What does a society ripe for revolution look like? Federico De Roberto’s unjustly neglected novel I vicerè, or The Viceroys, published in 1894, shows us one. At the top is a tribe of Sicilian aristocrats, the Uzeda clan—devious, mean, and anything but noble in spirit—who are festering in their own greed and privilege during the years of Italy’s transition to modernity, the Risorgimento of 1815 to 1861. They live in Catania, on the eastern side of the island, and proudly trace their title of viceroy (the king’s right hand) back to the Aragonese/Spanish crown that ruled Sicily from the early 15th century. That lineage, the Uzedas imagine, entitles them to power and wealth in perpetuity, and the only challenge they face in life is devising ingenious ways to maintain their expensive standard of living.
The story begins in 1855 with the death of Teresa Uzeda, princess of Francalanza. Her seven children, their spouses, and her in-laws (the brothers and sister of her dead husband) are arriving at the palace. None of them want to miss the reading of her last will and testament. Will the family property pass down as usual by primogeniture to the eldest son, Giacomo, or has the despotic Teresa left it to her youngest and favorite son, Raimondo? We’re introduced to the wily and avid Giacomo; the spoiled and vain Raimondo; the cloistered nun Angiolina; the histrionic Chiara and her sister Lucrezia, who, being women, can only exert their powers through marriage; their brothers Lodovico, an ambitious and clever monk, and the inept Ferdinando, dubbed “the Booby” by his mother. We meet their father’s siblings, still hoping for some piece of the estate that the widow inherited: the ultrareactionary Ferdinanda, who is building a personal fortune lending at usurious rates; the pitiful aspiring scholar Don Eugenio; the fat, scurrilous Don Blasco, the nastiest and greediest cleric in the San Nicola monastery, keeper of a mistress known as the “Cigarwoman”; and the ambitious and duplicitous Don Gaspare, who “gambles on Liberty,” the first to see that political office and its spoils may offer the aristocrats a new lease on life.
Society, in this novel, is made up almost entirely of the 1 percent, the nobility. The peasants who toil on their distant estates are almost never mentioned, and the family’s servants appear only rarely. The Uzedas hog the stage and never seem to waste a moment’s thought on people from other social strata. Great historical events always take place as a backdrop to family weddings, funerals, and births. The viceroys believe that history—the periodic cholera epidemics, the arrival of the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi in Sicily, the seizure of Rome and the ousting of the pope from temporal rule in 1870—is just a series of tableaux adorning their family tree. Don Blasco, on learning that the famous general has landed on the island at Marsala, sniffs, “Who’s Garibaldi? Never heard of him…”
Only near the novel’s end, when Teresa’s grandson Consalvo is making a bid for the Italian Parliament in Rome, does a member of the family give a thought—albeit a self-serving one—to the rest of the population:
‘Prince of Francalanza’: those words were the passport, the talisman that worked the miracle of opening all doors. He knew that declarations of democracy could do him no harm with electors of his class, as the latter did not consider them sincere and felt sure of having him on their side at the proper time. On the other hand he felt that accusations of aristocracy did him no great harm with the majority of a people brought up for centuries to respect and admire nobles and even to take pride in their scale of living and their power.… He was sure that if he had a heart-to-heart talk with those crying out most for ‘Liberty and Equality’ and said to them, ‘Now if you were in my place, would you shout that?’ the proud republican would be in a fix.