The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)

Murals against the Mafia realised by students in Catania, Sicily. Click for credits

While in Russia I had a few dinners with two Frenchmen from Northern France who lived and worked in Moscow.

Claude, whose job contract was about to end, told us: “I’ve been offered a job in Toulouse. Alain, do you picture me in Toulouse, with all that mafioso mentality?”

Toulouse. Click for credits and to enlarge

Toulouse is in the deep French South. We passed to other topics in our conversation and dinner flowed pleasantly. Alain had brought a few bottles of Bordeaux from France. Good wine is awfully expensive in Russia. Of course Claude didn’t refer to ‘mafioso’ in the sense of ‘belonging to the mob’.

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‘Mafia’ is in fact used both in a broad and a narrow sense.

According to the Dizionario Treccani ‘mafioso’ is:

1) either a criminal belonging to a mafia-like organization;

2) or one who “to the rule of law [including the laws of market, I guess] tends to replace the power of his/her own interests or of a small group and indefinitely defends his/her friends to the detriment of others.”

Now I am well aware that cliques & personal networks exist everywhere. In Russia and China they have respectively blat and guanxi relations and obligations. In Russia I heard of professionals like doctors or dentists that preferred to build a network of ‘useful contacts’ instead of being paid by each of their clients.

Cliques are terribly pervasive in the Mediterranean. In every Western country good contacts count to get things done, to find jobs etc. But here especially they represent a serious obstacle to modernization, by systematically promoting mediocrity over merit, by polluting the political arena – votes exchanged for favours, collaboration among politicians even from opposite sides by the exchange of favours etc.

Sheets commemorating Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two Italian magistrates killed by the Mafia. White sheets are a symbol of protest against the silence that protects the Mafia

Some areas of the Italian South are permeated by a mafioso mentality which often connects economical political and criminal activities into a choking whole and which from those areas radiates to the rest of the country.

Giuseppe Mazzini‘s prophecy [Mazzini is one of Italy’s founding patriots,] that “Italy will be that which the Mezzogiorno will be”, proved true, at least in some respects.

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I wonder how many researchers have connected ancient Roman behaviours with the mafiosi behaviours (of any kind) that we find in Mediterranean coastal areas and in Italy. In the Mezzogiorno I see something reminiscent of the ancient Roman system of social relations [our next post tries to throw some light on this matter.]

But let’s first review how a mafia network in the narrow sense is built.

One common mistake – we had written – is 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.

This passage from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is even clearer:

“Don Vito Corleone 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 homemade 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.”

So this exchange of favours seems an important element of the culture underlying the mafia. Ingrained in traditions that are centuries old it creates a network based on reciprocal dependence.

We’ll tentatively see how all this can somehow be connected to ancient Rome.

[to be continued]

Related posts:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)
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

Over at Cheri’s. Alcibiades, the Golden Dude of Classical Greece

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

Last May Cheri, a charming blogger from California, went to Greece for a seminar on Alcibiades. I hence posted on her blog a few hasty notes on this key figure of Greek history, in case they were of any help.

Here is the text (edited a bit.)

Tragedy of Unreason

Alcibiades to me is the golden dude of classical Greece, loved (and hated) by the Athenians immensely, a figure that shows both the splendour and the weaknesses of Athens in her golden time, the 5th century BCE. The Athenians, who were teaching the world to use reason efficiently, also knew they were capable of the utmost unreason, and were laughing at that while watching the comedies of Aristophanes.

This whole thing, the fall of Athens, smells in fact of tragedy, of irrationality. The facts are known if you have read Thucydides. It pains me that one of the most brilliant pupils of Socrates, like the most perfumed flower in the most beautiful garden, proved poisonous. Alcibiades’ mentor had always tried to bring to measure and to purity of reason a totally unprincipled, self-centred and often ‘going off the rails’ pupil.

Bust of so-called Alcibiades. Rome, Musei Capitolini

In this the Greeks remind me of the Germans a bit. Both incredibly deep and terribly rational and irrational at the same time. And in fact Nietzsche figured Greek irrationality out not by chance, and, again not by chance in the years of the fall of Athens the Bacchae by Euripides were on stage.

Alcibiades was beautiful and gifted in everything – even as an athlete in Olympia – but, when he once met a teacher on the street and asked him if he had any works by Homer, and having the teacher said “No, I haven’t”, he punched him on the nose and knocked him down. This was Alcibiades. Charming and crazy.

Socrates tears Alcibiades from the embrace of sensual pleasure. Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829)

Dramatis Personae

There are many characters in this tragedy, the annihilation of classical Greece, where the extreme quarrelsomeness and disunity of the Greeks stands out, within and without their cities, even in moments of extreme danger. Among such characters are Sparta, Athens, Socrates, Nicias, Syracuse, Alcibiades, Sophocles, Euripides etc.

According to Thucydides and Plutarch, Alcibiades had conceived an unimaginable plan for defeating Sparta. By conquering Syracuse first, in Sicily, and Carthage, Libya and Greek South Italy afterwards, he intended to get back to Greece with the immense resources thus accumulated and crush the Spartans.

Syracuse was as powerful as Athens and possibly bigger, the biggest Greek city of the Mediterranean.

Ancient Greeks’ New World

It is to be noted that Greek South Italy – I’m certainly not saying this because I am Italian – was considered by mainland Greece as America has always been considered by Europeans: a myth, a land of promise, of unlimited resources. Greece was smaller and much less fertile. Therefore many Athenians, young and old, were day dreaming together with their golden boy, they were day dreaming about a marvellous and more prosperous future. A bit like Alexander who, one century later, will dream (and will set out) eastwards, instead of westwards, in order to conquer new lands.

Karen Tiegren performing as Cassandra in the Trojan Women directed by Brad Mays at the ARK Theatre Company in Los Angeles, 2003. Click for credits

Before the departure for Sicily, The Trojan Women by Euripides was first performed in 415 BCE. In this work the prophetess Cassandra (see Karen Tiegren above as Cassandra) condemns the Greeks for going to war against Troy. We perceive Euripides’ disgust vis-à-vis the Athenian hubris of the moment. Also Thucydides considers the Sicilian expedition as an act of arrogance and as an example of a folk, the Athenians, misguided by their emotions.

We have to consider that the sublime Parthenon that you people are now admiring was considered by many Athenians as an act of arrogance or hubris. Many much preferred the old temple of Athena at the Acropolis – see below –, a simpler and more sober shrine. Of course the Parthenon is fantastic but the mixed emotions of the Athenians during their greatest century are interesting.

Old Temple of Athena at the Acropolis of Athens. Click for credits and to enlarge

We know of the plague that hit Athens during the war. Thucydides considered it as a metaphor of the ruin that will destroy the wonderful culture created by Pericles and those around him.

This terrible Peloponnesian war and the changes it provoked are well expressed by the Oedipus the King by Sophocles, first performed in 429. A great king, optimist, intoxicated by his success and capable of solving riddles ends up a blind, desperate wretch who has too late understood the nature of the horrible forces he cannot control.

Nicias, one of Alcibiades’s rivals, was a general and owner of a big portion of the silver mines around Attica’s Mt. Laurium, a sort of lager and one of the chief sources of revenue for Athens.

Sparta Won but Left Nothing

Helmed Hoplite from Sparta
Helmed Hoplite from Sparta

Sparta disliked all that Athens represented. Sparta was the winner and Athens the loser. The Spartans were very admired in antiquity but have not left anything of value in my view (but we must recognize that they voted against the total erasure of Athens). Athens left us a wonderful culture and a model for future democracies; Sparta was instead a model for all future regimes based on racism and eugenics (such as the Nazi).

The Spartans were a minority of war lords brutally ruling a totally enslaved majority of Helots.

But they were rational and prudent. And had charm too. It is known they combed their long hair for quite a time before engaging in battle. When their enemies saw the Spartans combing, it was time for quaking.”

Glimpses of the Tuscan Countryside

We are going back to Tuscany for a couple of more days, after which my vacation is more or less finished.

Since we have friends in Tuscany who have beautiful houses I thought it was interesting for readers to catch a few glimpses of the Tuscan country this way.

These shots were taken during our last week-end. When I come back I will upload the originals so that you can watch them.

[Update: done, you can now zoom into them]

A presto.

Ciao a Tutti

Teatro del Silenzio at Lajatico, Tuscany. Click for credits and to enlarge

After coming back from our weekend trip we are leaving again for a few days.

Andrea Bocelli and his Teatro del Silenzio at Lajatico were not that bad after all (Bocelli is from this small Tuscan village in the province of Pisa,) but I especially liked a young violinist whose name I forgot and the Pisan hills area, where Lajatico is located and where Bocelli is considered a sort of local hero.

I totally agree with critics pointing at Bocelli’s “poor phrasing, uneven tone and lack of technique.” But at times his voice sounds pretty good and most of all his crossover singing has drawn many young people to Opera. Young tourists (Dutch, German and British) were flocking to the concert and seemed to like Bocelli quite a lot.

The hills around Pisa, Tuscany, are a great area we didn’t know yet. Hence we have decided to get back there.

I don’t feel much like writing these days and I prefer indulging in other hobbies such as reading and plucking my guitar. I don’t walk much because of the heat.

Volterra had a great Etruscan and Roman past. Click to enlarge

We found intact and extremely peaceful villages in these Pisan hills, with adorable people totally deprived of any commercial mentality. Shops for example open and close whenever the shopkeeper feels like, which can baffle tourists, and yet the place has so much to offer: green landscapes, exquisite food, lovely architecture and a bizarre character of the local population which I especially liked (I was btw surprised by their odd ‘open vowels’ pronunciation, not common in Tuscany.)

We also liked this part of Tuscany not being far from the sea so you get this evening breeze which Romans dig – we call it ponentino, but it is a Roman, not a local, word – not to mention the fish food cooked in delicious ways which was part of our daily diet.

We especially adored the isolation of the place since we live in a busy place. Inversely, when people knew we were from Rome the young especially stared and dreamed about big city life.

Ognuno a quanto pare desidera quello che non ha.

Ciao a tutti.