Great Books: I Viceré by Federico De Roberto

  • Themes: Great Books

De Roberto's familial saga lyrically charts the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy during the Unification of Italy.

Still from a film production of I Viceré, a novel by Federico De Roberto.
Still from a film production of I Viceré, a novel by Federico De Roberto. Credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

It has often been said that the family is the building block of society. But it is equally true that society gives family much of its character – its values, its constraints, and its possibilities. This is why, for many writers of fiction, the family has proved so potent a subject. For while each family may be different, it is through family life that social mores are most clearly revealed – and the tides of history disclosed. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, they are the lens through which we see the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars; in Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, the condition of French society under the Second Empire; and in Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Yet no-where is the family treated with more uncomfortable brilliance – or cynical insight – than in Federico De Roberto’s novel I Viceré (1894). 

Born in Naples in 1861, to a bureaucrat father and an aristocratic mother, De Roberto’s early life was framed by the turbulence of the Italian Risorgimento. Since at least the fourteenth century, the dream of a united Italy, free from ‘foreign’ interference, had burned brightly in thought and literature. But it was only after the 1848 revolutions that this had become a real possibility. Just eight months before De Roberto’s birth, Giuseppe Garibaldi landed in Marsala, with the intention of capturing Sicily for King Vittorio Emmanuele II of Sardinia. His victory was swift. Within a little over two months, Garibaldi had driven the Bourbon rulers out and was already preparing to invade the mainland. Yet the upheaval proved traumatic. While Sicilians had been happy enough to throw off the Bourbon yoke, they had little sense of Italian identity – and even less desire to be governed from afar. Soon enough, pockets of resistance appeared. Attempts to set up new town councils were blocked; economic reforms were opposed; and sporadic revolts broke out, culminating in the rebellion of Palermo. 

While De Roberto pursued his education at the University of Catania, uncertainty reigned. In the countryside, where living conditions had always been poor, the sense of unease was particularly pronounced. Already struggling with increased competition from the north, peasants were hit hard by new taxes – and even more by the introduction of conscription. Blighted by social dislocation made worse by falling standards of living, rural communities soon fell prey to brigandage, disorder, and violence. Their plight was vividly dramatized in Giovanni Verga’s short story ‘Cavallaria rusticana’ (1880). Published just before De Roberto’s first foray into literature, this tells of Turridù Macca, a young peasant who, on returning home from military service, finds that his beloved has married a rival and flies in to a jealous rage, which ultimately claims his life.

Yet for the Sicilian aristocracy, the experience of unification was no less unsettling. Often tracing their origins to earlier waves of ‘foreign’ invaders, they had grown used to exercising semi-feudal authority over vast landed estates with the support of crown and Church. But quite suddenly, they found their position challenged. Though the pace of industrialisation was slow, an emergent bourgeoisie came to rival their wealth; the extension of suffrage and the enfranchisement of the urban classes threatened their traditional dominance of the political arena; and the creation of a new kingdom, with a new Senate, risked depriving them of the access which had previously bound them to the monarch. Within only a few years, their future seemed unclear. Many had to ask whether they might somehow be able to salvage their former position – or would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Over the decades which followed, the Sicilian aristocracy provided a fertile subject for literature. Perhaps even more so than the rural peasantry, their predicament seemed to embody Sicily’s broader travails. By dramatising the experiences of individual families, Sicilian writers like Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello, and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa were hence able not only to reassess the impact of the Risorgimento on Sicilian life, but also to weigh its legacy.

Often writing with the benefit of hindsight, many authors viewed the fate of the Sicilian nobility – and Sicily itself – with undisguised pessimism. Despite differences of style and literary inclination, they tended to agree with Chateaubriand that aristocracies, like all ruling classes, go through three ages: ‘the age of superiorities, the age of privileges, and the age of vanities. Having passed from the first, [they degenerate] in the second, and [die] in the third.’ And in Sicily’s case, the scent of death was unmistakable.

Granted, Sicilian writers never claimed that ‘death’ always happened in the same way, or for the same reasons – even within individual families. Here and there in their works, a few nobles simply refuse to recognise the transformations occurring around them – and who either retreat into reactionary irrelevance (like Don Ippolito di Colimbetre in Pirandello’s I vecchi e i giovani [1913]) or exhaust themselves in fruitless squabbles (like the Trao family in Verga’s Mastro-don Gesualdo [1889]). Yet most of these fictional families recognise that ‘if we want things to remain as they are, everything will have to change’ – only to seal their demise in the process. Some, held back by pride or indecision, fail to adapt enough to survive. The Prince of Salina in Lampedusa’s Il gattopardo (1958) is the prime example. Though he sees the dangers more clearly than most, he rejects an invitation to join the Italian Senate, allows himself to be swindled by his agents, and reforms the management of his estates only half-heartedly. Others are more radical; but in showing themselves to be mutable, they inadvertently destroy the very nobility they are trying to protect. Take Lampedusa’s Tancredi. A poor, but dashing nobleman, he marries the daughter of the bourgeois Don Calogero Sedàra. The wealth this brings revives his family’s fortunes and secures him a glittering career as a diplomat, but brings him nothing but sorrow and consigns him irrevocably to the ranks of the vulgar.

Running through this is a certain nostalgia. Lampedusa, in particular, assumed that, for all their flaws, the old aristocracy had been essentially benign and that their hegemony had afforded Sicily, if not a remedy for its inequalities, then at least a certain security. The future, by contrast, was forbidding. Now that the nobles were in decline (as they saw it), the incompleteness of the Risorgimento had paved the way for a new and more selfish elite of liberal bourgeoises to take their place. As Lampedusa’s prince wryly puts it: ‘We were the Leopards and Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas.’ Even though everyone would go on thinking themselves ‘the salt of the earth’, Lampedusa – like many other Sicilian authors – felt that Sicily’s own decline was inevitable.

But De Roberto was different. Though a lifelong friend of Verga, he had little time for such heavy sentimentalism. Having cut his teeth as a journalist, he came to believe that, if the lives of a noble family were to be used to understand Sicily’s broader travails, then a more nuanced, psychologically realistic, approach was needed – and in I Viceré, he set out to show exactly what that meant.

The novel follows the story of the Uzeda family across three generations, from the death of its matriarch in 1855 to the first election under extended suffrage in 1882. The descendants of Spanish viceroys, they are fiercely proud of their titles and status. Though each follows his or her own path, they are all determined to safeguard their own interests at any cost – and are, for the most part, highly attuned to the world in which they live. Long before Garibaldi lands, they can see what lies ahead. But rather than regard the changes which happen around them as an uncomfortable imposition from ‘outside’, they treat whatever form of government is currently in place merely as a new tool for achieving their own ends – and feel little allegiance either to each other, or anyone else.

Though beautifully, almost lyrically written, it is not an edifying read. In De Roberto’s hands, the Uzeda reflect an essentially Machiavellian view of human nature. Men are fickle and untrustworthy; hatred is often more reliable than love; and the ends always justify the means. In fact, most of the Uzeda are downright loathsome. Greed, cruelty, and cynicism are their watchwords. Princess Tereza torments her children, even from beyond the grave; Don Blasco, a former monk, robs his monastery after its suppression and embraces unification so vigorously that he cheers the fall of Rome in the streets; and Prince Consalvo, though a reactionary Bourbonist at heart, feigns left-wing views to get himself elected to the Senate. By contrast, those rare figures who display a twinge of empathy or moral courage invariably come to a bad end.

But this is precisely what makes I Viceré such a brilliantly compelling novel. De Roberto was no more positive either about unification or its legacy than many other Sicilian writers. In fact, if anything, he was probably even more pessimistic. But his understanding of political upheaval was infinitely more refined. Instead of viewing the Risorgimento as a line in the sand of history, with a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, he uses the Uzeda to expose the fallacy of such simple readings. He recognises that corruption was – and always would be – present in Sicilian society; and that the old elite, far from being defeated, would merely evolve into new forms, melding with those rising behind them, and transposing their interests to new contexts. To borrow Lampedusa’s image, leopards were not replaced, they merely changed their spots. There is no nostalgia, no optimism here; only a sense that even though everything changes, everything ultimately remains the same. And that is surely true, not just of Sicily, but of everywhere.


Alexander Lee