Laden-down and confused tourists, we arrived at Palermo central station on a quiet Thursday evening. We found the taxi rank, where a helpful concierge directed us to a taxi in the middle, a small surprise. We showed our apartment address to the driver and he got under way while chatting on his mobile. The route seemed very circuitous and the bill came to seventeen euros. Giving the driver the benefit of the doubt, I tipped him one euro. We found next day that the direct route was a mere three kilometres, which we later walked. The taxi concierge had directed us to his pal as specially plump victims. The driver also turbocharged his meter.
It’s small-scale stuff but part of the culture here: if it’s a tourist, fleece it. On the grand scale, the local mafia has dominated the place for a century, except for a bloody interlude in the 1980s when intruders from Corleone killed 1000 city rivals.
The mafia’s heyday was between 1950 and 1980, when it literally ran the place, selling parklands, school sites and clinics to builders of shoddy apartments. Remembering the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD, the locals here refer to the mafia’s “sack of Palermo”.
Mussolini saw the mafiosi as rivals and imprisoned hordes of them. The arrestees persuaded the invading Americans that they were the cruelly-treated anti-Fascist resistance, and were rewarded with government posts and mayordoms.
Lately, the mafia has been tapping funding from the European Commission. Robbing ratepayers is naughty, but who is the victim if a few billion euros of EC and World Bank funding vaguely dissolves in shabby Palermo projects? The Italian Foreign Ministry estimated this year that total Italian mafia turnover is 200 billion euros a year, compared with the EU budget of 140 billion. I have an image of the mafia as Danae, naked and with legs akimbo, being fertilised with showers of gold from the EC playing Zeus.
On Sunday evening we went to see Bellini’s Norma at Palermo’s opera house, the biggest in Europe behind Paris and Vienna. The acoustics were as good as claimed but the production director, a German, for some reason had updated Gaul’s Druidic struggle against the Romans to the 1960s, with men in suits armed with rifles and the hero in horn-rimmed glasses. Yawn.
The opera house shut in 1974 for some safety improvements, but thanks to mafia-augmented cost overruns and official red tape, the funds ran out, the roof leaked, and this magnificent place mouldered away for twenty years, finally reopening in 1997. Try imagining the Sydney Opera House as a spectacular ruin for twenty years.
Just north of the opera house is the Palace of Justice, a huge monolithic building flying the EC and Italian flags. Its site must have involved a hectare of slum clearance, and slums still border the precinct. The style? Mussolini would love it. The builders? Count in some mafia companies.
The mafia’s bread-and-butter business is protection money from business, called the pizzo, and unlike official taxes, payment is enforced from 80 per cent of Palermo businesses, who pay about 160 million euros a year. In 1991 a small business refusenik got three bullets in the head. Supermarkets in Palermo are also mafia-influenced, rather as if Coles shoppers were assisting the Bandidos while Woolies shoppers were being skimmed by the Comancheros.
In 2004 a group of five young graduates revolted against the pizzo and started a community-wide movement called “Addio Pizzo” (“Bye bye Pizzo”). Motto: “A whole people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity.” About 200 businesses have put up Addio Pizzo logos, seeking preferment from shoppers, rather like use of the “Australian made” logo. I didn’t notice any logos, but wasn’t looking out for them.
We were rubbernecking in the 900-year-old Palermo Cathedral, which is austere compared with the Baroque-run-riot style of some churches and the lurid gold-and-mosaic-encrusted palaces from the time when Palermo was one of the top four cities in Europe. The cathedral had the usual niches for long-dead saints and big-wigs. But in the middle of the south side was a modern niche with a brown marble tomb and educational signs and posters.
The tomb commemorated Father Giuseppe Puglisi, then fifty-six, who was shot in 1993 with a silenced pistol by a mafia hitman, Gaspare Spatuzza, for proselytising among youngsters in the slums where the mafia recruits its foot-soldiers. He also caused offence by refusing to let mafiosi “men of honour” march at the head of devotional processions, a long-standing Palermo tradition. Puglisi’s archbishop, Cardinal Ruffini, used to deny the mafia even existed: “So far as I know, it could be a brand of detergent,” he commented.
The assassination caused an uproar and, to some extent, forced the Church to stop pussy-footing around with the mafia, one edict ordering that not even a dead mafioso should be admitted to a church unless he had repented. Puglisi was beatified in May 2013 as “the first martyr of the mafia”.
We had another take on the problem when we went on an ill-starred expedition to the stunning Norman cathedral at Monreale, which crowns a steep hill about eight kilometres out of town. We waited an hour for the late bus and when we arrived all on the bus were tipped out at the foothill, without explanation even for the out-of-town Italian sightseers. It turned out that we needed to transfer to a mini-bus for the final stage. Anyway the cathedral lived up to its reputation of 1000 years and was covered with quaint mosaic versions of medieval-biblical life, with a Noah’s ark including peasants poking their heads out of the portholes. There had been some extensive renovations and I learnt later that the Bishop of Monreale, no less, had been indicted for siphoning renovation funds.
I was intrigued by a map reference to a piazza of the “Thirteen Victims” at the seafront end of Via Cavour, imagining these were mafia victims. On the way there to inspect, I noticed a placard outside a tobacco kiosk featuring a pig’s head and a header (translated): “New Mafia, Old Horrors”. It took me a while to work out that it was a Palermo magazine, and I bought a copy for three euros, which turned out to be good value for ninety-eight pages of anti-mafia stories by a gutsy editorial crew. Strangely, the production was as glossy as Marie Claire, and with twenty pages of full-colour ads from equally gutsy businesses. (The first ad, I’m embarrassed to report, featured the “F**k Boredom” fashion label, and used unexpurgated English.) Contents were a montage of anti-corruption and mobster exposés, with plenty of incriminating scanned documents, portraits of malefactors and leaked cop-photos of homicide crime scenes. It seems that the mafia is no longer willing to enter the glare of publicity by bumping off respectable and prominent opponents—clerics and, dare I say, journalists—and instead diverts its energies into lucrative white-collar crime. The magazine has been coming out monthly for seven years. Notwithstanding some of our local unions, I can’t see Melbourne supporting a 100-page monthly of crime and corruption exposés.
When I got to the Thirteen Victims piazza, I headed for the old-fashioned monument on my right, in a patch of weeds, untended shrubs and junk. I felt a bit indignant, but zooming in for a photo I discovered that the victims were executed there in 1860 as revolutionaries by Bourbon soldiers, not mafiosi. My tunnel vision had distracted me from a red-rusted steel tower four storeys tall in the centre of the roundabout, within a neat sea of grass. The script (translated) read, “To the fallen in the fight against the mafia”.
I couldn’t get up close because the park was railed off, but I noticed a wreath against the railing on the other side. I went around and found the flowers were real, not plastic, probably put there the day before. There was a picture of a bloke in a white suit with his baby-blue Fiat and a three-word message translating to “You are our life” but no name or detail. Weirdly, his original pork-pie-type hat was literally spiked on the fence. My wife later suggested that it was an anniversary of his murder.
An open-decked red tourist bus went past and I watched to see if anyone turned towards the steel tower. No one did. Clearly this was not featured on the pretty-Palermo commentary.
Right behind and alongside the waterfront were several lumps of what was left of a big castle, set in a paddock. This had been a complete-ish castle with a fine history of repelling invaders, until 1922 when the port authority on a whim knocked it down for some project that never eventuated. The paddock is now in use for hideously amplified night music entertainments, which we suffered that night at our flat twelve blocks away.
Back at central station, our scheduled train had become fictional. I can’t believe that even Mussolini made the Italian trains run on time.