Il Gattopardo. Film by Luchino Visconti 1963

In the preceding post we have noticed how contemporary Italian literature and cinema seldom offer wide-fresco works – they perceive the single tree more than the entire forest (read a conversation on this topic.)

Someone affirms that the secret of the forest is instead hidden in Palermo.

Palermo? Why are Palermo and Sicily so special?

While searching for an answer (in some recent Sicilian novels) we can make a guess.


Sicily, like a warm-fleshed woman lying languidly on the sea, was disputed by Greeks and Phoenicians, Spartans and Athenians, Romans and Carthaginians, and later Normans Arabs Popes & Emperors.

Such splendid (though tormented) history might have favoured a depth, a wider look in its people and writers, that the Italian literature has experienced only at its best moments.

Rob has said that writers such as Lampedusa and Sciascia would have known why the secret of the forest may be hidden in Palermo.


So, for a glimpse of such wider look, we’ll quote a beautiful passage from Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by the Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 – 1957.)

Tomasi di Lampedusa narrates how, soon after Italy’s unification, the honest Piedmont’s official Chevalley [Piedmont, at that time an advanced region, unified Italy in 1861] was sent to implore the Sicilian Prince of Lampedusa [the author’s great-grandfather and protagonist of the novel,] to represent Sicily in the new Italian Senate, “in order to remedy the state of material poverty, of blind and moral misery in which the Sicilian people find themselves, your own people!”

The Prince, smiling and inviting Chevalley to sit down with him on the sofa for a while, answered with the same words he had uttered with some English who, before Giuseppe Garibaldi conquered Palermo, were asking what all these Northern Italians, these Garibaldini, were doing in the South of Italy.

They are coming to teach us good manners – replied the Prince in English – but they won’t succeed, because we are gods.

Then in the end (with poor, decent Chevalley in total dismay because of the Prince’s denial) the aristocrat added that things in Sicily had not changed and will never change for that ‘sense of superiority that glitters in the eye of every Sicilian, that we ourselves call pride (fierezza,) but which is actually only blindness.’

An enlightening, though gloomy, reflection.

The Leopard. Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale

Note. This ‘pride which is actually blindness’ can be said of all great civilizations on earth that were (the ancient Romans, the Egyptians, Greece, Hellenic etc.Sicily …)

If we are worth for what we were, we are much much worthier for what we are.

Past greatness is a richness, and a consolation, but is not enough.


Question. On the other hand, are these cultures / civilizations really dead? I mean, didn’t they adapt themselves still retaining some greatness?

Why Sicilians today – or  (2012 update) Romanesco Gioacchino Belli, Egyptian Naghib MahfuzNikos Kazantzakis  – see the forest and not the tree?


Previous installment:

The Secret of the Forest

Related posts:

38 thoughts on “That Pride Which Is Actually Blindness

  1. I enjoyed the film (Cardinale is beautiful, and Burt is fine, even though he doesn’t speak Italian – but they are all dubbed, aren’t they?) and the book even more.

    Isn’t the manorial estate called Donnafugata or something like that? The fleeing woman?

    I guess pride keeps people going, even if it keeps them backwards. To a rationalist, it is exasperating, but most of the world is not rational.

    By the way, can you elucidate the thinking behind Italian Film and its attitude towards sound? Why is it so often bad, as if it is intended to be that way? Why is dubbing so universal -isn’t it done for even Italian actors?


    1. The novel is splendid, one of the best I ever read in contemporary Italian literature. The movie almost at the book level. Donnafugata, yes, fleeing woman perhaps.

      Pride keeps people going but it is not necessarily linked to remaining backwards in my view although here, sometimes, is.

      Dubbing (also for Italians) probably came from Italian neorealistic films since it allowed to shoot anywhere. Exteriors were in fact preferred to studio shooting since reality must prevail over artifice. Dubbing is sometimes though artificial to me nonetheless.

      Also preference for non-professional actors (penchant for ordinary people etc.) was due I guess to this democratic philosophy, a possible reaction to undemocratic fascism who emphasized heroes instead.

      What I think (and gather) is that, since the neorealistic stripped down style was very acclaimed – yes, it was intended to be that way, artless art – dubbing and other techniques stuck in Italian cinema.


  2. Hollywood is enamored with Sicilians too. Sicilians are famous (some may even say notorious) for their pride here in North America.


    1. Well, they are ‘notorious’ here too, no doubt. They are deep and mysterious. My wife is in love with them. I love their culture immensely, but couldn’t survive in a totally sicilianized world. Too many unsaid rules to observe. In Rome people are more straightforward.


  3. I do believe it’s true “That Pride Which is usually Blindness”

    For more coherent comment will be back later 🙂


  4. There has to be more than one Sicily! I must admit our Sicilians have quite another image more related to vendettas and the mafia. We hear a lot about the Sicilians and the Calabresi in our newspapers and it is always following a police raid or a murder in one of several italian bars in our northeast end of St-Leonard, a Montreal borough, where they are concentrated.
    They overshadow all the other law abiding and hardworking Italian immigrants or their descendants and do a great disservice to the whole community.


    1. I’m afraid I’ll be long Paul.

      I know that the image of Sicilians (and Calabrians) is sometimes not good – also here I must say.

      Sicily is faceted. I am witness of a culture rich and refined having many Sicilian friends. One day I will tell you of a cake with 7 different layers of chocolate. Unrivaled. Sicilian literature is among the best we have.

      Sicily and other parts of the South are ‘ancient’. We have said ad nauseam in this blog of moral codes with a forgotten sense of honor, closer to the ancient Greco-Roman mind, or to Sharia, and of a fierce patriarchy. [As for mafia, I might try to write something in the future]

      I don’t want to justify such mores. I’m just observing how they clash with modernity [one of the reasons the Italian Northern League wants to get rid of the South]. We also said certain cultural traits were like hibernated in the New World: they still exist in immigrants’ descendants while here they have changed.

      With globalization, and a new pride in developing countries, modernity and ancientness seem to clash everywhere, Jurassik Park-like.

      Today Italians are shocked because an Arabic father living in Italy has killed his daughter because she westernized herself and dated an Italian man. She was killed because she brought dishonor to the clan. We all forget this happened in Ancient Rome too and in parts of our Mediterranean sea until today.

      Today’s Italians have forgotten how our law tolerated honor killings not long ago (delitto d’onore). They mostly ignore that vendetta is an Italian term often used abroad.

      Thus being said, one cannot deny migrated Italians have also proven how valid they can be wherever they have settled. Nancy Pelosi visiting Abruzzo recently is a moving example of that.


      1. I mentioned that those mafiosi, not all Italian migrants or their decendants, were doing a great disservice to the whole community. Of course for the great majority our Italian origin population is honest and hard working and contribute to our development as a people. Problem is the media seldom talk about these ones. We hear mainly of the crooked ones.
        Unfortunately in the current corruption scandal in Montreal, the star figures are called Catania, Sciaccia, Zampino et alii. Not good for the reputation of their fellow italian and they are all well known businessmen or politician. Another prominent figure in a not yet forgotten federal scandal was called Galiano, although french-Canadians names were front and forward, the one still remebered is Galiano. That does not help any…and you guessed it they are all of Sicilan or Calabrese stock save for Galiano who hails from the Abruzzis.
        It shadows the contributions of the Corbo, Gagliardi and many others…too bad really.


        1. Well, call me paranoid, but I am of the opinion the portrayal of Italians in the media is generally negative and sometimes subtle.

          As for the mafia, Paul is right. The mob represents less than 1% of the Italian population but consumes far more than this in the headlines. Part of it, to be fair, is a fact of life and who we are and that the mafia is a fascinating topic to people.

          Hollywood can churn out as many mob movies as they want and there will always be a market for that. People LOVE it.

          Italians are by far one of the most interesting communities in North America. One reason for this is before their arrival, North America was made up of English, French, Scottish, Irish-Scot, Irish, Dutch, German and Scandinavian stock – Northerners.

          Then, in come these Latins in great numbers from one of the world’s great cultures – but in a time when Italy was not in a prestigious state – and suddenly the “look” of America changed.

          They destabilized the demographic and they made a lot of noise about it.

          When it comes to the Italians, you have to take the good with the bad and I agree we don’t do enough to work the good. But that’s partly our fault too. If we want to change things we need to do our part.


          1. @Paul

            Very interesting comments! I will reply to both of you tomorrow. I was watching a great French movie [Mon meilleur ami by Patrice Leconte].
            Gnight folks and thanks for your comments!

            Hi Canadians!

            Interesting your info on Italians in Canada Paul.

            I think Exposrip’s comment tells a lot about your points. I liked his reconstruction of the Italian adaptation to the New World.

            Seen from here, even with its ups and downs, the Italians’ image in America has progressed a lot. In the US at the beginning of 1900 Italians were considered scum (together with Jews, Irish and black people: see Lichanos’ blog for a *discussion* on this), now so many Italians are part of the upper class. Nancy Pelosi visiting the people of Abruzzo is a moving evidence of it. Even that minority of evil doers is seen as romantic by Hollywood. I doesn’t happen with the Russians or Chinese, whose mafias are no less powerful.

            Thus said, this Hollywood thing risks to justify behaviours and generally violence. The problem is they will continue until they make money out of it.


  5. Non-scientific and lame observation:

    Sicilians are masters of circular reasoning and the Calabrese speak in riddles. My father always answered a question with a riddle. I noticed that many Calabrese do that. They’re both mysterious.


    1. Circular reasoning? Riddles? Could they be linked to the laws of secrecy and omertà? (so hard to understand for non Sicilians and non Calabresi).
      I especially don’t understand this secrecy thing. Here in Rome all is plain and open (more or less lol.)


  6. Well, MoR, that passage from Il Gattopardo (great page!) is just the one I was thinking about when I wrote my comment to your previous post..
    However, in my view, what is good (suitable) for Sicily isn’t good (suitable) for most of the rest of Italy. Sicily is a mystery behind another mystery.. and hence its fascination.


    1. Yes, Rob, Sicily is a world of its own. I am totally fascinated by it!

      I found a similar atmosphere in Tunisia. Giuseppe Tornatore has shot his last film Baarìa in Tunisia because he said ‘old-style’ Sicilian faces can be found only there.

      By the way, Claudia Cardinale (Angelica in The Leopard), is a descendant of Tunisian Sicilians. Many Sicilians migrated to Tunisia during the middle ages and even later, when the Southern shores of the Mediterranean were richer and more civilised.


  7. MOR,

    How things went in my house:

    Me: “Pa, can I have 20 bucks?”

    Father: “Chi a mangiate, il lupo?”

    And on and on it went. It usually took some sweating and 15 minutes before he’d provide me with the capital needed to go on a date.

    Sorry for the spelling but imagine it in Calabrese dialect – which incidentally, my father rarely refers to. He speaks Italian to us.

    My cousins in Paris are Calabrese but the Calabrese ways prevails over Parisian sensibility. Whenever I visit them, they take me around seeing Calabrese ex-pats. It’s as if they don’t even think they live in another country. Everything is suspicious to them.


    1. Ah ah ah, you made me laugh. “It’s as if they don’t even think they live in another country. Everything is suspicious to them.”
      I laugh because I spot this behaviour in people so damn close to me [and whom I love as centre of life].


  8. What an interesting conversation you have going here.

    Although, like all nationalities and ethnic groups, Italian throughout the world have their faults. Italians are notoriously envious and proud – and the mafia, in all its “un”-glory, does in fact play an active role in the lives of Southern Italians and, in it simplest, simply exist in the environments of Italians elsewhere.

    However, one cannot expect to be perfect, and on the other hand Italians have – in my opinion – more to be proud of than any other ethnic group.

    In America 100 years ago, there were signs on stores saying, “Work: 25 Cents per hour for whites, 10 cents for blacks, 5 cents for Italians.”

    …I think that says a lot, especially seeing where we have arrived. In Ontario, Italians are by far the most influential group in the province. In America, We’re in every branch of government, the leaders of business and community beacons.

    Nancy Pelosi is in the Abruzzo right now as the US Speaker of the House. That, I believe, speaks volumes.

    With nothing – literally just a few dollars and the clothes on their back – Italians have risen from the lowest of the lows to the highest of the highs… and although they portray the American dream, it seems to happen wherever Italians go.

    Now, does Hollywood portray us often in a poor light? Of course, but like one commenter wrote – people love it! I have a hard time believing that a series about Meucci would sell as well as Sopranos. Hollywood is in business – and it is what it is. Let’s not complain.

    Instead, let’s focus together as a community who we are – and what our history is. We are Italians – every one of us – and that’s something to be proud of.


    1. Your contribution is very good Peter!

      In America 100 years ago, there were signs on stores saying, “Work: 25 Cents per hour for whites, 10 cents for blacks, 5 cents for Italians.” … With nothing Italians have risen from the lowest of the lows to the highest of the highs…

      Yes, the extent of their progress is amazing.

      Let’s focus together as a community who we are – and what our history is. We are Italians – every one of us – and that’s something to be proud of.

      Of course we are proud of being Italians. A recent poll in Italy has shown this pride. I’ll add that sometimes persons of Italian ancestry living abroad feel this Italianità in ways stronger than we do here, who are so busy fighting against each other. But this happens everywhere, even in a country like France.


      1. I’ve seen it in books a few times… but it’s a fact very well known to many Italian Americans.

        It may also be of interest, although Italian Americans were the largest single ethnic group to enlist in World War II for the USA, Italian immigrant aliens were still forced to carry around a “Enemy Alien Card” (not let near ports, airports, etc) and some, on the west coast, here held in detention camps!!

        (Search: “La Storia Segreta” like;


        1. Yes, I’m familiar with it. I wrote this:

          As a point of interest, I’m taking part in Casa d’Italia’s renewal project here in Montreal and have come across many interesting stories about the internment camps in Canada.

          The Canadian government had the same “enemy alien” designation. And like in the U.S., many Italians were shamed and changed their names.

          MOR, not just Japanese and German but Ukranian as well.

          The city of Berlin was renamed Kitchener in Ontario – that’s how crazy it became.


      2. Peter, it must have been hard in WWII for Italians in America (not to mention the Japs and the Germans). I’ve read that Italian Americans at that time started to forget Italian to ‘look’ more American. Is that true?


      3. Absolutely True!

        I deal with it every day. Many people (my great-grandfather included) changed their names to sound more American and less Italian.

        Without it, it was difficult to get a job… and there are many cases (again, my great-grandfather included) where racial violence came into play against the Italians.


        1. Believe it or not, in that group were Joe DiMaggio’s parents.

          Joe was not only an American icon at the time – but also serving for the US Armed Forces in WWII.

          His parents, Italian immigrants from Sicily – and still not naturalized Americans, had to keep these so-called “Enemy Alien Cards” on them… restricting where they could travel in San Francisco.

          Joe had a restaurant on Fisherman’s Warf (near the port), for example, his parents – enemy aliens – could not eat at their son’s restaurant… and their son was American Icon and American soldier Joe DiMaggio.

          …questa e’ la terra di liberta’!


        2. Peter, after all the US behaviour is understandable. A war is a damn serious thing and government could not totally trust people like the Japanese or the Italians who were somewhat linked to enemy countries. Besides the Italians were recently migrated compared to other groups, as Di Maggio’s parents attest.


          1. Of course. To be honest, history has always done that to “newcomers” – not only in Canada during the post-war immigration, but with other ethnic groups arrives in America now. In the end, it’s not an “Italian thing,” but rather a sad aspect of human nature.


  9. Very interesting discussion here, altough I’m more interested in another topic covered by this post. The fact that civilizations often look back at the past and its greatness and feel comfortable and proud looking back, while less elaborate but more practical groups of people go ahead and take the power.

    This has happened very often in the past: barbarians over Romans, US over Europe, Berlusconi and his party over the Italian left intellectuals. Not that I’m comparing barbarians with the US or Berlusconi (not at all!) but they are all an example of a pragmatic way of thinking which simply wins over an overstructured way of acting made slow by the weight of its history.


    1. Hi Arimondi.

      Interesting point, I agree with Rob.

      Being pragmatic (and not ideological like sometimes Europeans are, not to mention our Italian left) is certainly an advantage. Generally speaking, concentrating mainly on practical stuff can surely provide power.

      On the other hand, I believe that systems (cultures etc.) tend to decline when they become too complex. History being part of this complexity, it is both a richness and a burden.

      Vague, I know. But it’s the richness thing that has to be disentangled.


    1. Well, I think they really are the ones to push things, although the concept of Western culture is changing (you know how I think about it.)
      We must more and more think in terms of world culture, taking the best from all cultures, which is already happening – and which doesn’t mean I’m not interested in seeking the roots of the West in the Mediterranean.

      As for Europe vs America, America has a primordial force we seem to have lost. Thence admiration but also bias, and sometimes derision (which is mostly envy) for behaviours that may look naive in some people etc. We may reproach them for being unsophisticated etc. They reproach us for being stuffy, paralyzed, eg with no, ehm, balls.

      Mutual understanding between distant regions of the earth is never easy (not to mention close nations). We have discussed this together ad nauseam.


  10. You might read a book called “Sicily as Metaphor” which is a series of interviews by a French journalist where Sciascia addresses many of these questions.

    Being such a melting pot of cultures and having been controlled/dominated by so many different groups throughout history has probably done much to enrich Sicilian culture, especially art, literature and music.


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