By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
How the word Mafia got its modern meaning.
In Palermo, Sicily, in 1862 a young and penniless playwright, Gaspare Mosca, and the actor Giuseppe Rizzotto wrote and brought to the stage a play set in the new prison of the city, the Ucciardone. This production would serve to popularize the Sicilian word Mafia and to change its traditional meaning from positive to negative.
Gaspare Mosca was a political dissident during the period when the Spanish Bourbons controlled Sicily. He participated in the revolution of 1848, when the Sicilians sought to throw out the foreign government. A wanted man, Mosca fled from the Bourbon police by joining a traveling troupe of actors that toured through Italian towns. After Garibaldi invaded Sicily, in 1860, Mosca served under arms for two years. Returning to Palermo in 1862, he joined the theatrical company at the Sant'Anna playhouse. There he met Giuseppe Rizzotto, called Pepè.
Rizzotto introduced Mosca to the playhouse publicist, Gioacchino D'Angelo, AKA Jachinu Funcinazza. As Mosca later recalled, "D'Angelo had spent half his life in prison. His criminal skills were so esteemed by the other inmates that he soon became their leader. He carried a deep scar on his cheek of which he was quite proud."
D'Angelo suggested to the two men that they write a farcical play with a prison setting. He would supply a vocabulary of the inmate argot to give to the scenes an immediate realism.
A script was drafted with the working title "La vicaria di Palermo." (Vicaria meant in this sense the prison.) But that title was soon to change.
"At that time in Palermo," Mosca recalled, "there was the habit of calling something out of the ordinary that caught the eye and was deemed favorable or challenging as a mafiusu. About a bright tie, nicely knotted, one would say mafiusa. Of a well-rounded belly (indicating health and prosperity) one would say mafiusu. The same could be said of an elegant suit, the sparkling eyes of a charming girl, a beautiful head of hair, or a saucy hat. A mafiusu was man with a particular gift of courage or enterprise; for a woman, she represented a perfect femininity. In sum, the term signified a characteristic of a person that revealed a notable difference, a boldness, an impudence."
The term entered Mosca's thoughts one day when while walking the streets. He encountered two men arguing who were about to come to blows. One exclaimed to the other in a challenging fashion, "Varrissi fari u' mafiusu cu mia?" (You want to make like a mafioso with me?)
This heated exchange sparked an idea in Mosca's mind. He immediately hurried to Rizzotto's house. "Pepè, we gotta change the title of the play. Let's call the inmates mafiusi."
Thus was launched "I mafiusi di la vicaria di Palermo." The play gained a huge success during several performances throughout Italy, and inspired other playwrights to develop similar productions.
Mosca and Rizzotto created these mafiusi. They brought out of the cocoon of popular Sicilian culture the terms mafia and mafioso, introducing them to general public, and giving them the sinister significance that they have today. The play brought together the myths and realities of Sicilian life by forming a legend of a sect of men "forced" by circumstances to search for justice in the illusion that they were participating in a noble "social protest," which was to burst its bounds and get out of hand.
At the same time of the play's success the Italian government began its initial investigations of crime in Sicily. Needing a collective noun to refer to the phenomenon, the word mafia was readily at hand. The first use of the word was in a government report in 1865 in Palermo. The legend and the word diffused outward from there.
The celebrated Sicilian folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè was among those not amused by this development because it implicated Mafia as the bedrock, the driving force, of Sicilian popular culture. The two, he contended, were not one and the same. Furthermore, he accused Mosca and Rizzotto of the degeneration of the word, concluding with a certain deep resentment that "the expression had been a good and innocent one, but now it represents bad things. Before, mafia meant beauty, attractiveness, perfection, boldness, graciousness, and excellence. Now, its meaning had been so corrupted any definition is impossible."
By the time the word entered the Italian language in the 1890s the original, more innocent meanings had become completely lost. In an 1893 Italian dictionary we find this definition: "MAFI A. Name of a secret organization in Sicily that has as its aim to achieve profits through illicit means."
That the word predated the 1800s there can be no doubt. Leonardo Sciascia discovered that in "the roster of those reconciled by an Act of Faith celebrated in 1658…the word Maffia was the nickname of a sorceress of Catarina la Licatina, also called Maffua."
The avenging monks. There has been much speculation about the origins of the Mafia. Some have gone back to the 13th century marked by the Sicilian Vespers. The Sicilian Vespers was a rebellion against the French domination of the island. It began on Easter Monday in 1282. Others date the movement from the 1600s and 1700s or as late as the 19th century.
One intriguing sect in the 1600s that deserves mentioning was dedicated to social protest in response to the excesses of the Inquisition in Sicily, the Beati Paoli (The Blessed People.) This lay confraternity was composed of men from many walks of life who belonged to the congregation of San Francisco di Paola. They were more interested in secular affairs than in the Kingdom of God.
The Beati Paoli was opposed to the abuse of authority. The secret sect members regarded themselves as agents of political and community justice. They were the alternative to what was considered a lack of fairness and much corruption in the legitimate sociopolitical order. Wronged women would be avenged, dishonest officials punished. They would move stealthily in the dark of night dressed as monks in black-hooded San Franciscan cloaks, spreading fear and violence throughout Palermo. The Beati Paoli would gather in underground passages to hear evidence and to render verdicts. At midnight they would sally forth to execute the sentences.
Too little is known of the Beati Paoli to suggest a definite connection historically to the traditional Sicilian Mafia. But there are some interesting parallels between these "men of honor." Novels have included references to the cult. Here is an excerpt from one set in Palermo: "Her friend, full of anger, took her by the throat, in the middle of their walk, and beat her more than the Beati Paoli."
Copyright © 1998 - 2004 PLR International