My Italian Year – Palermo And The Maffia

ONE passes from one scene of beauty to another in this marvellous land which once was Magna Grecia, and assuredly not the least beautiful is that which Palermo presents when approached from the sea. For hours the vast mass of Monte Pellegrino has been visible, looming blue on the horizon ; and gradually the whole lovely sweep of the Golden Shell—the Conca d’Oro—in which the white city lays lapped comes into view. It is a wonderful panorama. The town is encircled by this great, fan-shaped garden which stretches away into the shadow of the mountains—a plain so rich in flowers, fruits, and vegetation of all kinds that it has no rival certainly in Europe, if in the world. It is curious that whereas the whole of Southern Italy and Sicily is full of the traditions and relics of ancient Greece, Palermo alone should lack them. Neither is the city named by any Greek historian, except in the vaguest and most casual manner. But Palermo has no need of the classic ages. The Phoenicians colonised her, if, indeed, they did not found her ; and to them succeeded the Saracens, who brought to her a beauty and a civilisation which, though not Greek, was almost more glorious.

The Moors entered Sicily about the year 827, and in 831 they made Palermo their Sicilian capital. Their rule, and that of the Norman and Germanic dynasties which succeeded them, was the golden age for the island. If they brought with them all the splendid luxuries of the East, they also brought a wise and just government ; and even after the lapse of a thousand years it may with truth be said that Sicily owes much of her beauty, and perhaps all her fertility, to the wisdom and energy of a race accustomed for centuries to the art of turning barren wildernesses into fertile and well-watered gardens.

Then came that wonderful romance of the House of Hauteville—the Norman country gentlemen of Cotentin who became, as if by magic, sovereigns of the wealthiest and most prosperous island in the world. A Pope brought them there, after they and their Northmen had sacked Rome and threatened the Vicar of Christ in St. Peter’s chair ; and a Pope was afterwards to crush and expel the proud imperial House which sprung from them, thereby setting back the civilisation of Europe for well-nigh six centuries, and plunging the whole of Southern Italy into untold miseries until another adventurer in a red shirt sailed stealthily out of a Ligurian port with his thousand volunteers to bring her freedom. What a family were those old Haute-villes ! Only to read of them stirs the blood—and especially Northern blood. That three sons of a Norman squire should have become respectively Count of Apulia, Duke of Calabria, and Count of Sicily proves what a race they must have been.

The last of the three, however, was the strongest man ; for he it was who added the crown of Sicily to his brothers’ conquests and left his son a monarch.

That son, the second Roger, and his son and grand-son all ruled over the kingdom of the two Sicilies. Their Court was that rather of Oriental sultans than of Western princes, for they absorbed and continued most of the traditions of the Moors, whom they had vanquished. Then the male line became extinct, and the rule of Sicily passed through the Hauteville heiress, Constance, who had married the emperor, Henry vi., to the House of Hohenstauffen and the great emperor, Frederic II. That Roger II. must have been an extraordinary man. He cared little for acquiring mouldering relics of supposed saints, a form of corpse-worship which had assumed the proportions of a passion in those days, and which, oddly enough, exists even in ours. While Popes and Princes were selling old bones to each other, and inventing pedigrees for them, King Roger was making his Court at Palermo the centre of the learning and art of the world, and building some of the most lovely fabrics to be found in it. Fortunately for posterity, he turned his back upon Christian tradition and went for his inspirations to the Arab philosophers and architects whom he summoned to his court. The exquisite Cappella Palatina which he founded, and the glorious Cathedral of Monreale blazing in all the richness of their wonderful mosaics, show of what nature these inspirations were. The shape of these churches is, no doubt, a concession to that faith to which the Hautevilles officially belonged ; but the spirit of them, and the art, are essentially born of quite another.

His successor, Frederic of Hohenstauffen, was even less orthodox than Roger, and scarcely troubled himself to conceal his sympathies for the Moslem faith. Perhaps it was natural, since from the representative of Christ he received nothing but deadly hatred and the most despicable of treachery. But while Europe was plunged in barbarism, and while the Papacy was fairly launched upon that course of imposture and aggression which has lasted down to our own times, Frederic n. alone held aloft the torch of learning and the principles of good government according to his lights ; and to his influence, perhaps, may be traced the origin of the Renaissance which, through the civilising influences of art, was destined to bring about the refinement of Europe. But the forces of superstition and the insatiable ambition of the Popes were too strong. The great and enlightened House of Hohenstauffen fell before the intrigues of the Papacy, and the Pope bestowed their kingdom upon the detestable race of Anjou. From that moment the golden age of Sicily ceased. To the Anjou dynasty succeeded that equally detest-able one of Aragon ; while to this, again, succeeded that ” negation of God,” the Bourbon rule.

For six centuries, owing to the hatred of a priest, Sicily was plunged into a succession of the most cruel tyrannies at the hands of foreign rulers, from which the high-spirited race in vain attempted to escape by countless revolutions. I have dwelt upon the history of the island at some length, though it is, or ought to be, well known to every schoolboy. I have done so, however, with an object ; for it is only by remembering the past history of Sicily that one may hope to understand an important factor in Sicilian life which yet remains as the direct consequence of the long centuries of tyranny and misgovernment to which the Sicilians were exposed.

Unlike Naples, Palermo affords few ” sights ” to the . stranger within her gates. The Cappella Palatina, the Cathedral at Monreale, the usual national museums and galleries, these fairly exhaust the list. Neither does the city contain much that is of any great historical interest, nor anything at all, as I have said, of classical interest. But the yellow city by the sea is a perpetual sight of beauty in herself, and in the languorous Sicilian climate one is a little thankful that there is only a limited amount of stereotyped sight-seeing. It is sufficient to wander through the streets and observe the characteristics of the population, and to drive through the parks and into the country of the Golden Shell, inhaling the soft, milky air fragrant with the scent of lemon and orange-blossom, and dreaming of the past splendours of the place in the days of the Saracens, the Hautevilles, and the Hohenstauffens.

One thing will strike an Englishman in his wanderings about Palermo with some surprise, and that is the number of admirably turned out carriages and fine horses owned by the Palermitans. This has always been a feature of the place ; and though at Palermo there is a considerable number of very wealthy people, and the Palermitan nobility includes some of the oldest and best-known families in Italy, the possession of a smart equipage in which to drive about the city at the fashionable hours by no means implies riches on the part of its proprietor. As in Naples, and also, indeed, in Rome, many a family lives in the most uncomfortable manner, and even stints itself in the necessaries of life in order to be able to make a show in public in its carriage and. pair. Of late years motor-cars have, of course, taken the place of horses ; but, apart from blague,” the Sicilian takes a real pride in his horses, and even now one sees unusually fine specimens of horse-flesh, well groomed and cared for, in the streets of Palermo.

Some of the villas and palaces owned by the great Sicilian nobles and the representatives of la haute commerce are extremely beautiful, and most sumptuously montés in every way. The fashion of going to Rome, however, as the Capital, for the Roman season has to a large extent damaged the social life of Palermo, since the majority of the important Sicilian families now migrate annually to take part in the social doings of the metropolis.

I think that no observer of countenances can walk about Palermo, or indeed any Sicilian town, without being struck by the remarkable look of intelligence and acuteness to be seen on the faces of the Sicilians belonging to every class. I will not say that it is an expression which always inspires trust or confidence ; for very often—too often—it inspires precisely the reverse. Nevertheless, in what-ever channel it may run, good or bad, a high degree of natural intelligence and brain-power is to be detected in the countenances of the vast majority of the Sicilian race ; and it is not surprising that Sicily has furnished a very large proportion of the public, men who have conducted the affairs of United Italy. It would appear at first sight to be strange that one of the most vigorous races, and one of the fairest spots in Europe, should have lain for several centuries under the spell of a power as blighting in its influence on all social, moral, and economic development as it is mysterious both in its origin and in its action.

I alluded just now to an important factor in Sicilian life that has been largely determined by the tragedies to which the Sicilians have been subjected in the past. That factor, of course, is the Maffia, to which one’s thoughts almost unconsciously turn whenever Sicily is mentioned. The idea generally entertained by foreigners concerning the Maffia, or Mafia—for it may be spelt either way —is that it is a kind of secret society, an organisation existing for the purpose of tyrannising over an ignorant population, and which ruthlessly destroys those who venture to oppose its designs. It is regarded as a species of freemasonry among the lower orders, a body akin to the Camorra of Naples, or to other organised societies having for their scope extortion and violence. Now, as a matter of fact, the Maffia differs in all its most important and characteristic points from any one of these definitions. It is essentially a product of social instinct, and not in the least an organisation of evil-doers or, in the ordinary sense of the term, a secret society. To begin with, it has no written code of laws ; probably for the reason that it derives its very existence from the deeply rooted and hereditary determination of the Sicilian of all grades of society to baffle and destroy the law itself whenever he finds himself brought into contact with it.

Baron Franchetti, who was one of the Parliamentary Commissioners appointed by the Government some years ago to inquire into the social and economic conditions of Sicily, thus describes it ” The Maffia,” he says, ” is a union of persons belonging to every grade, to every profession, and to every category, who, without possessing any apparent, continuous, or regular tie in common, are nevertheless always united for the furtherance of their reciprocal interests. With every consideration of law, justice, and public morals set aside, it is the medieval sentiment of the individual who thinks that he himself can provide for the care and for the safety of his own person and of his own possessions, by reason of his personal worth and influence, quite apart from any action of the authorities or of the laws.”

From the above it will be seen that the Maffia cannot be considered or dealt with as an organised society. It possesses no fixed code of laws, no recognised body of officers, no organs for the propagation of its ideas, and yet there exists no phase of Sicilian life, official or political, rural or urban, commercial, agricultural, or even religious, in which this pernicious moral canker has not established itself. Those persons who are themselves honest and law-abiding citizens not only tolerate the silent tyranny of the Maffia, but, dreading its vengeance, actually assist those whom they know to be mafiosi in their efforts to evade and baffle the attempts of the authorities to bring them to justice for some delinquency. Illicit gain is, doubtless, one of the primary objects the mafioso has in view—and in this, it is true, he does not greatly differ from the associate of any other criminal body. It is this, too, the most sordid and vulgar factor in the Maffia, which has caused casual observers to confound it with the Neapolitan Camorra. The two, however, have in reality little or nothing in common and the Sicilian mafioso would never demean himself to stoop to the mean and petty villainies committed by the Neapolitan Camorrista.

Besides the object of acquiring money by fraud or violence, and sometimes by both, the mafioso has other scopes, less sordid, perhaps, but equally perilous to a civilised community. He regards himself as the supreme dispenser of justice in all matters which he may consider to affect himself and his dealings with his neighbour. It follows, as a matter of course, that his object here is to prevent, by fair means or foul, the interference of the civil authorities with his acts, whatever these acts may be ; and neither will he tolerate any such interference. His neighbour, whom he has probably wronged, and may not improbably kill, is the first to assist him in defeating the power of the law, for the simple reason that this neighbour is himself a mafioso. If the said neighbour be killed, his family will effectually screen the murderer from justice. But it will bide its time, and at a convenient season some member of it will avenge the murder or the wrong in his or her own way. To seek reparation at the hands of the law for any wrong, however grave, and not to throw every obstacle in the way of the law to prevent it interfering in the matter, would be contrary to the honour of a maffioso.

In the outskirts of Palermo, in the hot glare of a summer afternoon, a mother stood anxiously awaiting the return of her soldier son from his term of military service. She knew he was to reach home that day, and, as the hour approached at which he had told her she might expect him, she walked along the lane which led into the high road from the city. Presently she saw the lad—he was barely three-and-twenty—coming towards her. She hurried forward to meet him, but before she could embrace him he was laid dead at her feet by a shot fired from behind a fence bordering the lane. The wretched mother’s despair and agony may be imagined. The boy was her favourite son, and he had come back to her after three years’ absence with the colours, to be foully murdered at the moment of their reunion. Her cries were overheard by the neighbours, and in a very short time the authorities were on the spot to investigate the matter. What was the attitude of the mother in the presence of the authorities of the law ? Far from assisting the Carabinieri and other officials in their efforts to trace the murderer, this woman, distracted by grief and horror as she was, did all in her power to baffle the police and throw them off the scent. She swore by the souls of her dead that she knew nothing, had seen nothing, and called upon all the imaginary inhabitants of heaven to witness that she was speaking the truth. Her son, she declared, had not an enemy in the world ; there was not a person against whom she could harbour the slightest suspicion of a desire to harm him. Expostulations, appeals to her maternal love, even threats of punishment should she continue to with-hold what she knew, were of no avail. She knew—nothing ! She had heard the report of a gun and had seen her son fall. More than this could not be extracted from her even in the genuine bitterness of her grief.

Weeks passed, and both the murderer and the motives for the crime remained undiscovered and unsuspected by the local authorities, and in time investigation grew slack, and gradually ceased altogether. At last, after some months, another murder was committed, almost on the same spot as the preceding one. Another young mane was shot dead by a sparatina, as such murders by gunshot are euphemistically termed in Sicily. This time, however, the murderer was identified. He was another son of the taciturn mother, a younger brother of the lad who had fallen dead at her feet a few months previously. The authorities naturally concluded that the second victim was the murderer of the first. They taxed the mother with being fully aware of it, and of having incited her younger son to avenge his brother’s murder by perpetrating a second. In vain they urged her to confess, pointing out that if she could show that her son committed the crime to avenge a brother’s death the jury would certainly grant extenuating circumstances, and his punishment would not be so severe. The mother, however, absolutely denied that the murdered man was the murderer of her son. During her examination before the magistrates she swore by all that was most sacred that he was a perfect stranger to her. When she saw that the court did not believe her denials, she feigned illness and became delirious. In this carefully studied delirium she murmured vague and disjointed accusations against various persons—but no surnames, only Christian names ever passed her lips, and these, of course, could not be taken as indicating any particular individual. The boy-murderer supported his mother’s statements, and though every one in the court knew that he had killed his brother’s assassin, no confirmation of the fact could be extorted by either mother or son, and the boy was sentenced to the full penalty for premeditated murder without benefit of circostanze attenuanti.

This is a true tale, which occurred not very many years ago, and others similar to it are constantly occurring. It reveals the power of the Maffia to preserve its influence over its followers even in moments of the most bitter personal grief or indignation. Moreover, it reveals this in a very special manner, for the love of Sicilian women for their children is apt to assume forms which become passionate, and even animal-like, and it is often actually ferocious in its manifestations. It has been proved fairly conclusively that the influence of the women contributes to an enormous extent towards the keeping alive of the spirit of the Maffia. The Sicilian woman of the middle and lower classes has an almost unlimited pride in her person, her position, and her name. The humblest woman of the people, after performing her household duties, will go for her walk in the town, well-dressed and often bejewelled, assuming for the time the deportment of a fine lady. The greatest slattern among maid-servants would not condescend to be seen in the streets carrying a basket or a parcel. When she goes to market—in Sicilian dialect a vucceria —she engages a vastoso, a porter, to carry her purchases for her to her employer’s house.

No greater offence can be offered to a Sicilian woman of the people than to give her credit for being simple or straightforward. It is tantamount to calling her a fool. Her subtlety is her proudest possession, and she values it more than even her personal appearance. She has the profoundest con-tempt for any member of the male sea whom she suspects of being of a gentle disposition ; and what is called a botta di Mafia—i.e. some savage or desperate act on the part of a man, is the surest road to her esteem and affection. In the lowest classes a girl will not marry a young fellow who has the reputation of being respectable and orderly. She prefers to wed an omo (maffioso) who has been in collegio (prison), and who knows how to take the law into his own hands.

The Sicilian girl of the people has at the same time a profound respect for the social convenances—such as they are. She lives in constant dread of what people may be saying of her, and therefore she is almost invariably playing a part to keep up appearances. She is most susceptible to love, and when she loves in earnest it is with a passion which is at once blind and morbid. In most cases in this class a marriage is forced on by the girl owing to compromising situations prearranged with her lover. The Sicilian woman, too, has the most exaggerated attachment for her native town or village, and regards any other with withering contempt. A favourite saying among the Palermitan women is : Pane schittù, e cassarù cassarù, which, being interpreted, means : ” New bread to eat, and a walk up and down the Cassaru,” which is the popular name for the fashionable street in Palermo, now called the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

Expert students of the Maffia among the police declare that the influence upon and participation in it of women may be divided into two principal factors. The first of these regards the surroundings and education of children, and the second her attitude towards the active part of the Maffia—an attitude which we have already seen. In Sicily the woman has remained medieval in her characteristics, and her medievalism is further crossed by a strong strain of African blood. The result is that the fundamental principles observed by a mother in the upbringing of her children are utterly at variance with any civilised ideas of education and morality. Supposing a woman to have a vivacious and over-bearing child, it is a source of profound satisfaction to her. She calls it proudly her maffiosello, her malandrino, and summons her friends to encourage and admire all those naturally depraved actions in the little creature which should be the first to be corrected and restrained. As soon as the child can talk, it is taught that it is unmanly to speak the truth. There is one unpardonable offence which the little one must never commit, under pain of severe corporal punishment, which is never administered but for this cause. The child must never, under any circumstances, speak to outsiders of what is said and done in the family circle. As the child grows older, the mother teaches it to have a scrupulous regard for social appearances, and to practise the art of deceit in every possible manner. It learns to flatter the rich, and to despise and injure the poor, while at the same time it is gradually trained to witness the most brutalising and degrading details of life. It is taught that in order to live in the world as a man should live, physical force and moral cunning are the two most necessary possessions ; and all orderly methods of life—all scruples of honour, pity, or fair-dealing are sneered at as being unworthy and cowardly. I am, of course, speaking solely of the methods employed by women belonging to the lower classes—but not, it is necessary to say, to the lowest class only. The mothers of the upper class are extremely particular in all that relates to the education and training of their families.

The Maffia, out of regard for women as a useful element in life, protects even while it degrades and subjugates her. Her stubborn silence can be relied upon. Pipa (silence !) is her word of command—and she will keep it in the face of death itself. Calate giunco ca passa la chiene is a favourite proverb of the women connected with the maffiosi, which may be most appropriately rendered into English as : ” Wait till the clouds roll by.” Very instructive are some of these maffiosi proverbs in Sicilian dialect, and some of them I will reproduce here ; others I will not, since they are not of a nature fit for publication.

A cu ti leva la pari levacci la vita.—” Whosoever deprives you of the means of existence, deprive of his life.” This, perhaps, is legitimate enough, though primitive in idea.

La furca è pri lu poveru, la giustizia è pri lu fissa.—” The gallows are for the poor man, and the law is for the weak man.” That is to say, that both punishment and law are only for those who are too poor or too weak to act for themselves.

Vali cchiû n’amieu ncchiazza ca cent’unzi n’sacca.—” An influential friend is worth more than a hundred onze (fifty pounds) in the pocket.”

Carzori, malatu e nicissità provanu lu cori di l’amici.—” Prison, illness, and want prove the hearts of one’s friends.”

The above examples of popular sayings are taken from a mass of similar dicta which afford some in-sight into the principles guiding the Sicilian of the working-classes through life. To those who know the character of the people, they are maxims terrible in their cynical contempt for justice as meted out by the law, and full of a savage significance. There is not wanting in many of them a note of pathos and a ring of chivalry towards a companion in distress, which is a distinguishing feature of what is known as Omertà in the constitution of the Maffia.

This Omertèà may be said to be an unwritten code of honour regulating the conduct to be observed by maffiosi towards each other and towards the authority of the law. From his earliest youth the Sicilian of the people is trained to consider that every man’s hand is against him, and that his hand, therefore, must be ready to be against every man. At the same time, to give any correct definition of Omertà is not easy. The expression covers a strange medley of social obligations evolved among a people more than semi-barbarous during the course of long centuries of misgovernment. It is the protest of a race whose strong and gallant spirit has been bent for generations under merciless oppression by foreign princes and priests, but which has never yet been broken. The struggle for self-defence, the hatred and contempt for foreign rule, the bitter experience that law was only a cloak for tyranny and injustice, produced in the Sicilian nature this strange, unwritten code of honour which, although supremely egoistic in its origin, and often depraved in its action, nevertheless can be, and frequently is, the instigator of unselfish and even chivalrous deeds which, notwithstanding the savagery that too often mars them, compel an unwilling admiration and a conviction that their authors are capable of better things could the good that is in them be brought to the surface.

No chapter of human life is so full of complex problems, social and psychological, and of such strange contradictions as that which may be studied in this beautiful Mediterranean island. Love and hatred, avarice and generosity, brutality and chivalry, honour and dishonour—all are to be met with in its pages ; and so intermingled are these attributes of humanity that the unprejudiced student of the Maffia, and of its accompanying phenomenon the Omerta, will wonder to himself what manner of people this may be who can combine some of the noblest of human qualities with the most ignoble acts of worse than bestial cunning and ferocity.

It would be a mistake to assume that the Maffia exists among the lower classes only. There are plenty of mafiosi in white gloves, as the Italian metaphor has it, as well as those who do not wear such articles. The maffioso in guanti bianchi is a far more despicable creature than his humble colleague, whom he uses as a tool to effect his misdeeds. There are such miscreants in all ranks of Sicilian society, even among the highest. They occupy themselves with politics, parliamentary and political, and with the haute finance ; but they rely upon the mafiosi of less prominent station to carry out their corrupt practices. It has happened many times that these mafiosi in kid gloves have found themselves thwarted by some honest official or some personage who refused to lend himself to their schemes. Then murder, foul and treacherous, has been committed, as in the famous case of the Senator Notarbartolo, a Palermitan of noble family and a gentleman above reproach, who was murdered mysteriously—though the mystery was at no time a mystery to those who stood behind the scenes of the actions of the Maffia and its protectors in high places.

There can be no doubt that the power of the Maffia is gradually weakening in the land. Education is progressing, even in Sicily, and the purification of parliamentary and municipal politics will eventually eliminate the swindlers in office who are obliged to resort to the Maffia in order to compass their villainies at the least possible risk to themselves. I have talked with many police officials who happened to be honest men, and with many officers and sub-commissioned officers of the Carabinieri whose honesty I would trust far sooner than I would that of the police, and all seem to be agreed that to eradicate the principles of the Maffia it will be necessary to change the nature of the Sicilian woman of the lower orders. Now, who can change the nature of women ? Only, perhaps, the priests on whom women so much rely. It is surely a logical argument against the utility of the priesthood to Italy that in no part of that country, after nearly two thousand years of influence, have they been able to change human nature for the better.

Education, science, secular administration and secular energy—all these things against which the Church has most protested and which she has systematically opposed—have wrought an enormous change for the better in Italy, as in every country in which they have forced the clergy to give way to them. But in Southern Italy, as in every other part in which the influence of the Church predominates among the lower orders, crime, ignorance, and a low level of social conditions go hand in hand with those superstitions which are directly encouraged by men who in the majority of cases well know them to be fables. It is useless to pretend that this is not a fact. It is a fact which is indisputable. Christianity as taught by the priests has been weighed in the balances and found wanting—and this not in Italy alone, though it is in Italy that the proofs are most convincing.

I alluded just now to the police. A most unfortunate system prevails in Italy of recruiting the ranks of this important body from sources which should certainly not be drawn upon for such a purpose. To put it plainly, thieves in Italy are too often set to catch thieves, and the ranks of the police are full of individuals who have the best of all possible reasons for knowing the tactics of criminals. A large proportion of the Forza di pubblica Sicurezza is made up of Neapolitans and Sicilian delegates into whose past it would be better not to inquire. Naples and Palermo swarm with such individuals—and, indeed, Rome and every other city is full of them. Every Italian is perfectly well aware of the fact, and the consequence is that the police as a body enjoy neither the respect nor the confidence of any section of the community. A species of Tammany prevails.

The Carabinieri have hitherto been the one force in Italy which has commanded the respect and confidence of the public ; but even the Carabinieri are bitterly complaining of being underpaid and undermanned, and the effect of so mistaken a policy, if continued in, will inevitably lead to individuals joining that corps who are unsuited to its responsibilities. No man may join the Carabinieri who has been at any time condemned for any criminal action, or whose antecedents are not above suspicion. It would be well were similar precautions to be taken in the case of the police. As it is, however, this obvious precaution, to say the least of it, is a very surprising fact.