Noblesse Reloaded

Portraits of Sicily’s aristocracy in the age of globalisation

The top destinations to visit in 2020? According to Forbes magazine, which has compiled a top twenty ranking, in second place is Palermo in Sicily: an exceptional destination “due to its authenticity, a feature which nowadays has largely disappeared from many other areas of the world,” writes the American publication. What makes Palermo so special is mainly its architectural and cultural heritage, much of which has been passed down from generation to generation by the aristocratic families that have played a central role in the island’s history.

While noble titles were abolished in Italy in 1948, the Sicilian aristocracy still retains the ancient intrigue described by Tomasi di Lampedusa in his novel The Leopard, which was later made into a film directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Alain Delon, Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale. Set during the Italian Risorgimento, at the dawning of the Kingdom of Italy (1861), the story follows the events of the family of Tomasi di Lampedusa and the slow decline of an entire social class.

But what remains today of this ancient and powerful Sicilian aristocracy? There is the Palermo aristocrat who has shrugged off the dusty 19th century image of the overprivileged overlord to become a successful businessman, while maintaining a certain style and taste for transgression. Others have transformed their family estate into a business producing wine and olive oil, planting ancient grains and agricultural produce for use in cosmetics. Others have turned their historical residences into stunning boutique hotels, opening up their precious art collections to visitors. As Palermo’s aristocrats love to repeat, “today nobility doesn’t always coincide with wealth.”