The Cannizzaro family where Eugene de Mazenod spent three years (October 1799 to October 1802) was made up of five people: Baldassare Platamone, Duke of Cannizzaro, his wife Rosalia Moncada Branciforte, the Princess of Larderia, and their three children. The eldest, Michel, was born in 1783; his brother François, was born in 1784 and the only daughter, Concetta, was the youngest. It was a typically Sicilian family, a microcosm of high Sicilian society whose palatial home reflected nothing other than pleasure and sensuality.
Eugene was received into that home at the beginning of the month of October 1799. We know this from the context of the first letter that he wrote to his father; it is undated, but was written from the villa of the Cannizzaros at Colli, near Palermo and from its content can be dated at mid-October of 1799. The Cannizzaros had great need of an older mentor for their two boys who were very undisciplined, a mentor who could be a companion for them and, on occasion, draw them out of the idleness and boredom to which they were inclined by their inherent tendencies and the bad example set for them by Palermo’s high society. The old duke was not much different from his sons. He squandered money on the pleasures and different entertainments his social circle had to offer. Princess Larderia (1758-1802) was an exception to this. A very charitable woman with a deep prayer life, she was the kind of person to whom the people of relaxed morals of her circle readily ascribed holiness.
Once established as a member of the Cannizzaro family who owned a luxurious villa in the plains of Colli, Eugene wrote a letter to his father to tell him about his new way of life. In mid-October of 1799, he wrote: “I am living like a fighting-cock. An excellent bed, a delightful room, a dressing room, etc., a valet at my beck and call who shook out my clothes this morning (that is important)... This morning when I arose, I had the impression of being in the countryside. The view from my room is delightful. The servants and the valets hasten to anticipate anything I could desire.” In addition to the good meals served at the Cannizzaro palace, one must mention the frequent receptions. They lasted until midnight and were often the occasion for dances, horse racing and different games of chance. One reception prepared by the duchess for the King of the Two Sicilies cost 500 ounces of gold, that is, 6,500 gold francs, today’s equivalent of about 70,000 Euros. Such squandering was the price to be paid for cutting a good figure among the families of Palermo’s high society.
As long as Michel and François were in Eugene’s company, they behaved well enough; but after his departure for France, left on their own, they gave free rein to their passions and licentious living. In his letter to his father from 1802 to 1805, Eugene paints a very dark picture of the Cannizzaro family.
In 1803, at twenty years of age, Michel married a certain Caroline, but he never gave up chasing other women. As a consequence of his conjugal infidelities, he was shut up in a Capuchin monastery. Released a few months later, he was better behaved. On September 5, 1805, President de Mazenod wrote his son: “They look upon him as a good fellow. I would add that these kinds of good fellows are good for nothing.” Finally, he succeeded in finding a position in the service of the King of Naples. On December 29, 1841 on the occasion of the death of this brother, François, Bishop de Mazenod urged him “to seek to sanctify himself at court by fulfilling his duties of state and of his position.” We do not know the date of his death.
François did not behave any better than his brother. When the French left, he joined the corps of the royal grenadiers, that is the palace guard. He plunged head first into an evil life. In 1811, in London, he married a rich English lady who brought him a revenue of 600,000 Tours pounds. In 1816, when Abbé de Mazenod was in need of money to finance his purchase of the Carmelite convent, he turned to François, reminding him that he remained “always his faithful friend and that he prayed for him every day.” He ended his letter with these sententious words: “May it please heaven that I shall have profited from the time when I held as much power over your mind as you held over my heart to stimulate in you the same respect and the same devotion that I had deep in my heart, but which I too often stifled [...] But at 17 or 18, alas, one does not always listen to reason!” We do not know whether this “rich man” gave the Founder of the Oblates a favourable response. He died in December of 1841 at the age of fifty-seven.
On the other hand, Eugene had nothing but praise for Princess Larderia, during his stay in Palermo as well as after his return to France. She was his adoptive mother whom he loved more than his own mother. He was her “servant knight” and distributed her many alms to the poor. In this regard, let us quote what he would later write in his mémoires between 1840 and 1850 from notes written in Palermo. “Providence, which has always watched over me since my tenderest years as an infant, gave me entry into a Sicilian family, in which I was accepted from the first as a child of the house. This was the family of the Duke of Cannizzaro. His wife, the Princess of Larderia, was a saint. Both the one and the other formed a strong affection for me, and it seems they considered themselves fortunate to give to their two sons, who were about my own age, although a little younger, a companion who could both become their friend and give them an example of good behaviour, a very rare commodity, practically a phenomenon, in a country like theirs. From this time until my return to France, I was one of the family: my place was always set at table; I went with them to the country in the summer, and everything in the house was at my service as it was for their own children, who considered themselves my brothers. And this I did become, actually, in terms of affection, and their mother, who used to say that she had acquired a third son, drew me so close to her through her kindnesses, that her own children certainly did not love her more than I. I proved this when she died and everyone could see that my grief was incomparably more tender and profound than that of her children. The Princess, whom with every right I used to call my mother, was taken from us without warning: it was a cruel blow and a deep wound; it affected me for a long time; I even became ill over it. I was told that at the sight of her dead body I fell prostrate at the foot of her bed uttering repeatedly this lamentation: “I have lost my mother! I have lost my mother!” The ties of the closest friendship between father and children were drawn even tighter as a result of this appalling event. We became as it were inseparable until the day came I had to leave Sicily and return to France.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 16, no. 19, p. 84 & 85)
The Princess of Larderia died on May 1, 1802 at forty-four years of age. Even so, she had gone to confession the day before, a Friday, in order to receive communion on Saturday. President de Mazenod concluded: “And that same Saturday, instead of receiving her Creator, it was her Creator who welcomed her into his bosom because she was a saint, recognized as such by everyone.” (President de Mazenod to this wife, May 14, 1802) Eugene was so shaken by the death of “his mother” that they feared for his physical and mental health. A great deal of time was required for him to regain his spirits and to recover from his serious illness.
As for the Duke of Cannizzaro, we do not know when he died. In an October 31, 1803 letter to his father, Eugene lampooned the Cannizzaro family as follows: “The Cannizzaro family is truly an inexhaustible source of madness, of the most consummate absurdity... In the duke himself, I find mock tragedy, in his son [Michel] disgraceful comedy, the whole thing is larded with a stuffing which produces a hotchpotch of the most extravagant absurdity. From here, I see the duke squandering his money right and left [...] 28 servants and 20 horses, how becoming for him!”
Such was the Cannizzaro family where Eugene spent the most critical years of his tormented youth, from the age of 18 to 20.
Jósef Pielorz, o.m.i.
MAZENOD, Eugene de, Diary 1791-1821, Oblate Writings, vol. 16, p. 80-101.
PIELORZ, Jósef, The Spiritual Life of Bishop de Mazenod, 1782-1812, Ottawa, 1956, chap. IV, Youth Crisis (1799-1805), p.84-135.
LEFLON, Jean, Eugene de Mazenod, vol. I, Paris, 1957, chap. VI: Sojourn in Palermo, p. 186-235.