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Marriage Sicilian Style
(This page deals with Sicilian weddings historically. For Sicily-based wedding planners visit our links page.) Ornate bridal gowns, ceremonies in splendid Norman churches, and receptions in aristocratic palaces make Sicilian weddings the world's most elaborate, and while most Christian wedding celebrations are essentially the same today, there are still a few things that make Sicilian ones special. Each of Sicily's religions has contributed to the development of Sicilian weddings, and to marriage practices in general. Marriage in Sicily is a serious matter (and the remarks on this page are intended merely as generalities), but it also has its more humorous side...

Yesterday and Today
Engagements and Courtship
Older Men and Younger Women
Foreign Spouses in Sicily
Mamma and Wifey
Modern Marriage
Almost Forever
Saudi Sicilia?

Yesterday and Today
As far as the weddings themselves are concerned, a bride in a city like Palermo can choose to have her wedding in a church that is Norman-Arab, Byzantine, Romanesque Gothic, Baroque or modern. In few cities does such a wide choice of authentic period churches exist. Then there is an authentic Baroque palazzo for the dinner following the ceremony. A unique creation by Marella Ferrera.Many of Sicily's aristocratic families rent out their palatial homes for such occasions. If cost is unimportant (as it often becomes), there's a bridal gown custom-made by one of Sicily's fashion designers.

Christianity was firmly established in Sicily by the fifth century. The early Church was Byzantine (Orthodox), and much of its tradition is preserved in the Eastern Rite parishes of Sicily's Albanian communities. As recently as the thirteenth century, many of Sicily's ecclesiastical traditions were Eastern, though the "Western" Church of Rome was gradually evolving into a distinct entity, making inroads in Sicily since the Norman dominion.

In successive centuries, there evolved in Sicily a form of nuptial ritual heavily influenced by the newer Latin customs and rural folk traditions. By the eighteenth century, most of the aristocracy had migrated to larger cities, particularly Palermo and Catania, and began to develop its own ceremony and protocol influenced by the practices of the Neapolitan (and Spanish) nobility, but aristocratic weddings were remarkably similar to folk weddings in many respects.

To a certain extent, however, some Sicilian wedding practices were also influenced by much older practices, such as those of ancient Greece and Rome. An example is the use of witnesses. The idea of a "best man," or male attendant of the male spouse ("groom"), was a Germanic and Slavic custom which originated with the practice of a man's being accompanied by a close friend if he wed a woman in a neighboring village. This was part of central European tribal tradition and continued long after the Roman conquest of much of central Europe and the Balkans. The use of bridesmaids, called damigelle (literally "damsels") in Italian, is also a medieval Teutonic custom. It is probably rooted in the practice of an aristocratic bride taking with her two or three close friends (ladies-in-waiting) when she went to live in the castle or manor of her new husband. Since feudalism was not introduced in Sicily until the eleventh century, this practice never became very widespread on the island, which had been ruled by Muslims for more than two hundred years and had previously been part of the Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") Empire. Of course, Sicily's "recent" feudal heritage was more Norman than Longobard, but certain older feudal institutions, such as the serfdom of Normandy, were never widely introduced here. Italian spouses each have a witness ("best man" and maid of honour), but these attendants' social functions derive from a practice based on Roman Law and Canon Law rather than Germanic Law.

Some interesting customs have survived in the countryside. In some towns, a group of friends and relatives accompany the bride in procession from her house (usually her parents' home) to the church, where the groom and his witness are waiting. In prominent noble families, until recently, a wedding might be celebrated in a chapel in the family's palace. A few southern Italian wedding customs have found their way into other nations' nuptial traditions. For example, both forms of confetti (from the Italian for "candy"), the small bits of coloured paper as well as the filled candy, originated in Italy's South.

Engagements and Courtship
Engagement rings, such as those with gemstones, were always a rarity in Sicily outside the high aristocracy. In former times (i.e. until circa 1900), most Italian weddings, complete with dowries, were arranged by consent of the spouses' parents. A girl might be informally betrothed while fairly young, perhaps at fourteen, and wed at around the age of eighteen (though there were instances of girls marrying at fifteen), but usually wore no ring to indicate this.

Considering these realities, debutante balls (or even formal dances for teenagers) obviously would have been superfluous in a place like Sicily, and remain a rarity today. In some aristocratic families, a young woman's "debut" may be marked by a formal dinner. In the past, her attending a ball (also a rarity in today's Sicily) would have indicated a girl's coming of age.

The twentieth century, with its less restrictive courtship practices, saw the use of the "fedina" (from the term "fede di matrimonio" for a wedding band). This is a ring similar to a wedding band but thinner, and therefore less costly, that young unmarried lovers exchange to indicate an "engagement." In reality, these are not usually formal engagements but just extended romances. The long "engagements" (fidanzamenti) in Sicily today, which, incredibly, often span five or ten years, result from particular customs and circumstances. Nowadays, when non-marital sex is commonplace, it lends more dignity to a couple's relationship (at least in the eyes of some traditionalists) to say that they are "engaged," even if they are not. Particularly in the South of Italy, where unemployment is high, long engagements are defended with the explanation that the man wants to find a secure job before marrying, but it is clear that many men take advantage of these long-term courtships to avoid matrimonial responsibility. "Nobody buys the cow when they can milk it for free," and a Sicilian woman is understandably disappointed to be abandoned by a man with whom she has been "engaged" for six or seven years. In few other parts of the world (or in other parts of Italy) is this bizarre practice of extremely lengthy courtship so widespread as in Sicily.

When the couple announces their formal engagement, usually a year or two before the wedding, the groom's parents might invite the bride's parents to a small dinner or dessert in their home. This way, they can meet if they haven't already. The bride's family usually defrays the cost of the wedding, and may purchase a home for the couple. Bridal showers are not routine, though bridal registry is, and wedding gifts are usually quite expensive. As Sicilian couples prefer to move into a home that is completely furnished, the betrothed will spend much time purchasing what they want. One might refer to the items a bride receives from her family as a trousseau, though actual dowries don't exist except in some of the most aristocratic families.

The simple fact is that, given the long history of arranged marriages --at least until the 1920s in some families and localities-- romantic courtship may be considered something of a novelty in Sicily; in the past there simply wasn't any reason for it. This helps to explain some of the seemingly "unorthodox" dating practices noticed by any foreigner (or northern Italian) who lives in Sicily for very long.

In former times, a couple that wanted to marry, but whose fathers did not approve of the union, would elope, sometimes by leaving town for a brief "honeymoon" or sojourn together. This wasn't an actual marriage, which legally required parental consent, but would usually prompt such consent because, it being implicitly "obvious" that the young lady was no longer a virgin, no other man would want to marry her. Marriage would avoid further scandal. In practice, this tactic ("fuitina" is the Sicilian word which has become part of Italian vernacular) was often tacitly approved of by fathers too poor to afford to give their daughters large wedding feasts. Incidentally, a mother's consent was required only when a prospective spouse's father was deceased. (The concept of Italian society as "matriarchal," either legally or socially, is a myth which has flourished outside Italy; Italian women couldn't even vote until 1946, and before the twentieth century their rights to everything from basic education to property inheritance were extremely limited.) Otherwise, such a couple might find a priest willing to marry them; a religious ceremony required no parental consent but most couples were also wed in a civil process (essentially little more than a bureaucratic procedure). In some cases, the couple's sojourn might last for weeks, and the girl's pregnancy would be considered good reason for an immediate marriage.

We should mention that the large number of foundlings placed in orphanages, and sometimes given arbitrary surnames like Esposito (from ex positum, literally "of this place"), Trovato ("found"), Proietti ("cast out") and d'Ignoti ("parents unknown"), reflects the reality that births to unwed mothers were not particularly unusual. Research in nineteenth-century vital statistics registers confirms this, though a law passed in 1928 prohibited the assignment to foundlings or out-of-wedlock children those surnames that indicated the circumstances of their births. It is obvious that young unwed mothers did not always marry the fathers of their children.

Older Men and Younger Women
Italian grooms are usually several years older than their brides (sometimes almost a generation older!). In former times, this practice was probably rooted in the idea that the younger the woman, the more likely she was a virgin. Today, an "older" man feels less threatened by the experience of a younger woman than he might be by the experiences that a woman his own age is likely to have had with other men. If, for example, a twenty-five year old man courts an eighteen year old girl, and they soon become "fidanzati," it is obvious that the young woman would not be likely to have had very many prior boyfriends. On the other hand, a woman his own age is more likely to have studied more, traveled more, and to have had more romantic experiences than a girl who has just graduated high school. There are still many Sicilian men who prefer a wife who does not present a great social or intellectual challenge, and marriage to a younger woman makes it easier to establish this kind of relationship. The idea of the Virgin Bride has gone the way of the Kingdom of Sicily, but the illusion (or perhaps the fantasy) continues, at least in the minds of a few reactionaries.

Truth be told, many Sicilian nuptial customs, particularly as they existed before the twentieth century, were based on Muslim practices dating from the medieval Arab domination of the island. The church may have supplanted the mosque, but the idea of a young bride being betrothed, without her consent, to an older man she barely knew, was remarkably similar to the marital traditions that still exist in Saudi Arabia and several other Muslim countries. In certain respects, Sicilian men's attitudes toward women have not changed radically in the last hundred years. Divorce was legalised in Italy only in the 1970s, and in some ways the advent of the miniskirt has only accentuated a certain sexism; many young Italian women entering the workplace are discouraged by the reality that shapely legs and a pretty face, rather than genuine credentials, seem to be the main qualifications for employment in a private sector overwhelmingly dominated by males. (An obvious reflection of this is Italian television, especially variety and game shows, where fat or ugly men are surrounded by beautiful young women.) In Italy, a woman is unlikely to hold a high position in business unless her father owns the company where she is employed, though many women work in their husbands' family firms.

Foreign Spouses in Sicily
Love knows no boundaries (or borders). Not since the medieval conquest of Sicily by Saracens and Normans have there been so many foreign spouses in Sicily. Today, most are women. (They're in good company; Sicily's most famous foreign bride was Joan, daughter of King Henry II of England and sister of Richard Lionheart.) Typically, an au pair or vacationer from northern Europe or a British Commonwealth country marries an Italian man she meets in Sicily. American brides in Sicily are far fewer (except for numerous American women of Italian ancestry), while a growing number of foreign women married to Sicilian men are from eastern Europe. Very few non-Italian spouses married to Sicilians reside in Sicily compared to the number of Sicilian spouses of non-Italians living outside Italy. When the husband is the foreigner, the couple usually choose to live in his nation even if they met in Sicily; his carreer opportunities may be better in his home country. (Sicily has a 30% unemployment level and by some estimates at least 40,000 educated young Sicilians leave Sicily for economic reasons each year.)

One day one of the (male) editors of this website was having a conversation with an American woman (married to a Sicilian) who was complaining about her husband and his annoying "Sicilian" behavior, speaking about certain difficulties of living in Sicily and raising a family here. At a certain point, her American friend asked her, "Before marrying and moving to Palermo, didn't you ever consider that the social situation of women in Sicily might be different from what you had experienced in the United States?" She had no response. Another American woman in Sicily, raised in a Jewish family and now married to the (Catholic) father of her two children, complained to a group of expatriate American women that there were no synagogues in Sicily! If she had read something of the history of our island, she would have known that this had been the situation since 1492.

Some of these love affairs accentuate strong social and cultural differences. Life for a woman in most countries is not much like life in Sicily. But love was never logical. Most Sicilians share essentially similar social backgrounds and lifestyles. Understandably, there are those who seek something different even in love. While a few Italian men think of the sexual conquest of a pretty foreign girl as a sign of success, others view a foreign wife, without a trace of Italian blood, as an "exotic" status symbol. Often, a young woman from England, Poland, Norway or elsewhere, who can barely speak Italian, marries a local man without knowing him --or Sicilian social culture-- very well. Then there are the Sicilian women who for whatever reason, prefer foreign men...

Mamma and Wifey
Mammismo is the Sicilian phenomenon (part of a wider Italian practice) of men clinging to their mothers to the extent that a married man might actually side with his mammina against his own wife or girlfriend in a dispute. The attachment of Sicilian men to their mothers is not unlike what exists, to varying degrees, in Greece, Turkey, Israel and most Arab countries.

Whatever his relationship with his mother, the "typical" Italian husband tries to exercise a subtle degree of authority in his marriage. With younger couples, this is often too subtle to be observed, but it is clearly linked to a prevalent sexism in Italian society, where women still have a long road to travel in terms of equality with men. Rather few Sicilian women hold gainful employment for which higher education is required, and this prompts many to marry men who are well-paid. (Ben posizionato is the local term.) Italian women who don't like overbearing males sometimes choose to marry foreign men (American men stationed at the Sigonella military base find no dearth of prospective Sicilian brides), while attractive ones who feel that getting a job should be based on qualifications more substantial than shapely legs and a willingness to flirt with the boss may seek employment outside Italy.

Exceptions prove the rule. There are some Sicilian men who view women as social equals. Typically, such men are better-educated and relatively young, or may have lived in places like the United States or northwestern Europe for extended periods during their formative younger years. Whatever their experience, they usually understand that female companionship can be based on more than catering for a husband's culinary and prurient appetites.

Why does such a status quo persist? It's a question of conformity and the momentum of centuries. Despite occasional travel, and exposure to "foreign" ideas via television and popular culture generally, many Sicilian women simply do not know any other way of life. A wife's choices are based on a kind of social conditioning that says she "must" be Roman Catholic (at least nominally), give birth to at least one male child, have her husband's dinner on the table for him promptly and ape his political opinions, however bizarre. Yet, Italian feminist organisations like Arci Donna have fought hard to achieve something akin to social equality, and to impress upon their sisters that real equal rights depend on more than being able to choose your sex partner.

Modern Marriage
Does truly "modern" courtship exist in Sicily? Certainly. An increasing number of "fidanzati" choose to live together before marriage, paying little more than a nod to tradition, and many younger Italian women pursue a series of short-term romantic relationships with little regard for social convention. Especially when they travel or study outside Italy --a simple matter because, unlike a single Russian woman (for whom entry into certain countries is made unjustly difficult by biased immigration policies), an Italian woman does not need a visa to enter European Union nations or the United States. (One Italian women's magazine compared the girls who seek unbridled week-long romances abroad to Arab women who wear veils at home but remove them while on vacation in London.) Like many other aspects of Italian life, weddings are part of la bella figura (good image), reflecting a respect for the trappings of the past without denying the realities of the present or future. Change is in the air, and the social differences in attitude between a typical Sicilian woman of 40 and a young woman of 20 are nothing short of astounding.

Almost Forever
Divorce has existed in Italy only since the 1970s. Obtaining one takes at least three years, and cause must be shown. Sadly, it's usually adultery, spawning a cottage industry for private investigators in Palermo and Catania as spouses attempt to gather proof for their cases. Many couples remain together despite long term infidelity. Statistics indicate that marital infidelity is far more commonplace in Italy than it is in the United States, Ireland or the United Kingdom. In Italian law, a woman's husband is presumed to be her child's father. In a seeming invasion of personal privacy, a woman who remarries within ten months of her divorce must provide a medical certificate stating she is not pregnant. A treaty between Italy and the Vatican recognises Roman Catholic marital annulments as civil divorces --the perfect marriage between Church and State.

Saudi Sicilia?
Speaking of Church and State, it's obvious that forces stronger than modern Catholicism and the post-war Italian state have influenced courtship among today's Sicilians. Obviously, Sicilian marriages are no longer arranged by parental consent, but in this land of miniskirts, beauty contests and public displays of affection, it is surprising to foreigners that a subtle social influence is rooted in medieval Islam, one of the historical religions of Sicily. In the autobiography of an Arabian bride (Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, translated by Jean P. Sasson), one reads of conservative Saudi Arabian social practices quite similar to those which have shaped life for centuries in Sicily, where things are changing generation by generation. If the Norman and Swabian kings brought Sicily into the European Christian orbit, it is nevertheless clear that certain enduring customs and attitudes remained distinctly Arab and Muslim over the centuries. Thanks to extensive Saracen colonization and a high birth rate among the Sicilian Arabs (many of the Sicilian Muslims had three or four wives), Sicily's population doubled during her Arab period. Particularly in the case of numerous towns of Saracen foundation (where there was little subsequent foreign influence by Normans and others in intimate familial affairs), one wonders whether Libyan leader Muammar al-Quaddafi's references to Sicilians as "our Arab brethren," words so offensive to many of today's Sicilians, were completely misdirected. (Even the daily afternoon closing of Sicilian shops for three hours is rooted in the medieval Muslim practice of closing the souk, or market, during the afternoon hour of prayer.) It's been centuries since Sicilian women were made to wear veils, but it wasn't very long ago (within the living memory of older Sicilians) that many were permitted to leave their homes after dark only if accompanied by friends or chaperones. In a familial context, if not a political (legal) one, the medieval Koranic view of relationships between men and women has had a lasting effect on Sicilian life. (It's not influenced by today's Islam.) Nowadays, many a husband in Sicily seems peculiarly jealous and possessive, perpetually insecure in the suspicion that his attractive wife, armed with her own car and plenty of flexible time during the day, is betraying him, that he is "cornuto" (literally "horned" for the horns believed to protrude from the heads of cuckolds in Italian folk tales). The suspicion itself reveals "Mr. Siciliano's" own innate instinct to betray his wife at the first opportunity, perhaps feeling himself entitled to the low-budget version of something like the harems of Sicily's earliest kings, who inherited the idea from the emirs they defeated. Referring to the polyglot cultural heritage that has shaped Sicilian life, one journalist described Palermitan girls as "Muslims in miniskirts." The comparison, while extreme, may not have been entirely misplaced.

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