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Origins of the Sicilian Mafia
by Filippo Spadafora

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Rightly or wrongly, the coppola cap has come to be viewed as a symbol of the Mafia.While much is published - both fact and fiction - regarding the Sicilian Mafia, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the historical origins of this form of organised crime. Even the etymology of the word mafia is hotly debated.

The word itself probably has Arabic roots. Into the early decades of the eighteenth century one might hear the Sicilian word as an adjective describing something of high quality, for example un cavallo mafioso (a good horse), with no intended reference to organised crime. Not until the nineteenth century did the word connote criminality. (Here, whenever the word "Mafia" is used it refers to Sicily's Mafia unless otherwise indicated, and we are talking about the organisation as it existed during its infancy, long before 1900.) Whatever the root of the word, it is ridiculous to associate the Mafia directly with Sicily's Arab period or indeed with any medieval phenomenon.

As an organisation, the Mafia originated sometime after 1700. The (retrospective) tales of its establishment during the War of the Sicilian Vespers, or as a "revolutionary" reaction against "foreign" domination, are fanciful at best, lacking in any historical foundation. That said, several social developments may have fostered the development of the Mafia, perhaps influencing popular attitudes and even a few of its practices (especially its secrecy) to some extent.

One was the Inquisition, formally abolished in Sicily only in 1782. The Beati Paoli are the best-known example of a secret society active - to some limited degree - against the Inquisition. Even if the Beati Paoli existed more in fantasy than in reality, their legend might have encouraged the development of other secret societies, such as the Mafia.

Freemasonry was never very powerful in Sicily, though freemasons (even aristocratic ones such as the counts Federico) were instrumental in aiding Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily in 1860. Though the Mafia had no direct links to freemasonry, the movement may have served as an indirect influence, even if it was not a model.

The Sicilian Vespers probably involved a pro-Swabian (and anti-Angevin) conspiracy planned by John of Procida. Although a few early Mafiosi of the eighteenth century may have known of this historical event (which occurred in 1282) there is no evidence of any direct continuity leading from thirteenth century politics to anything like the Mafia.

Sicily's social culture itself fed the Mafia. Political favours were normal and corruption was commonplace. So was extortion and perjury. To this day, raccomandazioni (preferments) are the norm for anybody seeking a job in the public sector or, more often than not, the private one. The Mafia was not a cause of Sicily's social problems so much as a reflection or symptom of them.

It is often observed that other regions in southern Italy have criminal organisations similar to the Mafia. The Camorra of Naples is the best-known and, like the Mafia, was formerly organised along geographical lines rather than, strictly speaking, familial ones. However, the Ndrangheta of nearby Calabria differs from the Mafia in that its organisation is primarily familial (more about this later). Only early the nineteenth century did the Mafia become a loose network of criminal clans covering the entire island; before then it was a localised, if widespread, phenomenon - more a kind of rustic criminality rather than a specific organisation having a highly-sophisticated structure and hierarchy. The "Cupola" was a centralised concept based on the Americans' "commission" and introduced following the Second World War. Before Calogero Vizzini, who emerged as something akin to its leader only following the war and died in 1954, the Mafia did not have a distinct apex of power overseeing the numerous local mafias. Then came the Cupola, a kind of governing council.

Compared to organised crime elsewhere, such as Japan's Yakuza, the Mafia was never very ritualistic. The quaint practice of an inductee bleeding from a finger onto a burning holy card while reciting a simplified "oath" is neither universal nor very old. Unlike members of the Yakuza, Mafiosi do not tattoo themselves or manifest any outward signs of their association. In fact, contrary to popular belief, many live without much ostentation or conspicuous consumption. Even before the 1980s, when Italy finally began to rein them in, Mafiosi and their associates were unlikely to be seen driving Ferraris or living in palatial homes; that lifestyle was preferred by the politicians who dealt with the Mafia but were not formally part of it as "made men" (called uomini d'onore in Italy). This is not to suggest a quasi-monastic asceticism, just practical discretion. Calogero Vizzini oversaw the Sicilian Mafia's commission for a number of years but lived quite simply despite his corpulence (he was short and stout, residing in the interior where people consumed much meat and cheese).

Two myths should be dispelled. The first concerns the Sicilian Mafia purely as a form of gangsterism. In the United States the Mafia, Comorra and "Black Hand" evolved during Prohibition into the organisation exemplified by the leadership of Al Capone and immigrants such as Charles "Lucky" Luciano. In Italy the Mafia, at least initially, was more subtle than its American incarnation, though no less inclined toward murder. Given its historical roots, it enjoyed more intimate links to politics and the very fabric of society.

Then there's the "Mafia Family" myth. Cinematic depictions present the Mafia as a family-based organisation because it was largely so in America and because - even in Sicily - it is not too unusual for the son of a Mafioso to follow in his father's criminal footsteps. In general, however, the Sicilian Mafia cosche (clans) are geographical rather than familial, based on localities (Corleone), quasi-urban districts (San Lorenzo and Villabate bordering Palermo) or specific urban ones (Porta Nuova and Brancaccio within Palermo). Zones of influence rarely overlap geographically as they might in New York or Chicago. True, a certain father-and-son team, such as the Lo Piccolos of San Lorenzo, may operate at the summit of their clan for a while, but their geographical area of influence is not a hereditary fiefdom.

It was fiefdoms, and more specifically feudalism, that spawned the Mafia, albeit gradually and indirectly. By 1700, most of the more important noble families who controlled "urban" fiefs (including towns as well as land) were spending ever more time in the larger cities (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Siracusa, Agrigento, Marsala) where political power was centred - particularly Palermo, which was the capital. In doing so, they left the day-to-day administration of their estates to others. There were several practical problems with this, apart from the obvious one of estate managers stealing from the "absentee landlords" who employed them.

Chief among the drawbacks was the question of justice. Not only did feudatories enjoy specific feudal rights (abolished with feudalism in 1812), some also had the authority to mete out justice for certain petty crimes (such as theft of sheep, poaching of game or encroachment of property). In delegating the everyday exercise of such authority to others (who may have been dishonest), the landholders were, in effect, permitting the local social landscape to change. Feudalism itself was already oppressive. Under corrupt local opportunists it became even more so.

Even the Church, which owned much territory, entrusted certain tasks to these estate managers, known colloquially as gabelloti (a gabella was a tax on produce sometimes correlated to a unit of farmland and some gabelloti were actually leaseholders). The gabelloto would hire farm workers (or foresters or cattlemen) and collect the taxes due the feudatory, typically a prince, duke, marquis or count; in Sicily barons were usually holders of smaller territories which did not include towns or villages.

Banditry was endemic, but in the gabelloti the bandits found willing accomplices. Lax law enforcement, along with Sicilians' natural distrust of authority, facilitated development of this parallel power structure. As the criminals enjoyed the cooperation of the corrupt gabelloti, who legally represented the landholders, there was little to be done. Most people accepted the status quo, being poor, illiterate and disenfranchised (they could not vote).

By way of example, let's say that a band of bandits stole a hundred sheep, perhaps at night (tying up the shepherd or whoever was tending the flock). Ransom might be more profitable than trying to resell the sheep to other shepherds or - over time - to various butchers (or dairymen or wool merchants) in neighbouring localities. While the sheep may belong to a smallholder, the pasturage was obviously owned by the feudatory and the sheep taxed as an asset (hence his indirect involvement in any transaction). Law enforcement was virtually absent (there were few constables or police) and the sheep owner might lack the funds to pay the ransom, so the gabelloti became involved by necessity.

In another scenario, cattle rustlers controlling their trade in a specific area might demand "protection money" from a shepherd who otherwise (if he did not pay) would have his sheep stolen. As the nobles were not present, having abdicated their responsibility to enforce the law, any response would have to come from the gabelloto, who more often than not was complicit in the crime, from which he expected a cash commission. Moreover, the gabelloto himself probably had his own band of hired thugs who could bully the local peasants (typically over 70% of the local population) into compliance if need be, though this was rare in practice. For example, the gabelotto could discourage demands for wage increases. The Church did little to oppose such practices because it too benefited from the peasantry's hard work at miserable wages.

Bad as this situation was, one particular aspect of feudalism made it worse. In the decades before the abolition of feudalism, certain gabelloti purchased feudal land, and with it feudal rights, authority and nobiliary titles. To this day, Sicilians - and aristocrats in particular - are understandably suspicious of barons ennobled in the decades immediately prior to 1812, when this practice ceased. (This is an academic issue today when titles of nobility are not recognised, but it was more important until 1948.) In the 1860s it was the gabelloti and rich bandits who bought much Church land (including that of monasteries) confiscated by the new regime installed under the King of Italy, and these estates entailed considerable power in the agrarian economy of the day even though their owners were not thereby ennobled.

Bandits and Mafiosi didn't dress too differently from anybody else. The ubiquitous coppola cap (shown here), which some people identify with Mafiosi or compliant peasants willing to collaborate with them, was introduced into Sicily only around 1800. A play, I Mafiusi della Vicaria, first performed in 1863, which described the Mafia as an organization complete with initiation rites, was one of the earliest literary references. The interpretation of Mafia history advocated by folk historian Giuseppe Pitré has been discounted as mere fantasy.

In the end, it was the nobility that created the conditions necessary for organised crime to flourish. At the national level, had tax revenue been invested in roads, police and schools, the bandits and gabelloti might have been brought under control. Into the twentieth century, it was convenient for both Church and State to ignore these deplorable conditions, and poor social conditions often breed crime. By then, the idea of omertà (literally "manhood") had become a collective code of silence; not until the 1960s did ordinary citizens even begin to think of reporting Mafia crimes. They simply could not trust the legal authorities to protect them from reprisals, and in some cases the police themselves were bought off.

Within a few decades of unification (1860) many of Sicily's small towns had four local power centres: the Church, the local nobleman (who might still be a prominent landholder entitled to collect rents but not taxes), the official political structure (the mayor and town council), the local "patriarch" or galantuomo (gentleman mafioso).

In fact, the galantuomo was a Mafioso or the prototype of one. He might not threaten or kill anybody himself, but he had a private "army" of thugs to do it for him. Ostensibly, his minions might themselves be land managers, performing other duties (murder or extortion) as needs be. The Mafia had been born. The phrase "cosa nostra" (literally "our thing") is an Americanism.

Its partial suppression came about only during the Fascist era, under Mussolini's "Iron Prefect," Cesare Mori. By then, however, the Mafia was effectively part of Sicilian culture and society. As the police and judges were unreliable - while the Mafia per se was not considered illegal or even recognised in law - organised crime gripped most of the economy. Fortunately, times have changed.

Our overview of the Mafia presents more current information.

About the Author: Filippo Spadafora is a Sicilian historian based in Rome. This article (like most of those in this online magazine) was translated from the Italian by our staff.

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© 2010 Filippo Spadafora and Best of Sicily