Sicilian Marionettes

Located on the outskirts of Partinico, Palermo, Sicily, you will find la Real Cantina Borbonica an extraordinary building commissioned in 1800 as a winery by Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies. Today the building is primarily used as a museum of historical, cultural and agricultural traditions, and for special events, like weddings, concerts and banquets. It’s also home to marionette theater.

A marionette is a puppet controlled from above the stage using wires or strings. A marionette’s puppeteer is called a marionettist. Marionettes became popular in Sicily during the thirteenth century with the reign of Ferdinand II, and are considered an important part of the rich Sicilian folk culture. For centuries, young and old alike have enjoyed watching the reenactment of medieval characters and stories, such as Orlando (Roland), one of Charlemagne’s knights, the Norman knights of King Roger of Sicily, and the Saracens (Moors). There were historical families of marionnettists throughout western Sicily, such as the Greco of Palermo; and the Canino of Cinisi and Alcamo.

The Sicilian marionette theater Opera dei pupi was proclaimed in 2001 and inscribed in 2008 in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

Sicilian Dreams

There are very few people living today who were part of the wave of migration from Sicily to America between the years 1900 – 1920’s. Research shows approximately 75% of Sicilian men who came for work in America never planned to stay permanently. They were nicknamed “Birds of Passage.” Sicilians who did settle left EVERYTHING they ever knew to follow their dreams of a better life in America. Contemplate leaving your home, family, culture, possessions, animals and property for the unknown – a land where you do not know the language or culture. This was years before the telephone and television, and decades before email and advanced communication like Skype, Messenger and Whats App.

Once in America, despite many challenges, Sicilian immigrants slowly adjusted to their new American lifestyle. They found jobs, married, purchased homes, had children and assimilated into their communities. Sadly, some immigrants never spoke about their life back in Sicily, too painful or difficult, various reasons. Those who did impart their stories and Sicilian traditions on to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren passed on a great gift. I never met my great grandfather, Angelo Comito, but his passion for Sicily, family and education was passed on to his daughters – my grandmother and her sister – and they in turn passed it on to their descendants. We are the fulfillment of Angelo’s Sicilian Dreams.

Northern coast of Sicily

I first visited Sicily in 2014. Its unspoiled scenic beauty overwhelmed me. The fresh sea air is invigorating. Standing at the shoreline you can see the deepest and bluest water imaginable. The majestic Madonie mountain range in western Sicily offers miles and miles of elevations and patchwork green fields. Sunsets are a glimpse of heaven, allowing the soul to peacefully be restored.

A visit to beautiful Sicily will connect you to your roots and to who you are. See the villages of your ancestors. Enjoy authentic Sicilian cuisine and culture. You may be surprised to find living relatives like my cousins and I did. If you would like referrals to sources in Sicily, please contact me at MyBellaSicily@gmail.com . I do not make a dime, just happy to share information and my love for Sicily.

Ciao and grazie for visiting MyBellaSicily.com

Denise

PALERMO CHOSEN TO BE ITALY’S CULTURE CAPITAL

Congratulations Palermo, Sicily on being chosen the 2018 Cultural Italian City! Palermo was the perfect choice because it is one of Italy’s most vibrant and eclectic cities.

Sicily is strategically located in the Mediterranean and Palermo’s amazing location along the northwestern coast encircled by mountains lured multiple conquerors, including the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and in 1861 the Italians. Rulers brought their unique cultures, architecture and cuisines. In the 12th century the Normans placed their stamp on Palermo making the city one of the most cultural and prosperous cities in the world. Beautiful cathedrals were built and some of the greatest monuments erected. Even into the 21st century, many of these ancient buildings and structures still exist, although well worn by time and lack of funds to repair, but this only adds to the charm of the city.

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We lost contact with our Sicilian family in 1915 and I always wondered if we still had living Sicilian relatives. In October 2014, I traveled to Sicily with several American cousins to visit our ancestral city of Partinico, just outside of Palermo. We stayed at the beautiful Excelsior Palace Hotel (now the Mercure Hotel) located in the city’s financial and commercial center. [Please check out my previous blog posts where I go into greater detail about our successful and memorable visit in reconnecting with our Sicilian cousins.]

My first visit to Sicily was magical. I returned in April 2015 and in August 2016 and stayed with family. It was wonderful. Just imagining my ancestors, from centuries ago, walking the same streets, visiting the markets, attending the festivals, churches and cathedral, eating the delicious street foods and enjoying the sun and sea…throughout each visit with family, I could sense my ancestors presence with me, as if like they orchestrated each visit.

If you enjoy history, especially Sicilian history, culture and cuisine; you want to re-connect with your family heritage; or looking to relax on the beach or hike Le Madonie Mountains, you will enjoy visiting Palermo. There is so much to experience. I hope to visit Sicily in 2018 and to see how Palermo rolls out the Italian Cultural City red carpet – Sicilian style!

The Babe of Bethlehem: A Sicilian Christmas Tradition

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As we approach Advent and the Christmas season, many Americans begin their annual ritual of dragging out boxes of holiday decorations. One cannot experience this customary process without recalling memories of past festivities with family and friends.

My family follows typical American Christmas traditions with a twist of Italian/Sicilian customs. The focus is food, faith, and la famiglia – the family! Growing up, the heart of our home was my paternal grandmother. The daughter of Sicilian immigrants, my grandmother was only seven when her father died tragically in a factory fire. She was forced to grow up quickly and take on responsibility at a young age because her mother did not speak English. Despite disappointments and heartaches throughout her life, she maintained a great sense of humor and strong faith in God. She instilled in her loved ones the belief that far more valuable than the gifts we give or receive, the food we eat, or the extravagant adornments, Christmas is about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – fully God and fully man – bringing joy, hope and love to the world.

One of my most cherished memories of Christmastime is watching my grandmother lovingly displaying a beautiful, but well-worn, nativity crib/crèche. The porcelain figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three wise men, and the shepherds wore clothes made of brightly colored silk-like material. As a child I was allowed to play with them, but carefully supervised. Little did I understand then the significance of the crèche to our Christian faith and especially the great importance the nativity crib represented to our Sicilian culture.

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The history of the nativity crib dates back to Italy in 1223 with St. Francis of Assisi. To commemorate the birth of Christ, he created a living reenactment of the manger scene, complete with hay and oxen. St. Francis was so deeply moved by the scene he could barely utter a word. He could only say ‘the Babe of Bethlehem’. The nativity crib, or in Italian presepio or presepe, as it is known today, with three-dimensional statues using various materials such as wood, gold, silver, ivory and coral, is believed to have started in Sicily in the fifteenth century; probably because of their puppet craftsmanship. The Jesuits saw the nativity crib as an excellent teaching visual and the spread of Christianity grew throughout Europe. By the seventeenth century the tradition expanded to England. However, the Puritans in America banned the nativity crib, citing it as idolatry. Fortunately, as Europeans emigrated to America in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, they brought their Christmas traditions and customs with them, including the nativity crib and the Christmas tree. Now Americans of many faiths enjoy the season with these treasured traditions.

My grandmother died in 1977 and her cherished nativity crib has not been seen for years, but the life-giving message of the nativity crib still resonates. Often I reminisce about those simpler Christmas celebrations, when the emphasis of the season was on Christ who came to save us and less on Santa. This holy season, let’s rekindle in our hearts a desire to follow the star that leads to Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, who offers us His gifts of love, joy, and hope.

Buon Natale and a holy Christmas season.

(image credits: Pixabay.com)

SICILY IS DELICIOUSLY AMAZING IN ANY SEASON

My love for Sicily grows with each visit!

Sicily is filled with cultural enchantment, deep historic origins and offers a wide array of delicious produce and cuisine. My first visit was in the fall of 2014. I returned in the spring of 2015 and recently visited this summer. No matter what time of year you go, Sicily is paradise on earth!

In early August, I spent a delightful afternoon with my Sicilian cousins who took me to Cefalù; it’s an ancient city along the northern coastline that was conquered by the Normans in 1063. Folklore states the King of Sicily, Roger II, made a vow to Jesus that if he escaped a storm at sea he would build a church to him. The King was miraculously spared so in 1131 he requested a Cathedral be erected, designed in Norman architecture. Despite numerous invasions throughout the centuries, the Cathedral of Cefalù is well preserved and its impressive towers still dominate the harbor. The interior of the Cathedral was restored in 1559. Though deterioration is evident, behind the high alter is a magnificent Byzantine mosaic of Jesus that is both breathtaking and humbling. The mosaic is comparable in design to the spectacular Byzantine mosaic of Jesus at the Cathedral of Monreale.

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Something I did not expect to see in the city center of Cefalù and hidden under the Martino Palace was a medieval laundry. I hiked down the steep stairway to the laundry and saw the historic wash tubs, built directly over the river, and constructed out of lava stone about 500 years ago. I couldn’t imagine what life must have been like for the women of Cefalù in the 1600’s. Every day they carried baskets filled with dirty laundry down to the wash tubs, scrub them in the cold river, then took the clean wet laundry back up the stairs to bring home and hang on clothes lines. However, I was very surprised when I learned this ancient laundry practice was still in use until the 1950’s, when the city finally had running water in homes. Yikes! I’ll never complain about doing laundry ever again!

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Though Cefalù was very crowded and repressively hot in August, I enjoyed strolling along the narrow streets with my Sicilian cousins, visiting the quaint shops, seeing beautiful views of the sun drenched sea and watching people having a wonderful time. I also indulged in a Sicilian summertime favorite –refreshing granita. Granita is a flavored ice slushy, usually made with fruit. My choice was the watermelon granita and it was mouthwateringly amazing!!

#Sicily, #Sicilia, #MyBellaSicily, #VisitSicily, #Palermo, #Italy, #Sicilian

 

 

Sicily: There’s no place like it on earth!

The precious triangular gem of the Mediterranean is strategically located between Europe and Africa. For more than 3,000 years it was conquered more than any island in world history, including the Greeks, Romans, Germans, Byzantines, Arabs, French, Spanish, and in 1861 unified Italy. The end result created a unique melting pot of cultures, architecture and cuisine.slider1

Today, besides the still unspoiled lush sandy beaches, breathtaking mountain views, historic landmarks, beautiful passionate people, and enchanting wines and food, there is a common thread that weaves through the Sicilian heart – their devotion to family, friends, food, and faith in God.

This same devotion is imbedded within the hearts of Sicilian-American children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Our Sicilian ancestors made great sacrifices to immigrate to America. Most left everything behind – possessions and land, but most of all, they left their family and culture for a better life for themselves and their children.

Have you ever desired to return to the land of your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents? If so, I highly encourage you to just do it! If you’ve been to Italy but never Sicily, then you’ve missed the heart and soul of Italy. Because once you experience the sights, the sounds and smells of Sicily, you will literally be changed forever!

5 Tips for Organizing a Sicily Trip

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People have contacted me stating they would love to visit Sicily and find relatives. This was in response to my last two blog posts describing how I and seven of my American cousins reunited with our Sicilian family after 100 years in October 2014. I urge anyone who has a desire to visit, to just make it happen. You will never regret it! I returned to Sicily in April, 2015 and I’m planning another trip in August 2016.

Here are five tips I recommend for organizing a trip to Sicily:

#1 Travel with others. Travel with at least one other person. I’m single and did not want go alone so I posted an event on Facebook and seven of my cousins, along with spouses/friends responded. Our group was 15, which was a tad too big but manageable. For smaller groups you could rent a car, but insurance is very expensive, and driving is challenging. People will be out of their comfort zones, which can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety, so take time to rest, eat healthy and hydrate.

#2 Use a reputable tour company. There are many great travel companies, but if you need a custom tour to explore your ancestral town in Sicily, like I did, start with a licensed travel agent and tell them what you need. You can find many local travel resources at bestofsicily.com. Get everything in writing. Also, I found our great ancestral guide (Rosy Bartolotta) through bestofsicily.com. Rosy was the vital key to connecting us with our Sicilian family.

#3 Prepare for the unexpected. Stuff happens. When in a foreign country, adapt to their culture and food as best as you can, and prepare to have your patience tested. Unless you speak Italian, communicating is a challenge. Older Sicilians do not speak English, most speak both Italian and Sicilian. Younger Sicilians know some English. They appreciate when you try speaking Italian, even if it’s not great. Additionally, there’s a good possibility you may NOT find relatives in the town of your ancestors. However, you can still enjoy all the beauty and atmosphere of the town.

# 4 Sicilians are friendly and welcoming. Forget most of what you’ve learned from Hollywood’s portrayal of Sicilians. Sicilians are the warmest and welcoming people. If you are fortunate to find relatives, like I was, they will open their hearts and homes up to you. They will proudly introduce you to their neighbors and friends. You will eat such delicious meals until you feel your stomach will burst! There may be one or two questioning your motives. Most likely they fear you’re there to reclaim property once belonging to your ancestors. Reassure them your only intent is to reconnect with family.

#5 Resist asking too many questions. If you are blessed to find family, avoid cross-examining them about family history. This may put them on guard and wonder why you want to know so much. They will open up and share bits and pieces, but if you’re sitting with pen and paper writing down everything they say, they may distrust your intentions. Later in the evening, when you’re back at the hotel, make notes in your journal so you do not forget details of what they shared.

The ultimate goal for any visit to Sicily should be to relax and absorb the beauty and rich history of Sicily and contemplate the joy it is bringing to your ancestors.

Denise De Marco
MyBellaSicily.com

Discovering Sicilian Family

In October 2014, I and seven cousins, their spouses and friends, took a trip of a lifetime to Rome and Sicily, in search of our roots in Partinico Sicily. For most of us, it was our first visit to Sicily, and what transpired was nothing short of miraculous.

Ten months prior, I discovered an ancestral tour guide through BestofSicily.com – the mother-load of all things Sicilian. Our guide, Rosy Bartolotta, specializes in uncovering family history around Sicily AND she’s originally from Michigan. I sent the particulars about our great grandparents, Angelo Comito and Antonina Barbiera of Partinico and explained they left Sicily for America in 1907 and we lost contact with the Partinico family in 1915, after Angelo died in a factory fire. Rosy set out researching the Comito family.

We stayed at the regal Excelsior Palace Hotel in Palermo, about 20 miles from Partinico. Rosy and her husband Michele met us in the morning with a van and off we went exploring. She immediately put my mind at ease; they were successful locating Comito family – descendants of our great grandfather Angelo’s twin brothers, Salvatore and Giuseppe.

We arrived at the Partinico city center, in front of the Chiesa Madre (Mother Church) and standing at the top of the church steps was our 2nd cousin, Leonarda and her husband Antonino. Her grandfather was our great grand uncle, Salvatore. One by one the American cousins climbed the steps to greet them, as we tried to hold back tears of joy. We also met our 2nd cousin, Francesca. After several minutes of hugs and attempts to communicate, Leonarda invited us back to her home to eat. With pleasure we said, yes!

First, we were invited to meet the Mayor of Partinico. Unfortunately, he was detained on business but we met his 2nd in command. He gave us a brief history of Partinico and offered us delicious Sicilian treats and Espresso, naturally!

Giornale Di Sicillia Sicily October 2014

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Outside the Mayor’s office, a news reporter approached us about the purpose of our visit. Rosy gave them the scoop, and the following day our picture and story appeared in the Giornale Di Sicillia newspaper.

We headed to the Records Office to meet the Archivist. He helped us find several records including the marriage record of our great grandparents. I laid my hand on the very spot where our great grandparents signed their names in 1896. It was a very moving connection for me because I knew the page had been untouched in 118 years.

Outside the Records building a TV reporter with two cameramen asked if they could film our story. We were elated and agreed; the result was a moving representation of our longing to discover our Sicilian family. The video aired on TV that evening.

Finally, we headed to the home of Leonarda who had prepared an incredible meal for 15 people! Leonarda brought out her genealogical documents to show our family connection. More Sicilian cousins arrived and Antonino brought out champagne to toast this amazing 100 year family reunion.

If that was the end of my family reunion story it would be enough, but wait… there’s a bit more!

The descendants of our grandfather’s other brother, Giuseppe Comito saw our family story on TV and reached out to Rosy to meet with us. With such limited time we literally had to meet on the roadside. I’ll never forget meeting Nunzia, my 2nd cousin and granddaughter of Giuseppe, and her charismatic husband, Castrenze. I felt an instant link with them and all my Sicilian family; it was as if I was home. The next day, our last evening in Sicily, we enjoyed a delightful family get together at a local pizzeria.

The American and Sicilian cousins were finally reunited – our hearts were changed forever.

La Rocca Family

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Family: Our link to the past and bridge to the future

I was very close to my paternal grandmother, Ann Comito Battiata. Her father died tragically in a fire on the job when she was only 7. For survival, she married at 15, became a mother at 16, and was a widow by 18. In her heyday she was a Flapper of the Roaring 20’s until she experienced a spiritual awakening in 1930. Her faith carried her through very difficult times, including the Great Depression, WWII, the deaths of her mother and husband, and right up until her own death in July 1977.

Etched in my mind are so many precious memories of her cooking, watching television game shows while knitting a mile a minute, shifting her 3-speed on the column Chevy with her right hand, while holding a cigarette in the left hand, studying the well-worn pages of her Bible, and telling me to ‘never forget your family.’ By profession she was a hair dresser, but also worked at Detroit Tiger Stadium. What a character – she was witty, patient, forgiving and kept secrets of her very arduous past.

After she died, I was heartbroken. I took comfort in researching her Sicilian family, which wasn’t easy in the early 80’s. There was no Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org. Throughout the years, I’ve gathered remnants of her life, starting with her parents, Angelo Comito and Antonina Barbiera of Partinico. Partinico is an agricultural town about 20 miles southwest of Palermo. They immigrated to Coldwater Michigan in 1907 and my grandmother was born in 1908. After her father died in 1915 her mother took Annie and her little sister Jennie to Detroit, where they knew other families from Partinico. They lost all contact with the family back in Sicily.

SICILY – THE WILD WEST

By the 1990’s I had hit a roadblock in my Sicilian research and concluded the only way to learn more about our family was to go to Sicily. There was just one issue. No it wasn’t the Mafia, I was not afraid of them. I read a book describing where local bandits travel the highways in Sicily stealing from tourists. I pictured a scene from an old western movie, where outlaws swooped down on an unsuspecting stagecoach, forcing travelers to handover their valuables. As a single woman, this depiction made me apprehensive about traveling alone to Sicily. There was no one to go with me, so the trip idea was abandoned.

FATHER KNOWS BEST

Fast forward to September 2013, the yearning to visit Sicily was pulling at me, like an ocean current. I looked into some tours, but I needed a custom tour, so I could spend time researching in Partinico and possibly uncover relatives. My father, now in his late 80’s, suggested I try to get a custom tour and see if any American cousins would go with me. I took his sage advice, (I normally do) and created an event on Facebook. I thought perhaps one or two cousins may be interested, but to my surprise, seven cousins along with their spouses and/or friends wanted to go. Suddenly I found myself the official travel coordinator of 15 going to Sicily in October 2014.

Check out my next post, where I’ll go into more detail about our amazing family trip to Sicily, and whether we were successful at reuniting family in Partinico.