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In the 1960s, as Palermo's public works commissioner (and
briefly mayor), the infamous Vito Ciancimino gave thousands of building permits
to unsavory characters - typically Mafia front men. With the
tacit collaboration of several other politicians (including a senator later killed by the Mafia),
Ciancimino and his ilk managed to turn much of Palermo into an ugly concrete
jungle - in the process destroying historic buildings to erect new ones. Few
parks, gardens or playgrounds were ever planned. In the course of a decade and
its long aftermath, a handful of politicians effectively raped Palermo,
appropriating funds from the Marshall Plan and the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno,
Italy's development plan for its poor South, to construct bizarre buildings,
re-zone entire districts and literally destroy important historical monuments
such as Villa Deliella (shown here).
Designed by Ernesto Basile, an exponent of the Art Nouveau and Neo Classical movements, Villa Deliella once
stood in the middle of a small park in what is now Piazza Croci, next to
Palermo's English Gardens. In 1959, the city council authorized its destruction,
and the demolition was carried out during a Saturday night (yes, at night) in
November of that year. In protest, Basile's son, Giovan Battista (also an
accomplished architect) resigned from the public works commission. Today, a
piazza and car wash occupy the space where the villa once stood.
An effort is now being made to revive parts of Palermo. Villa al Mare, a long
strip of green park running along the coast from the Saint Erasmus district to
Porta Felice, is a fine example, and others are under development. Public parks
were the last things on the minds of men like Ciancimino - who was eventually
convicted and died under house arrest. Preferring to
live in villas in lush Mondello, outside town, they perpetuated a disdainful myth
that most Palermitan children didn't like grass and open spaces. In their warped
minds, the love of nature wasn't supposed to be part of the social
"culture" of Sicily's poor people.
When they died (mourned by few beyond their own circles of kinship and waning
influence), these characters certainly weren't poor, but they were
hardly the only opportunists of their generation. Mr Ciancimino died of natural causes under house arrest in Rome after being convicted of
the vague offense of aiding the Mafia. As mayor, he once had a dissenting councilman (a
nobleman who became a Communist as a reaction to the corruption of Palermo's
Christian Democrat party) beaten by thugs, having already ordered the man's
automobile burned to a crisp by a squad of Mafia boys.
The Christian Democrats were not particularly Christian or democratic, but
they dominated Italian politics for half a century (until the 1990s), garnering
the support of the Catholic Church and most of the nation's Catholics. A new
generation of Italian politicians finds it increasingly difficult to play the
Catholicism card. Initially, most Christian Democrats were conservatives, and
many had been Fascists or Fascist sympathizers. With the arrival of the Allies in
Palermo in the Summer of 1943, any links to Fascism were quickly cast aside as
new political parties were formed. The "new men" sought to assimilate
with the Americans, though the idea of the Mafia being pro-American, or even
actively anti-Fascist, is largely a myth. They simply chose the winning side in
the Second World War, against a regime which, despite its obvious evils, had
suppressed organized crime for some years through the efforts of men such as
Cesare Mori, the "Iron Prefect." (Ciancimino, the son of a barber in Corleone, was only nineteen when the Allies
arrived and had never been active in any partisan activity.) In the event, corrupt politicians on
the fringe of the Mafia attached themselves to the Allies and then the Christian Democratic party.
During the 1950s, somebody said that, "when it rains in Washington, you need
an umbrella in Rome." What took place in Palermo was only the worst part of
an unfortunate national trend, though nothing that occurred in Milan or Rome was
nearly as destructive of local history and architecture.
It takes more than two petty politicians to virtually destroy a large city.
For decades, Palermo's political establishment was nothing less than a rogues'
gallery. Giovanni Ravalli, tried by the Greeks for war crimes he committed in
their country during Italy's ill-fated invasion - earning himself the death
penalty for torture and murder but released to the Italian government - served a
term as, of all things, provincial prefect. He remains little more than a
footnote in Palermo's legacy of political corruption, but Ravalli's very presence
on the scene reflected a certain lack of what most of us would consider
fundamental ethics. Somehow, he was precisely what one might expect to see on a
stage full of opportunistic players, his stylish Italian suit an unconvincing
veneer serving to mask an evil Fascist past.
Few of these ugly, uncouth, uncultivated
profiteers were ever prosecuted for a felony. Eroding the heritage and urban
environment of a large city is not a crime, though giving undeserved public jobs
to your friends is - at best - a questionable practice. Fortunately, in their
quest for the new and shiny, these charlatans ignored the medieval part of
Palermo, a true gem.
Times began to change in the 1980s when, following a string of murders of
judges and police officers, Italy recognized Mafia association as a crime akin to
criminal conspiracy. It was no longer possible to credibly deny that an
international Mafia existed (though several prominent
"Italian-American" politicians continued to do so). Finally, the
average Palermitan began to understand the destructive scope of the old political
machine and its close connection with organized crime.
Apropos crimes, why was Ravalli never prosecuted for his crimes against
humanity? It's an amazing story of the kind often cited by Germans who believe
that Fascist Italy literally got away with murder while Germany took
responsibility for its war crimes. In 1946, following a trial, the Greek
government was prepared to hang Giovanni Ravalli (with two of his cohorts), and
the Allies and United Nations had nothing to say in the matter. However, the Italian
government protested, threatening to withold hefty war reparations due Greece if
the execution actually took place. In fact, post-war Italy was nearly bankrupt,
and the extensive reparations due Ethiopia were paid in kind (as construction
projects) rather than cash. The United States failed to intervene, perhaps
realizing that Italy's Christian Democrats would lose ground to the Socialists
and Communists if too many of Italy's war crimes were brought to light, something
which might leave Italy's electorate and government redder than the blood on
Ravalli's hands. (In retrospect, the Americans could - very easily - have witheld post-war
aid to the starving Italians in response to the Italian government witholding payments to Greece.)
All things considered, Italy is perhaps a better nation for the passing of the
men mentioned here, and too many others like them. It is indeed difficult to list
their productive contributions to Italian society. The visible decay of Sicily's
largest city is an indelible mark on their record.
The bad news is that most of Via Libertà cannot be saved. The villas
supplanted by ugly apartment buildings are gone forever. The good news is that
the old historical center of the city is gradually being restored to something of
its former glory.
About the Author: Roberto Paglia has written several articles for this publication relating to social topics.