Main page: Sicilian Vespers (1846) by Francesco Hayez

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Francesco Hayez Il Vespri Siciliani - Three paths towards revolution
Figure 1 - Sicilian Vespers (1846) - GNAM - Rome

The Sicilian Vespers (Italian: Vespri Siciliani) is the title of a painting by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882). The painting was commissioned in 1844 by the Southern Italian nobleman Vincenzo Ruffo and was finished in 1846. It measures 225x300 cms and was part of the commissioner's private collection in Naples. Further details concerning the commission are unknown [1]. Hayez painted The Sicilian Vespers during a turbulent period in Italian history; the Risorgimento (1815-1871). Risorgimento means resurgence or revival. During this period an attempt was made to unify Italy, both politically and culturally. At the time of the Risorgimento, the Italian peninsula was divided into many smaller states which were largely dominated by foreigners. What also made unifying Italy difficult, was that Italians lacked a common culture to band together under. This caused a lot of Italians to lack the will to unify the country. During the Risorgimento, artists tried, on behalf of their commissioners, to solve the lack of a common culture by displaying what they wanted to become a set of common Italian values in their art. The poems, music, and paintings they created served to brisk up the nationalistic feelings of the intended audience. Being a great example of how this was done, the Vespri Siciliani can be approached as a solution to the problems of the Risorgimento itself. In this wiki, we will elaborate on how the Vespri Siciliani may have played a key role in the Italian unification.

I Vespri Siciliani
The Risorgimento
The painting; Rhetorical analysis
Problem and solution
Representation and identification
Ethos, Logos, Pathos
Iconographic analysis
The decline of the Risorgimento movement
See also

I Vespri Siciliani

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]. 

The Risorgimento

Due to its notoriety, the Vespri Siciliani was regularly painted during a turbulent period in Italian history known as the the Risorgimento as a symbol for the ideals of this movement. The Risorgimento was a 19th-century movement striving for Italian unification. To this end, the Risorgimento was an ideological as well as literary movement that aimed to awaken the national consciousness of the Italian people and to summon the military and diplomatic support needed to unify the country. The movement succeeded in the latter when it led to a series of political events that freed the Italian states from foreign domination and united them politically. This process of unification found its roots in the reforms introduced by the French when they dominated Italy during the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1796-1815). During this period a number of Italian states were briefly consolidated, first as republics and then as satellite states of the French empire. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815 however, the Italian states were restored to their former rulers. This triggered the emergence of the Risorgimento and its ideals as it caused these states to take on a conservative character under the domination of Austria, trampling the hopes for unification. From 1820 onwards, secret societies started to oppose this development by trying to brisk up nationalistic feelings of the Italian people and educating them to a sense of nationhood. They wanted to encourage the masses to rise against existing regimes. Eventually, this was successful, as the Austrians were defeated in 1859 with help of the French and most of Italy was united by 1861. The Risorgimento attained more or less its goal when the kingdom of Italy conquered Rome in 1870 from the Papal States and made it her capital in 1871 [4]. 

The painting; Rhetorical analysis

Problem and solution

When turning the attention from the whole Risorgimento movement to the specific painting in question here, it still appears that the problem addressed by the painting is roughly equivalent to the problem defining the Risorgimento as a whole. These problems were the cultural and political division within Italy which arose due to it having been divided into different states since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 C.E. Because of this, the Italians states had developed their own cultural and political identities which proved very hard to unify. In the painting, the subject, rebellion against a foreign power, shows another complicating factor for political unification: significant parts of the Italian peninsula were not held by Italian states at the start of the 19th century, but by foreign powers which would need to be driven out somehow in order to achieve unification of the whole of Italy.

The problem of political division is addressed by the painting by showing its viewers how the people of Sicily freed their country from oppressive foreign domination when they suffered under circumstances similar to those faced by the Italians at the time the painting was made (1844-1846). At the time of the Sicilian Vespers, Sicily was occupied by the French, who had the Sicilians pay large amounts of taxes which were used by France to fund wars outside of Sicily. The Sicilians were dealing with a foreign domination, which withheld them from prosperity. By drawing parallels between the situations in Sicily in 1282 and in Italy during the Risorgimento, the painting sends a strong message in favour of the Italian people revolting against and freeing Italy from foreign control.

As noted earlier, a major complicating factor in motivating the Italian people to revolt against foreign control over the yet to be formed country of Italy was the lack of a common unifying culture for the Italian people to band together under. In order to tackle this issue, the painting aims to brisk up the nationalistic feelings of the inhabitants of Italy by reminding them of a certain common history. By encouraging an us versus them mentality, the painting aims to bring its audience closer together and band them together under the common goal of creating a unified Italian state. Since the painting was part of a private collection, it will only have been visible to the visitors of the commissioner. The painting, therefore, had to appeal mainly to a rich and educated public.

Representation and identification

Figure 2 - Michele Rapisardi - Sicilian Vespers (1865)

Ethos, Logos, Pathos

The most important aspect of getting to understand how the painting was used as a solution to the problem of the Risorgimento is to get to know how people viewed and interpreted it. According to Elsner and Meyer, it is important, in the context of the rhetoric of the painting, to understand the use of the different modes of persuasion; ethos, logos, and pathos [5]. These modes of persuasion are used to create consensus amongst its viewers. In this painting, they aim to create agreement on Italians being one people with a unifying culture to which the Italian state belongs.

The first mode of persuasion used is the ethos, which is determined by the credibility of the speaker. As there is no literal speaker in a work of art, it mainly concerns the credibility of the depicted characters, the painter or the commissioner. It is then possible that this credibility is mainly created by supporting the message of the work in a number of ways. Firstly, the size of the painting is quite considerable. This size gives rise to the plausibility of the fact that it decorated a prominent place in the residence of the commissioner. The size would also enable the painting to command, even in a large space, a certain degree of awe. The prominence would, therefore, have contributed to the strength of the message. Another possible aspect is some manner of realism in the depiction of a (semi)historical event. If at least a part of the message of the work is to show that Italians can successfully drive out foreign domination by displaying a historical precedent, then it would strengthen the message by getting details of the display of this precedent correctly. One could see this in the church in the background for example. In the first version of the Vespri, it is given a very prominent place, but in the third one, it seems not much more than a mere landmark to show that the scene is still near the church, but it seems to serve no other purpose. Another landmark seems to be a Celtic cross on a column: f.e. . (one can only see the base of the column in the first version). It is not possible to say that it holds a connection to the Vespri, but the fact that it is displayed twice by Hayez, and also in another rendition of the Vespri by Michele Rapisardi (seen below), seems to be indicating some significance for the Vespri Siciliani.

Secondly, the logos concerns the logic or reason behind the painting. Logos is used to persuade the audience by an appeal to their common sense. In this painting, the logos amounts to the comparison that should be made by the public between the Sicilian Vespers and what was happening during the Risorgimento. As soon as the public saw the painting the link between the two events should be made and, just as during the Sicilian Vespers, the public should feel the need to take action. By means of reasoning, the public should feel the need to identify with the painting.

Perhaps the most important and effective mode of persuasion in this painting is the pathos, the appeal based on emotion. Since the solution to the problem concerns brisking up the nationalistic feelings of the public, Hayez had to evoke this feeling carefully. It should be instantly clear what one should feel and do after looking at this painting. Hayez did not only depict the Vespri Siciliani, but he depicted it in a certain way, which will be explained in the iconographic analysis below.

It is lastly interesting with regards to logos and pathos to note that there is contention about whether the Risorgimento is a movement for only the urban elite, or more a mass movement for all Italians. Alberto Banti argues in his thesis that by cultivating certain concepts (kinship, sanctity, and honour), the Risorgimento appealed to some sort of identity of every Italian [6].  This then identifies the Risorgimento as a mass movement. It is interesting to note, that in the specific case of Hayez, there is at least one painting (the first version from 1821) that is so early in the course of the Risorgimento, it is hard to maintain that this painting was intended to stir the masses. Our doubt about the intended audience is further augmented by the earlier mentioned fact that both paintings were commissioned by a member of the aforementioned urban elite, and would only have been seen by guests or family of the commissioner, who would also be members of the elite. As this is according to the intended idea behind the commission, it is rather unlikely that inflaming of popular opinion would be part of the message of this painting. Although the iconographic analysis below will observe the existence of the 'tropes' mentioned by Banti, it is unclear whether these also determine that the Risorgimento works in question (Vespri Siciliani by Hayez) have the Italian masses as direct intended audience.

Figure 3 - Sicilian Vespers (1822) - Private Collection
Figure 4 - Sicilian Vespers (1846) - GNAM - Rome

Iconographic analysis

In the painting of the Vespri Siciliani, Hayez depicted the event (according to legend) that preceded and triggered the insurrection of the Sicilians. In the front right of the painting we see the rich and married Sicilian woman, in the front left, the French sergeant. The woman has fainted, clearly harmed and assaulted. She is supported and protected by a couple of Sicilian men, who all look extremely shocked because of what happened. Many people on the painting turned down their faces, ashamed of what happened. Important to note is that the clergy is also depicted and represented in the painting (in red) as a spiritual authority. In the right corner, we see a man, holding a knife, urging the Sicilian people to get into action. What was most important to Hayez, is that the painting served its purpose. In one painting, Hayez should dissolve all the questions the public had and convince them of the cause of his commissioner, the unification of Italy. The public should identify with the stirring Sicilian populace in the background in the painting, and know what to do next.

The commissioner chose to make Hayez depict an event that the Italian elite was familiar with. Hayez already painted the Vespri before, in both 1821 and 1826. Because of this, Hayez will have known exactly how to depict it in accordance with the purposes and ideas of his commissioner, even though Hayez will already have known the sources of the legend.

The central theme of the painting is the violation of the honour of the Sicilian woman by the Frenchman. The honour of a woman was, and still is in many cultures of extreme importance. Harming the honour of a woman was seen as a high crime, and everything should be done to protect a woman's honour. When the honour of a woman is violated, revenge is justified. In this case, the woman was even married. This constitutes an even greater crime against faith and dignity. The central theme of the painting relates to a solution to the problem of the Risorgimento in two ways.

 First of all, we can understand the assaulted woman as a representation of Italy itself. When doing so, on the right we see a dishonoured and ashamed Italy, assaulted by the foreign domination. This gives Italy reason to avenge herself and stand up against the foreign domination. This is represented by the man in the right corner. Not only is he holding a knife and rallying the people, he is also wearing the red Phrygian cap, the symbol of the French revolution. This can again be seen as a call for revolution. Considering his beckoning position and his raised knife, the man pulls the crowd from the painting into action. In contrast to the French revolution, however, the clergy also seems to approve the revolution, for the clergy is cleverly depicted on the side of the Sicilians/Italians. The public remains no doubt that their actions, their revolution, and unification are justified. 

The second way the central theme serves as a solution is by showing the Italian people what their new Italy should look like. Core to the problem of the disunity of the Italian people and their lack of will for unification was that they did not know what it meant to be Italian. They did not have a common ground to build their nation upon. By his depiction, Hayez showed the people what it meant to be Italian in 1846, and what the Italian nation should look like once unified. He shows Italian men as righteous, protective of their women and brave, and Italian women as sensitive and honourable. Due to this depiction, characters in the painting attain, being part of the scene, their own autonomous ethos. Next to this, he defines the different classes of the Italian society, by depicting noblemen, clergy, and commoners. All in all, the painting can be seen as a conflict of values of on the one side the Italians and on the other side the foreign domination. Italians are noble and honourable, and their overlords, represented as the French, are cruel and arrogant. The Frenchman in the painting symbolises everything the Italians are not. One can see a certain arrogance in the Frenchman's face, along with a complete absence of a form of guilt. He is also the only armed person in an unarmed crowd, indicating he has superior and brute power over a group armed with only dignity and honour. One could furthermore interpret his stance as him attempting to approach the woman again by the placement of his right leg, but an Italian nobleman blocks his approach with his own right leg; he does everything to shield the woman, even though he doesn't have the (armed) means to do so. The painting thus offers the Italians their common values upon which they can base their nation.

When we look at the background of both versions we can also see a noticeable difference. In the background of the first version, we can see the city of Palermo in the distance and the breaking of dawn. In the third version, we can see a blue, clear sky and not just a city, but the country of Italia, leading to the observation that the rallying cry of the man with the red cap is not just addressing the people in the background, but, considering the focus of his face and arm, Italy as a whole. This strengthens the message of the painting, calling the Italian populace of all corners of Italy to action.

The moment in time that was depicted in the painting is also cleverly chosen. In the third version of the painting (1846), a different moment of the event was depicted than in the first version. Hayez adapted this to the moment in the Risorgimento he was dealing with. In the first version, the revolts of the Vespri Siciliani are ongoing. The public of the painting has to learn what happened during the Vespri and identify with the event. In the third version, Hayez chose to depict the moment just before the revolts. This suggests that the public was familiar with the legend of the Vespri Siciliani already and knew, not only what was happening in the painting itself, but also how this event would progress. One also seems to be able to discern a difference in ambiance between both paintings. As stated above, in the first version the violence of the Vespri is already ongoing. This means that the whole state of things is much more savage (note, for example, the pose of the character behind the violated lady), whereas the second version gives much more attention to a more personal event on the foreground, seemingly displaying a scene from a play. This creates the impression that while the first version seems more a somewhat realistic or literal rendition of events, the second focusses more on the message that this depiction of the Vespri is supposed to convey. We can see the church near Palermo on both versions as well, although it is more of an miscellaneous landmark in the third version, adhering to the fact that the background seems to be more drowned out in the third version. In the painting, the man holding the knife is rallying the people to get to action; unify and drive out the French. 1844-1846 (period of painting) was a tense period in the Risorgimento as well, it was just before huge revolutions started. The moment that was chosen to be depicted in the painting thus matches the period of time Hayez was in. In this way, the painting appeals to the feeling of the public (pathos) by showing that it was time to stand up against the foreign domination and unify Italy.

Lastly, even the colours of the painting contribute to the pathos. Hayez chose to use vibrant colours, especially the use of red can be seen as an activating colour. All in all the painting awakens the feelings of nationalism, patriotism, and urgency. In this way, the painting contributes to the lack of unification and common identity. Italy becomes the assaulted woman, whose honour should be restored, right now. The painting is  part of the solution to the problem of the Risorgimento itself, it calls for insurrection once more. And already gives us an idea of what this new Italian nation will look like. 

The decline of the Risorgimento movement

As stated before, this new Italian nation was created in 1861, when the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed with Vittorio Emanuele II of Piedmont-Sardinia as its first king. In 1871, Rome was conquered by the kingdom of Italy and was made her capital. Although the physical new Italian nation was created, the cultural unification lagged behind and proved to be me much more arduous. This is captured in the quote by Massimo d'Azeglio (1798-1866): "L'Italia e fatta. Restano a da fare gli italiani" (Italy is made. Now remains the making of Italians) [7].  In fact, the cultural diversity is a problem that arguably still exists in Italy. Due to the difficulty of the Risorgimento to surmount this diversity, people started to criticise the movement and oppose its idea of the Italian nation as the Risorgimento saw it. This gave rise to countermovements such as the futurist movement at the end of the 19th century. This opposition is for example well observed in the fountain of the naiads on the piazza del popolo by Rutelli, which seems a very clear challenge to the old values. It is in this context interesting that although art from the Risorgimento has a very prominent place in the Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna e contemporanea di Roma, its documentation mentions almost only exclusively futurist works. This forces the works of for example Hayez, who is called by French writer Stendhal one of the best Romanticist painters, into obscurity. 

The mission of the Risorgimento was to unify Italy politically and culturally. The Risorgimento was successful in the former, but not the latter, and was therefore forced to accept victor's justice: exile to the shrouded land of oblivion.

See also

Francesco Hayez:

Francesco Hayez (wikipedia)

The Sicilian Vespers:

I vespri siciliani (Hayez) [it]

War of the sicilian vespers (wikipedia)

Lu rebellamentu di Sichilia (wikipedia)

Sicilian vespers (britannica)

Sicilian Vespers (New Advent)

Sicilian Vespers (Best of Sicily)

The Risorgimento:

Italian unification (wiki)

Risorgimento (Britannica)

The First Italian War of Independence (Victorianweb)


  1. Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna e contemporanea (GNAM) Rome, August 2016
  2. Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century
  3. Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero, p. 26
  4. Museo Centrale Del Risorgimento Rome, August 2016
  5. Jas Elsner & Michel Meyer, Art and rhetoric in Roman culture, p. 4.
  6. Alberto Banti, La nazione del Risorgimento. Parentela, santita e onore alle origini dell'Italia unita
  7. M. d'Azeglio, Ricordi. Opere varie, edited by A.M. Ghisalberti, Milan 1966, p. 87.