On Sunday Ideas ran a story by scholar Diego Gambetta about a newly discovered, encrypted document that details the secret initiation ceremony of the mob. It makes mob culture out to be every bit as cloaked and idiosyncratic as you'd hope (absent witnesses to the initiation rite are symbolized by knotted handkerchiefs).
A few years earlier Gambetta gave an interview with the website Five Books that was full of more strange, and strangely scintillating, facts about the mob. In discussing his five favorite mob books, which included a pair of histories and a book-length interview with the most important Mafiosi to turn state's witness, Gambetta dropped a number of mob trivia gems: how the mob developed as a protection racket out of the lawlessness of the post-feudal years in 18th century Italy; how a jack of spades dropped at your doorstep means mind your own business (and the queen of spades means something much worse); and how the mob has assassinated one dogged, anti-mafia judge after another.
One particularly important factoid from the interview is that the term "mafia" dates to the mid 1800s and is likely derived from the Italian word for "thug." The etymology is a reminder, as Gambetta points out, that real-life mobsters are less shadow princes like Don Corleone, and more Tony Soprano-style street toughs.
You can read the whole interview here.
An interview with...
Diego Gambetta on The Sicilian Mafia
About Diego Gambetta
Diego Gambetta is a professor of sociology and fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. He is best known for his book on the Mafia, The Sicilian Mafia: the Business of Private Protection, which also formed the basis for a dataset on the Mafia. His other books include Making Sense of Suicide Missions and, most recently, Codes of the Underworld. In it, he uses the insights of signalling theory to show how criminals manage to establish trust and achieve brand recognition.
By Leopoldo Franchetti
You’ve written a book about the Sicilian Mafia yourself. Given the subject matter, to what extent is this a dangerous activity? Are you putting your own life at risk?
It’s possible, yes! But since the beginning of the 1980s quite a lot of information has become available thanks to much more vigorous action by law enforcement agencies. So there are a lot of sources that you can read through and interpret in the comfort of your own room, without exposing yourself to any danger. But I did spend a year in Sicily in 1987, and those were extremely tense times, when the so-called Maxi Trial was happening and Judge Giovanni Falcone managed to indict 459 alleged Mafia members. And I was very, very careful, as you can imagine. My story was that I was researching informal dispute settlement – how did people manage to trust one another, or find ways to settle their disputes, in an informal way? I never said that I was specifically studying the Sicilian Mafia. If you go to Palermo and say, “I’m researching the Mafia,” they laugh a lot. First of all they laugh a lot, and then they kill you. Some of the things that happened to me – which, by the way, gave me an indication of just how subtle with communication Mafiosi can be – are described in my new book Codes of the Underworld. It’s real cloak-and-dagger stuff, like leaving a Neapolitan card, the Jack of Spades, on my doorstep. Which apparently in Southern Italy means something like, “Nosy fellow, should mind his own business.” Fortunately it was not the Queen of Spades. That represents death.
Your first recommendation, The Merchants of Violence, you describe as a classic 19th-century study of the Sicilian Mafia. Why did you choose this particular one?
I chose it because I think it is by far the sharpest early investigation of the Mafia. In 1875 Franchetti, the author, and a friend of his called Sidney Sonnino traveled around Sicily, and came up with a report on the conditions there, which was in two volumes. The one that was written by Franchetti was about the Mafia, which, incidentally, only got that name in 1863. Before that the Mafia wasn’t known as a collective entity. And one thing that Franchetti understood is that the Mafia’s origins were not to be sought in the remnants of feudalism, but, rather, should be seen as a consequence of the end of feudalism.
In what way?
Feudal laws had been repealed in 1812, which meant that there was a very fast increase in private property in the years following. People began to break up the big baronial and Church lands, to trade land, and private property began to appear. At the same time, another commodity was released on the open market: the armed guards that used to work for the feudal barons. They found themselves without jobs, as it were. And Franchetti understood that there began to be a market for their ability to use violence, mostly in connection with settling disputes. Those disputes arose from the fact that private property had emerged, without proper state institutions; property rights without customs that allow people to know how to handle property. So with the diffusion of land and property, there was also a diffusion of conflict. The different governments that succeeded each other before Italian unification didn’t provide sufficient governance so an informal form of governance began to appear.
Let’s go on to Cose di Cosa Nostra by Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated by the Mafia in 1992.
Falcone was a Sicilian judge who did a tremendous amount of effective investigative work on the Mafia, with a level of knowledge, competence and energy that had not been seen before. And although he was then ultimately assassinated by the Mafia, he did manage to shift entirely the attitude of the Italian state towards the Mafia. So while it’s sad that he was assassinated, he most certainly did not die in vain.
Do you mean that before Falcone the Italian government thought: “We can’t do anything about the Mafia, let’s just leave it,” and afterwards they were proactive in going after them?
One thing Falcone tried to change, was to say: “We can’t continue to investigate this phenomenon by looking at each individual crime. We have to understand that the way in which the judiciary is organized in Italy – where each crime is investigated within the judicial district in which it occurs – doesn’t really fit well with this phenomenon, because this is an organization and we have to centralize the investigation, link the crimes across districts and we have to convict people simply because they belong to this organization.” Which is a difficult thing to say, from a liberal point of view. But given the situation, it was virtually the only effective solution that the Italian state could take. And that has become the practice now. Because the last thing Falcone did was to create a central anti-Mafia agency, which is still functioning today and has had a devastating effect on the Mafia. Most of the big Mafiosi are now in jail or dead.
There is a sentence in Falcone’s book that I particularly liked. He says: “We have to learn to think about the methods of Cosa Nostra calmly and with an open mind.” And that’s exactly what he did. He tried to understand the entity. And he managed to persuade Tommaso Buscetta, the first big Mafioso to turn state witness, to speak. Up to that point many people, including scholars, didn’t believe the Mafia existed as a formal organization. Falcone managed to understand how it functioned, the importance of language, the role of violence, the role of internal norms. Also, the fact it was – or what remains of it still is – a very well organized institution. It has lasted more than 150 years – so after the Catholic Church it’s the longest-lasting institution in Italy!
Tell us about the Salvatore Lupo book, The History of the Mafia.
Lupo picked up where Franchetti left off. By exploring, in great detail, lots of historical sources, starting in the 19th century, he continues to show how the Mafia was an integral part of the new market society – rather than a remnant from a feudal era. And he gives ample and detailed illustrations of how it developed. Obviously Lupo is fighting a very difficult battle, writing the history of an organization that denied its own existence. The Mafia doesn’t have written statutes – or anything written in fact – on which you can construct anything. But as far as the history of the context in which the Mafia grew and developed, it is certainly the best available study that we have.
What years is he covering?
He starts in 1863, that is the date the ‘thing’ got a name. It was in that year, in a public prosecution document, that the name “Mafia” appeared. It’s not clear what it was derived from, probably from the word Mafioso or Mafiusu, meaning thug or thuggish character in Sicilian dialect. So he starts somewhat arbitrarily and, strangely for a historian, he doesn’t really go into its origins. But he goes up to very recent times – up to early 1990s. So he covers the whole range in great detail, and it gets better as the sources get better, naturally.
Your last two books are about personalities – and two very different viewpoints. Tell us about the Men of Dishonor: Inside the Sicilian Mafia.
This book is an interview with Antonino Calderone, probably the most interesting of the important Mafiosi who turned state witness. And you really get a very good account of what these people did and how they organize, and why they fought with each other and what kind of reasoning they go through in making their decisions, and how they make a living. So you get a first-hand account of that. And his confession, in its entirety, is tremendously interesting.
What about your last book, La Mafia in Casa Mia? It hasn’t been translated into English yet, but there has been a film made about the story, I Cento Passi, which has English subtitles.
This is a very, very sad story. It’s about a woman whose son was killed by a Mafioso called Gaetano Badalamenti. And both the family of this woman and Gaetano Badalamenti were from the same Sicilian town, Cinisi. The son was called Giuseppe (Peppino) Impastato. Peppino was killed in 1978 on the same day that the body of Aldo Moro, the kidnapped Italian prime minister, was found in Rome. So the story was completely neglected by the media. Peppino was a very Leftist, militant young man, and he was killed because he was running a local radio station on which he was revealing a lot of facts about the Mafia, and also making fun of Mafiosi and the politicians who colluded with them. So the Mafia simulated a terrorist accident: they tied Peppino up on a railway line and put dynamite under his body and blew him up. And the conclusion of the first inquest is that Peppino had been trying to carry out a terrorist attack and made a mistake and killed himself. Then there was a movement of people who worked very hard to review the case, until they succeeded in getting a conviction of the Cinisi Mafia boss, Gaetano Badalamenti. And the book is an interview with the mother, who was a poorly educated woman who came from a Mafia family and also married into a Mafia family. But as a result of her son’s death she disowned them publicly. It is a gruelling story, but you see the world from her point of view, you see how things happen, you see the kind of roles that Mafiosi play in their lives.
It just sounds heart-breaking. But on an optimistic note you feel the Italian authorities have made real progress in the fight against the Mafia.
Absolutely, it’s a whole new world. Pietro Grasso, the judge who is now in charge of the anti-Mafia agency, is an extremely able and determined man. There has been a long line of judges and anti-Mafia officials. When the Mafia killed one, the next one would pop up, saying, “I have to make good the sacrifice of my predecessor!” This started in 1979 with the assassination of Judge Cesare Terranova. And then it went on. They assassinated Chinnici, and Dalla Chiesa took up the fight and was killed. Then you had Falcone and Borsellino. They were assassinated and others took over.
For many people their entire knowledge of the Mafia is based on seeing The Godfather, so it can seem like a rather glamorous organization. But my impression from your book Codes of the Underworld is that a lot of this organized crime in Italy is far from glamorous, it’s all rather petty.
And brutal. But that doesn’t mean it’s run by fools. They are interesting behaviorally, it’s an extreme test case of what humans are capable of. But certainly The Godfather did manage to glamorize their behavior and gave them a sense that they were not so petty, they were not so marginal, that they were not only uncouth hoodlums – but that there was a story of some universal value in what they did. Which is of course untrue. But it did have a tremendous impact on these guys