In Sicilian, the name “Donnafugata” simply means “the woman who fled” or “the fugitive woman”.
And for one reason or another, throughout the course of time, there have been quite a few women in Sicily who have fled from one calamity or another. Not all of them have been recorded by history and not all of them have left their imprint on Sicilian topography, but certainly there are enough of them to cause confusion.
Hence, our title actually is misleading, since there are in fact several “Donnafugatas” in Sicily and several stories connected with each. Let us try to untangle some of them.
The Castle of Donnafugata
Most people will recognise the name of Donnafugata as that of the castle just south of Ragusa and which features in the Montalbano films as the home of the Mafia boss. Nowadays it is also in close proximity to an exclusive golf resort and is hence a popular excursion. Its handsome and decorative facade however, masks darker stories.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the castle was owned by Baron Corrado Arezzo de Spuches; an aristocrat and Sicilian statesman from Ragusa. His only daughter, Vincenzina, married the prince of Sperlinga but the marriage was not to last and her husband abandoned her shortly after the birth of their two daughters. History fails to recount the reason, but by all accounts she was constrained to retire to Paris where she died of a broken heart. The Baron Corrado Arezzo de Spuches was left as the legal guardian of his two granddaughters: Maria and Clementina. Maria married a commoner from Messina, where she was sadly to die in the 1908 earthquake. Clementina however, fell in love with a Frenchman. Knowing that her grandfather would never approve of such as liaison, she eloped with the Gaul and hoped to set sail for France.
Unbeknown to her, they had been seen fleeing by the gardener who raised the alarm and the two fugitive lovers were hauled back to the castle. In order not to compromise the family honour, they were allowed to marry, but out of sight and in Malta. And although they returned to live in the castle, Clementina was never forgiven by her grandfather who cut her out of his will. It was only after a long lawsuit that she inherited possession of the property from her cousins, but the castle was sold by her descendants to the town of Ragusa late in the last century.
It would be tempting to attribute the name of the castle to the fugitive granddaughter, but perhaps as an ominous portent, it turns out that the castle acquired its name long before this episode.
Another legend, attributes its topographical origins to events in the early fifteenth century and an episode in the life of Queen Bianca di Navarra. At that time, Sicily was ruled by the Aragonese and Bianca di Navarra had ascended to the throne through her marriage to King Martin the Younger. On his untimely death, the crown was claimed by Martin’s father – also called Martin – who instated Bianca di Navarra as the Queen Regent of Sicily.
It was some scruffy Count of Modica who hoped to marry the young widow Bianca and thus claim the crown of Sicily for himself. When Bianca refused, he had her taken prisoner and brought to the castle of Donnafugata where she was holed up in the hope she would repent.
But the latter part of this story is surely a fiction for we know that by 1415 at least, the adventure-prone Bianca was safely back in Navarre, to which she had in the meantime acquired the throne.
Furthermore, this is not so much the story of a fugitive as the story of a captive. And besides, the timelines do not align since the castle almost certainly post-dates the life of Bianca di Navarra.
The other well-known “Donnafugata” appears in literature, in one of the best-loved Sicilian novels: The Leopard. And “Donnafugata”, is the name of the summer residence to which the family relocates during the hot summer months. How then did it come to acquire this name, and where is it located?
It was October 1798 and Rome was in the hands of Napoleon’s forces. An army from the Kingdom of Naples was marching on the Papal City to liberate it from the French. But it was a half-hearted affair and within a matter of days most of them, including the Bourbon King Ferdinand himself, had deserted and were making their way home.
Back in Naples, convinced that the French would follow on the heels of the deserters, panic was spreading through the Royal household and in a state of desperation, the Queen was busy packing her belongings and was making ready to flee.
In the Bay of Naples a British warship HMS Vanguard lay at anchor. Its commander, the Admiral Nelson, was ashore, recovering from the exhaustion and an injury sustained to his head at the Battle of the Nile a few months previously.
Eventually, on the 23rd December, in the midst of a gale, two thousand refugees of the Royal Household boarded a small fleet of ships and set sail for Sicily.
Aboard HMS Vanguard, besides King Ferdinand, the Queen and her dozen or so children, was the British Envoy Sir William Hamilton and his wife Emma. The Queen – the one who had spread all this panic – was one Maria-Carolina, an Austrian princess of the Hapsburg line and sister of Marie Antoinette. It is therefore quite understandable why she feared for her life at the hands of Napoleon’s troops.
On the 26th December, after a voyage which Nelson himself described as the roughest he had ever experienced, the fleet reached the harbour of Palermo.
In Sicily, Maria Carolina came to be known as “ ‘a Donnafugata” – the woman who’d fled from Naples to escape the French troops.
King Ferdinand and Maria Carolina settled with their court in the Norman Palace. But the former royal residence had evidently seen better days and had been allowed to fall into ruin. It hadn’t been lived in for years and there were no servants or housekeepers in service. Due to the usually mild winters in Palermo, there were no fireplaces, but this winter was one of the coldest on record. Mould was growing on the walls. Not surprisingly, Maria Carolina struggled to feel at home.
Her bedroom however, can still be visited today – it is the green room just behind the hall of the Sicilian Regional Parliament – and from the neo-classical decoration, although perhaps not on the same scale as her palace in Naples, it doesn’t seem quite too degenerate. Although it suffered damage during an earthquake in 2002, it has recently been restored.
King Ferdinand enjoyed his time in Sicily, passing most of his days out hunting in the woods of Ficuzza. But Maria Carolina was not happy. In time, her husband was to build the Chinese Palace in the Parco Favourite just beneath Monte Pellegrino, but in the meantime being she was desperate to escape Palermo.
Over the winter of 1812-13 she retreated to the remote and dusty town of Santa Margherita del Belice where she stayed in the Palazzo Filangeri di Cutò. The Palace had recently been restored by the owner: Niccolò Filangeri, Prince of Cutò and boasted a garden full of fine and exotic species.
The writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa knew this fine palace well. Niccolò Filangeri was his great-great grandfather and the palace later passed into the possession of his mother: Beatrice Mastrogiovanni-Tasca di Cutò. Lampedusa evidently spent many happy summers here as a child and he described it in his memoirs Places of my Infancy:
“Set in the middle of the town, right on a leafy square, it spread over a vast expanse and contained about a hundred rooms, large and small. It gave the impression of an enclosed and self-sufficient entity, a kind of Vatican as it were, that included state-rooms, living-rooms, quarters for thirty guests, servants’ rooms, three enormous courtyards, stables and coach-houses, a private theatre and church, a large and very lovely garden, and a great orchard.
And what rooms they were! Prince Niccolò had had the good taste, almost unique for his time, not to ruin the 18th century salons…”
This then was just the setting that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa envisaged for the summer residence of the Prince in the Leopard and he named it after the sobriquet of Queen Maria Carolina, “Donnafugata”.
Today, it is still possible to visit the Palazzo Filangeri and indeed it houses a small museum to the book of the Leopard. Just as Lampedusa describes, it is set in an ample and handsome piazza and adjacent to the Palace is the church.
However, all came tumbling down one night in January 1968 in the catastrophic earthquake of the Belice Valley. The initial destruction claimed only a few hundred lives, in the late sixties, this part of Sicily was one of the most remote and under-developed parts of Europe and although aid eventually arrived from all over the world (including from the States to where many on the town’s inhabitants had emigrated), the plunging mid-winter temperatures were to precipitate almost apocalyptic conditions. Rather than restore it, the ruin of the church has been preserved under a large canopy and turned into a “Museum of Memory” with photographs of the aftermath of the earthquake. It is a moving and worthwhile visit.
There is one other “Donnafugata” we have not yet mentioned – that of the wine company form Marsala. Originally from Contessa Entellina, they have made the novel of the Leopard the theme for their branding, and most of their wines are names after characters or aspects of the novel and hence we have: La Fuga, Tancredi, Sedara etc. Their flagship wine Mille e una Notte carries a handsome blue label. If you look carefully at the building inscribed thereon, you will recognise the Palazzo Filangeri di Cutò of Santa Margherita del Belice.
Although it is not actually part of the story of Donnafugata, it is worth finishing off the story of Nelson in Palermo. It seems he fared rather better than Maria Carolina, as it was there that his famous affair with Emma Hamilton began. Seemingly with the approval of Lady Hamilton’s husband (who in any case was thirty five years her elder) this affair was played out in full view of the public – much to the abhorrence of some.
In reward for having saved her life, Queen Maria Carolina bestowed on Nelson the Dukedom of a small Sicilian town – Bronte – on the northern flank of Etna.
To a man who lived his life on the oceans, such a Dukedom was next to useless and in fact Nelson never visited it, but it remained in the family until the early 1970s. A small English community must have existed there at one time as there an English cemetery a few hundred yards from the castle.
Which leads to a further question. What does the Sicilian town of Bronte have to do with Emily and Charlotte?
The answer, I gather, is that shortly after Nelson was made Duke of Bronte, the sister’s father – clergyman Patrick Brunty, changed his surname to the name of the Sicilian town. We can only guess at his motives for doing so.