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(See Best of Sicily's heraldry links page for additional articles on
heraldry-related topics and Sicily's armigerous families.)
The first part in this series was an
introduction to 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 such as the coat
of arms of the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies shown here?
Quartering, Differencing, Augmentations
Initially the practice of "quartering" (dividing a shield
into at least four sections to display the arms of two or more ancestors)
was primarily an aristocratic affectation. True, most coats of arms were
borne by aristocrats, but not all these people were descended from numerous
armigers; the typical case was the simple country squire who, upon purchasing
a small estate, assumed arms during the fifteenth century, not being descended
by the titled nobles or enfeoffed knights of the Middle Ages. Instead, those
whose great-grandfathers were all armigerous wanted to show their connections
on their mothers' side of the family, thus distinguishing themselves from
the "new men." In England the method used to quarter an escutcheon
was fairly complex; for example, only a heraldic heiress could transmit
her arms to a son. In Italy the practice of quartering certainly existed
but was less common and far less rigid than in England.
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 (see the red charge in the figure at right) 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;
the Mantegnas of Gangi bear stars of eight rays while their cousins, as
counts of Assaro, bear 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.
This brings us to the question of symbolism in coats of arms. As we've seen,
a coat of arms can be "canted" for a surname, in effect representing
it graphically: a mulberry tree for Moro, a castle for Castello or Casati,
a caldron for Calderone, a lion for Leone, a sword for Spada, a bridge for
Ponte, a palm tree for Palmeri or de Palma, an oak branch for della Rovere,
mountains for Montini, a horseshoe for Maniscalco, a fleur de lis (lily)
for Giglio, a horse for Cavallo, a cross for della Croce, a dove for Colombo,
and so forth. The list seems endless. It is true that many of these charges
may represent a virtue or characteristic symbolically. The significance
of the cross seems obvious enough, but what about the greyhound, the dove,
the lion or the castle? It is impossible to generalise. Some coats of arms
were intentionally designed to make a symbolic statement; most were not.
The lion, for example, represents ferocity, nobility and regal courage,
but it is so frequently encountered in heraldry (it is the most common of
the heraldic beasts) that its significance cannot be considered at all exceptional
in most cases. While symbology is an interesting field in itself, its application
to heraldry is often less practical --and less impressive-- than one might
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 thirteenth century and continued into the Renaissance and beyond, though
as an artistic movement the Renaissance per se had far less influence in
Sicily than it did in Italy's northern cities.
In the Middle Ages coats of arms were recorded as paintings on sheets of
parchment (rolls of arms) or as written descriptions (blazons)
in scrolls. Illustrations were rendered in water-based paint or dark ink.
It was possible to print simple designs using block printing, but by 1470
printing with type was becoming popular, and copper-plate engraving soon
developed as well. An Italian monk named Silvestro Pietrasanta conceived
the idea of representing each heraldic tincture in black-on-white engraving through the use of a specific pattern
of lines and dots (argent was represented by unmarked white space), and
this remains part of heraldry today. (See figure at right.)
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 (eventually 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
It was previously explained that a crest is a symbol, such as a beast,
placed upon a helmet in a full achievement. What is an achievement?
This is the complete design forming the context in which a coat of arms
(or escutcheon) is usually displayed. It consists of an escutcheon
(shield) surmounted by a helm (helmet) upon which a torse
(narrow wreath of fabric twisted like rope) is placed which (if the arrangement
were an actual three-dimensional model) would secure the mantling
(representing a torn surcoat) to the helmet. If it exists (for fewer than
25% of all Italian achievements have them), a crest is placed atop the torse.
Italian heraldry, however, shares with Continental heraldry a feature absent
in English, Scots and Irish armory: the crest-coronet.
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 there is one-- 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 at the beginning of this article and keyed at right, 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
Heraldic art has its own styles and conventions. As interpretive, realistic
or "dimensional" as heraldic renderings may be, they must be faithful
to blazon and to the traditions of heraldry. The limbs of "rampant"
beasts, for example, must be placed in specific positions, with the right
fore and hind legs higher than the left ones. The rose is a highly stylised
symbol, and trees are drawn with the foliage being disproportionately large
compared to the length of the trunk. Like religious icons, heraldic symbols
should be representational but not literal. True, some drawings and sculptures
are particularly Baroque in style, but a photographic realism is not usually
compatible with armorial art.
Filadelfo Mugnos (Teatro Genologico 1647) and Antonino Mango (Nobiliario di Sicilia
1912) compiled reliable Sicilian armories. Giambattista di Crollalanza's
work (Dizionario Storico-Blasonico 1888) encompassed all of the newly-united
Italy, while that of Vittorio Spreti (Enciclopedia Storico-Nobiliare
Italiana 1928) concentrated on the new nation's titled families. There
exists no single source or compendium that includes all Sicilian coats of
arms, and there is no impartial scholarly body which can assist with research.
(As mentioned in the previous article, heraldry
is unregulated in Italy, where coats of arms are not recognised by law.)
The field remains eclectic in that there are various sources and usages,
especially where the untitled but armigerous aristocracy is concerned. If
a researcher finds a coat of arms represented in architecture or an obscure
document from before 1700 but no published reference mentioning or confirming
it, does this mean that the arms are in some way false or illegal? Hardly,
since they clearly existed and were used by somebody, probably without censure.
(This is the case of the arms of Guccione of Alia.) Eight centuries of Sicilian
heraldic use and tradition cannot be considered solely in view of eight
decades of unification, and attempted regulation, under the Kings of Italy.
Heraldry as Familial History
As was mentioned earlier, Italian coats of arms may properly be considered
familial rather than individual, with cadency not clearly indicated. In
the black and white example shown here, most legitimate descendants in the
male line could display this coat of arms; only the achievement of the titled
head of the family (in this case a count) would be different as he would
use a specific coronet of rank. This is quite different from English, Scots
and Irish heraldy (where coats of arms are personal) but similar to that
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 around three thousand blazons,
spread evenly across the island, about half of which belong to the titled nobility.
The next article in this series explains titles of nobility.
About the Author: Luigi Mendola is one of the foremost experts in the field of Italian
heraldry, and his work has been published since the early 1980s in the United
Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere. This article is the second in a