Sicily and the Friend of the Friends (Mafia)
Sicily is synonymous with the Friends of the Friends, yet once you visit the Island you are highly unlikely to encounter anyone or anything akin to the legendary Mafia or even hear the word spoken by a Sicilian.
The word Mafia is one which boasts many different meanings; one interpretation is that it is derived from the Arabic word mu’afa which means safety or protection – an explanation given credibility by Mario Puzo in his The Godfather.
While the Mafia clearly played a huge role in shaping the Sicily we see today, the story of a bandit chieftain, Salvatore Giuliano and his trusted Gaspare Pisciotta is much more interesting.
Salvatore Giuliano – The Sicilian
Salvatore Giuliano was immortalised by Mario Puzo in his work, The Sicilian, and the author treats the bandit chief as some sort of anti-hero, fighting against the establishment and the Mafia and giving to the poor.
It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the romantic notion which Puzo paints of Giuliano, his film star good looks, bravado, daring and Robin Hood-like treatment of the poor. But all these qualities overlook the harsh reality of Giuliano as a ruthless bandit.
A more realistic description of Salvatore Giuliano is given by Norman Lewis, one of the most authoritative writers on Sicily and the author of numerous books about the fabled isle.
Lewis in his impressive work, The Honoured Society – The Sicilian Mafia Observed, describes Salvatore Giuliano’s early life, how he became a bandit and his role in the Sicilian separatist movement.
Salvatore Giuliano – The King of Montelepre
The story of Salvatore Giuliano began in the small town of Montelepre on 16 November 1922 where he was born to Salvatore and Maria Giuliano, their fourth child.
On my visit to Montelepre in September 2010, it was easy to imagine the narrow cobbled streets are the same as the ones Giuliano played in as a child, with fewer cars of course.
Salvatore Giuliano was to rise up from the streets to become ‘The King of Montelepre’. Lewis evocatively describes Montelepre as a ‘small, mean, poverty-stricken town, lodged like the cells of a cancer in the flanks of the mountains of north-western Sicily’.
The town lies less than 15 miles from Palermo but in a sense, it is a lot further than that, behind Montelepre lays the desert aches, akin to a sundried African landscape.
Well to the north, the plains which stretch to Palermo are lush with vegetation, for in Sicily it’s all about water rights and the Mafia control those.
It was in the mountains which dominate Montelepre where Giuliano, just two months shy of his twenty-first birthday, on 2 September 1943, left his old life behind and became Sicily’s most wanted outlaw.
Giuliano, along with his best friend Pisciotta, was involved in the black market smuggling trade during wartime Sicily. And it was on one of these smuggling trips that the pair encountered a police (Carabinieri) checkpoint.
The pair was challenged to give up their illegal goods but for some reason they resisted and Giuliano was shot twice trying to escape but not before he returned fire killing one of the policemen.
The Carabinieri were able to identify Giuliano because in the young man’s haste to escape he left his ID papers behind.
So Salvatore Giuliano and Pisciotta escaped to the mountains in which they spent much of their youth and the legend of the bandit chieftain was born.
Salvatore Giuliano early life and the Sicilian Separatist Movement
The rise of a Sicilian separatist movement may seem like a side story to the tale of Giuliano but he was heavily feted and believed strongly in the idea of Sicily seceding from Italy.
The story of the separatist movement, which bizarrely included the idea of making Sicily the fifty-first state of the USA, and the putdown of the communist menace in Sicily – Giuliano was involved in it all.
Giuliano was a prolific letter writer, using his notoriety to plead his case and galvanise the poor in letters published in the Sicilian and Italian newspapers, who were only too happy to reprint them as they relished the bandit’s feats, perhaps even more than the poor.
Giuliano’s role in the Sicilian Separatists’ movement was a simple one – he wanted power and he wanted an official pardon for his growing list of crimes.
Cocetto Gallo, commander-in-chief of the Separatists, met Giuliano in the bandit’s mountain stronghold and formally offered him command of the Separatists’ guerrilla forces in western Sicily.
In return, Giuliano would receive a free pardon and a high government post in the new Sicilian State.
Interestingly, as Lewis notes, Giuliano was handed, by Gallo, a badge showing a map of Italy and America with two US soldiers, one in the act of cutting the chain linking with Sicily with Italy, the other chaining Sicily to America.
This was created purely for Giuliano’s benefit because of his known belief that Sicilian separatism could not prevail without military support from America.
Salvatore Giuliano and the Massacre of Portella Della Ginestra
Giuliano saw his role as a protector of the people but he also demonstrated a ruthless side. Common criminals, the ones who did not have the good fortune to be a member of Giuliano’s band, were punished with death.
One criminal was executed for taking a farmer’s cattle because stealing from the poor was a cardinal sin to Giuliano. Given his self-appointed role as protector of the poor, Giuliano’s hatred of communism was a little strange. The poor had the most to benefit from communism in terms of land distribution; the chance to work their own land is something that had mass appeal to the poor of Sicily.
However Giuliano did not see it that way, he viewed communism as a godless practice and one that had to be stopped at all costs. This belief led to the events which came to overshadow the rest of Giuliano’s life -the May massacre of Portella della Ginestra.
“We have to go into action against the communists; we’ve got to go and shoot them up on May 1st at Portella della Ginestra,” said Salvatore Giuliano in 1947.
The May Day procession to Portella della Ginestra 1947 was supposed to one of celebration, for the peasants had voted overwhelmingly for land reform and the communists were ready to deliver on that promise.
The peasants, however, were to suffer for their perceived betrayal when, on Giuliano’s orders, his band of outlaws massacred the crowd, killing 11 and wounding 55.
Giuliano took the blame for the massacre but insisted he hadn’t wanted to kill anyone, he merely wanted to fire over their heads to signal his displeasure at the peasant’s support of the communists.
The myth of the Sicilian Robin Hood was exploded in the massacre and Salvatore Giuliano lost the support of the people he depended on the most, the poor.
The Sicilian Robin Hood’s Death
Salvatore Giuliano’s life was to end 5 July 1950, just before the trial of his captured men was due to start.
So the life and times of Salvatore Giuliano came to an end, the blow struck by his best friend and trusted lieutenant Pisciotta. Shakespeare couldn’t have told a more tragic story.