For the historically-minded who wonders what is historically correct in the LUNA RISING family saga – a coming of age story set in Sicily.
Please note: this is a new revised edition of The Phoenix Heritage (first released in 2011 under the title Fear of the Past). It contains two new chapters, never published before.
PS. Notice the downward moon; this is the one I’ve picked for the cover of both the digital and printed versions.
1. The settings All the places in Sicily that are mentioned in the book may be visited today and even extraordinary settings like the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments in Moscow exist and can be visited. Keep in mind that the museum Tony visits on his first day in Syracuse is not the Luna Museum but the Bellomo Museum :
|Villa Flordiana, built by King Ferdinand I for the Duchess – entrance|
It was a present from the King of Naples to the Duchess of Floridia, completed in a record two years, in 1817-1818. A neo-classical jewel on the Vomero hill overlooking the Bay of Naples, the Duchess used it mainly for entertainment but also as a refuge for herself and the King.
And of course, the Circolo di Conversazione, all red velvet and gold, without which this book would not exist, may be found in the old baroque town of Ragusa, one hour west of Syracuse:
|The Circle of Conversation in Ragusa (Sicily)|
Two round-eyed lions sit on its neoclassical frontispiece with a hieratic eagle between them, just like in the novel:
…and no, you won’t find any Circolo in Syracuse’s old Ortigia. That was poetic license.
2. The people: people Tony Luna meets in the Circolo di Conversazione are either historical or closely modeled after historical characters. Let’s start with Eloisa. She is modeled after Eloisa Bonanno, the heroin of the fall of the Castle of Judica in 1130. She was in fact enslaved by the Saracens and kept a prisoner in the fortress of Judica, a place very similar to this one, although nobody has found it (it has disappeared without a trace, or so the historians say…):
She is said to have opened the castle doors to her brothers’ troops who were coming from Caltagirone. It is a fact that Judica was the last major Saracen fortress to fall in the hands of the Normans, thus completing their conquest of Sicily, after over three centuries of Arab domination. While Eloisa was viewed as a romantic figure in 19th century Sicily and the subject of several (bad) novels, little else is known about her.
Lùzia Migliaccio, Duchess of Floridia, a famous beauty in her time, became the second wife of King Ferdinand I of Two Sicilies. Here he is:
|King Ferdinand by Angelika Kauffmann|
They married in Palermo on 27 November 1814, in a secret ceremony, fifty days after the death of Queen Maria Carolina, causing a scandal in a court where protocol demanded a one year pause for mourning.
|Queen Maria Carolina and some of her children – in Naples|
Little is actually known of Lùzia before that marriage except that she led the life typical of an aristocratic lady in 18th century Sicily. She was the sole heir to the rich Floridia lands (her brother had died young) and managed it with care, as attested by her correspondence with her “fattore“. She regularly went to court in Palermo, where the King had taken up residence since 1806, after being kicked out of Naples by Murat, one of Napoleon’s more daring generals. Nasty tongues pretended that she had many lovers, or as one Pietro Colletta delicately put it: “per antiche libidini famosa”.
Her first husband, Benedetto Grifeo, Prince of Partanna, whom she married in 1781 when she was eleven, was much older and in poor health, a near-invalid at the end of his life. Not much more is known of her even after her marriage to the King. Lùzia was past the age of having children. She was forty-four when she married the King and he was sixty-three. She had nine children from her first marriage, and he had fifteen, so with twenty-two children between them, it is very likely they did not want more. Here she is, the portrait can be seen in Naples, in the Villa Floridiana that King Ferdinand had built for her:
|Duchess of Floridia, born Lucia Migliaccio, wife of Benedetto Grifeo, 8th Prince of Partanna|
Lùzia, as a morganatic wife, never became Queen of Two Sicilies and, out of respect for her first husband, she abandoned her title of princess of Partanna, adopting her father’s title, that of Duke of Floridia – a title he had inherited from his mother, Lucia Bonanno (as part of her dowry to the Migliaccio family).
The King must have welcomed having a tender and loving wife all to himself, and he showered her with gifts. He looked after all her children, taking Luigi, one of her sons, in the diplomatic service and ensuring a rich dowry for her youngest daughter Marianna who was his favorite. In addition to the famous Villa Floridiana, he provided her with several residences, an apartment in the Royal Palace and a large palace in the center, originally the seat of the War and Marine Ministry. She renamed it Palazzo Partanna in memory of her first husband.
|Vincenzo Grifeo e Migliaccio, eldest son of the Duchess of Floridia, 9th Prince of Partanna
Ambassador to Prussia and Luigi’s elder brother
Francis Leckie: there is an Englishman of that name who settled in Sicily around the early 1800s. He could have met the Duchess of Floridia. Whether he actually did meet her is not known, and whether he actually fell in love with her, if true, is a well-kept secret.What is known is that around 1801, he acquired from the local church – the Bishop of Syracuse – the right to exploit the Tremilia lands, a short ride from both Syracuse and Floridia. Documents attest to this contract. Little is known of Francis Leckie, beyond the fact that he was the son of a City of London merchant. To be allowed to rent Tremilia, he was forced to convert to Catholicism and change his name to Francesco. He went bankrupt when at the end of the Napoleonic wars the British troops, who had been the main purchasers of his produce, left the island. He ceded his leasing rights to Tremilia to Giuseppe Bonanno, a cousin of the Duchess of Floridia. This Bonanno had many children (exactly as he complains in the novel) and died a very wealthy man, in 1822.
Nicchia, or Virginia Oldoini, the “divine countess” or “vulva d’oro del Risorgimento” (the “golden vulva”– a crude reference to her affair with Napoleon III) is such a well-known historical character that there is no need to go into the details here. Except for one juicy piece of gossip: she was said to be the daughter of Luigi Grifeo who used to spend summers in Florence and had met Nicchia’s mother in a moment when the latter had been abandoned by her husband. Whether true or not, in this book it opens for her the doors of the Circolo di Conversazione, turning her into Lùzia’s grand daughter.
|The Divine Countess in a Pierre Louis Pierson photograph (1863-66)|
Minor characters also have their roots in historic reality. To mention but a few: the Jesuit father – Padre Luna – is typical of Jesuits in his time: elegant, cultured, generally open to new ideas. The court jester is also a typical product of the French royal court in 13th century Palermo.
Orlando d’Arcucci, the family member turned Muslim is not an anomaly. The nickname Padre Luna gives him, the “Great Mammamushki”, deliberately echoes Molière, and that too is normal since French was the preferred language among the Sicilian nobility. Orlando d’Arcucci may not have actually existed as such, but his name and family is historic. His fate is identical to the many thousands of Christians that were regularly taken prisoner by Muslim pirates who infested the Mediterranean for centuries, even as late as the 19th century. The Mediterranean was policed by the Order of Malta to make it safe for Christian travelers.
The Florio family – it was in every way as powerful as described in the book until their fortune collapsed after World War I. They hosted all the kings and queens of Europe who traveled to Sicily: in the Belle Epoque, Palermo was more fashionable than the French Cote d’Azur.
|Donna Franca Florio, the toast of Palermo, in a painting by Boldini|
III. What is pure invention:
The main protagonists, Tony, a brilliant techie, and sprightly Lucia. The people they meet in modern-day Sicily, the Cavaliere, a mafia boss, and Boris Adamovich, a Russian billionaire, are further inventions – how close to our current reality is for the reader to decide…