Il Vespri Siciliani - Three paths towards revolution

  • Akke-Marij Ariesen - Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences

Main page: Sicilian Vespers (1846) by Francesco Hayez Francesco Hayez
Figure 1 - Sicilian Vespers (1846) - GNAM - Rome

This article provides the reader with an analysis from a social psychological perspective. For a broader analysis of the subject see [Sicilian Vespers (1846) by Francesco Hayez]

The Risorgimento was a turbulent period in Italian history. The main goal of the 19th century movement known as the Risorgimento was the unification of Italy. In the early 19th century, Italy was neither politically nor culturally one nation. The country was divided into smaller states, dominated by foreigners, and the Italian people lacked a sense of unity still. The Risorgimento started off as an elitist movement that tried to awaken the national consciousness of the people living in Italy by means of commissioning painters, poets and musicians. The commissioned artworks had to activate and mobilise the Italians, and make them fight for the cause of unification. A good example of how an artwork can mobilise people is Il Vespri Siciliani (1846), painted by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882) (see figure 1).

Social psychological theories can offer us insight in how this painting could be used as a direct call for revolution and unification. Eventually, the assumption can be made that the success of the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) is partially based on the way artists could move their public towards the cause. This wiki-page analyses the effectiveness of these artworks by applying social psychological theories to the example of the Sicilian Vespers (1846).

A crowd towards collective action
Motivational Theories
Integrated model and conclusion
See also

A crowd towards collective action

As mentioned in the [iconographic analysis of the Vespri Siciliani (1846)], the painting by Hayez can be interpreted as a direct call for revolution. Social psychologists study this form of collective action (Wright, Taylor, & Moghaddam, 1990) by analysing the influence of others on group behaviour, feelings and thoughts (Allport, 1954). In the case of the Italian Vespers, the group that is influenced by Hayez is the intended audience of the painting, the Italians, or, more specifically, the Italian elite [see Sicilian Vespers (1846) by Francesco Hayez].

The main question for the artists of the Risorgimento, such as Hayez, has been how to approach the people living in Italy. How does one appeal to the members of a group, which is not completely defined and unified. And how can these people be motivated to participate in collective action. Therefore, the most important goals of the Vespri Siciliani will have been to first of all convince the public that they are part of a group (the Italians). And secondly, to make them believe it is possible to improve the conditions of this group; in search for progressive change (Wright, Taylor, & Moghaddam, 1990).

The Sicilian Vespers is the name given to both a historical event in Italian history, and a popular legend revolving around the start of this event. Historically, the Sicilian Vespers was a popular uprising of the Sicilians against their foreign (French) king Charles I d'Anjou in 1282. The Sicilians had long been discontent with their king who had been ruling the island since 1266, as he was forcing heavy taxes upon them to fund his political ambitions throughout Europe and did nothing in return for the Sicilians. When the revolt known as the Vespri Siciliani broke out, the Sicilians slaughtered every French they could find, including elderly monks and women married to Frenchmen. This revolt triggered a war called the War of the Sicilian Vespers in which the French were defeated and driven out of Sicily. Charles I kept control over the remaining part of the kingdom of Sicily (southern Italy), while Peter III of Aragon took control of Sicily, thereby splitting the former kingdom of Sicily into the kingdom of Trinakria (Sicily), and the kingdom of Naples (southern Italy). While the Vespri Siciliani did not result in a united or autonomous Sicily, it is still to this day a rebellion that is well known in the whole of Italy as a heroic moment for (modern) Italians.

The popular legend revolving around the Sicilian vespers is that the Sicilian vespers allegedly started when a French soldier called Drouet sexually assaulted a rich, married woman who was on her way to the evening mass (the Vespers, hence the name of the revolt) in the church of the Holy Spirit near the Sicilian city of Palermo. Her husband responded by killing Drouet and when the French tried to retaliate, the Sicilians killed them and started the massacre. This story is part of the oral tradition of the Sicilian island up to present time, first recorded in an enigmatic chronicle written by a contemporary [2]. 

The Sicilian Vespers could easily be used as an example supporting the political ideals of the Risorgimento as it could be portrayed as the first successful revolt of Italians against foreign domination [3]. 

Motivational theories

Several social psychological theories exist regarding the motivational explanations for collective action. One can apply these theories to the painting of the Vespri Siciliani and look at how Hayez addressed his public to achieve the desired outcome of unification.


The relative deprivation theory concerns the perceived injustice of the public and the emotional experience of this perception. Relative deprivation is the sense of having less than we feel entitled to (Walker & Smith, 2002). When people perceive their situation as unjustified or have the subjective experience that this is the case it can motivate them to get into action. When evaluating their situation they will compare their group to a certain standard (e.g. another group) (Smith & Pettigrew, 2014). Within artworks this perceived sense of injustice needs to be triggered to motivate the people towards collective action. Or, in this specific case, to motivate the Italians to attempt to drive out the foreign domination. This sense of injustice is part of the emotion the painter tries to get across, the pathos. Within the painting of the Vespri Siciliani, Hayez depicts Italy as a defenceless woman [see iconographic analysis]. Withdrawn from her honour by foreigners, this image will easily provoke feelings of injustice and anger. These feelings are strengthened by the emotions depicted in the painting. The expression of Italy, the woman, is sad and weak. Seriously deprived of honour and rights, she is in need of a strong defence. Assuming that the Italian people identify with this woman, Hayez has depicted the French as a comparison group. Emanating a certain arrogance in the painting, they represent everything the Italians are not. The French have taken something that is not rightfully theirs. Since the Frenchman can be seen as a representation of the foreign domination during the Risorgimento [see iconographic analysis], the feelings of injustice apply to this foreign domination. The depiction makes an appeal to the wrong that has been done to Italy (the woman). These feelings of injustice provide the public with a sound reason to stand up against the current regime and unify Italy.


Without context, feelings of injustice however, will not be enough to mobilise people towards action. Inequality and discrimination exist in all societies and therefore seem too general to predict when people come to action and when they just feel dissatisfied (Van Zomeren, Postmes, & Spears, 2008). Therefore, we are in need of another predictive factor of collective action. Next to injustice, a key factor that explains collective action is efficacy. Group efficacy can be defined as the shared belief that one’s group can resolve its grievances through unified effort (Mummendey, Kessler, Klink, & Mielke, 1999). The idea of group efficacy as a predicting factor is that people will engage in collective action if they believe this will make it more likely that relevant goals are achieved. The feeling of efficacy gives people a certain sense of power, they believe themselves capable of changing the situation for their group (Van Zomeren et al., 2008).

In order for Hayez to translate the feelings of injustice created by the depiction into collective action, he needed his public to believe that a fight for unification was the solution to their situation. The public had to realise that by means of unification and action they would be able to change their living conditions. But most of all, the painting of the Sicilian Vespers needed to show that, if the Italians would try to change their situation, they would indeed succeed. A sense of efficacy had to be created. This brings us to one of the reasons the commissioner has chosen to let Hayez depict the Sicilian Vespers and not a different part of ‘Italian’ history. This concerns the ethos and the logos of the painting; the credibility and the reason. As explained in [1.2 representation and identification], parallels can be drawn between the situation during the Sicilian Vespers and during the Risorgimento. In the painting of the Sicilian Vespers, Hayez depicts a historical event that every ‘Italian’ knows. By offering the public an example of an event when revolution was the successful answer to foreign oppression, Hayez suggests that this will also be the case during the Risorgimento. In this case the reasoning ‘if we could do it then, why not now’ applies. The depiction of a known, and successful event creates the sense of efficacy needed for the public to engage into collective action. Unifying Italy did not only seem righteous based on the feelings of injustice created by the painting, but it also seemed feasible.

Social identity

Eventually it is most important for collective action that people identify with their group. People have to perceive themselves as part of a group, because the other people in the group can validate the unjustifiability of the situation, and because they can give you the feeling that you support a strong cause. This group membership can (and has to) become part of a social identity. Social identity can be defined as the part of the individual's self-concept that comes from the knowledge of being a member of a group as well as the emotional significance attached to this membership (Tajfel, 1978). In other words, being member of a group becomes, both cognitively as well as emotionally part of who you are as a person. During the Risorgimento, being Italian had to become part of the self-concept of the people who lived in Italy. They had to become Italian, before they could feel the urge to unify themselves with the other Italians.

[Figure 2 - Social identity model of collective action - Van Zomeren et al. 2008]

In order to enhance social identity, the status of the group to which one belongs has to be enhanced (Tajfel, Turner, 1979). This starts with social categorisation; people are categorized into groups. Within the painting by Hayez, the public can clearly differentiate between the foreigners and the Italians based on their clothing and their position in the painting. The foreigner is depicted on the front left, the Italians on the front right of the painting. After the categorisation, social identification takes place; the identity of the group that one belongs to is adopted. As soon as the public sees the Italian Vespers they will hopefully identify with the Sicilian/Italian men and women, adopt the Italian values and create a social significance to this identification. The choice for a known story makes the likelihood the Italians will identify with the ‘Italians’ in the painting bigger. Furthermore, Hayez depicted the Italians as such that the public will recognize themselves in the painting. ‘Italian’ values such as righteousness, honour, protectiveness, and religiousness are depicted within the scene. Eventually, when one has identified with a group, social comparison will take place, which will favourise the one group above the other. Social comparison plays a big role within the Italian Vespers (1846). Hayez makes it perfectly clear to his public that the Frenchman did the Italian woman wrong. Or, to extend this to the cause of the Risorgimento, that the foreign domination has harmed Italy itself. That it is Italy's justified duty to drive out this domination and unify with the group they are part of. The group that, after observing this painting thoroughly, they feel part of, and have identified with.

The integrated model of collective action

The integrated model of collective action combines the three motivational theories as described above in one model in order explain the development of willingness for (collective) action in people. In this model, the three explanations of injustice, efficacy and social identity and their relation to collective action are acknowledged, and the relationship between the three factors is added. The most important factor in the integrated model seems to the creation of a social identity (group identification), for this factor causes not only a rise of motivation for collective action, but also of both feelings of injustice (which increases willingness for action) as well as feelings of group efficacy (which increases willingness for action). The integrated model is displayed in the figure below (Van Zomeren et al., 2008) (figure 2).

When looking at this model, we can get to understand how the painting of Hayez has played an important role within the Risorgimento movement. By triggering feelings of injustice, ensuring the efficacy of revolution and first and foremost creating a social identity within his public Hayez has cleverly made way for collective action. When analysing his painting of the Sicilian Vespers by means of integrated social models, we can get to understand how art itself can lead to action, and in this case unification. One might interpret the painting by Hayez of the Vespri Siciliani as some kind of protest pamphlet for the Italian elite. Complemented by other forms of art, uproar and revolution the painting has moved people towards a unified Italy. Understanding this brings us one step closer to understanding the eventual success of the Risorgimento itself; the unification of Italy.

See also

Sicilian Vespers (1846) by Francesco Hayez


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  3. Sicilian Vespers (1846) by Francesco Hayez in Wikipedia. Retrieved from [Rome wiki]
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