Brooding, conservative, suspicious and superstitious – or self-confident, sensitive, honest and hospitable? The Sicilians are a mass of apparent contradictions. Sicilians have a reputation for being brooding, suspicious and unfathomable. Closer contact reveals stoicism, conservatism and deep sensibility. This contradictory character does not match the sunny Mediterranean stereotype of dolce far niente, but once over the initial hurdles, outsiders may encounter overwhelming hospitality, boundless curiosity and smothering friendship on the slimmest of pretexts.
In 1814 the British Governor of Sicily was perplexed that “Sicilians expect everything to be done for them; they have always been so accustomed to obedience.” His Sicilian minister argued for absolutism: “Too much liberty is for the Sicilians what would be a pistol or stiletto in the hands of a boy or a madman.” Critics claim that Sicilians remain sluggish citizens, subsidy junkies with little sense of self-help. Sicilians reply that power and prestige lie elsewhere. History has taught them to have no faith in institutions. In the face of this, the traditional responses are emigration, resignation, complicity or withdrawal into a private world. Though emigration has been the choice of millions, most Sicilians choose to stay but avoid confrontation with the shadow-state of patronage and the Mafia. They prefer to live intensely, but in private. As a result, their world is circumscribed by the family, the bedrock of island life.
Palermo is emblematic of the retreat from the world and also of an ambivalence about class. It goes against the grain of Sicilian sentimentality to admit that the middle classes have fled the historic centre in droves to settle in safe leafy villages or in the suburbs. Yet even here, many modest homes maintain a level of security more common to a South American dictator, with watchmen, electronic gates and savage dogs. Optimists point to a gradual return of the middle classes to the centro storico, with one square held up as a shining example, a socially mixed island which could be the city’s salvation. But elsewhere, gentrification looks a long way off. In Sicily, hovels can lurk in the shadow of splendid mansions or villas.