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The Setting: Sicily before the Mafia
On July 20, 1943, the first Allied convoys rolled down the Monreale road into Palermo. They were part of the force that had landed ten days earlier on Sicily's south coast in what was to remain until the Normandy invasions a year later the largest amphibious landing in military history. Eisenhower had wished to take no chances; even though the Italian army had caused him few problems in North Africa, he was worried that here, on "Italian soil," resistance might stiffen. Indeed, the Allied advance was, on occasion, resisted by northern Italian units, usually fighting alongside German battalions. Yet the bulk of the Italian forces in Sicily consisted of Sicilians, and few of them offered any sort of resistance at all. Instead, many threw down their arms and welcomed the Allies.
Soon the Allied military police had their hands full just keeping order. In town after town, the population rose up, sacking government buildings, opening jails, and burning land and tax registers. Peasants broke into the abandoned army camps and military deposits, carting away whatever they could find. An estimated 150,000 refugees from Palermo had taken shelter from the Allied aerial bombardments by hiding in cellars, barracks, and grottos around Monreale in the hills southwest of the city. When the columns appeared, they were greeted rapturously by these refugees bearing oranges, lemons, melons, and flowersthe only foods available at the time. "I don't like it," General Patton remarked, perplexed at finding cheeringcrowds where he had expected to see barricades and snipers' nests. "These people are crazy."
The crowd that welcomed the Anglo-American troops improvised banners, hand-painted Stars and Stripes and Union Jacks. Yet from the windows, yellow or yellow and white scarves also appeared. These were the colors of Sicily. Far from considering the Allies invaders of "Italian soil," the crowds were saluting them as the liberators of "terra Sicula." The Allies would be welcomed in Naples and Rome during the following year, but never in quite the same fashion. In July 1943, the Sicilians were not only demonstrating that they were tired of fascism, the war, and the German occupation; they were also showing that they were tired of being Italians.
A week later a newly formed Committee for the Independence of Sicily issued its first proclamation. The 1860 plebiscite, it said, in which Sicily had agreed to become part of a united Italy under Piedmont's House of Savoy, obliged the new state to recognize the island's right to autonomy. The Italian state, the proclamation continued, had never met this obligation; and so the committee demanded that a new plebiscite be held. Sicilians would be invited to declare the rights of the House of Savoy defunct on their island and to proclaim a sovereign Sicilian state in its stead.
Later, with the Movement for the Independence of Sicily now the largest party on the island, a group of Allied officers were invited by the acting mayor of Palermo, Lucio Tasca, to meet the leader of the "separatists," Andrea Finocchiaro-Aprile. A tall, elegant man, with slicked-back hair and a monocle in his left eye, Finocchiaro-Aprile explained to the guests that Sicily did not base its claim to independence solely on the 1860 plebiscite. In 1812 Sicily had written its own constitution, a constitution that had been inspired and guaranteed by the British government. What is more, Sicily's legal right to independence could be traced even further back than this. The foundations of the Sicilian nation lay in the eleventh century, in the Norman kingdom of Sicily. When the Neapolitans and Angevin French had tried to suppress Sicilian independence in the thirteenth century, the people of Sicily had risen in revoltthe Sicilian Vespers of 1282.
To the Allied military commanders, their minds concentrated on the business of fighting Germany, these dynastic and constitutional arguments seemed quaint and irrelevant. Yet Finocchiaro-Aprile was no irrelevant figure. He had served as a minister in the last liberal governments before the Fascist takeover. So had his father before him, for in Sicily it was by no means unusual for a son to inherit not only his father's parliamentary seat but his ministerial position as well. In fact, Andrea's father, Camillo Finocchiaro-Aprile, friend and disciple of the great Mazzini and Grand Master in Italian Freemasonry, was a leader of the generation who, as we shall see, were swept into power in the late 1870s. The Allied military commanders can be excused for not understanding the relevance of Andrea Finocchiaro-Aprile's historical references, for he spoke in the idiom of an earlier generation. Nevertheless they still recognized that this quaint old politician was speaking in the name of an aggrieved Sicilian nation.
History has not dealt kindly with the Movement for the Independence of Sicily. In a sense, this fate is no less than it deserves; the movement was quixotic, anachronistic, and riddled with contradictions from start to finish. The new Italy, the Italy that had salvaged its self-respect from the Fascist debacle, was the Italy of the partisans and of the parties that had supported them. These were northern parties, parties whose perspectives and political philosophies were far removed from those of most Sicilians. Postwar Sicilians were forced to to adapt themselves to the new climate, the so-called "wind from the North"; and so, without undue remorse, they consigned the project for an independent Sicily to the dustbin of history.
The new climate was more propitious to the discussion of reforms and projects for the future than to the claims of medieval history. There were initiatives for land reform, for industrialization, and for the modernization of Sicily's infrastructure. The government set up a number of quasi-autonomous agencies to oversee these initiatives. By the 1970s, however, it was becoming clear that, at least in terms of their original design, all were failures.
Sicily in the years after World War II bears a striking resemblance to that in the years following 1860. In both eras, a new, self-confident government inspired by reforming zeal took power. In both cases the new governments assumed that, given the right package of projects and initiatives, and given the political energy to pursue them vigorously, Sicily might soon be rescued from its secular marginality. In both cases, however, the engine of reform soon stalled, bogged down in Sicily's political quagmires. Reformers discovered to their dismay that most Sicilians were uninterested in their ideas; they were pleased when new projects meant a job or a government subsidy for them, but were disinclined to help the state in its campaign to transform Sicily by eradicating racketeering, corruption, crime, and political cronyism. There is one further resemblance: in both cases, blame for the failure of reform was laid at the feet of the mafia.
There is a great deal of truth in this final claim. Yet, given the remarkable similarity between the two chains of events, a suspicion must arise. Is there not some connection between mafia and reform? Sicily's leading crime fighter, the prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, assassinated by the mafia in 1993, saw such a connection. "We have a reached a point," he said, "where any sort of economic initiative on the part of the state only risks offering the mafia a new area of speculation."
Most postwar studies treat the mafia from a socioeconomic perspective. These studies contain much valuable information. Nevertheless, they approach the mafia from the perspective of what ought to have happened, but did not, that is, from the premise that the reforms would have succeeded had the mafia not been there to thwart them. But this is a one-sided view; the mafia was, in equal measure, the creation of those reforms which it seemed bent on destroying or perverting. To understand this, one must drop the theoretical perspective and ask what really happened. This is all to the good, for the story of what happened is far more interesting, more bizarre and unexpected, than any sociological theory.
A Tale of Two Cities
In 1743 political control of Sicily passed from the Spanish crown to the Neapolitan Bourbons, a cadet branch of the Hapsburgs the ruling dynasty of Spain. On paper it seemed a sensible arrangement. The two regions, Naples and Sicily, were culturally and economically similar; the aristocracy of each was linked to the other by ties of kinship and marriage. The Neapolitans, at least, were well satisfied. Although eighteenth-century Neapolitan political life was dominated by court intrigues and by legal and dynastic squabbles, the earlier Spanish viceroys in Naples had been able to curb somewhat the power of the kingdom's fractious nobility, creating a class of administrators loyal to the crown. This class was delighted when Naples became the capital of an independent kingdom. They were especially pleased that, with the addition of Sicily, the kingdom became an empire, just as it had been under the medieval Angevin kings and had remained until the Sicilians had thrown them out after the Vespers uprising in 1282.
Eighteenth-century Naples was a cosmopolitan city, where intellectuals were in touch with the poetical and economic doctrines of the Physiocrats in France, and influenced by Vico's new legal philosophy. Despite a notable lack of encouragement on the part of their own monarchs, these intellectuals were resolved to reform the Bourbon state along enlightened and absolutist lines. This meant reforming the province of Sicily as well.
To enlightened Neapolitans such as the marquis of Caracciolo or the prince of Caramanico, viceroys in Sicily from 1781 to 1795, Sicily was badly in need of reform. Public finances were in a shambles; tax exemptions and lack of a census made nonsense of any fiscal policy. Yet there was a logic behind this chaos: weak central government served the interests of the Sicilian barons.
No one could doubt where the real power in eighteenth-century Sicily lay. The dominion of the barons had spilled over the confines of their own estates to include the neighboring towns and villages with their communal lands. Barons held sway over freeholders and tenants in these areas, and individuals came under their control and influence whether they lived on feudal or on communal land, and whether they were tenants or freeholders. The barons also dominated the Sicilian courts, making it nearly impossible for towns or individuals to obtain judgments against them for encroachments and usurpations, or, if such judgments were obtained, to do much about enforcing them.
It had not always been thus. In the comparatively prosperous fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, towns had defended their rights against the barons, often taking them to court. With the decline of Sicilian prosperity in the seventeenth century, however, an opposite tendency set in. Increasingly unable to bear the political and legal expenses of defending their liberties, the towns began to lose their rights and their lands to the barons. The Hapsburgs' shift of interest away from the Mediterranean and toward their colonies in the New World meant that crown rights were not well defended in Sicily either. Baronial power grew to fill the void; and, as it grew, the barons were able to usurp or encroach on the rights and lands of the commune wherever these were not vigilantly defended by local landowners and tenants or by the crown. By the seventeenth century, the structure of feudal power in Sicily had stabilized into recognizable geopolitical units, each of which was under its own baronial or ecclesiastical sovereignthe contea of Modica, the principato of Trabia, the ducato of Terranuova, the vescovato of Monreale.
The barons were not alone in their fight to escape Neapolitan jurisdiction. In contrast to the Neapolitan foro, or legal classes, the Sicilian foro took the side of the barons. Sicilian jurists defended the rights, acquisitions, and usurpations of the local baronage, elaborating each concession wrested, bought, or extorted from the crown into a general common law that served as the basis of Sicilian feudalism. In their hands, Sicilian legal culture grew into a system of moats, fosses, and chevaux-de-frise behind which the privileged classes might exercise their dominance undisturbed.
The barons could hardly have conducted their struggles without local allies, and it was in Palermo, where most barons kept houses, that the supporters and clients of baronial rule were naturally found. It was not only the nobility and church that enjoyed privileges and exemptions; the Palermo foro had amassed their own system of privileges and exemptions. The maestranze, or artisan guilds in Palermo, enjoyed legal protection as well; they could set prices and limit membership to their associations. They even had the right to bear arms and to hunt in the area around Palermo. They also acted as a local police force and civic guarda tradition that had considerable importance in shaping the course of Palermitan rebellions.
Nor were the basso popolo or common people of Palermo always enemies of baronial rule. Although they withheld their feudal dues and refused to invest in their estates, the barons threw spectacular parties. Reformers were outraged when money that should have been used on improving administration and agriculture was thrown away in lavish wedding feasts and fireworks displays to which half the population was invited. Bakers baked 365 different kinds of cakesone for every saint in the calendarand feste were incomplete without brass band concerts. Such display was all part of the Sicilian art of holding power; a hundred years later, civil servants from northern Italy were just as scandalized to discover Sicilian municipal councils squandering their meager resources in exactly the same manner.
Offering such entertainments was politic, however, for the people of Palermo were inclined to be restless. The nobility was riven by feuds and family rivalries which made coherent administration impossible. Order was kept by the maestranze; but if the urban poor rose up and the maestranze took their side, the nobility had to turn tail and run for their lives. The history of Palermo was punctuated by such uprisings; when they happened, the great barons simply fled to the safety of their country villas, leaving the urban plebs free to sack their palaces in the city. The barons knew how vulnerable they were, and saw that the urban plebs had to be kept contented. Not every day was a festa, even in Palermo; but even on workdays the poor benefited from a regime of subsidized bread and benefactions that they received from nuns working in the capital's hospitals and charitable foundations. The catch was that all the entertainments, privileges, and benefactions that kept Palermo happy had to be paid for, and so inevitably, as an eighteenth-century British consul remarked, "the welfare of the whole has been sacrificed to the capital."
The population of Sicily might be roughly divided into two groups: those who, in some way or another, were allied to or beneficiaries of baronial rule, and those who were not. The people of Palermo and the surrounding villages mostly fell into the first group, while the peasants of the interior mostly fell into the second. This left the Palermitans and the coastal villagers to enjoy the advantages of living next to the barons, while their country cousins had to foot the bill. The pleasures of the town were paid for by the sweat of the countryside.
The life of eighteenth-century Sicilian peasants was primitive in the extreme. Perched on hills and stony outcroppings overlooking the wheat-sown plains, the towns of the Sicilian highlands have a forbidding aspect. The dwellings of the peasants seem to cling to the hillsides, looking up at the castle, fortress, or monastery crowning the summit. Yet the feudal overlords of these castles were rarely to be seen, for they preferred the life of the city or the comforts of their suburban villas, leaving their castles in the hands of agents charged with making sure that the rents were paid.
The peasants, who saw half their year's labors disappear on the backs of mule trains bound for the coast, had little love for the overlord, his bailiffs, or even their cousins in the coastal cities, who could buy the products of their labor at subsidized prices. Yet at least they were left to themselves. Barons and the crown took their religious duties seriously, and so churches were built and monasteries endowedsome of them masterpieces of baroque architecture. Yet the peasants were ministered to by a clergy scarcely less ignorant than themselves, and pastoral care was at best intermittent. This did not make the peasants indifferent to religion. Instead, they remodeled the rites and doctrines of the official religion into something that served their own needs and reflected their particular view of the world. Ferociously independent, they elaborated their own code of justicea code that, needless to say, made no reference to statute law or legal procedures. And so, out of poverty and neglect, the peasants of Sicily forged one of the richest folk cultures in Europe.
The Neapolitan reformers also perceived this divide between the privileged cities and the neglected interior. For all their many shortcomings, the Bourbons of Naples regarded the succoring of the poor as a sacred duty. When intellectuals suggested reforms designed to improve the lot of the poor peasants, King Ferdinand of Naples was uncharacteristically willing to listen. The ambitions of the reformers, of course, ran deeper than this. Their aim was nothing less than to transform the entire kingdom of Naples into a modern state. This implied more than land reform; it implied a showdown with the Sicilian barons.
The Neapolitan viceroys Caracciolo and Caramanico wanted to force the Sicilian nobility to acknowledge their duties to the crown, and to make the two hundred or so leading families, in whose hands wealth and power lay, but who neither paid taxes nor improved their estates nor engaged in anything more onerous than ceremonial administrative duties, take their responsibilities more seriously. They introduced legal, administrative, and agrarian reforms; but, at the same time, they demanded that Sicilian feudatories submit the deeds and titles under which they exercised their authority to the scrutiny of the courts in Naples. Behind this demand lay the suspicion that many of the powers and exemptions that the barons claimed were bogus. It was a suspicion that was often justified; baronial authority often turned out to rest on lost charters and forged titles. Yet the barons refused to yield the powers they claimed belonged to them by right of tradition.
Attempts at reform were thus already setting Naples and Palermo on a collision course, a course that, had not the French Revolution intervened, might well have provoked a crisis sooner than it did.
The 1812 Constitution
Tidings of revolution in France were first received in Sicily with foreboding: "The ideas [of the Revolution] are not discussed here," wrote a citizen of Trapani, "they are rather condemned without appeal as those of criminals and blasphemers." Yet even if Sicily was too isolated to partake in the great contest of ideas, it could not avoid the political fallout of Napoleon's invasion of Italy.
In 1798, as Napoleon's armies poured into Naples, a badly shaken King Ferdinand arrived in Palermo aboard Nelson's flagship. At first the population cheered; this was the first royal visit in over forty years, and a reminder that Palermo was still a capital. Sicilian enthusiasm over the presence of the sovereign began to cool, however, when the people discovered that Ferdinand's main interest was in using the island as a tax base to finance his reconquest of Naples. When the return of Napoleon's armies forced him to flee to Sicily eight years later, in 1806, the welcome he received from the Sicilian nobility was distinctly less cordial.
With Napoleon's armies firmly established in Naples, the rival British forces arrived to occupy Sicily. As political exiles in Palermo, King Ferdinand and his queen, Maria Carolina, lived under the protection of the British crown, which granted them a large subsidy. Supposedly this subsidy was to pay for recruiting an army and building a navy. Ferdinand, however, had little aptitude for such administration, preferring to spend his money on intrigues and on his own comforts and those of the members his court who had followed him into Sicilian exile. Despite his lack of administrative skills, Ferdinand displayed few qualms about using the new Napoleonic tax code, introduced in Naples, to collect taxes in Sicily.
The British were popular in Sicily. Their presence stimulated agriculture and commerce, and they began to overhaul public finance as well. They might have felt entitled to some say in how the island was being governed; after all, they were maintaining not only the Neapolitan court in exile, but also a garrison of seventeen thousand British soldiers. As the Bourbon court in exile grew increasingly unpopular in Palermo, peace was maintained by the political skills of William Bentinck, the British governor and effective ruler of the island. Sicilian jurists admired British methods and began to feel a curiosity about British political institutions. Was it not true, they asked, that it was to Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, that British citizens owed the protection of their liberties?
Sicily had possessed its own parliament since 1296; it was divided into three houses or brazosecclesiastical, baronial, and communal. Unlike its British counterpart, however, the communal house in Sicily had not evolved into a House of Commons, as the towns had fallen under baronial domination. The Sicilian parliament had never governed the island or served as a political forum. Instead it had become a baronial syndicate. By the seventeenth century, in the words of Denis Mack Smith, parliament had degenerated into a place for the barons "to obtain titles, jobs and privileges for their families and clients." This, however, could be changed, and, during the years of British occupation, barons and jurists began to see the British Parliament as a model for an institution that would guard Sicilian liberties against Naples.
In 1812 a new parliament met in Sicily. By now, the so-called "English school" was predominant. An English-style constitution was drafted by Paolo Balsamo and his associates and presented before parliament. The ecclesiastical and baronial houses were to be merged into a House of Peers, while royal and baronial towns joined together to form a House of Commons. The English-style jury system was to be adopted as well. Leading nobles, such as the princes of Belmonte and Castelnuovo, secured enough votes in the ecclesiastical and communal houses to override any objections from more conservative barons, and the new constitution quickly passed both houses.
In 1815, however, Napoleon was defeated and the British withdrew their forces. This left Ferdinand and his ministers free to launch a countercoup. It was a maneuver that, despite his promises to the contrary, Ferdinand had undoubtedly been planning all along. In 1816, following a decision of the Congress of Vienna (in which Sicily was not represented), Ferdinand restyled himself "King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies," adopting a title last used in the 1440s. Sicily was no longer considered a separate state in a unified realm (for example, like Scotland in the United Kingdom) but rather a mere province. This was restoration with a vengeance; the Sicilian flag was promptly banned, and the civil liberties guaranteed by the 1812 constitution were suppressed. Neapolitan jurists, who had devised the change, exulted, for they had now fully reinstituted the Swabio-Norman kingdom that had been demolished by the Sicilian revolt of 1282. In Palermo the mood was quite different. The relegation of the proud Sicilian "nation" to a mere province of Naples rankled in the breasts of Palermitans throughout the rest of the century.
In the short term, the 1812 constitution was a failure. It was designed as a defense against the demands of the state rather than as a blueprint for a working government; it was a Bill of Rights without a Constitution. It worked so long as real power remained the in the hands of the British. As soon as they left, there was nothing to force the Neapolitans to abide by its provisions. It had appealed to the Sicilian baronage precisely because it seemed to protect local liberties better than the constitutions of revolutionary France, which failed to pose any effective limit on the actions of the state. Appropriately, these were the very aspects of the British model which Neapolitan intellectuals objected to, preferring the constitution of revolutionary France as an instrument of radical social change. Yet radical social change was the last thing Sicilians had in mind in 1812. They wrote their constitution in order to keep things as they were. There was no revolutionary party in Sicily, no one eager to brand the nobility and the clergy as enemies of the peoplean attitude that was to shape Sicily's subsequent struggles.
Nevertheless, the 1812 constitution was still a revolutionary document, for among its provisions it abolished feudalism in Sicily. Baronial privileges, primogeniture, and feudal dues and privileges were all swept away. In reality, these reforms were less radical than they seemed. Already by the 1790s certain nobles were responding to the reexamination of feudal charters by declaring that they had had enough of feudalism, renouncing their feudal rights, and with them, of course, their feudal obligations to the crown. Feudal law also prevented noble landholders from disposing of their lands; this was a real disadvantage at a time when the prosperity induced by the British occupation was making speculation in land highly profitable. Thus, the barons had adopted the 1812 constitution for a mixture of motives. On the one hand, they genuinely admired the British model and understood that protecting liberty meant protecting liberty for all citizens, not just defending the privileges of the nobility. Yet on the other, they were also astute enough to see that by abolishing feudalism, and with it their feudal obligations and restrictions, they were cutting themselves a good deal.
The Carboneria and the 1820 Revolt in Naples
Great changes had been occurring in Naples, too. Under Napoleon, a new law code had been introduced, legal practice had been reformed, and the civil service had been totally overhauled. These changes were popular among Neapolitan intellectuals and a large segment of the Neapolitan nobility. With the help of Metternich, they forced King Ferdinand to keep these reforms after his restoration. Thus, in 1816 Naples found itself in the curious position of having the most reactionary and obscurantist monarch as well as the most enlightened and progressive civil administration in all of Italy.
Administrative reform meant centralization. Magistrates and officials no longer inherited their positions or obtained them through friendship with the powerful; all appointments were now made by the government, or at least were subject to government approval. Although much was allowed to go on as it had always done, in theory the authority of the Neapolitan bureaucracy now replaced that of the barons and church in Sicily, reaching into every town and village on the island. Centralization created new opportunities for non-noble families without baronial connections to win magistracies and other official posts. These families were especially numerous in the eastern part of the island. Here were the great commercial cities Messina and Catania, rivals of the capital, whose merchants cared little for the grandees of Palermo, their palaces, their coats of arms, or their firework displays. True, these merchants cared just as little for King Ferdinand and the House of Bourbon in Naples; but they did appreciate the honest and businesslike demeanor of the new civil servants.
Yet these reforms also had a price tag attached to them. The Napoleonic Wars had drained Naples's treasury, and someone had to pay the bill. According to Naples, Sicily had unfairly prospered under British occupation; now it was time to make the island pay its share. The privileges and exemptions that Sicily had won appeared in the eyes of Naples as nothing more than schemes for avoiding taxes. Eliminating these anomalies would not only modernize the Sicilian economy; it would also greatly increase the government's tax revenues. Thus, along with new opportunities, reforms brought the tax collector to Sicily. This was enough to dampen the enthusiasm for reform, even among landowning and merchant families who, in other ways, were its chief beneficiaries.
Reform and centralization had a further, and totally unexpected, side effect as well: they helped introduce the Carboneria into Sicily.
The arrival of the armies of revolutionary France set off a flurry of conspiratorial activity throughout the whole of Italy. During the short-lived Roman Republic of 1798, there were reports of men meeting in the campagna to swear secret oaths. Some thought that the choice of the countryside was inspired by the need to keep the meetings secret; yet these men, described as Giacobini (Jacobins), seem, at this juncture at least, to nave been anything but security-conscious. They sported coccardes; they denounced the Roman nobility; they formed parties to chisel off the noble insignia from the palazzi of Rome; they organized masques that celebrated the pure customs of the republican heroes of ancient Rome. When the majority of the Roman population failed to become electrified by these activities; the Giacobini denounced their fellow citizens for "crassness," "torpor," and "boorishness." As one Cardinal remarked ruefully, they seemed to stagger around drunk on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In 1796 the conspirator and revolutionary leader Gracchus Babeuf had written in Paris, "The French Revolution is nothing but a forerunner of another revolution, very much bigger, very much more solemn, and which will be the last." The early Italian sectarians embraced Babeuf's vision of the "final revolution." They were the first true "revolutionaries" in the modern sense; even the term révolutionnaires seems first to have been applied to them. The oaths that they swore were anything but pacific. According to a Napoleonic government report, the North Italian sectarians "were bound to one another by oaths; they each swore that all who uncovered their secrets or even abandoned the cause would fall under the points of their daggers." As early as 1799 there was a battle between the sectarians and the French army near the town of Alexandria when France moved to annex Piedmont. After the fight, blue coccardes and medallions with portraits of Marat and Lepelletier, the two Jacobin martyrs and victims of assassination, were found pinned on the chests of the fallen insurgents.
These secret societies took their organizational blueprint from the Freemasons. Freemasonry had long been fashionable among the southern Italian nobility, and in part the leading southern sect, the Carboneria of Naples, developed from southern Italian Masonry. Nevertheless, its direct antecedent was the Charbonniers or the Bons Cousins, a small Masonic Société des Plaisirs in the Franche-Comté.
The original Bons Cousins had been a nonpolitical group. During the 1790s, however, along with Nice, the Franche-Comté served as a refuge for Italian Jacobins. It also served as a staging post for the Napoleonic Armée d'Italie between 1796 and 1798. Among the Napoleonic officers who stayed here during these two years was a certain P.J. Briot du Doubs, an individual in trouble with the police under the Directoire for his Jacobin past and his participation in Babeuf's Conspiracy of Equals in 1796. According to his own testimony, Briot helped refashion the Charbonniers into a radical sect on the model of Babeuf's conspiracy. In 1798 Briot was part of the force invading Naples. Once in the South, he became active in founding new branches of the Charbonniers.
Leading magistrates in Naples had served during the Napoleonic period; officers in the Neapolitan army had had close ties to the French army. These men were drawn into the world of French revolutionary societies, becoming carbonari, the Italian version of charbonniers. Even after the return of the Bourbons, revolutionary ideas were far from spent, and branches of the Carboneria continued to be founded throughout the continental South. In the capital itself, membership in the Carboneria was highly fashionable, a way of demonstrating one's progressive and enlightened attitudes.
In truth, most of the high-ranking members of the Neapolitan Carboneria were neither Jacobins nor revolutionaries; they were rather supporters of reform and administrative centralization, policies that Neapolitan intellectuals had traditionally favored. Outside the capital, however, the situation was different: here the Carboneria remained true to its radical Jacobin origins. In Basilicata and Apulia, the Carboneria called for adoption of republicanism and the French constitution of 1791. This was the radical Jacobin constitution, and it long remained a point of reference for revolutionaries in all parts of Italy.
And not only in Italy: the 1791 constitution served as a model for Spain as well. In 1812 the revolutionary Spanish Cortes had voted for it. Two years later, however, the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, was able to dissolve the Cortes, abrogate the new constitution, and restore absolutist government.
On the first of January 1820, Spanish troops massed at Cádiz for embarkation to Latin America rebelled. Many of their officers were members of a Spanish sect, the Comuneros, a secret society analogous to the Carboneria. The rebels at Cádiz demanded that the 1812 Spanish constitution be re-instated; and when troops sent to suppress the mutiny passed over to the rebel side, the king was forced to comply.
There was no direct connection between the Comuneros and the Carboneria. Still, the news from Cádiz electrified the southern Italian sectarians. In the six months that followed the Spanish revolt, there was feverish activity among carbonari throughout the South. On the night of July 1st, 1820, an uprising broke out in the town of Nola, near Naples. The carbonari of Nola, Avellino, and surrounding towns lit signal fires from the hills. These sparked off revolts in Basilicata and down through Molise and Apulia. As in Spain, the battalions that the commander of Neapolitan forces, the Austrian General Laval Nugent, sent to quell the outbreaks passed over to the rebel side. After several clays the king gave way and promised to accept the Spanish constitution.
On the ninth of July, accompanied by the Neapolitan troops, the sectarians paraded into the capital. There they assembled their followers to administer a public oath, modeled on the great oath-taking ceremonies of revolutionary France. They even went so far as to rebaptize the ground upon which the oath was taken after the Champ de Mars in Paris. At the end of the ceremony, the Carboneria released the brothers from their oath of secrecy, and, handing out the black, blue, and red coccardes that distinguished the sect, began to march toward the royal palace. By now, many of the Neapolitan troops were also adorned with the carbonara coccardes. As they trooped by the royal palace, they could see that even the crown prince, Francis, was wearing the three-colored ribbon as he applauded the troops and sectarians from the royal balcony (his father, King Ferdinand, feigning an illness, was not present). In a description of this day's events we read that "after the ceremony ... thousands triumphally marched through the populous city streets ... to the royal palace amidst general jubilation."
The Carboneria seemed about to become the party of the new regime, as was repeatedly to happen with revolutionary sects in South America. Yet the wily King Ferdinand, who certainly was not wearing a coccarde that night, hated the sect and all its liberal doctrines. He was no more inclined to honor his undertakings to his Neapolitan subjects in 1820 than his pledges to the Sicilians in 1815. As soon as he was sure of the backing of the Austrian army, he planned to betray his promise to grant the new constitution. Yet before he launched his counterstroke, he was content to wait and see how the new revolutionary government in Naples would deal with an unexpected developmenta revolt in Sicily.
The 1820 Revolt in Sicily
Unlike the continental South, Sicily had never been occupied by French troops. Revolutionary sects were slow to spread here; when they arrived, moreover, they were often introduced by the Neapolitan army. Hence the Carboneria was at first strongest in the eastern part of the island, especially in Palermo's traditional rival, Messina.
The spread of the Carboneria was not entirely the work of Neapolitans, however. There were a number of Sicilian carbonari who had served in the armies of revolutionary France; some had even served in France itself. These carbonari were less favorably disposed toward rule from Naples. In 1819 a new cell, or vendita, was discovered in Caltagirone. According to a police report:
The sect of the carbonari consists in the union of a number of individuals, who, calling one another Good Cousins [Buoni Cugini], oblige themselves under oath not to reveal the secret, to respect the rules of the Carboneria, to help one another in case of need, and all this under pain of being cut into pieces and incinerated in a furnace. This sect, like all others that are covered by a mystery, has its grades, the first of which is called Apprentice, the second is Master, the third is called the First Symbolic, the fourth the Lofty Light, and so on.
These were the standard grades of esoteric eighteenth-century Masonry. The reference to being cut into pieces and incinerated in a furnace is, in contrast, a new addition, and one whose echoes remain in mafia initiation ceremonies to the present day.
The Caltagirone vendita had, in fact, been founded in 1815 by a priest, Luigi Oddo. Oddo had lived in Calabria between 1810 and 1820, and it seems likely that he had been inducted into the more revolutionary French wing of the Carboneria during his stay.
Another Sicilian priest involved in the Carboneria was don Gaetano Abele from Siracusa. He is described in police reports as "a man of irregular conduct, who for thirteen years served France in civil and military employment, who was made a member of the sect of Masons in Calais, and who, finding himself in the French army with the rank of captain, took part in the occupation of Naples." When the police raided don Gaetano's home, along with the usual Masonic literature, they found genealogical charts and papers on the kings of medieval Sicily among his effects.
Although the 1812 constitution had been a failure in the short term, in retrospect it came to be seen as the foundation of Sicilian liberties. After 1816, Sicilians jurists had argued that the decision of the Congress of Vienna was invalid. Sicilians, they said, were a free and autonomous people, and had been so since the Vespers uprising of 1282. Sicily was, to use the term that was now becoming so charged with meaning, a "nation."
Don Gaetano's royal genealogies and medieval lore seem to indicate that he was thinking along similar lines. Already in the first years of the Restoration, Sicilians were beginning to refashion the instruments of revolutionary France into a Sicilian ideology that would serve as the basis of their own revolt against Naples.
Nor were these Sicilian revolutionaries the only point of diffusion for the sects. Upon its restoration, the Neapolitan government had arrested a number of Neapolitan revolutionaries, sectarians, and political malcontents; wishing to keep them as far away from the capital as possible, they transported them to Sicilian prisons. As a result, the police soon discovered that a vendita of the Carboneria had been founded in Palermo's central prison, the Vicaria, with branches in the fortress of Castellammare as well as the prisons in Trapani and the island of Favignana.
We are still in the age of sail, and the overwhelming majority of Sicilians, even in Palermo, knew little about the Continent. Even fewer knew of the Carboneria. Besides, Palermo had other things to think about. July was the month in which the festa of Santa Rosalia took place. Santa Rosalia was the beloved patron saint of Palermo; her festa was the biggest of the Palermitan's year. For the rich, it meant a string of masked balls; for the rest of the population, it meant solemn religious processions ending in dancing in the piazze and the inevitable fireworks and band concerts. Little work was done during festa time, and so, when a government brigantine sailed in from Naples on the morning of July 14, 1820, there were plenty of idlers in the city with nothing better to do than to go down to the port and meet it:
When more than 180 Neapolitans and Sicilians stepped ashore decorated with tricolored ribbons, the Palermo crowd, influenced by the festive spirit prevailing during the popular celebrations and curious to know what had been happening in Naples, drew near the shoreline. Seeing the unfamiliar ribbons fluttering on the mast-stays and on the breasts of the travelers, the crowd became ever more curious. This was the electric spark that generated the flame in the combustible material that had been prepared.... Emissaries [carbonari] ran forth to greet the crowd; they told of events in Naples; they proclaimed liberty, carbonaria [brotherhood], and the extinction of tyrants.... Others set off to arm themselves in the name of their clubs [vendite].
Overjoyed at the news of the fall of King Ferdinand, the crowd began to congratulate the Neapolitan soldiers, embracing them and inviting them to take part in the festa. In this way the first of Palermo's great revolts started with Neapolitan soldiers and Palermitans dancing together in honor of Santa Rosalia. On the next day, a Te Deum was celebrated in Palermo Cathedral. The crowd began to shout "Viva la costituzione di Spagna" (Long live the Spanish constitution) and "Viva l'indipendenza siciliana" (Long live Sicilian independence), failing, however, to respond when the lieutenant governor, Naselli, loyally shouted "Viva il re" (Long live the king). Despite this minor incident, the first few days of the 1820 uprising passed with neither bloodshed nor, indeed, disorders of any sort.
News of revolution in Naples brought the Bourbon military commandant in Sicily, the Irish General Richard Church, scurrying back to Palermo. Together with Lieutenant Governor Naselli, he went to the Quattro Cantoni, the center of Palermo. There he found festivities in full swing, his own officers celebrating with the crowd. "Go back to your quarters!" he commanded, and leaned forward to rip the carbonaro ribbons off the nearest man's chest. At this, a priest stepped up (tradition identifies him as a Calabrian priest sent by the carbonari the day before) and shouted, "Avenge the insult, O brave Palermitans, that the vile foreigner has made to the mark of liberty!" Threatened now by the crowd, General Church was forced to retreat back to his own quarters, protected by a circle of his officers. That night he fled the city for Trapani, where, abandoning his command, he took ship for Naples.
With Church gone, the crowd abandoned its restraint, lighting bonfires and looting government offices. The following morning, Naselli assembled the remaining loyal officers and nobles to try to restore order. He commissioned a new municipal governing council, or giunta, formed by eight representatives of the nobility and eight members of the maestranze. Giuseppe Bonanno, the prince of Cattolica, assumed command over an improvised police force of twenty-five companies of infantry and cavalry, whose officers were to be made up from the nobility and remaining officers of the Neapolitan army, and whose ranks were to be recruited by the maestranze and the clergy.
The Palermo aristocracy had their own sources of information, and had heard rumors of the revolt in Naples four or five days before it became known to the rest of the population. This had given the barons time to confer privately over the message that the Palermo giunta was to send the revolutionary government in Naples. Sicily, the message said, still considered its 1812 constitution to be valid. Sicilian prosperity, it continued, depended on the separation of Sicily from Naples, for the island was now suffering from a "grave and complicated bureaucratic regime of stamp duties, official papers, and forced labor [i.e., military conscription], the hard provisions of which all the Governments of Europe have just recently blamed on the French Emperor [i.e., Napoleon]."
This was simply a demand that the Neapolitan countercoup of 1816 be annulled. If Naples would agree to Sicilian autonomy, the barons did not much care what regime happened to be sitting in Naples itself. To the young crown prince, Francis, this seemed a callous response. Still filled with romantic ardor, the prince asked the Sicilian barons why they would not accept the new Spanish constitution, which had, after all, all the glamour and prestige of the French Revolution behind it. At this the prince of Cassaro wrote to him, responding rather unkindly that "we would far prefer being subjects to the Bey of Tunis than to You."
In truth, the barons were in a dilemma. They wanted to be free of Naples; but this was not exactly what the carbonari were demanding. What the sectarians wanted was that Naples be governed according to the 1791 constitution in its Spanish version. If they succeeded, however, Sicily would simply come under the authority of the new revolutionary government in Naples, a government that would feel no compunctions whatsoever about saddling the island with even more "stamp duties, official papers, and forced labor" than before.
The barons could see the implications of the 1791 constitution. The common people, however, saw only the promise of the Carboneria: freedom from tyranny, a universal republic, the reign of justice and equality. The carbonari were inviting them to take up arms and join the final revolution, a revolution which Babeuf had said would be very much bigger, very much more solemn than any before. The people responded enthusiastically. In the event, the barons decided to try and ride out the storm. They would support the revolution. They gambled that once the rebellion had delivered them from Naples, they would be able to step back in to resume control. They should have known better. Rebellions in Palermo had a habit of taking unpredictable turns. It was easy to start a riot; it was much harder to usher the angry plebs off the stage once their destructive might had been unleashed.
The barons made up only half of the new government in Palermo; the other half was made up of the maestranze, who were sympathetic to the carbonari. While the barons tried to restrain the revolution, the maestranze tried to push it forward. The two sides soon viewed each other with deepening suspicion.
Afraid that the Neapolitan forces might train their guns upon the city, the maestranze had demanded possession of the government fortress at the portthe Castellammare. The fortress was nearly impregnable, and, understandably, neither the barons nor the lieutenant governor wished to see it fall into popular hands. Yet the fortress was garrisoned by Neapolitan soldiers, often young conscripts who shared the maestranze's sympathy toward the carbonari. While Naselli and the giunta were debating a solution, there was a mutiny inside the Castellammare itself, and the garrison surrendered the fortress to the maestranze.
With the Castellammare in their hands, the maestranze grew in confidence. Control was slipping from the giunta, and the nobility's position was becoming vulnerable. As the nobles desperately tried to come to a new agreement with Naselli, rioting spread to the city's streets.
At first there was no violence. The rioting was neither anarchic nor disorderly; rather it consisted of the systematic, regular, and almost punctilious destruction of everything to do with government administration. There were neither thefts nor sackings nor violence to persons, private houses, or shops; yet every piece of paper, every stick of government furniture that the insurgents seized was fed into the great bonfires, whose flames, writes Francesco Renda, assumed an emblematic significance. Neapolitan troops joined the holocaust; their regimental bands saluted the crowds with military marches.
On the next day the festive atmosphere suddenly changed. According to Francesco Paternò-Castello, on the night of July 16, Naselli secretly ordered loyal troops to attack the city at dawn. Fearing that Naselli might also have ordered their own arrest, several of the noble leaders of the giunta fled into hiding. Whatever their motives, the crowd interpreted their flight as admission of betrayal. The prince of Cattolica and the prince of Aci were dragged from their hiding places and murdered.
This was not the only reason for the change. On the fourteenth and fifteenth, the crowd had adorned themselves with the black, blue, and red coccardes of the Carboneria; on the sixteenth, however, they had begun to add a yellow stripe, symbolizing Sicilian independence. Soon they were wearing yellow and red coccardes, the colors of the Sicilian flag. This made fraternization between the Palermitans and the Neapolitan troops impossible.
On the morning of the seventeenth, the army launched an assault. At first it had the upper hand, as the people, unarmed and not expecting the attack, fell back in a confused fashion. Yet the maestranze soon began to organize a defense. What turned the tide in favor of the Palermo crowd was the timely arrival of a group of contadini from Monreale, led by Gioacchino Vaglica, a monk from a poor peasant family. Vaglica led his band of followers in an attack on the Vicaria prison, liberating the inmates, who swelled the ranks of the insurgents. Gangs of peasants soon arrived from Bagheria and from other of the surrounding towns, trapping the garrison between the crowd within the city walls and the peasants without. With this, the Neapolitan commanders decided on retreat. The troops tried to force their way out of the city; yet even where they succeeded, they fared no better, for by now the villages in the Conca d'Oro had all risen as well. Gangs from these villages fell upon the Neapolitans, hacking them to pieces and despoiling them of their clothes and belongings. Sources speak of three hundred Neapolitan dead and four hundred wounded on the seventeenth.
The murder of the leading barons and the rout of the Neapolitan army left a vacuum. The head of the tanners' guild, Francesco Santoro, and the leader of the Monreale peasants, the monk Vaglica, became the de facto rulers of Palermo. They persuaded the venerable archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal Gravina, to assume titular authority. Yet the situation could only grow worse. On the eighteenth, there were murders in the open streets. On the nineteenth, sackings and lootings, which up to now had been carried out only against selected targets, became general. The bloodletting and pillaging lasted from the eighteenth to the twenty-third, and ended only with the return to Sicily of the prince of Villafranca, whom Cardinal Gravina nominated to serve as his prime minister.