The Mafia is the exception

In a recent article on the popular British newspaper The Guardian, the appointment of Palermo as the Italian Culture Capital for 2018 is put into context. The author writes profusely about the Mafia, the car-bombs and the killings of policemen and judges, and paints a picture of desolation and despair where the hero -the ever-ruling mayor Leoluca Orlando- wins the city back to culture and is now crowned with a final recognition of his hard work. In order to raise the level of his own account, the journalist needs to plunge the context into the darkness, and the darker the better for the hero of the story and for him who narrates the story itself.

Let’s be clear from the start: the problem is not the Mafia itself, that was and partly still is a character in the recent history of Palermo. The main issue is that a journalist writing an article on Palermo as a cultural capital feels the need to devote roughly 75% of his text to Cosa Nostra. Is this a true reflection of the role of the criminal phenomenon in the millenary history of this city? Obviously not. Is this problem so important as to define what Palermo truly is, a city of mafiosi? Again, obviously not. Is it then the reason why Palermo received the award? Yet again, obviously not.

The article makes no mention of the museums of Palermo, nor does tell the reader of the amazing masterpieces they keep and display. Yet we are talking about places like the Galleria di Palazzo Abatellis, refurbished by the celebrated architect Carlo Scarpa and regarded as a powerful synthesis between an ancient building and modern exhibition concepts. We are talking about the place where you can see the Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina, a sort of Mona Lisa of the 15th century, that with just one tiny gesture breaks the entire canon of medieval painting ushering us into the renaissance use of perspective and building a spatial dialogue with the viewer.  Not a word about the widest historic town centre in Europe, and its enormous wealth of churches, aristocratic palaces, splendor, and opulence. Not even a cursory mention of the Teatro Massimo, the third biggest opera house in Europe and masterpiece of the floral current of the Art Nouveau (the “Stile Liberty”). Not a word about the significance of Palermo as a centre of irradiation for the medieval Gothic style, tempered with islamic and byzantine influxes in that Siculo-Norman style that is so peculiar that it has been included in the World Heritage list maintained by the UNESCO.

So it appears now that we need to put the article into a wider context, and here it disappears. Yes, the hero of the story played a major role in that energizing season that was the Palermitan Spring that followed the killings of judges Falcone and Borsellino. But that hero is the same mayor that pumped unemployed and underqualified people in their thousands into a municipal temporary job, creating false expectations and massive inefficiency in the city council for mere political gain. He is one of the souls behind the renovation of the historic centre, but at the same time that very city centre can be regarded as a periphery in the heart of the city, with huge pockets of indecency behind the renewed facades of the main historic buildings. This same project, still ongoing after 25 years is still slow and with grey areas.  Lights and shades of a man with a surprising ability to manipulate the popular consensus, maybe thanks to his above-the-average cultural standing.

Palermo does not deserve to be Italian Culture Capital for 2018 because its people was at the forefront in the battle with powerful criminal organizations. Palermo deserves to be recognized as a cultural capital because it was one of the biggest cities of medieval Europe, with poets, architects, artists and lawmakers shaping the history of thought and the arts for decades. It deserves this title because the competition amongst the members of its aristocratic class produced one of the most extraordinary gatherings of craftsmanship, opulence, thinking, in Europe between the 15th and the 19th century. Its role during the Belle Epoque as a first-class centre for the study of mathematics, in the middle of a city regularly visited by Kaisers and the Tzars, needs to be more widely known.

Failing to tell this story is just a sign of that overly-self-critical tendency that is a typical feature of the average inhabitant of Palermo. Even at a superficial look, everything in Palermo speaks about history and culture. The Mafia is just the exception.