When we arrived in Palermo, Sicily, a few weeks ago, our trip leader told us we were going to spend time with an interesting person to discuss a “controversial” subject. Somehow I hadn’t figured on meeting Angelo Provenzano, whose father Bernardo used to be the Mafia’s capo di tutt’i capi, the “Boss of all Bosses.”
Bernardo took over the Mafia in 1993, despite the fact that he had been indicted for murder and on the run for thirty years. I couldn’t quite follow how that worked, but apparently Angelo was born while his father was a fugitive in hiding. He told us that his father spent his last ten years in prison, where the family visited him monthly until he died last year at 83, which is pretty old for someone in his line of work.
That was the first of several Sicilian surprises. Next was Castelbuono which, as the name implies, is the location of a “good castle,” built in the fourteenth century and still in good shape. I thought that was old until we got to Mazara, where we met the “Dancing Satyr,” 2000 year-old Roman statue that is missing both legs but otherwise looks like new. After resting on the ocean floor for a very long time, the statue was discovered in 1998 when a fishing boat net landed a leg and, weeks later, the head and torso, virtually intact. We met a crew member who was on the boat when they made that great catch. A prouder Sicilian doesn’t exist.
Sicily has a rich past, going back not just to the Romans but to the Greeks before them. In Agrigento you can see Greek temples from the fifth century B.C., and in Taormina you can visit the Greek Roman theatre, where the Greeks held plays, Roman gladiators squared off against lions, and the leaders of the G7 countries met in late May, just a few days after our visit.
The Taorminians weren’t too happy about their upcoming visitors, including our President. The town, which relies on tourism, was about to be shut down for a week for security reasons. And, with all those dignitaries coming, they needed a place for helicopters to land, so the government cut down 21 ancient olive trees to build a heliport, only to discover that the access road wasn’t wide enough for the limousines. So they had to build a second heliport.
These sights may fade from memory, but I won’t forget the encounter with Angelo Provenzano. He told us that he sees himself as an involuntary public figure who lives out his life, in Corleone, bearing the permanent scar imposed by his father. No matter how many more times I see The Godfather, it will never be quite the same.
I confess that I was somewhat uneasy during our time with the Boss’s son. Something about it just didn’t feel right, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. Obviously, his is not the sort of birthright of which he can be proud, much less want to discuss with strangers. I asked him a single question: “What do your siblings think about what you are doing, talking about this with visiting tourists?”
His answer was. “They live their lives and I live mine.”
One woman in our group couldn’t stop asking questions. Finally, maybe trying to cheer him up, she said, “I’m sure your father was just trying to take good care of his family.”
She actually said that.