The three biggest Italian mafias remain a powerful presence, with tentacles reaching deep inside Italian business and politics, but our understanding of them is marred by myths and misconceptions. Professor John Dickie of University College London, author of three books on the mafia, recommends what to read to get a better understanding of what the mafia really is.
Before we get to the books, a general question: rather than referring to the Italian mafia, would it be more accurate to talk about Italian mafias, given that there are a number of criminal organisations operating in the country?
Yes it would. There are three powerful mafias in Italy: Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian mafia as it is known today; the ’ndrangheta of Calabria in the far south of the country, and the Camorra in the Naples and Campania region. Cosa Nostra and the ’ndrangheta are quite similar. The easiest way to define a mafia is as a freemasonry of criminals—it’s the freemasons for murderers—and that’s what Cosa Nostra and the ’ndrangheta are. The Camorra is different in that it’s a catch-all term for a much less centrally coordinated archipelago of gangs that range from city drug dealers to clans that look much more like the Sicilian mafia, like the Casalesi—who threatened to kill the journalist Roberto Saviano.
Those are the three major ones, although there are smaller ones too. As I say in my book Mafia Brotherhoods, Italy doesn’t just have a mafia, it has a criminal ecosystem in which existing mafias evolve and new ones come into being.
When did they first take root in Italy?
Their origins are tied very closely to the emergence of Italy as a unified state. Italy only became one country formally in 1861. The long process leading up to Italian unification—il Risorgimento—is really the key explanation of the emergence of the mafias. Put very briefly, in Southern Italy il Risorgimento was much more of a revolution and was more violent than it was in the rest of the country. Revolutions need an armed wing, and the idealistic patriots who were conspiring to overthrow the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies—as Southern Italy and Sicily were called—and unite it with the rest of Italy, formed an alliance with violent criminals whom they used as revolutionary muscle. Our best guess at why the mafias are organised like freemasons—with admission rituals, hierarchies, internal courts and codes of behaviour—is that they learnt that way of organising themselves from these patriots, many of whom were freemasons or involved in Masonic-style secret societies.
“The long process leading up to Italian unification—il Risorgimento—is really the key explanation of the emergence of the mafias.”
There are a couple of riders to that theory. Firstly, the ’ndrangheta arrived slightly later—in the 1880s. The Camorra also died out at one point, principally because of a huge trial in 1911 to 1912. Since that point, Camorra has actually meant a number of different things, as I have already mentioned, ranging from common or garden smuggling gangs to much bigger, more formally structured crime groups. The Camorra in the form of an Honoured Society re-emerged in the 1970s, in Raffaele Cutolo’s remarkable Nuova Camorra Organizzata. Cutolo probably borrowed the ideas for his organisation—the most numerous in Italian mafia history—from the ’ndrangheta, into which he was initiated, as well as from books about the old Neapolitan Honoured Society he borrowed from prison libraries.
In terms of their power today, how does it compare to, say, 25 years ago?
In the late 1970s and 1980s, large parts of Sicily and the South looked like they would become narco-provinces. Cosa Nostra was controlling the wholesale heroin market in the eastern United States and making rivers of dollars. It had the organisation, wealth and firepower to confront the Italian state directly—quite literally to kill anyone who stood in its way. Add to that, it had also heavily infiltrated the Italian state. The two Salvo cousins—who were probably both Men of Honour, as mafia initiates are known—ran the company that collected most of Sicily’s taxes and pocketed about 10% of the island’s tax revenue. This gives you some idea of the level of infiltration in the 1980s.
There have been enormous strides since then. The streets are not filled with bodies to nearly the same extent as they were 20 or 30 years ago. Italy—largely because of the sacrifice of heroic policemen and women, magistrates and carabinieri—has far better organised and professional law enforcement than it has ever had. The entire historical leadership of the Sicilian mafia, for example, is behind bars apart from one man—Matteo Messina Denaro.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
That doesn’t mean that the mafia is dead—far from it. One of the reasons that the Sicilian mafia is organised as it is, is that somebody is always ready to step into their boss’s shoes. But, nonetheless, it’s a crisis that Cosa Nostra is now living through and it’s having to find different strategies to survive and prosper. To some extent that’s also true of the Camorra and ’ndrangheta, where the magistrature has also enjoyed some success. But we are still talking about deep-rooted organisations able to collect protection money. Last year alone, more than 140 journalists were threatened by them and there are still very high-level politicians being investigated for mafia links. So there’s still a long way to go.
The books you’ve chosen, some of them are quite in-depth and perhaps more for somebody who already knows a bit about the mafia. For somebody who has never read a nonfiction book about the mafia, they should probably start with one of your books, do you think?
Hopefully, yes, that was my intention in writing them. Starting with Cosa Nostra, I wanted to provide a new, nonfictional starting point. So that would be the idea. Also, the Varese book I’ve recommended, Mafia Life, is very good. It’s not specific to Italy and covers all kinds of criminal brotherhoods all over the world.
How do your other books fit, in terms of covering the mafia ecosystem?
Cosa Nostra is just about the Sicilian mafia. When it came to writing the other two, I wanted to write a history of the other major criminal fraternities: the Camorra in Naples and the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria. It didn’t make sense to write about them individually, so Mafia Brotherhoods and Mafia Republic cover two different historical periods. Mafia Brotherhoods is from the unification of Italy to the fall of fascism. Mafia Republic covers the post-war period to the present day. They cover the history of all three organizations and, in the process, I was able to integrate all sorts of new material about the Sicilian mafia. They aren’t just a retread of Cosa Nostra, because all sorts of new research had been done—some by me, some by others—since Cosa Nostra was first published back in 2003. So I wanted to reflect the state of the new research.
Your books talk about myths and misconceptions of the mafia in Italy. What are they?
There are so many, and they are often contradictory. One of the biggest is the widely held view outside Italy that the criminal organisations of Italy are not really organisations, but are an expression of the family and culture of southern Italy. That’s complete nonsense. Historically the mafias have developed very specific forms to suit their business activities.
Cosa Nostra and the ’ndrangheta have a dynastic politics that resembles the royal families of medieval Europe. In other words, they keep their women at home and they use them as pawns in the diplomatic game. When a war is about to be fought, alliances are made by marrying off your daughter to the son of another family. Or if a war has just ended, you seal the peace with a marriage. Southern Italians just don’t do that. This is a very specific mafia form of behaviour to do with the politics of the organisations and with finding ways to project their power and wealth down through the generations. It’s remarkably far-sighted, and one of the things that differentiates mafias from mere gangsters.
And Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, paints completely the wrong picture.
It’s spectacularly and often comically wrong. Not only is it very badly written, but it also gets the mafia wrong in one crucial respect—it thinks it is about family and not about organisation. It falls fully for that myth of the ancient culture of southern Italy which defends itself by forming this entity called the mafia. The mafia is a criminal organisation and always has been.
The Godfather is a “three bears” story about the three sons—Sonny, Michael and Fredo. Sonny is too macho and too violent, and Fredo is too wimpy. Michael is just right—he’s the calculating family man. The book makes uncomfortable reading because it uses sex and sexuality as a metaphor for all of this. Fredo is dissipated and a bit of an aesthete, while Michael only ever has sex in the missionary position. Sonny is basically a walking male member—the novel talks an awful lot about the dimensions of his virilia. So The Godfather has that kind of comic aspect to it. It’s a really strange novel and it seems extraordinary that it has managed to sell 21 million copies, given how clunky and weird it is.
Let’s turn to the books you’ve recommended for understanding what the mafia is really like (other than your own of course!) Why don’t we start with Salvatore Lupo, whom you’ve described as ‘the pioneer’ of mafia history. Could you say a bit about him and what the state of mafia history was before he came along?
Salvatore Lupo is Sicilian and now a professor of history at Palermo University. He’s a friend of mine. In some sense Lupo’s research is the unifying thread of my book, Cosa Nostra, although it does draw on many other sources as well. I was trying to make his research—as well as a lot of other stuff—accessible to an English-speaking audience of non-specialists.
Lupo began by writing a book on the lemon industry in Sicily, which is significant because that’s where the mafia began. But his historical investigations moved in parallel with the story of the Palermo Maxi trial. That’s the trial that began with the first confession of a mafia boss, Tommaso Buscetta, who turned state’s evidence in 1984, and ended with the final verdict of Italy’s supreme court in 1992. Over the course of those eight years, we found out what the mafia was, legally. A whole new precedent was set for treating the mafia as an organization, and not as a sort of loose archipelago of gangs, or—still worse—a sort of diffuse Sicilian mentality. The shocking thing is that this really was the first time that had been proved. Then, of course, it was in 1992 that both the magistrates who pioneered that Maxi trial prosecution—Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino—were murdered by the mafia in revenge.
“Lupo began by writing a book on the lemon industry in Sicily, which is significant because that’s where the mafia began”
Lupo’s historical investigations were triggered by the judicial findings. As the mafia’s existence was mapped out and Cosa Nostra was shown to exist in the 1980s, historians began to ask, ‘When did it begin? How did it begin? When did it become what it is now? Has it always been the same?’ Lupo was really the first to write a credible history of the mafia. He started by investigating certain key moments in its history and then sewed all the research together for the first time in a small, very dense book. A lot more research has been done since then, but his book still stands up really well. It was the first proper history of the Sicilian mafia and it was only published in 1993, the year after Falcone and Borsellino were murdered. So it was a hugely important book.
In terms of the book you’re recommending by Salvatore Lupo, it’s called The Two Mafias: A Transatlantic History, 1888-2008. How does it fit in?
That’s a more recent book. Lupo’s original book was, unfortunately, really badly translated—so badly translated, in fact, that it’s almost not worth reading in English. This book, The Two Mafias, was much better translated, partly because I corrected it and talked in depth to Lupo about it while it was being translated into English, to make sure that we got everything straight.
The breakthrough of this book is that he treats the American and the Sicilian mafia as part of the same criminal system. American historians had focused exclusively on the American side of the story and had dismissed the Sicilian side as an antiquated, primitive mafia. Sicilian writers had focused exclusively on the Sicilian side. What he argues is that since the 1980s there has been a constant traffic in ideas, in criminal personnel and criminal commodities (like drugs), backwards and forwards across the Atlantic. There really have been transatlantic mafia bosses who have operated in both spheres and we cannot conceive of how the mafia became so powerful on both shores without examining the dynamic relationship between the organization’s two branches. Neither one nor the other is more sophisticated or powerful or more businesslike than the other. They’re both part of the same system.
It’s an extraordinary insight and it allows Lupo to explain an awful lot that’s new about the mafia. It’s an international perspective and that’s why it’s so exciting.
So there’s no senior or junior partner, head office versus a satellite?
No. And there are fascinating insights—for example, how mafiosi argue whether being a member of the Sicilian mafia automatically entitles you to the status of mafioso in the United States or not. They argue about that sort of thing. It gives you a sense that they’re in the same world, the same system.
The Two Mafias is an extraordinary work of scholarship. People tend to forget how tricky it is to write reliable history when some of the sources are mafiosi themselves—many of whom are born liars. Lupo shows real forensic skill in sifting out the lies from the truth, and in showing how the lies can still be very significant in their own way.
The next book you’re recommending is by Giovanni Falcone, whom you’ve already mentioned as he is one of the great heroes of the fight against the mafia. It’s now nearly three decades since Cosa Nostra blew up a highway to kill him, along with his wife and bodyguards. Can you tell us in a bit more detail who he was?
Giovanni Falcone was an epoch-making figure in the history of the Italian mafia. He was a prosecuting magistrate who—assisted by his close colleague Paolo Borsellino, who was also murdered in 1992— developed a new method for investigating the mafia. It was based around, in the first instance, following the money trail. They then assembled the prosecution case in the most important mafia trial of all time—the Maxi trial in Palermo—which ran from 1986 to 1987. It was a massive trial that saw more than 400 mafiosi charged established a legal precedent for the existence of the Sicilian mafia. As I mentioned before, Italy did not recognise the existence of the mafia until the Maxi trial. In fact, it did not formally recognise the existence of the Sicilian mafia until January 1992, when Italy’s supreme court issued a ruling approving the verdict of the Maxi trial. It’s no coincidence that Falcone and Borsellino were murdered within weeks of that ruling—they had proved the mafia existed and the mafia reacted by killing them.
“He famously says that the mafia is a human creation and like all human creations it has a beginning and will have an end”
Falcone also did something very important which is often forgotten. In the last phase of his career, when he was working in Rome, he set up the national coordinating structures for investigating and prosecuting mafia crime based on his methods. Everybody today who is involved in fighting the mafia now works according to the Falcone method.
It’s based on an interview with a French journalist a few weeks before Falcone was blown up on 23 May 1992. It’s basically a theme-by-theme account of what the Cosa Nostra is and how it works, by somebody who knew it better than anybody else. You get a sense of the man’s extraordinary lucidity and humanity in the way he describes it. He famously says that the mafia is a human creation and like all human creations it has a beginning and will have an end. So he certainly didn’t subscribe to the theory that the mafia was hardwired into the Sicilian psyche and couldn’t be separated out and defeated.
He really understood the mentality of mafiosi, especially the hidden meanings in their mannerisms and gestures, didn’t he?
That’s principally because he was the first magistrate who actually took seriously the testimonies of mafia defectors—seriously in the sense that he didn’t just want to take bits and pieces of their evidence that he could use, but he wanted to find out about the whole mafia system, its way of thinking and the rules that governed its internal behaviour. A lot of what he learns comes from Tommaso Buscetta, who in his own way made history just as much as Giovanni Falcone. Buscetta turned state’s evidence in July 1984 after most of his family was murdered by his mafia enemies. It was Falcone’s debriefing of Buscetta that set the Maxi trial in motion and gave Falcone a real grasp of the human reality within Cosa Nostra. He said Buscetta was like an interpreter who allowed him to finally speak and understand the language of the mafia. Falcone shows in this book that he really was the first non-mafioso to master that language.
Next on your list is La Sicilia e gli Alleati 1943-45 by Manoela Patti, who is also a historian at Palermo University. The book is about this fascinating period in history after the Allies landed in Sicily in 1943. Unfortunately, it’s only available in Italian (so far). Can you explain why it’s so important that you’ve included it on your list of books for understanding the mafia?
Patti is on the list as the representative of a whole generation of young researchers who have done so much in recent years to advance our understanding of the mafia in Sicily and elsewhere. Her little book is about the crucial years in Sicily after the Allied invasion in the summer of 1943. Some of the most widespread myths about the Sicilian mafia concern that moment in history. It is often said, particularly in Italy, that Mussolini had done away with the mafia 15 years earlier, and that the Americans brought the mafia back in 1943. It’s even claimed—and people get very angry if you deny this myth—that the Americans secretly planned their invasion of Sicily with the mafia’s collaboration. Patti’s study shows a number of things: that the mafia had never gone away, and was widespread and influential in Fascist Italy; that the Americans had no grand plan to bring the mafia back; and that it was the climate of confusion and illegality (dysfunctional rationing, black market, etc) that gave the mafia huge opportunities to impose itself after 1943.
Let’s turn now to Mafia Life by Federico Varese, which you’ve already mentioned as a good starting point for learning about the mafia. This book is not just about Italy or America, but the mafia way of life around the world, and what it’s like.
Federico Varese, who is a criminology professor at Oxford, has here written a highly accessible account of mafia-type organizations internationally. He has an unrivalled knowledge of mafias beyond the Italian context. What he shows is the remarkable similarity in methods and behavior between criminal brotherhoods in all sorts of different geographical locations. That’s why the Italian word ‘mafia’ has become so widespread: because it describes a form of criminal organization that can be found around the world.
I know that one of the themes of your book, Mafia Brotherhoods, is how the mafia exploits women and family relationships. Please tell us more about your final choice, Clare Longrigg’s Mafia Women.
Mafia Women is a great piece of journalism and another one of those rare books on the mafia written by an outsider that commands respect in Italy. It picks on an issue that is fascinating and historically very important—it’s about what the mafia does to women and the role that they have. We’re all fascinated by the figure of the female gangster, but Longrigg shows that there are many more dimensions to women’s roles within Italy’s criminal organisations.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
When you look up close, it’s not the active gun-toting women who are the most fascinating—it’s the women whose existence is dominated by the task of breeding mafia sons and passing on to them the values of honour and violence when their fathers are in prison or dead. They live under extraordinary psychological pressure and it’s a story that we have only just begun to find out about.
Is this book a collection of individual stories?
The basis of it is stories about individual women, some of whom are as much victims as perpetrators. One that sticks in the mind as powerfully moving is the story of Rita Atria. She was a daughter of a mafioso and her brothers were mafiosi. She turned state’s evidence after her brother was killed. She was only a teenager at the time and had to unlearn the mafia brainwashing that she had undergone since birth. A number of mafiosi were convicted on the basis of her evidence.
While going through this whole process she attached herself very closely to Paolo Borsellino, who became something of a surrogate father to her. Tragically, exactly a week after Borsellino was killed in July 1992, Rita Atria jumped to her death from the window of her safe house. It’s a horrible story that just gives a sense of the extraordinary stakes involved in being a woman inside that mafia culture.
In terms of fiction about the mafia, are there any novels or films that you think are helpful to read or watch to learn more about it?
I get my students to watch Gomorrah (the movie, not the book or the TV series). It’s a film that gives a very powerful sense of the disorientating, semi-chaotic world of the Neapolitan Camorra. It does it by challenging some of the cinematic clichés that we owe to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy—clichés that have ended up glamourizing the mafia. Gomorrah tells us that we have to change our lens if we really want to understand the reality of organized crime.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org