Monday, February 1, 2010

Sicilian Royalty Remembered

Here in Palermo I encounter local women of all ages who seem to consider themselves somewhat "worldly" because they've spent money on what look like overpriced clothes and have taken a group tour to someplace like Egypt or Thailand. Let's not dwell on the fact that few can manage a complete sentence, let alone a conversation, in English. Right now, the number of women wearing fur coats in a city where it hardly ever snows is astounding.

Back in December 1994, when I first met Princess Urraca de Bourbon of the Two Sicilies, who in childhood had actually known Queen Maria Sophia (the queen, a sister of Empress Elizabeth 'Sissi' of Austria, died when Urraca was 12), I was struck by her simplicity. During the day, instead of fur she wore a simple goose down coat. There was no need to "impress" anybody with false attempts at sophistication. She was the real thing.

We spoke at Count Tasca d'Almerita's grand dinner party for the Bourbons - the likes of such an assemblage of the Palermitan nobility and fantastic cuisine hasn't been seen since then. (My date that evening was descended from one of Sicily's aristocratic families.) I honestly don't recall Urraca wearing much jewelry. A widow for many decades, Her Highness lived and died in her native Bavaria and, as would be expected, spoke several languages fluently (French, German, Italian, some English, even a little Neapolitan). She died five years after I met her.

Cynical cynosure on my part, but even if the vulgar "ladies" I encounter daily were to dress in the most expensive furs and wear the Hope diamond, they'd still look (and be) tascia by comparison, boasting little knowledge of Sicilian culture and history, and even less of their own families' histories. They don't understand that it's a woman's entire oeuvre, not just the superficial elements, that establish a style and, more importantly, an identity.

One of the things so sorely - and so obviously - lacking among Sicily's women today is the kind of grey eminence epitomized by Britain's late Queen Mother or America's Rose Kennedy. In some ways Stefania Mantegna of Gangi, the noblewoman who as a young mother defied Fascism and who later counted England's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip among her house guests at Palazzo Gangi, was such a figure. She, and an era, died in 1999, the same year as Urraca de Bourbon. Back in 1963, Palazzo Gangi was used for the ballroom scene of The Leopard, the story of the fall of the House of the Two Sicilies and the vicissitudes of Sicily's aristocracy.

Few of today's Sicilians - male or female - know much at all about the dynasty that ruled our island until 1860, and in any event the typical young giuseppina (as we Sicilians refer to particularly provincial women) can never hope to be addressed Your Highness unless she marries a prince worthy of that style - and there are precious few "princes" of any kind in Palermo! But it's nice to reminisce about a grande dame or two who wore it so well.

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