The Termini Imerese Baptismal Records: Historical Perspective by Charles Matacia-Lehrer


Two pages in the Codex A di San Nicola Bari di Termini Imerese. Photo courtesy of Father Anthony Delisi.

Part I


Location of Termini Imerse just to the east of Palermo


Termini Imerese in Sicily in relation to the Italian ‘boot’


The Church of San Nicola Bari in Termini Imerese, Sicily, whose archives include Codex A.

Codex A (1542-48), a notarial cartulary which is archived in the Church of San Nicola Bari in Termini Imerese, is a manuscript unique in Sicilian history, for it documents the fact that the record-keeping of persons receiving the Sacrament of Baptism was initiated in Termini Imerese 24 years before the dogmas on Baptism discussed by the Council of Trent, were promulgated throughout the lands of the Kingdom of Spain (which included the Kingdom of  Sicily) by King Philipp II  in 1566. So important was Baptism to the Catholic Religion,  that it had been revered as a Sacrament for centuries, whereas, the rite of Marriage was a private matter and was not recognized as a Sacrament until 1563 by way of the Tametsi Decree .

Although the 14 canons on Baptism approved by the Council of Trent did not include an order to initiate record-keeping, the very fact that specific heretical errors regarding Baptism had been  spelled out in detail by such an august group of clerics, surely must have alerted bishops throughout the Catholic Lands of Reformation-divided Europe to take measures to assure the Papacy that everyone in their dioceses had been baptized.


Pope Paul III (1534-49) called the Council of Trent in 1545.


The Sacrament of Baptism was among the major issues discussed at Council of Trent . Codex A, containing the baptismal records of Termini Imerese, had been initiated three years earlier.

It is significant to note that Codex A contains the first records of Jews, Muslims, and Gypsies being baptized in Termini Immerse after the Declaration of Expulsion issued by Ferdinand of Aragon in 1492. By this order, Ferdinand, who was also King of Sicily, sought to cast out from his island kingdom all non-Catholics. After 1492, any non-Catholic who wished to remain in Sicily had to be baptized or leave the island kingdom. This action was primarily directed at the Jewish population which was considerable (Jews also had to hand over 45% of their holdings to the Crown); but as the record in Codex A so clearly demonstrates, slaves (a category which includes Muslims among other religions) brought into Termini in the 1540’s were also being taken to the baptistery at San Nicola Bari to receive the Sacrament, along with Gypsies. So at least three groups of ‘outsiders’ were involved. To assure that those who converted to Catholicism did not slide back into their former religion, the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834) was introduced into Sicily to deal with offenders. The worst case scenario to be faced by backsliders was condemnation at an Auto-de-Fe` in Palermo, which then might lead to incineration at the stake.


Charles V was the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily during the period when Codex A was assembled.

Of great importance for maintaining Ferdinand’s policies during the years 1542-48 when Codex A was assembled, was the ascendancy to the throne of Spain and Sicily by Ferdinand of Aragon’s successor, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Because of his extensive land holdings, Charles became the single most powerful man in the entirety of Europe and the Americas during a reign which lasted from 1519-1556. As history has recorded, Charles could not arrest the threat to his huge Catholic empire brought about by the Reformation in his German-speaking lands. But in Sicily, the Lutherans were no match for the Spanish Inquisition which had Charles’ full support. Only once did he waiver in his commitment to the Holy Office, and that was when he was in need of monetary support from the Sicilian Parliament which abhorred the interference of the Inquisition in Sicilian affairs.

The entries into Codex A were certainly useful for yet another purpose, namely, taxation. But as history has shown, the rich and powerful barons of Sicily were forever finding ways to avoid paying their share, and it was upon the average families of Termini Imerese that the burden of these payments fell.

During the period 1542-1548 when Codex A was being compiled, Sicily was ruled as follows, the dates indicating the first year in office:

Viceroy of Sicily

1535 – Ferdinando Gonzaga

Presidents of the Sicilian Parliament

1542 – Alfonso Cardona Conte di Chiusa e di Giuliana

1544 – Giovanni Aragona Tagliavia Marchese di Terranova

1546 – Giovanni de Vega

1547 – Ambrogio Santapau Marchese di Licodia

As Termini Imerese was one of 42 città demaniali, cities administered directly by the crown rather than local nobility, it was upon the shoulders of these men which fell the burden of assuring that everyone in the Termini was baptized.

The baptismal records of Codex A, which are archived at San Nicola Bari, commence on May 1, 1542. The entries include all sectors of Termini’s population, from the highest-placed Baron down through the professionals and artisans, coming to rest with the slaves at the very bottom; indeed, no one was excluded. One might say that a Baptismal record for Sicilians, in addition to giving proof that the stain of Original Sin had been removed, was its function as Sicilian identification. Without such an entry being available in the archives, a visit from a representative of the Spanish Inquisition was inevitable. Just the thought of spending time in prison or rowing in the galleys of the infamous Spanish Armada, not to mention losing a part of one’s property to boot, must have been a strong incentive for owners of slaves, in particular, to make sure that their ‘property’ had received the Sacrament. So, needless to say, Baptism was taken very seriously in Termini Imerese.

Another interesting aspect of Baptisms in Termini is that, despite the fact that the town had a plethora of churches (many built by guilds and confraternities to care for the souls of departed members suffering in Purgatory) this Sacrament appears to have been administered primarily at the 15th-century church dedicated to San Nicola Bari. This arrangement is all the more puzzling because the nearby Cathedral of San Giacomo, once the seat  (cathedra) of a bishop, would certainly have been a more logical venue. To be sure, because of Termini’s engineering marvel known as the Cornelio Aqueduct, any church in Termini could have had a excellent water supply.


In the Cornelius Aqueduct (2nd century CE) that served the city of Termini Imerese, a mixed siphon was used to cross the Barratina Valley (50 m deep and about 600 m wide). The BARRATINA MIXED SIPHON is so defined because the intermediate tank had to be positioned above the grade line for the presence of a hill. The Barratina system can be considered as a double siphon, in fact, a first pressurized lead pipe connected the header tank with the intermediate tank while a second depressurized lead pipe, after a sudden change in direction, let the water flow from the intermediate tank directly to the city without a receiving basin.

Baptismal records from later in the 16th century record the original Miraculi (Santa Maria della Consolazione) as a second venue where baptisms were performed. Many towns in Europe had a special building, a Baptistery, for this purpose, and San Nicola Bari, known today as the Mother Church (primary church), appears to have had such an exterior structure at one time.

In the following image,  a small round baptistery appears to the left of San Nicola Bari. The larger structures to the left of the baptistery includes a town fountain and a Roman amphitheater. To the right of the church, high on a rocky hill, is the Moorish castle. This painting is located in the Council Hall of the Municipio, and is part of a series of frescoes created by Francesco Barbera in 1610 which chronicle the history of Termini Imerese.


The Baptistery at San Niciola Bari

In an age when writing was an art practiced only by the few educated folks in any town, it was important to have important records located in a central repository where professional scribes (notaries) could easily work on them, and San Nicola functioned as that place for many years, even when baptisms began to be performed  elsewhere in Termini. The language utilized by the scribes who composed Codex A is Ecclesiastical Latin with unique Sicilian overtones, the latter being necessary to convey the surnames of the residents of Termini Imerese, in particular. It is to be noted that, in an effort to save space on the written page,  Ecclesiastical Latin tends to be expressed in contractions and abbreviations.

Here are several versions of the name Giovanni Battista as it appears within the pages of the 1542-48 Baptismal Records:

Jo: at¯ta


Ja~ mactiſta

Jo: batista

Jo: batiſta






In the list above, the first seven versions of the name in the manuscript are abbreviations of Giovanni Battista ranging from complex to simple. (Older styles of the letters ‘s ‘and ‘i ‘are used rather interchangeably with the current manner of writing these letters.) It is only in the final three items that the actual name in 16th-century Sicilian emerges, and in three variants: Iommatista, Iambattista, and Ioambatista.

For a complete discussion of the scholarly criteria followed in the present translation of Codex A, see the section: Translation of Codex A from the original Sicilian-Latin.

It is clear from the rubrics found throughout Codex A, that this is an official government document. Indeed, the end point of Fiscal Year 1541-42 (when all books of the Sicilian government were closed and sent to the authorities for review) is clearly delineated in Codex A.  It is to be noted that starting with the year initiated on September 1, 1542, the fiscal years are numbered I through VI.

Termini baptisms included two Godfathers (just as in England at this time) , rather than the usual pairing of a single Godfather with a Godmother; and the position of Godmother at San Nicola might be described as a vocation. It would appear that the latter women were primarily nuns. The job of the Godparents was twofold: firstly, they bore witness to the baptism. And secondly, the Godparents were charged to assure that, should the mother and father be unable to bring up baptized person in the Catholic religion, then they would take on that responsibility .

In all but a few cases, the father or godfathers brought in the person to be baptized. That person could be a baby, child, other relative, or a slave. The latter are delineated by ethnicity only when they are black Africans or Roma (Gypsies). It is to be noted that in the 16th Century, a mother who had just given birth was not permitted to enter a church (which includes the external baptistery)  until a short period thereafter when she was purified via the Rite of Churching. In fact, very few mothers are mentioned in Codex A.

The following image shows a typical entry in Codex A: The translation from Sicilian-Latin: Additional Entry for February 22, 1545: The same priest, Father Basilio D’Arena, baptized the son of Luigi Demma. He was named Giovanni Pietro. His godfathers are Maistro Giuseppe DiBlasi and Monsignore Cesaro Carrozza. His godmother is the same as in the previous entry, Sister Filippa L’Angelica.


CODEX A: Demma Family Baptism. Photo courtesy of Father Anthony Delisi.

Part II

As Termini Imerese is blessed with an outstanding harbor, ‘lo Caricatojo,’ and a fortuitous location providing access to the interior of Sicily, one can readily understand its attraction to those who ran important businesses in the mid-1500s when Codex A was being compiled. To be sure, the tuna fisheries, the famous hot springs, and the overseas trade in agricultural harvests and goods of all kinds, including slaves (via piracy), made Termini rich; and its multiplicity of churches stands as a testament to its wealth and devotion to the great saints. In addition, a high rocky outcropping, upon which once stood a massive Moorish fortress, surely gave Termini the advantage when it came to observing who was heading towards the town by land or sea.

Just below the fortress, on land which had been the major place of worship in Termini for centuries, stood the 15th-century Church of San Nicola Bari, originally Santa Maria la Nova. It is greatly altered these days with its relatively new façade (1912) and fabulous Baroque interior.

An additional church of note in Termini Imerese is the one dedicated to Santa Maria del Monte, for it is here that the 16th-century ruler of Termini Imerese, Giovanni Battista Romano Ventimiglia, Barone di Resuttano, is entombed. He is represented in Codex A by the baptisms of three of his children. In addition, he stood as Godfather several times when the Sacrament was administered to the offspring of his fellow aristocrats. Another very important personage in Termini who appears in the manuscript is lo Magnifico Giovanni Francisco D’Anfuso, who presented four of his children for Baptism.

Despite the fact that on paper, Sicily was administered by the Spanish King and his Viceroy, the Barons were the real rulers in Sicily, and any usurping of their power by the Spanish or anyone else, was taken very seriously. That is to say, interference with the will of Termini’s Baron Romano Ventimiglia, was a dangerous act. One might easily draw parallels with the Dons of the 19th-20th century Mafia, men who took their cue from the powerful Barons of Sicily and their representatives, the Gabelloti who administered the huge estates owned by the barons.


Steven Epstein’s ground-breaking volume on slavery in Italy explores long-forgotten territory.

And then there are the slaves; for wealthy families in Termini, like those residing in most of the port cities of Southern Europe, were quite active in the purchase of human beings: men bought primarily for agricultural work, and women purchased for domestic service. In fact, women were bought with an additional concept in mind: to serve the sexual appetites of their aristocratic owners. There are actually two churches in Termini Imerese dedicated to patron saints of female slaves: Santa Lucia and Santa Caterina del Egitto. Indeed this state of affairs in Termini Imerese, which was common all over the 16th-century lands of the Mediterranean and has been suppressed for centuries, has only begun to come to light in recent years.

The following image shows an entry in Codex A for the baptism of a female slave: Translation from Sicilian-Latin: ‘Father Caspano [Crisciuni] baptized the  daughter of the female slave of Turrimbeni. She was named Caterina. Her godparents were two male slaves.’ In this case, the father was most likely Turrimbeni, himself.


The next image shows an entry in Codex A for the baptism of another female slave: Translation from Sicilian-Latin: ‘On day 29 [December 1547] Father Martino [Romano] baptized the daughter of Giovanni, the latter of whom is of the household of Pietro La Scola. She was named Sapia. The godfathers are Monsignore Filippo Satti and Monsignore Battista L’Abbate. The godmother is [Sister Filippa] L’Angelica’. This is an unusual case, for it would appear that Giovanni, whomever he was, had impregnated a female slave who has given  birth to a daughter who was given a typical slave name, Sapia, that is, Wisdom. If Giovanni was, in fact, himself a slave, his punishment would have been severe as would that of the mother of Sapia because slaves in Sicily were forbidden to have sex among themselves unless they were married, which was not common.


CODEX A: Entry for the baptism of the daughter of a slave owned by the LaScola Family. Photo courtesy of Father Anthony Delisi.

In Codex A, most slaves are listed by owner, and sometimes it is possible to spot an original Tartar or Greek name among them. Five slaves: Paulino, Domenica, Filippa, Antonia, and an unnamed female which are designated ‘moro’ for the single male, and ‘mora’ for the four females (‘moro’ being the Sicilian term for  ‘black person’ as opposed to ‘lu scavu’, the general term  applied to all other slaves) might have been among those unfortunates imported into Sicily from the sub-Saharan region of Africa. Furthermore, a number of Termini’s slaves are designated in Codex A as Gypsies, that is to properly say, Roma.  Surely the Roma must have been highly sought after in Termini as they were expert artisans in several areas (especially metalworking) not to mention being renowned for their prowess in handling horses. A total of 55 slaves are mentioned in the baptismal records just for the years 1542-48 alone; one can only imagine how many more there were in service.


As late as 1852, Gypsies were still being sold into slavery in Europe. This broadside from Wallachia (in what is now Romania) advertises an auction at the Monastery of St. Elias of 18 men, 10 boys, 7 women, and 3 girls ‘in fine condition’. The plural term for slave in Romanian, ‘Sclavi’ is similar to that found in the Termini Imerese Baptismal records of 1542-48, where it’s singular is written in Sicilian as ‘Scavu’.

The former Jews of Termini Imerese (Neofiti) are represented in Codex A by several families; among them, the Palumbo [Jonah], Saccomanno [Isacco-Ermanno], Salamuni [Solomon], and Levitza [Levi] families. Only 50 years before the first baptisms were recorded in Codex A, many among these families were still practicing Jews living in Termini’s Jewish Quarter, known as the Celtigene. After the events of 1492, their synagogue, which was located not far from the church of San Nicola Bari, in the area where the Roman Amphitheater once stood, was torn down and replaced by the Santa Chiara Monastery which still stands.


Nadia Zeldas’ volume on the Neofiti of Sicily is invaluable for understanding the fate of the Jews of Termini Imerese.

Among the priests and nuns who were present for the Baptisms of Termini’s residents, several must have had practically star status in their day because of their tireless devotion. Among them are the the priests, Fathers Martino Romano, Antonino Vianisi, Filippo Teresi, Pietro DiFerro, and Caspano Crisciuni; and the nuns Sisters Antonina LaProvenza, Caterina LaGiuffrida and Mother Superior Domenica LaGrigola.

Of course, the greater part of the Codex A consists of the names of the artisans, the fisherman, and other workers who made up the core population of 16th-century Termini. Current readers of Sicilian heritage will certainly be surprised to see the names their families so well represented.

One of the more fascinating questions that has been raised regarding baptisms in Termini Imerese concerns the presentation of  personal baptismal certificates to the parents of the person who has been baptized. Several Internet sites mention a kind of Origami baptismal certificate created in  Europe during the 1500s, and known in Spain as the Pajarita (little bird) the harbinger of Springtime when the earth is reborn. Were they in use in the Kingdom of Sicily, which was a part of the Spanish Realm at that time? Only further research will begin to shed light on this mystery.


Pajarita: Baptismal Certificates took this form in Spain during the 16th Century.

The detailed materials included in the multiplicity of sections comprising this site were extracted directly from the 1542-48 Baptismal records of Termini Imerese, with the sole thought of bringing the 16th-century town, its people, and the era of Late Middle Ages back to life. Now it is possible for the descendants of Termini’s old families to get a glimpse of what life was like for their ancestors 500 years ago. Although the majority among Termini’s descendants cannot claim direct descent from the great Barons and Baronesses, or as they were later known, the Leopards, we do know that the DNA of the converted Sicilian-Jewish population of Termini (the Neofiti) is present among a considerable number of descendants, along with that from the offspring of the great barons’ many  female slaves. Indeed, the DNA of Jews, Greeks, Tarters, Africans, Berbers,  Gypsies, and Englishmen figures prominently in the makeup of all people of Sicilian descent. And that is to be expected for the descendants of a people living on an island kingdom,  which was once the very center of  Mediterranean activity.

Nowadays, the Leopards are gone from Termini; there are no slaves there, and the town no longer trades on a large scale with the Mediterranean World, although  the cars produced in the Fiat factory do give the town a certain amount of notoriety. Cruise ships (the ferry from Genoa and private vessels) dock at the old port where once millions of tons of grain were loaded onto ships, bringing curious visitors into the ancient town: they come to enjoy the food, visit the monuments of the city’s past, and join the crowds of the faithful who attend the yearly processions dedicated to the veneration of the relics of St. Agostino, and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Perhaps some will invest in a time-share condo, or get into shape at the famous spa there. But few will realize that a good part of the tremendous power which was the 16th-century Termini of Codex A, now resides in the cool basement located under the Church of Sant’Orsola.


The mummy of a priest in the Sant’Orsola Catacombs in Termini Imeres

Now they, the nobles and their wives, and the professional people and priests who once served them, indeed the very people we will meet in this study, are but mummies in full dress, rotting away in the catacombs located under the Church of Sant’Orsola. Such is history!

Charles Matacia-Lehrer

Thousand Oaks 2009

Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 1:22 am  Comments (5)