Frontline World

Sicily - A Bridge Too Far? , April 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
No Dolce Vita
Aurelio
The Strait
Homecoming
Arancine
Il Postino
Nino Calarco
Anna Giordano
No Dolce Vita
Jamiolkowski
A link between Sicily and mainland Italy was first talked about as early as 260 B.C. During the Punic Wars, Roman generals hoped to build a bridge to help transport marching troops into Sicily. More than 2,000 years later, during the unification of Italy in the 1860s, Giuseppe Garibaldi -- who led the conquest of Sicily and helped unify Italy -- envisioned a bridge over the Strait of Messina as a symbol of unity for the nation. Another 100 years later, in the 1970s, the bridge was declared a national priority, but again with no real results. Now Berlusconi, elected in 2001, has named the bridge as part of his ambitious series of massive infrastructure projects.

First the Romans tried to build a bridge, then Garibaldi. What makes Berlusconi think he can do what they couldn't?

Many pose that very question.

Crumbling temple

Known as Hercules' Temple, this temple in the mountains of San Marco d'Alunzio (near Messina) was probably built by the Greeks in the fourth century. Like many Sicilian towns, San Marco has a beautiful blend of art and architecture, with Roman, Greek, Carthaginian, Byzantine, Baroque, Norman and Arab influences.
It's been said that Sicilians just have a fatalistic temperament -- that they think conditions on the island will never change or improve. But others argue Sicilian skepticism isn't because of personality, it's based on past experience as the "cradle of invasion." With every invasion, each ruler used the island to serve his own interests.

And most Sicilians agree that even when Garibaldi brought his troops to the south to "liberate" Sicily and unify Italy, northerners benefited more from the arrangement. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was dismantled, but the northern kings still played a role in the new Italian government.

Poverty in the Mezzogiorno is called "the southern question," but some say national policies aimed at benefiting the north are the real problem.

"The north had their dolce vita," my cousin, Leonardo, told me during a drive along the northern coast of Sicily. "But here, there was no dolce vita for us."

Leonardo and I continued talking as we headed to Cefalù, a beachside town located between Palermo and Messina. We were driving on the infamous Messina-Palermo autostrada, a highway that was started decades ago but never completed. I asked Leonardo why it has taken so long.

"In Sicily, they eat the money," he said, explaining that construction companies often get paid for a project, then spend the money elsewhere.

"Do you mean they're Mafia companies?" I asked him.

It's always been difficult for me to talk about the Cosa Nostra with my family. The first time I was in Sicily, in 1999, the newspapers were reporting on the Mafia's "baby killers," young men whom the mob started training as hit men as early as 10 or 11 years old -- boys who couldn't be tried as adults if arrested.

Driver with carriage

Horse-drawn carriages in Sicily were traditionally covered in intricate paintings of everything from Biblical scenes to historic leaders. This one in Palermo is mainly for tourists.
"Terrible," one of my cousins would say about the preteen hit men, then quickly change the subject. They usually laugh when I ask if the family has had problems with the Mafia. But they always seem to know somebody who's had trouble. I met one friend of the family whose house was set on fire by an arsonist after his parents refused to sell it to a Mafia family.

"It's OK," the young man said. "We had insurance."

The only family member we know of who was killed by the Mafia was my cousin Augie Palmisano, and that was after his family settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the early 1980s, Augie insulted the Mafia don of Milwaukee, and he died soon afterward when a bomb hidden in his car exploded as he placed his key in the ignition. As a result, the silence around the Mafia in my family stretches across continents.

Even though my family doesn't talk much about the Mafia, nobody denies that it has power in Sicily.

"The most powerful Mafia is hidden," Leonardo's son Giovanni told me. When I asked Giovanni to go with me on a drive to the city of Corleone, he told me there was nothing to see.

"That's a Mafia city," he said.

It's hard to blame Sicilians for just trying to avoid the Cosa Nostra. They've seen plenty of examples of people who've stood up to the Mafia and paid for it with their lives. In 1992, near the town of Capaci, not far from Palermo, mob hit men laid a mass of explosives under the autostrada. When legendary anti-Mafia crusader Judge Giovanni Falcone and his wife drove past, the bombs were detonated and killed them both.

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