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from a single social and even religious caste formed into an order whose very existence is not suspected by the man in the street."
So one reads in Roger Peyrefitte's Knights of Malta published in English to critical acclaim in 1959. The knightly orders historically
associated with Sicily and Sicilians are, if anything, even more arcane. One of
them is the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint
George. Unlike the Order of Saint John (now the Order of Malta), this institution
was founded after the Middle Ages. Like the Order of Malta, it was engaged
during the sixteenth century in the defence of Europe from the Turks. The
difference is that while the Knights of Malta were involved primarily in
sea battles, the Constantinian knights fought on land in the Balkans.
Both the order's symbolism - the Chi Rho monogram of Christ with
the motto In Hoc Signo Vinces - and its legend were inspired by Emperor
Constantine's victory at Rome's Milvian Bridge during the fourth century. In fact, the order was founded a few decades after
the fall of his capital, Constantinople, to the Turks some ten centuries later (in 1453).
In its earliest years,
the Constantinian Order constituted a small fighting force under a dynasty
of Byzantine exiles in Venice who claimed the Crown of Constantinople -
hence the order's name and Eastern tradition. Whether these pretenders enjoyed
the most legitimate claim to the Byzantine Throne and its distinguished Comnenus dynasty is a matter of scholarly debate,
but the Counter-Reformation Papacy - never having forgotten the effects of
the Great Schism of 1054 or the Christians' loss of
Constantinople in 1453 - supported their position. In 1555 Pope Julius III recognised
both the order and the dynastic claim of the Angelus and Drivastus pretenders
who had aided the cause of Scanderbeg and the Albanians.
In 1697 the last heirs of this dynasty ceded the grand magistracy of the order
to Francesco Farnese, Duke of Parma. By this time the order itself no longer
had an explicitly military purpose, though its ranks included many military
men. It had, in fact, become one of the more subtle instruments of the Counter Reformation, and
to this day a number of cardinals and bishops, including those of Naples and Palermo, are ecclesiastical knights.
In 1727 the last male Farnese, Antonio, ceded the order to the eldest
son of Elizabeth Farnese, second wife of King Philip V of Spain. When Carlo
(Charles) de Bourbon (Elizabeth's son by Philip) came to Italy to claim
his rights as Duke of Parma and King of both Naples and Sicily, the Constantinian
Order formed part of his inheritance from the Farnese dynasty.
Beginning in 1734, the Constantinian Order of Saint George, as an important dynastic
order of the Sicilian dynasty, enjoyed great prestige in Sicily. (Only in
the nineteenth century were the crowns of Naples and Sicily united to form
the "Two Sicilies" officially, though the name traces its origin
to the time of the Vespers uprising in 1282.) Palermo's medieval
Basilica of the
Magione, once a conventual church of the Teutonic
Order, became the Constantinian Order's ecclesiastical seat in Sicily in 1787
and remained so until the 1860s when Sicily was annexed to the Kingdom of
Italy. For around 125 years the Constantinian Order was one of the most
important aristocratic institutions in Sicily.
In 1759 King Carlo abdicated his Italian rights in favour of his young
son, Ferdinando, to ascend the Spanish Throne as Carlos III. From afar,
he stayed in contact with Ferdinando and the young monarch's mentors, and
continued to take a hand in the administration of the Constantinian Order,
but he had forever separated the crowns of Spain and Sicily to ensure that
no single sovereign could ever rule both kingdoms. (As recently as 1900, four decades after the loss of the Two Sicilies, one of his descendants who
stood in line to inherit headship of both houses renounced his rights to the Sicilian Crown and his descendants are today part of the Royal House of Spain.)
The order was transmitted with the Crown from father to son through Ferdinando
I, Francesco I, Ferdinando II and then to Francis II.
It was, and remains, a Roman Catholic institution, although its founders
The last King of the Two Sicilies, Francesco II
(1836-1894), was deposed and exiled in 1861. The Constantinian Order survived
the Risorgimento. Francesco himself died in exile without male heirs,
but his younger half-brother, Alfonso (1841-1934), had several sons, and
from them descend the princes of the Two-Sicilies dynasty living today,
indicated in the family tree shown here. Born in 1963, Carlo de Bourbon
of the Two Sicilies, Duke of Castro and Grand Master of the Constantinian
Order of Saint George, is the head of the dynasty. He is married and has two daughters.
The peculiarities of international law which permit institutions
such as the orders of knighthood of non-reigning royal dynasties to flourish
would take volumes to describe in detail. The point is that a few rights
and prerogatives are maintained long after a sovereign is deposed, and some
of these are transmitted to his heirs. What is interesting is that while
Italy, like most other republics in Europe, does not recognize titles of
nobility- whose social use is not actually outlawed - it does recognise several
dynastic orders which in the past were closely associated with the aristocracy. In
addition to the Constantinian Order, the Head of the House of the Two Sicilies is grand master
of the Order of San Gennaro (St Januarius) and the Order of Francis I, which may be bestowed upon non-Catholics.
Considering the island's history, Sicily is not such a strange place for the knightly orders to survive. Churches, castles and commanderies once associated
with the medieval Hospitallers, Templars and Teutonic Knights dot the landscape. The heart of Saint Louis - perhaps the ultimate crusading
knight - is preserved at Monreale Abbey overlooking Palermo. The idea of knightly investitures being
held in such places is in keeping with centuries-old tradition, and Carlo de Bourbon, the man who would be king, is a descendant of Sicily's medieval Norman,
Swabian, Angevin and Aragonese monarchs.
In addition to philanthropic work undertaken without fanfare, the Constantinian
Order is a point of reference for the historical heritage of the Kingdom
of the Two Sicilies. Like the dynasty to which it belongs by hereditary
right, it has close historical ties to the Sovereign Military of Malta.
Malta and Gozo were
a fief of the Kings of Sicily until the islands were seized by Napoleon
in 1798 en route to Egypt and the knights expelled; they found refuge at Catania and Messina before
establishing themselves in Rome. The Grand Master of the Order of Malta,
Frà Matthew Festing, like his predecessors, is a Constantinian knight. It is not unusual for southern
Italian knights and dames of Malta to be associated with the Siculo-Neapolitan order as well. The year
2008 saw changes in the grand magistral leadership of both institutions,
with Carlo de Bourbon succeeding his late father, Ferdinando, as Duke of Castro and Head of the House of the Two
Sicilies (and therefore grand master of its orders) while Matthew Festing was elected
following the death of Andrew Bertie, the fellow Englishman who
ably led the Order of Malta for two decades.
The Italian government has recognised the order for many years (several former prime ministers are Constantinian knights)
and permits its decorations to be worn on military uniform and by Italian diplomats. A number of
high-ranking officers of the Italian armed forces and Carabinieri are Constantinian knights.
Here an important point should be clarified. Italy recognizes a few of the orders of the dynasties that ruled the pre-unitary Italian states before 1860 as a question of
national heritage and history. However, the dynastic heads who award these orders have no special privilege; if they are addressed as Your Highness
it is merely by courtesy. The hereditary, vestigial trappings of these monarchies - titles of nobility and
coats of arms - are not recognized (or protected) though their private use is permitted as a form of freedom of expression.
The order, which numbers several thousand knights and dames around the
world, again uses the splendid Magione - now a parish church - for its occasional
ceremonies, and does much to assist the poor of Palermo and other parts
of Sicily. Its ranks are not exclusively aristocratic but its traditions
certainly are. The Constantinian Order may be bestowed for merit, but it
is primarily a "military-religious" chivalric order in the tradition
of those founded in the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. Today, most of
the knights and dames in the Order of Malta, the Order
of the Holy Sepulchre and the Constantinian Order of Saint George are
not aristocrats by birth but rather devout Catholics,
from all walks of life, who support works of charity in Italy and around the world. The
sword has given way to the helping hand.
The Savoys, who ousted the Bourbons in 1860,
ruled Sicily for over eighty years, and a few Sicilians born late in the
Bourbon era actually lived to see the Savoys deposed by referendum in 1946.
There is little point in demonising one dynasty or glorifying the other,
but it is clear that Sicily had a stronger identity under the Bourbons than
it had under the Savoys. The Constantinian Order is one small, living piece
of that legacy.
About the Author: Luigi Mendola has written about heraldry and