The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)

Al Pacino as Mike Corleone in Godfather part II

Al Pacino as Mike Corleone in Godfather part II. Click for credits

The theme of the Mafia has come out in many discussions. While reading up on it I was surprised how well the Mafia seems to fit into the topics of this blog.

Here just a few notes freely based 1) on the book Padrini, by Roberto Olla, Mondadori 2003, Milano [translated into English with the title Godfathers], and 2) on the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

Men of Respect, Intelligent and Cynical

The word “Don” is used in Italian when referring to a priest or to an aristocrat. A godfather is in fact a man of respect. He is an aristocrat of crime, a prince of evil, no matter his appearance or his clothes – this may be one reason why Hollywood movie-goers have found the Mafiosi so attractive.

One common mistake – argues Roberto Olla – is in fact that of considering the Mafiosi as simple gunmen to defeat. Don Vito Cascio Ferro had no guns. He was one of the first godfathers who operated both in Sicily and in the United States. His force lay in his cynicism and intelligence and in the network he was able to create thanks to well ingrained traditions. He distributed favori, favours, to everybody, but something was asked in return.

In short, mafia had/has history. How a Mafia network was / is built is well expressed by Mario Puzo in The Godfather:

“Don Vito Corleone [Puzo’s fictitious character] was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promise (…) Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship. And then, no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man’s troubles to his heart (…) His reward? Friendship, the respectful title of “Don” (…) some humble gift – a gallon of home-made wine etc.
It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.”

This network implied protection, various forms of exchange but also ruthless exploitation (for example the pizzo or protection money one could not escape).

Sicily, a photograph from the Nasa Multimedia Gallery

Sicily, a photograph from the Nasa Multimedia Gallery

Long centuries of oppression or absence of the state had favoured in Sicily a kind of anti-state or alternative organization. The American police officers and the ‘nordic’ Italian state found themselves unprepared – Olla continues.

Focusing on America, “the US policemen were searching in the underworld. But it was in the upper world that they should have searched. They should have searched among the ‘similar’ and not the ‘unlike’, since those men came from an ancient culture.”

How to Face Aliens From an Ancient World?

Let us try to better understand. America at that time – Olla observes – distinguished between the good guys and the bad guys, and reacted severely to the latter. When though meeting the ‘men of respect’ the US found themselves facing unheard-of souls. They were unprepared when fighting these mafiosi who were too similar to the people from the upper world. It was not a matter of jacket and tie or of wearing a social mask.

“It was a blend of morality and immorality which produced people able to commit the most ferocious crimes and, at the same time, to show respect for religion. People capable to plan a massacre while in everyday life they defended the good principles and healthy traditions.”

An unheard-of humanity? Well, my readers know well what I mean: we are dealing here in my opinion with alien moral codes stemming from pre-Christian, Greco-Roman antiquity, something more or less unknown to [more truly Christian] northern Europe where the American culture mostly came from.

The mafioso had to be seen – as  Giovanni Falcone, a famous Sicilian magistrate killed by the mafia in 1992, once said – like the old sage who administered justice sitting under the big oak tree in the name of a non-existent state.

The Irish had no Chance

“Morality and immorality, respect and abuse, honour and violence.” When the Italian and the Irish organized crime faced each other in the American ports [Olla, again], the latter didn’t have any chance, regardless of the many advantages the Irish had had – they had migrated earlier, they spoke the language, and some of them were perfectly integrated: Irish crime had to face a more ancient and mysterious culture.

Surprise attacks, great speed and extreme determination in their raids – behind the big godfathers I remember Mario Puzo flashing the shadow of the Roman emperors [imperatores], with their ruthlessness and organization. It is exaggerated, but certainly the Mafia the Americans had to fight had already in its genes some formidable military qualities, among the rest.

Different from the Irish is the case of the Jewish criminals, some of which (like Meyer Lansky associated with Lucky Luciano) well integrated themselves into the Italian Mafia (due to their common Mediterranean origins? It is tempting to think so.)

Joseph Petrosino, a New York City police officer and pioneer in the fight against Mafia

Joseph Petrosino, a New York City police officer, pioneer in the fight against the Mafia (1860 – 1909)

It is not by chance that the first serious blows to the Mafia were given by Italians, like the police officer Joe Petrosino and many others, who were able to understand the intricacies of the Italian mind.

Related posts and blog themes:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)
A Cultural Battle
The Mafia and the Italian Mind. Was Julius Caesar a Godfather? (3)

Is The Human Mind Like a Museum?
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Traces of Paganism in Italians

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