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by Maria Luisa Romano

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Venni ca! Sicily's lovable charlatans.Every once in a while the beast rears its ugly head and another bunch of professionals are arrested for having taken money from clients or patients under false pretences. Perhaps some dental technicians were performing dental surgery which is meant to be performed by actual doctors. Or a surveyor undertook a project which should have been handled by a licensed architect or engineer. Beyond the world of safety and financial fraud, maybe a university teaching assistant holding an undergraduate degree managed to convince people outside Italy that she is a tenured professor. Cagliostro, one of history's most successful charlatans, is alive and well in Sicily.

Most of the time, do these frauds and impostors do much real harm? That depends on what, exactly, they are claiming to be or to do. There's an obvious difference in severity between fake health care professionals and mere fantasists who believe themselves to be the king of Sicily (more about that later). But would you want to eat at a restaurant that lacks the most fundamental health and safety controls because the entire establishment is illegal?

An underlying problem is that the authorities charged with enforcing the law are negligent, and some are paid to turn a blind eye to these abuses.

Italians use the phrase "abusivo" to describe these situations and people. Who wants to live in a building that is "abusivo" because it was built (possibly by the Mafia) completely outside of the construction codes and is perhaps unsafe? A decade ago, two poorly-constructed residential buildings collapsed in Palermo. Fortunately, few residents were killed, but it is believed that hundreds of structures are at risk around Sicily, having been built using cheap materials.

On a more subtle level, there's the inflation of credentials, education and experience that plagues places far beyond our island. However, it must be said that here in Sicily the entire issue of professionalism - when it even exists - is brought into question by such phenomena as nepotism and mediocre universities. In the public sector, in particular, it sometimes seems that hardly anybody is truly competent. Things like rampant absenteeism add to the problem, though new laws have been enacted to rein in the worst of the fanulloni (do-nothings).

The infamous "development projects" undertaken with European Union funds are still another example. In many cases, the "directors" simply take the money and run. There are too many of these projects to list here, and their names would mean little to a non-Italian reader, but in many cases millions of euros are involved. Clearly, the directors are charlatans of the highest order, and political corruption, complete with payoffs and kickbacks, is usually involved.

Little more than a fine line divides the charlatans from simple mediocrities. When a Sicilian town decides to award an "international" literary prize there is no obvious fakery, just an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

A far more dangerous class of charlatans are the Mafia members and affiliates who appear to be legitimate businessmen but, of course, are not. They maintain their charade because they have invested in various businesses which - in themselves - are legitimate, and because it takes justice a very long time to catch up to them. The Lo Piccolo clan of Palermo's San Lorenzo district wasn't only involved with extortion, unpleasant as that is. They owned the major supermarkets in a highly populated area, and obviously "discouraged" any competition. Newspapers referred to the clan's prestanome (front man) as the "Supermarket King." The threats of violence were anything but fake. An intrinsic problem in this kind of case is that - at first glance - it isn't always possible, in Sicily's complex social environment, to know who is or isn't a Mafioso. It isn't as if people involved in organised crime had horns, tails and bright green complexions to distinguish them from the rest of the population. In January of 2011, a former president ("governor") of the Sicilian Region was finally - after several years of appeals - sent to prison to begin a seven-year sentence for having fraternised with a Mafia boss and compromised a police investigation, among other things. He'll be released soon enough, but at least justice prevailed, for a while.

Then there are the fantasists, who are fairly harmless most of the time. Their activities rarely endanger anything more than a victim's bank account, and then not more than a few thousand euros at a time. Small change compared to the Mafiosi and corrupt politicians who bilk the economy of millions of euros. But it is slightly disturbing when the self-styled head of a soi-disant "international" UN-type of organisation of third-rate personalities begins issuing passports, and the bearer of one of these specious documents is caught smuggling weapons-grade plutonium from one country to the next.

Charlatanry per se is not always illegal. Most often, it's simply annoying, but it can set the stage for disappointment. The arcane matter of bogus dukes, counts and barons emerging from the shadows is discussed on our heraldry page. Here things are rather more complicated because none of these titles is legally recognised in Italy today, so anybody can call himself whatever he likes. The potential problem occurs when a title of nobility is used as part of a "confidence scheme" to create an aura of legitimacy for some kind of moneymaking scam.

In this vein, we can all chuckle at the person ignorant enough to pay money for a fake title of nobility or a "knighthood" issued by a "head" of one of the (long-extinct) royal dynasties of medieval Sicily, but nobody enjoys being taken for a fool. Regarding this last point, it can be explained, in simplest terms, that the only legitimate royal families "of Sicily" still flourishing today are the House of Bourbon (which reigned from 1734 to 1860) and the House of Savoy (which reigned from 1860 until 1946); none of the Byzantine, Swabian, Norman or Aragonese dynasties have any descendants in the legitimate male line recognised internationally in recent centuries.

Where does this leave us? Is Sicily an island full of impostors and charlatans? No - but we certainly have more than our fair share of them.

About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has written about social topics for various Italian magazines, including this one.

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© 2011 Maria Luisa Romano and Best of Sicily