By Alexander Stille, originally published in Media Studies Journal, Volume 14, Number 2, Spring/Summer 2000
Letizia Battaglia began to photograph the Sicilian Mafia in 1974, long before it was popular, chic, convenient or particularly safe to do so. As the photography director of L’Ora, Palermo’s left-wing daily newspaper, she or one of her assistants was present at the scene of every major crime in Palermo until shortly before the paper folded in 1990. During that period, a new, bloody ruling group within Cosa Nostra, the Mafia of the town of Corleone, wiped out the traditional bosses of Palermo and those most closely connected to them, conducting a war of extermination that cost the lives of about 1,000 people.
On call from morning until late at night, Battaglia sometimes found herself at the scene of four or five different murders in a single day. In the course of this difficult, grisly, often profoundly unpleasant routine, Battaglia and her long-time partner Franco Zecchin produced many of the iconic images that have come to represent Sicily and the Mafia throughout the world: a corpse lying face down in an alleyway; a boy with his face hidden in a nylon stocking brandishing a weapon—the gun is a toy, but the look on the child’s face is that of a hardened killer; a group of black-shawled women sitting impassively on chairs in the presence of a corpse bleeding onto the sidewalk.
“For years, I photographed dead bodies,” Battaglia said. “We felt humiliated, a people crushed and humiliated by this tragedy of Mafia,” she said.
Battaglia lives in the old historic district of Palermo—a desperately poor and largely abandoned section that encapsulates the best and worst of one of the most fascinating and beautiful cities in Europe. It was once the center of the Palermo aristocracy, and its grand 17th- and 18th-century churches and palaces—filled with elaborate gilded stucco work and frescoed ceilings—are among the great expressions of baroque architecture in the world.
Battaglia is a short, rather petite woman, with shoulder-length blond hair and a pretty, delicately featured face. She wears informal, loose-fitting clothes and sandals and uses no make-up. Her hair is generally a little disheveled, held in place by her glasses, as if she was too busy to be bothered with her appearance. Although she is now 64 and her figure has filled out with age, she seems much younger: her highly animated face and bright, lively eyes give her an almost girlish quality, the air of a restless person in constant motion, constantly open to new experience. She looks like, and is, a creature of the 1960s, which, in Italy, came late but then lasted throughout the 1970s and formed her personal and political makeup. Battaglia, meaning “battle,” is a name of Dickensian appropriateness in her case: she has fought innumerable political battles in Palermo, demonstrating against the Mafia, against American cruise missiles on Sicilian soil, against countless ugly development projects; in favor of the environment, feminism, the mentally ill, the gypsies and the latest wave of North African immigrants landing in Palermo.
Her decision to live in the old center of Palermo is, like most things in Battaglia’s life, a political decision. The abandonment of historic Palermo is an important part of what has been called “The Sack of Palermo.” In the 1950s and ’60s, Mafia-controlled real estate developers put up innumerable high-rise apartment houses in the newer part of the city leading toward the airport, while the old center was allowed literally to crumble about the ears of its citizens. The policy of willful neglect had the effect of depopulating the city center and forcing all but the very poorest people to leave the old downtown for the new high rises. By moving downtown, Battaglia has gambled her money and her life on the revival of Palermo.
The triple murder of a prostitute and her clients, Palermo, 1982
When battaglia started her photographic work, people regarded the Mafia as a purely criminal and local problem. Some even romanticized it. Anti-Mafia demonstrations in the 1970s were sparsely attended with most citizens closing their shutters in fear. But attitudes changed in the course of Battaglia’s career, in part because of deadly changes within the Mafia itself. In 1974, (the year Battaglia became photo director of L’Ora) there were only eight deaths by heroin overdose in all of Italy, but by the early 1990s there were more than 1,000 a year. The Sicilian Mafia, along with becoming the chief conduit of heroin between Asia and the United States, had decided to develop its own domestic market as well, creating an epidemic with a hard-core addict population of more than 200,000 in less than a decade. The drug trade attracted a public outcry, but as police and prosecutors tried to crack down on it they began to be killed with astonishing regularity. Between 1978 and 1992, the Sicilian Mafia murdered virtually every public official who interfered with its business—police officers, judges, prosecutors, mayors, members of parliament, the head of the chief governing party, the head of the chief opposition party, the general in charge of the military police and even the governor of Sicily.
Battaglia documented virtually all of these dismal events. The powerful images she created gave faces and corporeal reality to and helped awaken public awareness of a phenomenon that was tragically ignored for decades to the detriment of Sicily and Italy as a whole. The stories that accompanied those pictures have yellowed and faded, but her photographs have remained remarkably fresh and powerful.
As the political assassinations multiplied, people began to understand the importance of politics to Mafia business and the crucial role of political protection in enabling the Mafia’s ability to kill with impunity. As the political dimension of the Mafia began to become more and more evident, the crowds at anti-Mafia demonstrations got larger and louder. By the 1990s, the citizens of Palermo pelted their leaders with coins and demanded justice. Battaglia’s photographs and her own entrance in politics played a role in the transformation of public consciousness.
One morning in 1993, Italian police turned up at Battaglia’s front door with a warrant to examine her archives, asking to look through her files of the Christian Democratic Party—the party that ruled Sicily and Italy for virtually the entire post World War II period. Prosecutors were beginning to investigate the political ties of the Sicilian Mafia, and Battaglia’s photographs would prove invaluable in reconstructing who was sitting next to whom at certain key moments and events. Along with shooting crime scenes, Battaglia had photographed virtually everything of possible interest to the newspaper—fashion shows, religious processions, street scenes, striptease shows, wedding banquets and political rallies. Taking hundreds of shots a day for nearly 20 years, Battaglia had accumulated some 600,000 images—most of which remain in negatives and contact sheets—creating an extraordinary visual chronicle of Sicily over the years. Sicily was a political stronghold for the Christian Democrats. During the Cold War, when the Christian Democrats and their allies played a major role in blocking the Italian Communist Party’s rise to power, organized crime played a significant role in intimidating radical forces on the island. Between 1945 and 1955, 43 Socialists or Communists were murdered in Sicily, generally around election time. Unfortunately, the dependence of the governing parties grew even as the tensions of the Cold War began to lessen. By the 1970s, the Christian Democrats’ support had dropped below 30 percent in most of northern Italy, while they routinely collected more than 45 percent in southern places such as Palermo.
Under those conditions, it became difficult to get rid of local political bosses who were rumored to have organized crime connections but could deliver the vote. Battaglia shot a series of photographs of Vito Ciancimino, the former Christian Democratic mayor and former barber of Corleone—rumored for many years to be “in the pocket” of Salvatore “Totò” Riina, the boss of bosses of the Sicilian Mafia. Battaglia took a series of rather chilling photographs of Ciancimino laughing jovially as an honored guest at various Christian Democratic Party gatherings, at a time when his Mafia connections were supposed to have made him persona non grata in government circles. Among them are photographs of Ciancimino with Salvatore Lima, another former mayor of Palermo and Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s chief political supporter in Sicily.
Investigators also found a photograph from the late 1970s of Andreotti himself with a Sicilian businessman named Nino Salvo, who was later found to have been one of the linchpins of the Mafia system in Sicily. Salvo had been one of the biggest financial supporters of the Christian Democratic Party in Sicily as well, apparently, a “made” Mafia member who acted as the principal go-between for Cosa Nostra’s dealings with its friends in government. Andreotti had always strenuously denied ever having met Salvo. But two photographs in Battaglia’s archive showed them together on the occasion of a Christian Democratic rally in Sicily. Salvo, in fact, hosted a big reception after the rally at his luxurious Hotel Zagarella outside Palermo. In a photograph of the event from Battaglia’s archive, Salvo is seen greeting Andreotti. (Andreotti insists that even if he met Salvo, he does not recall it.)
Battaglia herself had forgotten having taken the photograph. Its potential significance was apparent only 15 years after it was taken. Andreotti was eventually acquitted of collusion with the Mafia because, other than the testimony of Mafia turn-coats, the photograph is the only piece of hard, physical evidence directly linking Andreotti to a known Mafia member. Yet the Andreotti photograph illustrates dramatically the historic value of Battaglia’s work, which visually documents a time and place of critical importance in contemporary Italian history.
When battaglia started her work, a woman photographer was not especially welcome, particularly at the scene of a crime. “I always had problems with the police, with the family of the victims,” she said. At a certain point, she began receiving anonymous letters with death threats. She took them to Giovanni Falcone, the top Mafia prosecutor in Palermo during the 1980s, who advised her to stop working for a few months. She decided to continue and, fortunately, nothing happened.
It was not always easy to tell what sort of photograph might touch a delicate nerve. One day, Battaglia was photographing a striptease show when the proprietors became extremely angry and threatening. When she refused to give them the roll of film she had shot, arguing that it contained frames from a previous shoot, they put her in a car and drove her back to her studio. “They took me into the darkroom and forced me to develop the film and cut out the few miserable shots that I had taken,” she said. “I called the police, but they decided to do nothing.” To this day, Battaglia does not know what she saw that day that she shouldn’t have. “For years every morning when I stepped outside, I was afraid,” she said.
Magistrate Roberto Scarpinato with his escort during his prosecution of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, 1998
At one point, she incurred the wrath of one of the most dangerous Mafiosi in Sicily, Leoluca Bagarella—brother-in-law of Totò Riina himself and considered one of the bloodiest killers in all of Cosa Nostra. When Battaglia began to photograph him after his arrest in the early 1980s, Bagarella tried to break free and attack her. Battaglia held her ground and produced a famous photograph of Bagarella that captured all his rage and ferocity.
“It took a number of years before I was seen in a positive light, that I was not just some kind of cop with a camera,” she said. “They saw that I didn’t just take pictures of the dead, that I returned to take pictures of the poverty and the conditions of life in Palermo. People would call out to me: ‘Come, my roof needs fixing.’”
Battaglia’s pictures of ordinary Palermo life are an important complement to her Mafia reportage. Her many photographs of religious processions—one of a woman crawling up the stairs of the church on her knees is a memorable example—render something of the tragic sense of life in Sicily. The Sicilians have lived under the yoke of oppressive rulers from the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish to the Mafia. The fervent hopes in the hereafter and the intensity of religious passion seem to represent a redemption from a world of almost uninterrupted hardship and suffering. Death has always loomed large in Sicilian culture and il giorno dei morti (Day of the Dead) is as important in Sicily as Christmas is in other parts of Europe.
And these worlds come together with startling power in the images that define Battaglia’s Sicily. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Battaglia’s extraordinary image of a murder victim with an image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns tattooed upon his back. Similarly, in a picture of a funeral after a Mafia killing, the image of a dark-faced widow is reflected in the back window of a hearse.
Another exceptional Battaglia photograph that illuminates the dark side of Sicilian life is the photograph of the dying horse. The scene is from an illegal horse race, one of many such races in which the horses are frequently crippled or injured because there is no supervision or regulation. What is remarkable in the image is the total indifference of the crowd to the presence of this mortally wounded animal, who, having broken its leg, will soon have to be shot. The picture shows the corrosive effect of the small and large illegalities that pervade Sicilian life. The fact that so many live outside of the normal parameters of the law—selling contraband cigarettes, counterfeit tapes or watches, operating stores or stalls without a license, living in houses that were built against the zoning laws or simply underreporting their income and evading taxes—places millions of Sicilians outside the law, making them afraid of the legal authorities and natural accomplices to the Mafia.
Equally important and interesting are Battaglia’s photographs of the Palermo aristocracy. Of special note is the photograph of Palazzo Ganci, home of the princes of San Vincenzo, used in the making of Luchino Visconti’s famous film “The Leopard.” The glitter of the palace assumes a sinister air of decay when one considers that the young prince himself was arrested in a Mafia roundup. On the day he was arrested, there was a big reception at which much of Palermo high society would be in attendance. Despite the arrest, the prince’s mother insisted on going, Battaglia recalls: “‘Nothing’s happened,’ the mother said. ‘Nothing’s happened.’ We had an aristocracy and a bourgeoisie that was often the accomplice of the Mafia.”
Gradually the killings of the 1980s—and the courageous response of a new generation of Palermo magistrates—began to erode the attitudes of indifference, collusion and omertà (code of silence). And a new generation of anti-Mafia politicians emerged. Battaglia joined the small environmental Green Party and became a member of the Palermo City Council in 1985. She spent years fighting a massive development project that would have resulted in the paving over of large parts of the coastline near Palermo. It turned out that the lead developer, who was later arrested, confessed to having relations with the Mafia as well as distributing bribes to politicians to win approval for the project. In the years of trying to defeat the project, Battaglia watched (and photographed) as the developer, Benedetto D’Agostino, was courted and befriended by the most powerful politicians of the city, riding around in fleets of yachts equipped with bathroom faucets made of gold. She even photographed his wedding, where the best man was none other than Salvatore Lima, the former mayor of Palermo, whose status as Andreotti’s chief political supporter in Sicily suggested a range of political and criminal connections.
In 1992, Lima was himself killed in a Mafia hit in Palermo—a sign of a breakdown in the traditional alliances that had supported Mafia power in Sicily. With increased public pressure to crack down on crime, it became impossible for the Mafia’s friends in power to continue protecting it. The Mafia lashed out at the prosecutors who were most effective in combating Cosa Nostra, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both of whom were blown up by car bombs during the summer of 1992. The public outrage that followed helped bring about a general housecleaning in Italian life and prompted the first serious investigations into the relations between Mafia and politics. It also brought a return to power in Palermo of Battaglia’s good friend and political ally Leoluca Orlando, a maverick Christian Democrat and opponent of the Mafia who had been mayor of Palermo for a brief time in the late 1980s.
In her political career, Battaglia has worked for simple, practical things, like cleaning the city, trying to reverse decades of neglect, in which the garbage collection system, like so much else in the city, was a means of distributing patronage no-show jobs and siphoning money to Mafia-controlled subcontractors. “They didn’t clean the city, and the Palermitans, seeing that the garbage wasn’t collected, in a spirit of perversity, made it even dirtier. They have never loved government and never believed in the people governing them. They would keep their houses spotless but dump garbage just outside the door. I made some incredible scenes in this city,” Battaglia said.
One episode that Battaglia recalls with particular fondness occurred when she set about trying to clean a small park in one of the poorest, most Mafia-infested neighborhoods in the city. “The park is near a very old and beautiful bridge, but all these trucks were parked all around so that you could not see either the park or the bridge. I went to the shopkeepers who owned the trucks and asked them if they could park somewhere else. ‘Signora, you want to ruin us,’ they said. ‘I’m just trying to make the neighborhood more attractive.’” Battaglia announced that she was going to sit there until the trucks moved. “I sat on the sidewalk all day. My workers tried to get me to leave. Then at a certain point, one of the owners said: ‘Signora, you are going to ruin us, but we will move the trucks.’ They understood that I was there for them, that I was not there to get money or votes. They decided to give up a personal advantage for a collective good. It was a sublime moment.”
It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Palermo has rid itself of either the Mafia or its centuries-old problems. Unemployment in the city, as in much of southern Italy, is still over 20 percent. The Mafia, although under great pressure from countless arrests and trials, is still very much alive. While heroin trafficking has been seriously disrupted, the Mafia has reacted, according to numerous recent investigations, by tightening its grip on storekeepers paying protection. But Palermo is unquestionably a cleaner and safer and better-run city than it was 10 or 20 years ago. With Mafia killings no longer front-page news, Battaglia is now looking for other subjects for her work. She feels that a certain cycle of Palermo life has ended—perhaps for the better. “Maybe the Mafia is no longer photographable,” she said. “Things have changed.”
Alexander Stille is author of Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. The photos in this essay come from Letizia Battaglia: Passion, Justice, Freedom: Photographs of Sicily, to which Stille is a contributor.
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