Mafia: Bold, Brave, and Beautiful

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Palazzo Branciforte

While reading Helena Attlee’s “The Land Where Lemons Grow,” she wrote the most interesting thing that in Palermo dialect the word “mafia” originally meant bold or beautiful completely different from its meaning during the same time in Piedmontese or the Florentine dialect which meant poor, petty, and miserable. The meaning of bold, brave, and arrogant first appeared in the 1650s and then about 250 years later the added meanings of beautiful, perfect also took hold. As time went on, it continued to evolve in Palermo dialect to also mean something closer to a union or fraternity of brothers.

The area outside of Palermo known as the Golden Bowl or Conca d’Oro was where for centuries lemon trees had been cultivated and lovingly cared for amid palaces and later Art Nouveau buildings (I wish I could have seen it) which were all then demolished by the money the Cosa Nostra made from exploiting the lemon trees or the wooden slaves they had once protected- all to be replaced with high-rise buildings. But even after blind capitalist corruption, earthquakes, bombings, and volcano eruptions, Sicily is still bellezza, baldanza, perfezione, eccellenza or mafia from 1880. One can only imagine how beautiful it must have been when Palermo was one of the most dazzling, cosmopolitan cities in Europe. There are still a few street signs in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic.

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Detail from the Church of Gesù
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Heaven as Palermo
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