Just what are the boundaries of “southern Italy”? Sometimes people (both Italians and others) say that the north and south of Italy are like two different countries. Until about 150 years ago, they were two—and often more—countries, and for many centuries the south was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, or the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily. It includes the island of Sicily and the “boot” up to Gaeta on the west coast, and further north, taking in modern day Abruzzo, on the Adriatic coast.
Here’s a very abbreviated timeline of the last 28 centuries of influence or control of the region:
- 8th Century BCE: Greece
- 3rd Century BCE: Carthage/Rome
- 200 BCE: Rome
- 500 CE: Byzantine Empire
- 800 CE: Muslims (island) and Lombards (mainland)
- 1000s CE: Normans
- 1200 CE: Hohenstaufen (German)
- 1250s CE: Angevins (French) on mainland, Aragon (island)
- 1440s CE: Aragon (Spanish) and Anjou (French) alternated for about 100 years.
- 1550s CE: Aragon
- 1720s CE: Bourbons
- 1800s: Napoleon, Austrians, back to Bourbons.
- 1816: Naples and Sicily united as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies under the Bourbons.
- 1860/61: Briefly part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, then joined with the Kingdom of Italy.
Complicated as it seems, I have simplified this chart greatly. The evidence of these groups show up in the architecture, dialects, family names, and foods of the region. America is often called a melting pot, but southern Italy is a strong rival for that title.
When I talked with my mother about the invasions and influences on southern Italy, her face fell. “I thought we were Italian,” she said. “But it sounds like we aren’t.” If not, what are we? Her grandparents’ family names, Gualtieri and Arcuri, may provide clues to more distant origins. Behind the Name.com, a website on name origins, identifies Gualtieri as an adaptation of the name Walter, which is said to be of Norman origin. Arcuri closely resembles some Greek surnames. Could my ancestors have come to Italy with the ‘other’ Normans who controlled the south in the 1100s? Or with the founders of the Magna Graecia, the Greek settlers who arrived almost 3,000 years ago? I would love to know their stories!