It seems that every aristocratic
family in Sicily has an interesting story about how their ancestors came
over with the Normans or Swabians.
And who knows? A few of those fanciful tales may even contain an ounce or
two of truth. More often, a family ennobled through purchase of a barony
in the seventeenth century hurriedly invented a history reflecting a much
earlier ennoblement during the Middle Ages, medieval warrior knights being
more interesting than greedy baroque landlords. A few families didn't have
to "invent" anything. Unfortunately, most of these medieval families
are extinct today. The Abbatellis family is a good example.
Their origins are obscure, but it is thought that the Abbatellis clan
came from Lucca but may have had Catalan ancestry in earlier times. A certain
Dulcio Abatellis or Abbatelli is said to have arrived in Sicily in 1237
during the reign of Frederick II. Such a migration would not have been unusual
during that period.
Dulcio's descendant, Giovanni, purchased the barony of Cefalà
in 1405 from Raimondo de Flagar. In 1429 he obtained a licence to charter
a town on this fief. In 1431, the family purchased the barony of Cammarata
in the Sicanian Mountains. This vast territory
overlooking the scenic Platani Valley was soon elevated to a county.
In the 1490s the family undertook construction of a palatial residence
in what is now Via Alloro near Palermo's Kalsa
district. They already owned the twelfth-century Palazzo Cefalà down
the street, but Palazzo Abbatellis epitomised the best of the late-medieval
Catalonian Gothic style then in vogue. Palazzo Abbatellis, which now houses
a branch of the regional art gallery, is a "semi-fortified"
dwelling with battlements, rare gargoyles and everything
you would expect of the Gothic movement. Except for its large windows, which
have been modified over time, it looks like a medieval castle. (The real
thing is the older Steri Castle around the corner in Piazza Marina, built
by the Chiaramonte family, into which the Abbatellis
Above the main portal of the Abbatellis residence is their coat of arms,
a rampant griffon in a typically medieval configuration and style (shown
Around the time Palazzo Abbatellis was being built, the main branch of
the family ran out of male heirs, and in a bizarre twist young Margherita
Abbatellis Branciforte was betrothed to her uncle, Federico Branciforte,
to keep the wealth in the family. This Federico became, by right of his
wife, the count of Cammarata in 1503.
Apart from the incestuous union with his niece, Federico Branciforte
was generally an unsavoury character motivated by greed. He conspired against
the viceroy, Ugo Moncada, and was executed for his treachery. This left
Margherita single and again an heiress. She wed another Branciforte, Blasco,
by whom she bore a son. Today the Abbatellis blood is preserved in their
descendants, but the Branciforte family itself no longer exists in the male
line, the Lanza di Trabia being their heirs.
A distantly-related branch of the Abbatellis family flourished in Catania
into the seventeenth century, but the lesson in this question of the extinction
of noble families is that the men - "noble" or not - should have
spent more time with their wives than their mistresses, and less time conspiring
against the crown.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno
has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and
Giuseppe di Lampedusa. This article is the second in our Historic Families series.