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Births outside Marriage in Sicily
by Maria Luisa Romano

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A baby boom?Are the fedina, the arcane practice of rustic engagements and the complexities of marriage in Sicily really accepted by most Sicilian women? In a few cases, perhaps, but at the other extreme it's clear that a few are raising children outside the traditional context of marriage. In Sicily around 14% of all births are to unwed women, compared to 28% in certain mainland regions (Liguria, Tuscany), and it is estimated that half of all Italian births will be in this category by 2020. France has already reached that point while Sweden, at around 56%, has exceeded it. Italy's national average is presently 20%.

In considering such statistics, it should be remembered that the number of Sicily's unwed couples having children is somewhat higher than the 14% cited because most such couples have a single child while many married couples have more than one. These are generalities, of course.

It used to be that there were "legitimate" children and "natural" ones, and these terms still appear in some Italian laws. A more enduring vestige of the past is the practice, outlawed in 1928, of assigning to foundlings surnames indicative of their origins: Proietti, D'Ignoti, Trovato, Di Dio, Mingota, Esposito, D'Amore, Mulo. More often, such children were given whimsical surnames - even those of royal families - such as Savoia or Farnese. In certain cities a particular surname would arbitrarily be assigned to all such children, though the name itself would be generic enough to avoid any social implications. Matronymics, such as Di Maria and D'Anna, were typically assigned to the children of unwed women.

According to a popular cliché, something of a sociological urban legend, in centuries past it was mostly either aristocrats or peasants who spawned most children born outside marriage, and "middle class values" (which supposedly discouraged the practice among the bourgeoisie) are sometimes cited in explanation of this. While Frederick II was certainly prolific in fathering natural children, the reality is that Sicily had scarcely any middle class to speak of until the twentieth century so, statistically speaking, comparatively few births of any kind were to parents of the tiny middle class before 1900.

Recent legislation has addressed the phenomenon of births outside marriage. When enrolling a child in school, for example, the "short" form of birth certificate required need not list his parents' names but simply the child's name, place and date of birth. (In Italy a woman does not take her husband's surname upon marrying.) It is also easier for a father to "recognise" his child born outside marriage, who may be assigned the surname of either his mother or father. In effect, most of the social stigma of "illegitimacy" has disappeared, even if the concept of "legitimacy" has not vanished entirely. If recognised, the child born outside marriage also has more rights of inheritance (as his father's heir) today than he would have had decades years ago. Genetic testing has played its part too.

Times change. Into the early years of the twentieth century most Sicilian marriages were arranged by the spouses' parents or (at least) would not be undertaken without parental approval.

Outside of the aristocracy, where titles of nobility and coats of arms (albeit not recognised in law since 1948) cannot be transmitted to children born outside marriage, the social stigma attached to births outside marriage has largely disappeared. At one time this was a very real fact of life, even if recent literature and depictions sometimes make light of it. In the 1968 film Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell, Gina Lollobrigida plays an Italian mother uncertain of the identity of the American man who fathered her child during the Second World War, a story which inspired the musical Mamma Mia. Of course, few of today's "unwed births" are nearly so dramatic - though I personally know of at least three cases among Sicily's "middle class" where a DNA test was required to determine the paternity of a 20-ish woman's baby. Phrases like "ragazza madre" (teenage mother) are rarely heard anymore, perhaps because so many unwed mothers are well into their twenties if not their thirties. What is interesting, considering Italy's Roman Catholic culture and the horrendous attitudes of the recent past, is how readily Sicilians seem to have embraced the idea.

Indeed, it has gone mainstream. A number of Italy's national politicians - from senators and deputies to the prime minister himself - have fathered children outside marriage. Even a prince of the House of Savoy is counted among this fraternity. In some cases it's a question of a married man fathering a child with his mistress, but in fact some of these "married" men are legally separated from their wives; in Italy a separation runs at least three years before a divorce can be granted.

Divorce has clearly played a role here, for if Italy's mandatory three-year waiting period between separation and divorce did not exist, more petitioners for divorce would be free to marry at an earlier date. The fact is that many divorced men do, in fact, eventually wed the mothers of their "natural" children, even if some forego the matter entirely.

At the same time, many unwed parents who were free to marry when their child was born (but did not) will, in fact, get married following the child's birth.

Whether the paternal recognition of a child born outside marriage, or the subsequent marriage of his father and mother, is tantamount to legitimisation is, for the most part, an arcane legal and social argument. Clearly, Italy still considers marriage an important institution and Italians have been reluctant to pass laws recognising "common law" marriages ("coppie di fatto"). European Union norms usually influence national laws sooner or later, and that may eventually happen here.

A more prosaic, but immediate, concern is the claiming of a man's pension and other benefits by the mother of his child (not being his wife) in a jurisdiction where common-law unions do not exist. This would be especially tricky in cases where the child's parents do not live together. At all events, however, the rights of a recognised child to his father's surname and estate are protected by recently-enacted laws.

Clearly, it's time to rethink the outsider's perception of Sicilians as "traditionalists." Traditions, after all, evolve over time.

About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has written about social topics for various Italian magazines, including this one.

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© 2010 Maria Luisa Romano and Best of Sicily