In the center of Palermo’s old city, I was struck by the doors of a 19th century home hung with a blue banner proclaiming resolute opposition to the mafia. I wondered about the story behind it, as Palermo is the home of the Sicilian Mafia, who call themselves “Cosa Nostra” (our thing).
Walking farther on subsequent days, we encountered exhibits demonstrating the determination of Palermo to rid itself of the mafia. They are part of Manifesta 12, Europe’s most important biennial contemporary art exhibition. It coincides with the designation of Palermo as the capital of Italian culture for 2018.
The city is waging a campaign against the mob whose lethal grip for decades took over much of the government and compelled the city’s merchants, industries, and citizens to pay tribute.
During the 1980s, the judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino prosecuted hundreds of Cosa Nostra members in what was known as the Maxi Trial, the largest mafia court case in history. Four hundred and seventy-five mafiosi were brought to court and 346 were found guilty. In 1992, both Falcone and Borsellino were martyred in revenge killings. They became heroes whose names are known everywhere in Italy. Palermo’s airport, for example, is named after them. They are portrayed life-size in majolica at the entrance to one of the anti-mafia monuments.
Borsellino’s scroll notes, “The fearful die every day. The fearless die only once.”
Falcone’s says, “Men die, but their moral convictions remain, and they will continue to walk on the legs of other men.”
Under Sicily’s emblem is Goethe’s 1817 tribute, “Italy without Sicily leaves no impression at all on the spirit. It is in Sicily that one finds the key to everything.”
I had been in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, but I had never felt so afraid as I did in Palermo during those years…. I had to watch my back all the time. You found the mafiosi everywhere, on the streets, in the shops, in the banks. It felt like a curfew was in place, there wasn’t a single cafe where you could sit at a table in the evening.
But the two murders marked a turning point. Thousands of Palermitani went into the streets to protest the killings and bombings. In 1993, an anti-mafia mayor was elected by 75 percent of the voters. New laws, harsher penalties and prison conditions made the mafiosi’s lives much more difficult. More than 4,000 mafiosi have been arrested in the ensuing years. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Palermo until 1998.
The city’s architecture reflects the mafia’s malevolence. Cosa Nostra took over the construction business and subsequently went on a building spree. Backed by their politicians, the mafia tore down beautiful art nouveau mansions and replaced them with ugly blocks of colorless apartment buildings. They ruined the beaches with rubble from the demolitions. It has been called the “sack of Palermo.”
With help from the government, Palermo’s citizens were able to invest in restorations of beautiful buildings that had been abandoned since they were bombed in World War II. In the last 25 years, more than 60 percent of Palermo’s historic buildings have been renovated.
In addition, a part of the funds and property (an estimated €30 billion) that were confiscated with the arrests of the mafia bosses has been used to create about 800 new social, environmental and cultural spaces for the city.
This 18th-century building houses an exhibit of Manifesta, a video of plaques and memorials placed on the spots where victims of the mafia were assassinated.
In the heart of the old city is another installation that is part of Manifesta. It represents the continuing war against the mafia and commemorates the mafia’s victims. Gianfranco Meggiato has created “an ode to the defense of the values of life and culture. It is the Spiral of Life, as opposed to the spiral of death, which seems to dominate in today’s society.” (explanatory sign)
The 2,000 burlap bags of which it is made are “sacks of memory,” each stamped with the name of a victim murdered by the mafia, Borsellino and Falcone among them. It was inaugurated on the anniversary of the massacre of Borsellino with five of his escorts.
Today Palermo is regaining its old splendor and the mafia is in decline. Art is winning and corruption is losing.