Sicily is a perfect place for lovers of historical novels, it is such an evocative place, bursting with the energy of a palpable history which seeps into everything on the island.
In fact, Sicily has inspired many English authors to write beautiful fiction.
The Sicilian migrant diaspora is also one of the most creative spawning a genre which draws from Sicilian culture, family history and the collective migrant experience.
First, second and even sometimes third generation Sicilian writers have been inspired by their heritage and continue to create beautiful literary works dedicated to Sicily.
One of my favourite novellas inspired by a person who has explored his own personal history in Sicily is The Lady of the Wheel by Angelo F. Coniglio.
The Lady of the Wheel is a journey into the poverty, misery and dignity of the insular world of the Nineteenth-Century Sicilian peasantry. This labour of love is passionate and detailed and takes us deep into a Verismo like the realistic world of small village life with heartfelt pathos and a veil of ancient dialect.
Maria Rizzo is left alone to birth and give up her fifth child. Hiding the pregnancy from the community, in the heart of a harsh Sicilian winter, Maria dresses her beautiful green-eyed baby girl in the only fine clothes the family owns, a dolls dress and goes to the church to deposit the child in a special rotating door, designed to gather up foundlings for adoption by the church. We follow Maria and her daughter on their journey to find one another.
Coniglio’s novella is a beautifully sparse and well-crafted story which takes us into the poverty of one of the darkest times in Sicily’s modern history. The story of these abandoned children from the island’s history is filled with pathos and power.
I interviewed Angelo Coniglio a while ago about the background to this story and his unique passion for Sicilian genealogy which lead him to discover this story from his own personal family history.
Tell us about your book The Lady of the Wheel, where did you find this amazing, evocative story and how is it connected to you?
I have been doing Sicilian genealogical research for about ten years. I started with the ancestors of my parents, both of whom were born in Serradifalco in central Sicily. Then I began doing research for my friends, many of whom are also Sicilian American. Some of my ‘friends’, my research showed, were actually distant cousins. One had ancestors from Racalmuto, a village in Agrigento province. One record that I found had nothing to do with his ancestry, but it caught my eye. All births were recorded, even stillbirths and the births of abandoned children, who were left in the public ‘ruota’ or foundling wheel. Since the parents of foundlings were unknown, the infants’ names were concocted by church or civil authorities. Their made-up surnames were stigmatic: ‘Proietto’, (which means ‘cast out’); ‘Trovatello’ (‘foundling’); ‘Esposto'(‘exposed to the elements’) and so on.
In the 1800s in Sicily (and in much of Europe), each new birth had to be registered with civil authorities. Usually, the infant’s father took it to the town hall to be registered, but in the case of foundlings, they were presented for registration by the person, usually a woman, who had found them. The occupation of these women was variously given as ‘custode dei trovatelli’ (caretaker of foundlings), or ‘ricevitrice dei proietti'(receiver of castoffs). In the particular foundling record that caught my eye the occupation of the declarant was given simply as ‘ruotaia’. This is a word that is no longer used in modern Italian, but ‘ruota’ meant ‘foundling wheel’, and ‘ruotaia’ meant ‘woman who tends the foundling wheel’.
What further piqued my interest was that the name of the wheel-tender was given as Rosa Esposto, meaning that the ‘lady of the wheel’ most likely had been a foundling herself. My story grew from there.
Sicily has so much fascinating history, how did you settle on this particular early modern period, the plight of the poor class and the role of the church? Tell us a little bit more about this dark phase in Sicily’s history.
My parents were born in the 1800s, so my search for their birth records and the birth records of my friends’ parents naturally led me to examine records from that period. Over the years I have read much about the plight of families from the Southern Apennine peninsula and Sicily, after their homeland was subsumed into the Kingdom of Italy. The poor in that region only got poorer and their youth were conscripted into the Italian army to fight northern wars. Those factors led to the huge migration to the US and elsewhere. 80% of ‘Italian’ immigrants to America were from the South and from Sicily.
How did you manage to balance the history with the fictional elements in The Lady of the Wheel?
I guess the history came from my analytical side (I’m a retired civil engineer and educator), and the ‘fictional’ elements are a blend of facts found in my research of original Sicilian records, along with family stories that I remember.
What’s your own personal link to Sicily, tell us about Serradifalco, how are you connected?
Serradifalco is a small interior town whose main industry was once sulfur mining. My uncle Giuseppe Coniglio came from there to Robertsdale, Pennsylvania in 1912. He was an out-of-work sulfur miner and found work here as a coal miner. He had left behind his wife Angela Alessi, sister of my mother Rosa Alessi, who was married to my father Gaetano Coniglio, Giuseppe’s youngest brother. Get it? Two brothers married two sisters, not uncommon at all in small Sicilian towns.
In 1913, my uncle convinced my father to be the chaperone for my aunt Angela when she came to the US, so my father did so, temporarily leaving my mother (pregnant with my eldest brother) in Sicily. My brother Guy was born in late 1913, and a year later my mother and he joined my father in Robertsdale.
Both sides of my wife’s family also sprang from Sicily, so the two of us are 100% Sicilian.
Do you visit Sicily often? What is your favourite Sicilian memory and experience?
I visited there in 2006 with my wife, two sisters and several nieces, and again in 2009 with my sisters and nieces. My wife and I and two nieces are returned again in late May 2016.
My favourite memory is the warmth and friendliness of the Sicilians of small-town Sicily. Whether they were my relatives plying us with home-grown food or strangers breaking their schedules to take us to see a local sight, they made us feel welcome.
I hear you are planning to write another book set in Sicily, tell us about that.
The Lady of the Wheel is a short book that practically wrote itself. Though it’s set in Racalmuto, there are references to my ancestral village of Serradifalco. ‘Serradifalco’ means ‘mountain of the hawk’, and I’m working on a fictional history of the town, from before Roman colonization through the recent past. The title of that book will be ‘The mountain of the Hawk’. Needless to say, it’s a much more daunting undertaking, a Michener-like challenge. I am also considering putting together a book, tentatively titled ‘Discovering Your Sicilian Ancestors’, a compilation of newspaper and blog articles I have written on that subject. Sicily and the former Sicilian territories of Southern Italy have some of the best records in the world, with civil records of birth, marriage and death dating back to the early 1800s, and church sacramental records, sometimes back to the 1300s.
You are also an academic with a passion for Sicilian genealogy tell us a little about your professional life and your research in Sicily
I was an academic; an adjunct professor of civil engineering at the University of Buffalo, and a practising civil engineer. I’m retired from both, and I guess I’d be classified as an ‘amateur’ genealogist since I prefer not to charge for my services, but rather to help others to do their own research. My Sicilian research actually has mostly been done from afar, using online services and microfilms rented at my local Mormon Family History Center, where I’m a volunteer. I have done some on-site research in Sicily, viewing some hundred-plus-year-old registers in my own ancestral town and that of my wife.
I always get asked by my blog readers how to go about researching family trees in Sicily, you seem to be an expert, how does one go about it?
Before starting, google-search for, and purchase, one of many books available on Italian genealogy. They can help you understand original Sicilian records, which are in the Italian language.
a. Review family records and local (church, library, court) records to get your immigrant ancestor’s NAME as it was in Sicily, and at least their approximate BIRTH DATE. US Censuses are available at libraries and online and can have such information, as well as their early RESIDENCE in the US, and their IMMIGRATION DATE.
b. Ditto for your ancestor’s TOWN OF BIRTH. This is important because the records must be searched according to the town in which they were created. Knowing ‘they were born in Sicily’ is not enough. Passenger manifests, available online can give an immigrant’s last residence or place of birth. Remember that married or not, Sicilian women went by their birth surnames and would be so listed on manifests. Citizenship papers (Petitions for Naturalization) can have all of this information.
c. Unless you can afford to travel to your ancestral town or pay someone to do so, you can search for records with the help of the Mormon site familysearch.org Records for your town may be available online or on microfilm that can be viewed at your local Mormon Family History Center. There is no proselytizing at these centres, and their services are free for all patrons.
d. Starting with a recent ancestor you know something about; find his/her birth, marriage, and/or death records. Sicilian records are very detailed and give age, occupation and addresses of persons involved in a civil registration. Use that information to search for records of earlier ancestors, and continue back in time to build your family tree.
You regularly contribute to Italian/Sicilian American publications about Sicilian heritage, tell us about some of your articles, why do you think it is so important to maintain links to Sicily?
I’m a sucker for ‘heritage’. Regardless of our ethnicity, I feel we should ‘know our roots’. Our ancestors, and the things that shaped their lives, actually helped form our lives, and knowing them is knowing ourselves. I have friends who have visited Italy, and when I ask where they went, they say “Rome, Florence and Venice.” I ask where their families were from and they reply “Racalmuto, Messina, Agrigento.” Then why didn’t they visit Sicily? “We didn’t think there was anything to see there.” To travel that far and not visit the actual land of your fathers, is, I believe, a travesty.
Tell me do you think that Sicilian migrant voices/writers are important, why?
Sicily and Sicilians have been WRONGLY painted harshly because of the sensationalism of one small aspect of our society. I’m saddened by the glorification of criminals, and would much rather see Sicilians and descendants of Sicilians display the intelligence and passion that made Sicily a cultural gem.
Sicily has produced so many fine writers, would you like to share which literary voice speaks to you the loudest and why who would you recommend to read to get a sense of Sicily.
Although my work has been compared to that of Verga, I had not read him prior to writing my novella. Now, doing so, I see how he captured the sometimes tragic but always ‘bravu’ character of ordinary Sicilians, and I am diving into his works.
Theresa Maggio’s ‘Mattanza’ is spellbinding, and her ‘The Stone Boudoir’ captures the essence of small Sicilian mountain towns. Lampedusa’s ‘Il Gattopardo’ and Anthony Di Renzo’s ‘Trinacria’ tell of the upheaval of Sicilian society after the ‘risorgimento’. John Keahey’s ‘Seeking Sicily’ is a delight.
Is there anything else you would like to mention, do you have any other projects lined up in the near future.
I am concerned that the Sicilian LANGUAGE (it’s NOT a dialect of Italian, although there are many dialects of Sicilian) is not taught in Sicilian schools, and is not spoken by many modern Sicilians, who have drunk the Italian Koolaid and believe that Sicilian is ‘the language of the poor and ignorant’, when it was the first Romance language, pre-dating and helping to form the Tuscan dialect that is now accepted as ‘Italian’. I encourage fellow Sicilians and their descendants to use the language in their speech and their posts, to help keep it alive.
I also like to remind descendants of immigrants from Abruzzo, Puglia, Calabria and the rest of the Southern ‘Mezzogiorno’ that any of their ancestors born there prior to 1860 were actually Sicilian, subjects of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies or its predecessor the Kingdom of Sicily.
I have a history of Sicily at La Bedda Sicilia, and at the bottom are links to many Sicily-oriented pages about our language, naming conventions, foundlings, and so on. I also invite your readers to check out my novella and if they choose to purchase it, to please post a review at Amazon.
Thanks so much to Angelo, who was so kind to find a moment to talk to me.
His wonderful novella is available as an ebook on Amazon if you want to read it.
Also if you want to do any kind of family research in Sicily he is definitely the man to ask and will readily reply to any questions simply send him a message on his Facebook page here.
(Images c/o Unsplash.com and Canva)