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The Rape of Palermo
by Roberto Paglia

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Destroying Palermo.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.

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© 2005 Roberto Paglia