On Course: Uomini D’Onore
Studying the Mafia
By Maria Jacketti, Illustrated by Jason Marz
Palermo, Sicily. Founded by the Phoenicians, the city unravels jewel-blue skies, orchards that harbor secrets, and the contrasting grime of urban sprawl. It is also at the center of one of the most compelling international narratives: the Mafia.
Welcome to Professor Roberta Ricci’s new course in Italian Studies, “Uomini D’Onore,” Sicilian Men of Respect: The Mafia in Italian Cinema and Literature. Officially called Italian 255, the course explores the complexity of this Sicilian hub and the myths it has inspired. Palermo becomes a point of departure for Mafia lore and its many enthralling antiheroes on page and screen.
This interdisciplinary course takes into account such fictional legends as Tony Soprano, Don Vito and Michael Corleone, as well as historical figures like Lucky Luciano.
But the primary focus is on the Mafia in Italy. Course material focuses on original sources in Italian—and in dialects—in films and texts. Through birthright, they have had to confront the Mafia’s legendary Code of Silence. And they have broken it by writing about the Mafia—in fiction and nonfiction, a most daring if not outright dangerous task.
Consider Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, published in English in 2007. This visionary work explored the inner workings of organized crime in Naples, raising the ire of the Casalesi clan.
In 2008, the clan issued threats against Saviano, forcing him to flee the country. In response, a group of Nobel laureates—Orhan Pamuk, Dario Fo, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Desmond Tutu, Günter Grass, and Mikhail Gorbachev—came to his aid. Stating that the face and substance of Italian democracy were at stake, they urged the government to gain control over the situation.
Ricci was among the thousands who rallied to support Saviano. She notes, “I was happy to include my signature together with many others collected on the site of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.”
In the course, students delve into the history and culture of the Mafia. Most significant is the specialized language of the Mafia—and the space between words, the silences. The hush often speaks for itself. Breaking the Code of Silence shatters honor and is considered to be the ultimate sin against family.
As the Mafia redefined words according to its needs, the group produced its own distinct and enduring vocabulary. The Sicilian Mafia is sometimes referred to as cosa nostra (our thing).
Now a circle of organized criminals, the Mafia began as a secret society during the Middle Ages. Its goal was to rid Sicily of foreign governments and feudalism. Its rise did anything but liberate Sicily, however, as new, homegrown lords replaced the conquerors.
In 1860, Italy scrambled for reunification. The Mafia, much as it is known today, gelled from a freelance assortment of like-minded groups. It became known as the cosche, “a clan or familial organization.” A single, formidable man solidified power in a given region. This man, similar to a “boss” or a “don” in modern terms, cloaked himself in honor, as the word “honor” reinvented itself for its new place and time. The agreements multiplied on the local and national levels, creating a web of power that even Benito Mussolini could not destroy.
The Mafia has lost that sense of a once noble mission, yet it continues to create culture. It has expanded into a global syndicate of criminal groups that engage in illegal activities. Ricci explains: “There is truly nothing more international than criminal organizations, especially the Neapolitan and Calabrian Mafia. The Italian Mafia’s criminal networks are potentially without limit.”
While films such as The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas show snapshots of what the Mafia has become on foreign soil, all roads lead back to Sicily, which makes this course’s approach to history and language studies unique. The journey from Palermo into the many incarnations of the Mafia universe requires that students examine historical texts, court documents, documentaries and newspaper articles. The course covers more than a century of the Mafia’s evolution from the late 1800s through the present. It is an introduction to a critical period of Italian history, through interpretation of blood-sealed silences that are finally given voice.
In seeking to bring transparency to what has long been hidden, the course offers not only words and images but also new understanding to the keepers of the Code of Silence. Ricci says, “Teaching this course is part of my ethical commitment towards my country and my values against corruption.’’