I have walked down the streets of Palermo’s poor neighborhoods. Catania’s poor neighborhoods too. Garbage on the sidewalks and streets. Broken bottles. Discarded rags and tired, worn out underwear and jeans. Trampled plastic cups and more bottles. Plastic bags of rotting food. Buildings on both sides of these narrow streets are coming down. Plaster walls are crumbling; tired house paint peels and falls into the gutters. Wooden doors have seen too much rain and wind and merciless sun. Their hinges are rust. They creak and grind in the wind.
This is the home of Sicily’s poor, the popolino, an underclass that lives and survives on the fringes of an underground economy. It is a painful picture. It is a picture that is bizarrely divided into two sections, like a diptych. One section portrays the poor and illiterate; the other section shows the ruins of lives of the rich, lives that were once wrapped in velvet and tied up with silk ribbons. While Sicily’s peasants have been tramped on by wealthy landowners and the government, often working closely with the mafia and the church, the wealthiest Sicilians have sometimes lost their fortunes and have joined the ranks of the poor. Extravagant palazzi crumble and decay just as easily as slummy houses. It just takes a little longer.
Sicily’s towns and cities and villages are certainly not all in ruins. Capitalist poverty is not around every corner. Palermo, which was once one of the most spectacular cities in Europe, is filled with lovely parks— the English Garden and Garibaldi Park—and sports one of Europe’s finest opera houses. Catania, too, has the very busy Via Etnae and the Teatro Bellini, an opera house named after Vincenzo Bellini, the city’s most famous composer of operas. Indeed, Sicily is an endearing patchwork of beautiful baroque architecture and neighborhoods of ratty houses and shops.
Is there a freakish and outlandish beauty in Sicily’s ruins of poverty? If you like the work of abstract artists such as Antoni Tàpies, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis or Italian Arte Povera artist Alberto Burri, you will most likely say “yes.” Your eye likes the peeling, worn-out colors of house paint. You can’t stop looking at the rotting doors and window shutters. These are not the columns of a Greek temple, but like those ruins they represent something that has never been a part of our lives. They come out of a history we can only imagine. They smell of nostalgia. They represent the lives of the people who lived in them and may still live in them. Here in Sicily decay hides the lives and hopes of poor seamstresses and ragpickers and illegal immigrants— and the lives of countesses and princes whose fortunes collapsed and disappeared.
In Sicilian Lives Danilo Dolci digs into the poverty of Sicily. He interviews prisoners, bandits, clergy, mafiosi, shepherds, farmers and a princess whose fortunes are built on the making of fine wines. Princess Sonia Alliata of the Sicilian House of Salaparuta, known today from the Salaparuta name on wine bottles, explained her position on wealth and poverty. She admitted that her wealth meant that other Sicilians had to live in poverty. She could see that poverty was decreasing but said she was in pain because of her losses, losses probably caused by government programs to eliminate poverty.
It is Sicily’s poor, however, who lose the most. Certainly not the island’s wine producing princesses. The centuries have tread very heavily on the peasants, stealing their hopes for a better future—for any future—and sealing them up in houses and shacks and huts without windows and with roofs that leak rain and dust into their lives. Their dreams, if they have dreams, crumble. The walls crumble, the paint peels and the mortar between the bricks and stones turns to dust and falls into the street or blows away into the fields. There is no electricity and no running water. Darkness and dust paint a sad and frightening picture of poverty. Is it any wonder there is no future tense in the Sicilian language?
The shadows of Sicily’s streets hide shattered walls with forgotten doors and derelict windows. The desolate anatomy of Sicily’s poverty. In those shadows there is a lost world of broken dreams and distorted memories, somewhere on the other side of time. Time erases the people who built their lives in and around these ruins. They are gone. They are forgotten. Many of these walls will be torn down and will be replaced by new walls covered with cheap paint and cheap siding. It will be called progress. It isn’t. What it really is is a shabby coverup of Sicilian life. It is like a big eraser. It erases the laughter of a child playing with his favorite toy, the giggles of a girl teasing her boyfriend and the sighs and smiles of a mother reading a letter from her army sergeant son who is stationed in some dangerous part of the world. The new walls speak only of loss—the loss of a past that was distressed by a lack of food, no health care, illiteracy and no work. A past, however, that was filled with a kind of moral courage that can be learned only from poverty.
The beauty of the old walls with the peeling paint and run-down masonry and rotting window frames is a trap. It is a kind of beauty that traps you between the fascination of textures and colors and the painful poverty and neglect that have been hammered out and scraped down by the greed of the wealthy elite. You are in a difficult spot. You have become tangled in a visual and intellectual dilemma, and an economic dilemma. Capitalism, with its badly distorted distribution of money, builds the walls of poverty. The rich complain about paying taxes to support the poor. The poor have developed their own tax collecting system—they steal.
There is no beauty in shattered walls. Not really. But walls talk. Crumbling walls are a mirror that tells us the shocking truth about our own impermanence. And they are a sort of diary in that they tell us about the people who lived behind the walls and windows and doors of ruin. That’s where the real beauty is. The beauty is in the lives of Sicily’s poor and in the pain of riches lost and never regained. It is in their moral courage. It is in their swampy struggle to survive, a struggle that sometimes links arms with violence and crime. As French anthropologist Louis Dumont put it, “The struggle of everybody against everybody else.”
Historians have a difficult time deciding when banditry and brigandage became prominent in Sicily. I suspect it has always been there, just as it has always been everywhere. The revolt of 1848, a revolt against the Bourbon, however, provoked student riots in Palermo. Soon students were joined by peasants and shepherds eager to settle grievances against landowners and the government. There were bread riots, massive slaughters of sheep and the burning of crops. The bands of brigands that were born out of this massive conflict eventually became the mafia. Government at all levels broke down and as years went by gang warfare took over.
Garibaldi invaded Sicily in 1860. The mafia, some historians believe, helped him conquer the island. Three years later a successful play called I Mafiusi della Vicaria by Giuseppe Rizzotto, which was set in Palermo’s notorious Ucciardone prison, depicted the mafia as a mob of the island’s worst gangsters who used the prison as headquarters to plan their bloody crimes against the Sicilian people. It was perhaps the first time the word “mafia” was used in such a public way.
Guy de Maupassant visited Sicily in 1885. He was determined to prove to Europeans of the north that it was safe to travel in Sicily despite rumors of bandits and brigands. “People are convinced in France,” he said, “that Sicily is an uncivilized country, difficult and even dangerous to visit.” Despite de Maupassant’s account of his safe travel in Sicily, most travelers to the island continued to be concerned about bandits. Even today some guidebooks recommend that you do not walk the streets of Palermo or Catania at night. Both cities, however, have become night cities thanks to young people. The guidebooks need to catch up.
The past lives in the walls of Sicily’s cities and towns and villages. The walls speak of the bloody horrors of wars and conquests, and of sciroccos that blow African heat and dust across the mountains and plains and down the street. If we are willing to listen for a while they will tell us about terrifying earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. And about the sad death of a favorite grandmother. It is a Proustian kind of thing.
Sicily’s history is punctuated by slave revolts and peasant uprisings against rich and powerful landowners. Giovanni Verga, a major Sicilian verismo writer who grew up in a moderately wealthy family, wrote often about the poor and their dreams of making better lives for their families. He was, however, not optimistic that their dreams could ever come true.
Like Dumont, the French anthropologist, Verga, in his stories and novels, saw life as an unending and brutish struggle for power. His characters live in a violent landscape and are the fodder of a history that has taken advantage of their weaknesses and made it considerably unlikely that their hard work and moral integrity would lift them out of the hell of poverty. The walls of their houses crumble, the paint peels and dirt floors turn to mud when the rain pours through holes in the roof. There is no beauty for Sicily’s impoverished. There is only an inner strength that the elite, the rich, know nothing about.
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There still is poverty in Sicily today. A 2015 ISTAT report on poverty in Italy showed that 55 percent of Sicilians live in poverty. That is an improvement. After the end of World War II—after the massive bombing by the Americans and the British—poverty in Sicily was probably at its worst.
In 1954, nine years after the war ended, the Department of Public Works estimated that 60,000 Palermo residents lived in hammered together shacks and shanties. That same year the Regional Housing Department reported that 36,131 houses in Palermo that provided shelter for 200,000 people were in danger of total collapse. During that same period almost 3,000 people lived in grottoes or shacks. A grotto was a wretched hole in the ground about seven feet deep and measuring about nine by six feet. Life in these grottoes was terrifying. Disease was rampant. Still worse, the families who lived in them were charged rent.
The grottoes are gone. The uprisings and revolts are gone. Instead of knives and guns, today’s young Sicilians are armed with cans of spray paint. They don’t like the wealthy elite anymore than the 19th-century bandits did. Recently I spotted graffiti sprayed on a newly renovated palazzo near the Ballarò market in Palermo. It said—EAT THE RICH! Yes, there were expensive cars parked in the piazza in front of the building.
The struggle goes on—and on. Walls crumble. Paint peels. Doors rot. The elite, the rich, stand and admire the ruins of poverty—poverty they helped create—and then speed away in their flashy cars.