
Signore (seigneur). Originally a feudal lord, the title was introduced into Italy by the Franks and Normans. Formerly a minor rank, the title is rarely used today because most signori bear greater titles by which they are commonly known, and because, in common parlance, signore has come to mean "Mister." It may, albeit in an abstract sense, be compared to such ancient titles as mor or esquire, but is actually a manorial lord. Seigneuries were feudal lands, manors, similar to baronies but usually (in medieval times) smaller, appertaining to certain lords, either as sub-fiefs within baronies or, in some cases, depending from the Crown directly. A signore might therefore owe fealty to a baron or directly to the king. This is the lowest title which carries a territorial designation or seat, as manors were named in the same style as baronies. As these noblemen bear a title which is no longer in use, though still mentioned in nobility directories, no particular crest coronet is displayed for this rank. In practice, a signore may display the coronet of an untitled nobleman (see below). At the abolition of feudalism in 1812, there was scholarly debate as to whether signore should be considered a title in itself, as not all manors had become baronies. In Piedmont, however, the similar title vassallo (vassal) was used into the nineteenth century.
Patrizio (Patrician). Rare in Sicily (except for a few families in Messina), the term obviously derives from that used to describe the aristocratic class of ancient Rome, and identifies the urban patriciate of certain northern Italian cities. A patrizio is said to be "of" a certain place, such as Venice or Florence, without it being his "feudal" seat (patricians were an urban aristocracy). The rank is normally transmitted to heirs male general. According to legislation enacted by the Consulta Araldica, there is no feminine, but the daughter of a patrizio might be said to be dei patrizi [surname], namely "of the patricians [surname]." Patrizio is also the translation of the name Patrick; Patrizia is Patricia but is never used as a title. The crest coronet of a patrician is a simple jewelled circlet of gold.
Nobile (Untitled Nobleman). In the Dark Ages, local leaders known to their people were nobiliti, from the Latin nobilitas, meaning, appropriately, "known." The rank denotes some - though not all - aristocratic Italian families which bear historic coats of arms but lack titles of nobility. In some ways, this class may be compared to the landed gentry of Great Britain. There are, strictly speaking, two classes of nobili: the younger sons of titled nobles, and males of the aforementioned noble families in which there have never been titles (including the giurati nobili and members of the mastra nobile councils of demesnial cities). In some cases, a title passed out of a family long ago. Most of the armigerous families listed in our armory are, in fact, simple nobili. The crest coronet of a nobile is a jewelled circlet of gold surmounted by five pearls, supported by stems or set directly upon the rim.
Cavaliere Ereditario (Hereditary Knight Bachelor). This rank, usually transmitted by male primogeniture but sometimes to heirs male general, is quite similar to a British baronetcy but older. However, it does not, as is commonly believed, have any direct connection to the medieval rank of the enfeoffed knight. Most cavalieri ereditari descend from the younger sons of nobles or from historically untitled families ennobled with this form of knighthood in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries in Sicily, Sardinia and some parts of mainland Italy. Writing in 1925, Francesco San Martino de Spucches speculated that, at least in theory, hundreds of Sicilians entitled to no other hereditary honour could lawfully succeed to particular hereditary knighthoods which were long-dormant for lack of claimants.
— Luigi Mendola
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