by Andrea Camilleri (2013)

Many of us know Andrea Camilleri as the creator of the beloved Inspector Montalbano series of books and films. A few years ago, he discovered a little-known fact involving the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily in 1677 that was so shocking and unusual, it grabbed his imagination. This book is based on the few known facts which Camilleri fleshed out with his own imagination to create a story just as compelling as his Montalbano series.

I was surprised to learn how many rulers Sicily had over the centuries. From 1516-1713, Spain ruled the island with the Viceroy representing the Spanish King and the Pope. The Viceroy was the agent empowered to carry out King Carlos’ wishes and assisted by six Holy Royal Councillors. Each councillor had a grandiose title, oversaw a specific area of governance, and made recommendations to the Viceroy who made the final decisions.

Marquis Don Angel de Guzman arrived in Palermo as the new Viceroy about two years before the events of which Camilleri writes. He was young and highly respected, of good character, but notable for his skeletal thinness. Over the course of the next two years, however, he ballooned into a monstrously obese man, apparently as the result of some strange and unknown disease.

One day his body simply succumbed to the overload of its organs, and he died in the middle of a meeting with the six Councillors. These men were NOT of good character, and once they realized he must be dead, decided not to report it immediately as required. They conspired with each other to enact their pet laws and decisions that enhanced their own pockets and powers while disregarding any benefit or harm to the Sicilian citizens. Their rationale was that the Viceroy had approved all their proposals by virtue of his silence.

Once they had finished their dirty work, they reported that the Viceroy had just then fainted. The doctor did notice that the Viceroy was actually dead and too cold to have just died, but did not disclose this to anyone at the time. The Viceroy’s wife, donna Eleonora, was then notified of her husband’s death.

When looking through his desk, she found a sealed envelope addressed to the Council. They opened it in her presence to find it was the dead Viceroy’s will, which stated:“In the event of my sudden death, my beloved wife, donna Elenora di Mora…is to accede in full to the office of Viceroy of Sicily, with all the honors and burdens, duties and rights associated with said office….” [p.37]

What a shock to everyone–a woman had never held that office! In fact, the concept was so unthinkable that no one had thought to enact a specific law against the office being occupied by a woman (especially one of such exquisite beauty)!

As it happened Eleonora was a remarkably intelligent woman of excellent character and morals. After being orphaned at the age of ten, she lived and was educated in a convent before being married to the Marquis. As his wife, she learned much about the people of Palermo by exploring the area in disguise. She therefore entered her new office with a strong grasp of how the people suffered and with a good idea of the cause of much of it. The Councillors soon learned that she had an agenda opposed to their own and found ways to foil their tricks.

Sicily in 1677 was deeply poverty-stricken. It had suffered so many plagues, diseases and famines, it’s a wonder there was a population left to govern. The plight of women was especially unfortunate with marriage or prostitution the main choices, with almost no others available to them. The tax burden was extremely onerous. To use a modern popular term, “income inequality” was extreme at both ends.

Eleonora was Viceroy for only 27 days (a revolution of the moon), but she accomplished much in that short time and gained the love and support of the populace. Among her notable true achievements, she:

–cut the price of bread (a main staple of the Sicilian diet) in half by lifting the tax on wheat.

–cut the “patri onusti:” providing some tax and tariff relief to fathers of eight or more children instead of twelve or more.

–named a Magistrate of Commerce with power to decide and resolve disputes among the 72 trade guilds.

–created the law of three thirds: guild workers had to be paid one-third of the cost at the beginning of a job; one-third halfway through, and one-third at the end of the job to prevent payment of less than the amount due guild workers, or even in some cases, nothing at all.

Seizures and expropriations of illegally obtained money and property brought a great deal of income into the Treasury, with which she:

–established two shelters for women: a Conservatory for poor and orphaned virgins and other young girls forced against their wills; and the Conservatory for Reformed Magdalens (former streetwalkers and those thrown out of brothels).

–established a “Royal Dowry” for 100 girls from poor families.

–revealed that a so-called home for orphans was in fact a brothel featuring teenage girls who were visited by many of the leading citizens of Palermo; and the murders of three of the girls because they became pregnant.

–succeeded in ousting the six corrupt Councillors and replacing them with honest men.

In just 27 days Eleonora made great strides in fighting the corruption so prevalent in Palermo and bettering the lives of its citizens, particularly the women.

In the end, Eleonora was ousted as Viceroy, not for any of the work she had done or not done, but because the Viceroy represented both the Spanish King Carlos AND the Pope at that time. The snag was that she could not represent Pope Innocent XI because “a born Legate of the Pope” could never be a woman.

King Carlos was very pleased with Eleonora’s performance as Viceroy. However, he needed to appease the Pope, so made this compromise: he recalled Eleonora, but since all her actions had been for the King and not for the Pope, he decreed that all acts passed by her “shall remain in effect and cannot be abrogated, altered, questioned or mooted by [her] successor.” [p. 224]

Eleonora obeyed her King and stepped down as Viceroy. She had avenged her husband (she had since learned the details of his death and the corrupt Councillors’ actions), taken action against corruption, and greatly improved the lives of Palermo’s citizens in her short tenure.

What prompted Eleonora to make her decisions? She explains it in terms of the “elementary lesson” she learned in the convent:

“…which is that Dios he creado el hombre a su imagen y semejanza. Ever since, I have always made sure to respect todos los hombres—meaning those, naturally, who are worthy of the name—for in them the image of God is reflected. It follows, then, that if we do not help those who suffer, a quien sufre la injusticia, a quien se muere de hambre, if we do not help the weakest—and women are always the weakest—we commit not only a sin of omission, but also the much graver sin of blasphemy.” [pp. 222-223]

I won’t deprive readers of the always creative and sometimes hilarious means Eleonora used to achieve her accomplishments. Readers will laugh out loud more than once while reading this wonderful story. A good story told with Camilleri’s trademark style of gently humorous understatement with justice being served in the end worked well in the Montalbano series, and just as well in this heartwarming story.

We lost Andrea Camilleri in 2019 at the age of 93. He will be greatly missed, but he left us many wonderful stories to read and re-read, and characters to delight in and remember.

–Donna Rueff–