I just finished reading a historical fiction called The Florios of Sicily: A Novel by Stefania Auci,1 and wanted to provide my thoughts. I learned a little about the history of Sicily by reading this book, particularly the period from 1798 to 1868, a tumultuous time as Sicily deals with Bourbon rule, Napoleonic times, and eventually the revolts and revolutions occurring from the 1840s to the late 1860s. This was the setting for the story of the Florio family,2 an actual entrepreneurial family who developed Sicilian trade, wine, shipping, and banking. The author, Stefania Auci adds the color of relationships, and the inner thoughts and drives of members of the Florio family beginning with their emigration from Bagnara, Calabria to Palermo, Sicily in 1799 at a time when the southern Italian Peninsula including Naples and Calabria, as well as Sicily were controlled by Austria; and ending in the times of the unification of Italy in the late 1860’s.3 It’s a revealing tale mostly of the tensions between the aristocracy and the developing capitalists who took advantage of opportunities to profit from the industrial revolution. It also reveals the challenges of women who struggled with the power of their husbands to make decisions without regard for how it affected these women in their lives.
I must be honest, I’m not particularly enthralled by this book, mostly because it is more about the struggles of women in a patriarchal society, and the effort of upwardly mobile men to seek approval in aristocratic society, than it was about history, even the history of the Florio family’s growth as a large and influential force in Sicilian society. At the beginning of each chapter there is an effort to outline the historical context for the period in which the rest of the chapter is set, and there is some vague outlining of how the Florios, particularly Vincenzo Florio built his empire; however, it appears the author assumes the reader will go read extant books that detail this history somewhere else, or maybe that they are already familiar with this history, and just want to get a more personal account of the Florio family. I would have liked to have read more about how the politics of the period influenced the growth of the Florio empire. I would have preferred the entire story to be told in one place, with the personal stories intertwined in the story of that historical background of the growth of an industrial and trade powerhouse that the Florio family was responsible for building.
I did enjoy understanding some of the intricacies of being a woman in those times, and the choices they had to make. Should they have a sexual relationship with a man they love, but who has not married them, and even has not proposed marriage? If they get pregnant what choices do they have, and which are the best choices? How will these decisions effect them and their children? Early in the novel we read about Vincenzo deciding not to marry Guilia who he clearly loves and with whom he has one daughter and then a second daughter, and finally, when it becomes apparent that he will never be able to marry an aristocrat, he marries Guilia when she has his son, and third child, Ignazio. At the end of the novel we read about Ignazio, making a choice to marry for a title, rather than for love, after his mother, Guilia makes it clear that his life will be quite different if he marries for love as his father, Vincenzo did with her, though not until he had no other options and she gave Vincenzo a boy child.
The story of Vincenzo’s mother Giuseppina, and her struggles with a move to Palermo from Bagnara, Calabria, was also revealing about how one’s happiness is effected by our orientation. Giuseppina developed a strong animosity towards her husband Paolo until he was in his death bed, when Giuseppina finally recognized the harm her inability to accept the move to Palermo had caused their relationship. Then again as her brother-in-law Ignazio died many years later, after he had been a love and support to her and especially to her son Vincenzo who would inherit Casa Florio, she recognized how her feelings that she owed faithfulness to her dead husband, avoiding the desires she and Ignazio shared, also caused her great grief and regret. Giuseppina continued to be challenged by her judgements when Vincenzo was engaging with his unmarried mistress, Guilia, taking years to overcome those misgivings even after Vincenzo married Guilia. Giuseppina was a study in how judgement can ruin the quality of ones life, and maybe was the best learning I had from this book.
- Auci, Stefania. The Florios of Sicily: A Novel. HarperCollins Publishers, 2020.
- “Florio Family.” In Wikipedia, February 15, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Florio_family&oldid=1006907529.
- “History of Italy.” In Wikipedia, March 27, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_Italy&oldid=1014497523.