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.

In the very first pages of the book, a series of faces fleetingly appear that we will seldom or never meet again: the porter Giuseppe dandling his baby beside the gate; an array of servants and retainers from the palace; a crowd of tradesmen and townspeople, all abuzz with the news that the old lady has expired without the comfort of any of her children by her side.

It is only roughly 25 years and 600 mesmerizing pages later, upon hearing Consalvo’s thoughts and his oration, that a reader suddenly notices how the tale of the repellent but fascinating Uzedas has gripped our attention almost to the point of suffocation, with De Roberto having starved us of anyone like those ordinary folk with their ordinary human concerns so rapidly glimpsed in the opening pages. His skill in keeping a tight focus on this selfish, unattractive, dislikable family over so many pages is a real tour de force of verismo, as Italian realism or naturalism was called. The Viceroys, says the Stanford University literary scholar Franco Moretti in a brief foreword to this edition, offers “a unique combination of naturalistic lucidity over the fate of impoverished aristocracies, and a Goya-like inventiveness in extracting from social disintegration a whole gallery of grotesques and monstrosities.” The dark and brilliant 20th-century Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia hailed The Viceroys as “the greatest novel Italian literature can claim after The Betrothed,” by Alessandro Manzoni. Edith Wharton, chronicler of Gilded Age folly, was another great fan of De Roberto.

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Although its point of view is never identified with any character, The Viceroys reflects the judgments and expectations of a class of citizens that was very tiny in Catania even in the 1890s, when it was written, and perhaps even smaller in the 1860s, when most of the story takes place. These are the novel’s invisible townspeople, merchants and professionals, the new men who led the Risorgimento, a class more evident in the north of Italy. It included people like Ippolito Nievo, who studied law in Padova; wrote a huge, stirring novel about the Risorgimento, Confessions of an Italian; joined Garibaldi in Sicily in 1860; and died in a shipwreck on the way back to the mainland the following year, just 29 years old.

Perhaps not surprisingly, De Roberto spent some of his productive years far from Sicily, mostly in Milan. He was born in 1861 in Naples, where his father had been a high-ranking officer in the Bourbon army. But after his father’s death 10 years later, De Roberto moved to his mother’s family home in the considerably less cosmopolitan city of Catania. (Her family is thought to be one of the models for the Uzedas.) De Roberto began his professional career working as a journalist, and he soon made friends with Giovanni Verga, the leading verista novelist. Sojourns in Milan introduced him to a lively literary community with ties to France. He translated Baudelaire and wrote about Tolstoy and Nietzsche. But he always returned to his mother’s side in Catania and never married. The Viceroys, published in Milan, is his best-known work among many, including an interesting series of novellas written from his experience on the front in World War I, of which La paura (Fear) is especially haunting. He died in 1927.

The muckraking of The Viceroys couldn’t be more different from the mood of another, better-known Sicilian novel set in the very same years but published much later, in 1958, when naturalism was thought to be anti­quated and overblown and postwar neorealism was fading. The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, scion of a noble Sicilian family, also takes place during the Risorgimento, specifically during the spring and summer of 1860, when Garibaldi landed with his volunteer soldiers, the One Thousand, to free the island and the south of Italy from Bourbon rule. While The Viceroys is tough and unforgiving about the ignorant and shortsighted Uzedas, The Leopard is veined with nostalgia for its cultivated protagonist, Don Fabrizio Corbera, prince of Salina, and often adopts his point of view as he watches his class fall into decline, elbowed aside by the energetic and boorish new men of Italy.

The great director Luchino Visconti made a visually memorable film of Lampedusa’s novel starring Burt Lancaster in 1963, a work still screened today. A film version of The Viceroys released in 2007 and directed by Roberto Faenza was less inspired, although admittedly the task was tougher than that facing Visconti, where sumptuousness was pretty much all that was needed. As for the two novels, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that The Leopard has long been the more popular of the two. Its lyrical, elegiac mood, along with its generally attractive portrait of one particular representative of the ancien régime, flatter us by suggesting that the end of aristocratic privilege was complicated—a mixed blessing. This is an illusion that no reader of The Viceroys can maintain before De Roberto’s unforgettable portrait of the grasping Uzedas.

Both novels were translated in the early 1960s by Archibald Colquhoun, who also produced the English versions of many other novels by writers like Manzoni, Calvino, Svevo, and Sciascia. He directed the British Institute in Naples before World War II, worked in intelligence during the war, and was later posted to Seville; he then supervised Italian works in translation at Oxford University Press. The Leopard was his biggest success. His version of The Viceroys is lively and knowledgeable, if by now somewhat dated, as can happen to a translation.

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The Risorgimento is often called Italy’s age of revolution. But was it? Yes, but probably more in spirit than in outcome. Although there was a strong republican current behind Garibaldi and the radical democrat Giuseppe Mazzini, Italy was ultimately united under the conservative auspices of the Piedmontese King Victor Emmanuel II, albeit with a parliamentary government and an expanding democratic electorate. Antonio Gramsci and other 20th-century Italian intellectuals saw the Risorgimento as a rivoluzione mancata, a missed opportunity for class revolution, because the small elite who led the fight for nationhood didn’t enlist the peasants in their cause. (Italy, lacking both a substantial industrial bourgeoisie and proletariat, should have mobilized the rural workers and pushed for strong land reform, Gramsci argued.) In Sicily, in particular, the estates held by the nobles were sometimes huge latifundia, and many of the farmers who worked them were not much freer than the slaves who had worked those same lands in ancient Roman times.

Like many southerners, De Roberto was skeptical that the Italian government would bring progress to Sicily. In The Viceroys, his reasons couldn’t be more clear: The Uzedas corrupt everything they touch, beginning with Benedetto Giulente, a young liberal from a not very distinguished middle-class family whom the stubborn Lucrezia insists on marrying to spite her family. Once married, Giulente becomes a craven admirer of the reactionary, royalist Uzedas, while his wife, her appetite for rebellion quenched, begins to look down on her humble husband and despise him. Similarly, Raimondo marries a young woman named Matilde after his mother advises him that because her family is of lesser nobility, Matilde will make a submissive wife; first Raimondo reduces her to great unhappiness, then he deserts her for another. Status is all-important to the Uzedas, because their ability to bully and coerce others is guaranteed by their rank.

Money is the family’s most urgent need. Theirs is a class of wastrels and cadgers, for whom something as bourgeois as work is an unthinkable route to an income. “Land poor,” they’re always scheming about how to get some cash. Reckless gambling, loan-sharking, bullying and cheating other members of the family, and grabbing government spoils are among the preferred solutions. The Uzedas know they’re entitled, so it’s just a question of working out the details.

Capriciousness is another of family’s hallmarks. The Uzedas are constantly changing sides and opinions, often for the most trivial reasons. Reversing their views comes easy, because they don’t hold anything dear except their own privilege. In The Leopard, the prince is dismayed by his nephew Tancredi’s similar readiness to back the garibaldini and reap the benefits. “If we wish everything to remain the same, everything must change,” Tancredi says in a famous line that encapsulates what Italians call gattopardismo (from the novel’s Italian title, Il Gattopardo). In the 21st century, Italians still accuse their leaders of trasformismo, the not-so-unusual custom of switching sides quickly under the flimsy pretext of a change of heart.

But the class opportunism displayed by De Roberto’s viceroys is even more shameless. The politicians in the family, Duke Gaspare and the young Prince Consalvo, are so effortlessly opportunistic that to call them hypocrites is to flatter them by attributing forethought. “Monarchy or republic, religion or atheism…to him there was nothing apart from self-interest,” De Roberto writes of Consalvo. As the novel ends, we watch him triumph in the 1882 election, having made shrewd alliances, espoused radical causes, and pursued the peasant vote, although he remains a staunch reactionary at heart. Visiting his ultraconservative aunt Ferdinanda on her deathbed, Consalvo justifies himself in a rare moment of sincerity:

Once the power of our family came from kings; now it comes from the people. The difference is more in name than fact.… Of course it’s not pleasant to depend on the mob, but lots of those sovereigns were not exactly saints. And one man alone who holds the reins of power in his own hands and considers himself invested by divine right and makes a law of his every whim is more difficult to win over and keep on good terms with than the human flock, numerous but servile by nature.… Even the Viceroys of long ago had to propitiate the mob; otherwise ambassadors went and complained in Madrid and had them recalled by the Court.

Like his great-uncle Gaspare, Consalvo will use his mandate from the “servile” to sit in Parliament and enrich himself and his friends back in Sicily with government contracts and licenses.

Along with opportunism, superstition is another hallmark of these nobles. Prince Giacomo is so accustomed to absolute rule over the rest of the family that when his son Consalvo rebels, Giacomo is convinced that the young man is possessed by the evil eye and will not even touch him. Along with superstition comes a lordly ignorance: Some nobles prided themselves on being illiterate. Religious piety and bigotry are the province of the women, while the men, including the monk Don Blasco and the prior Don Lodovico, use clerical institutions to accumulate money and power. Anticlerical though he was, De Roberto showed a rare understanding of the position of women, recognizing that feudal rules gave them few rights and no real role except to produce offspring.

De Roberto’s perspective is utterly unlike that of The Leopard, in which events are filtered through a nobleman’s eyes. The Viceroys, Lampedusa once sniffed, was “a picture of the Sicilian aristocracy seen from the servants’ hall.” He was wrong, though, for the servants in the novel—as becomes evident in the case of the butler Baldassarre—identify deeply with their masters. After unification, Baldassarre buys votes for Consalvo through a working men’s organization and becomes the respectable face of his Mafia backers, along with a gang of thugs who were the young prince’s buddies in adolescence. This is how Sicilian organized crime works in tandem with politics to this day.

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As De Roberto foresaw, the unification of Italy didn’t bring progress to Sicily. Southern Italy still lags behind the north economically. While the reasons have been thoroughly de­bated by Italian historians, there is no full consensus even today. Did unification merely bring other exploitative masters—the new Italian state with a Parliament in Rome and a king from the north—to take the place of the Bourbon monarchy and the old regime? Did the economic imbalance between north and south condemn the south to merely supplying resources, taxes, migrant labor, and cannon fodder while the north industrialized? Was the south effectively reduced to colonial status by a rapacious north?

Perhaps one reason that The Leopard has been more popular than The Viceroys as a portrait of the era—even among progressives, and despite its evident nostalgia for the days of aristocratic privilege—is that its view of southerners as romantic victims harmonizes with the 20th-century perception that the Risorgimento badly failed southern Italy. The Viceroys offers a different and quite plausible argument: A region without a substantial professional or industrial middle class, in which a deeply reactionary nobility was able to put on sheep’s clothing and take public office, would remain paralyzed by its contradictions. Today, many historians blame southern Italy’s backwardness on a harsh and distant Piedmontese administration. De Roberto, however, blamed the south’s own fossilized elite for impeding change and growth. A curiosity in this regard: While the titles of the nobility were stripped of legal standing in 1948, many southerners continued to use them informally, and the prince of Lampedusa was one.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the likes of the Uzedas and that slim minority at the top of our own society, the ones protected from neoliberalism’s fierce scouring away of democratic rights and economic security. The Sicilian elite and today’s 1 percent sit atop profoundly different bases, of course. Still, Verso Books has done a good deed in this timely republication of a remarkable novel. The capriciousness, the blind avarice and superstition, the arrogance and unearned license that the Uzedas embody cannot but resonate today.