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from the December 2012 issue

from “You Don’t Know: A Mafia Dictionary”

The following are selected from Andrea Camilleri’s Voi non sapete (You Don’t Know), a Mafia dictionary of sorts, largely based on the typed notes of “the boss of bosses,” Bernardo Provenzano, who was captured in Sicily in 2006. Camilleri had access to Provenzano’s typewritten notes, his “pizzini,” which Provenzano used to communicate within his organization for over forty years. Proceeds from the sale of this book go to the families of police killed by the Mafia.

AMORE. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” is the most respected (and enforced) commandment for the Mafiosi.

A true Mafioso remains faithful to the woman he loves his entire life, whether married to that woman or living with her. This is a point of absolute honor, irrefutable.

A Mafioso who betrays his wife is a man without merit, not to be trusted, a weathervane turning in the wind.

Everyone remembers Toto Riina’s disdain, his look of disgust during his televised trial, when he spoke of the informant Tommaso Buscetta: “A real lady’s man, a guy who loves the ladies.”

That he was married and had so many women made him subhuman, lower than a snitch.

During this same trial, Rinna’s defense lawyer pushed Buscetta to admit he was expelled from Cosa Nostra for having too many women. The informant’s response: “If we’re opening the book on private matters, I’m ready.”

The attorney, writes journalist Franceso La Licata, “beat a hasty retreat, sensing Buscetta knew what he’d been up to behind the scenes: a few years before, Cosa Nostra wanted him killed for his affair with a client’s wife—a capital ‘offense.’ ”

So the rule that a Mafioso can be punished by death for having an affair with the wife of another imprisoned Mafioso also applies to a Mafioso’s lawyer.

Of course a gay son is an absolute disgrace, an intolerable situation for a Mafioso, and results in the homosexual son having to stay away from his family and from the city where his father lives and works.

Obviously, a gay Mafioso is out of the question, counter to nature.  

When it comes to adultery, however, sometimes you have to turn a blind eye.

Mafioso Francesco Marino Mannoia (according to Pietro Grasso in his book of  interviews with Francesco La Licata) was married to the daughter of crime boss Pietro Vernengo. Then he fell in love with another woman, and they had a daughter together. So he went to his father-in-law and said he wanted to separate from his wife “to make things right with this other woman.” Vernengo told him, though, that a divorce in the family was unthinkable and that a separated woman would no longer be considered decent. Vernego’s answer was,  “Let it alone. Do what you want, but at night you go home to sleep.”

But according to Grasso, when Marino Mannoia wound up arrested and then turned state’s witness, Verengo would be forced to change his moral code, his views on the sanctity of marriage, and would persuade his daughter to ask for a divorce. Better off betrayed and divorced than the wife of a turncoat.

Another case in point is with Giovanni Motisi’s wife. Motisi, also known as ‘u pacchiuni (“fatso”), was in hiding for years, and his wife, Caterina Pecora, the young daughter of contractors with Mafia ties, was sick and tired of being a virtual widow and wanted to be free to divorce: but she couldn’t get permission for quite some time. “This sort of thing just doesn’t go on in our families,” said Nino Rotolo, one of the most powerful of Palermo’s district bosses, in direct contact with Provenzano. After a few years, though, Rotolo had second thoughts, reasoning this way: “One of [Giovanni Motisi’s] sisters kicked her husband out and started living with her lover—and her sister moved in with them. That makes both sisters in the wrong.” So the family’s honor was already seriously compromised and Caterina might as well get a divorce. This obvious dishonor justified breaking the rule!

But betraying one’s spouse is still the rare exception. Though it does seem the generally lax moral code so many worry over these days has reached even the Mafia, straining its iron law of fidelity.

Yet Giuffrè is so attached to his wife that after he was arrested and could no longer see her as much as he wanted, he decided to become an informant just to be with her again.

And everyone knows about ferocious Leoluca Bagarella, who came home from a short trip, discovered his wife had hanged herself, and started weeping uncontrollably. As in a small, bourgeois Greek tragedy, she’d committed suicide because her brother had begun to cooperate with the state and so was now an enemy of her husband.

Provenzano isn’t married to the woman who’s given him two children, but when he was arrested and the PMs asked him if he was married, he answered: “I am in my conscience, yes.”

The pizzini that Signora Saveria sends to Provenzano always begin in the same way, Vita mia, my life, and end with Vita, I hold you close. Sometimes she calls him Amore.

These aren’t idle words, empty phrases devoid of feeling. These pizzini are brimming with true love, real devotion. And the same goes for Provenzano.

Some nights, the police listening in on Signora Saveria can hear her crying in her bed.


ARMS. The lupara, the sawed-off shotgun used for hunting wolves, or lupi (hence the name), was the signature weapon of the Mafia.  It had the advantage of being easily hidden under a cloak or coat or, for those members of various devotional confraternities, under the long habit worn for religious festivals.

Then the Kalashnikov became the weapon of choice.

True, this gun is heavy and bulky, but it has a great firing capacity, it’s an arrusciaturi—a real watering can. It was put to the test in Palermo. One night somebody opened up with a Kalashnikov against the bullet-proof window of a jewelry store (though the store was empty), and the window shattered. Proof those submachine-gun bullets could penetrate like nothing else.

Over time, the Mafia started using car bombs, TNT, and other more elaborate explosives from Eastern-bloc countries.

It’s worth noting that no Mafia boss,  at the moment of arrest, has  been armed. Perhaps the bosses want to distinguish themselves from armed thugs who engage in shootouts, want to show their strength through order.

During the time of the hero-outlaw Salvatore Giuliano, the State sent carabinieri officer Ugo Luca, head of the CFRB (Control Force for the Repression of Banditry), to Sicily. The result: frequent shoot-outs and many dead outlaws.  But some suspected these deaths were nothing less than summary executions: Sicilian banditry had enjoyed a high level of political protection, and as everyone knows, the dead don’t talk. One Sicilian newspaper published a cartoon showing Sicily covered in crosses. The caption came from Dante: “Ove non è che Luca”—where nothing gleams.

When Giuliano’s right-hand man Pisciotta was arrested, the police chief declared, accusing General Luca: “We’re taking them alive.” But then someone got to Pisciotta in prison, poisoned him.

Totò Rinna’s hideout, an apartment in Palermo, was never searched due to a misunderstanding (!) between the public prosecutor’s office and the arresting carabinieri.

When they finally went in, they didn’t find a thing. The Mafia had removed all traces of him and afterward carefully whitewashed the walls. But one thing’s certain: there wasn’t a single weapon in that apartment. Just like there weren’t any on Provenzano’s farm.


JUSTICE. Cu havi dinari e amicizia teni ‘n culu la Giustizia (People with friends and wealth can tell Justice to go fuck itself).  Judici , prisidenti e avvucati/ in Paradisu nun ‘nni truvati (Judges, lawyers and others of the Court,/ up in Heaven, you’ll never find that sort). La furca è pi lu poviri, la Giustizia pi lu fissa (Gallows for the poor, Justice for the fool). La liggi pi’ l’amici s’interpreta, pi’ l’autri s’applica (For your friends, you interpret the law, for everyone else, you apply it). Lu codici è fattu da li cappeddi pi jiri ‘n culo a li coppuli (Laws are created by gentlemen in hats to shove up the ass of poor bastards in caps).  During one phone interception, the investigators managed to hear a nice little saying coined by Nino Rotolo: Trials are like muluna, like watermelons: you’ve got to break them open to find out what’s inside.

There are hundreds of these sayings in dialect that show just how little the Sicilians trust Justice and its laws created by the ruling class to subjugate and oppress the poor.

For centuries, the Mafia has thrived in this cultivated field, providing an alternative to State justice, knowing how to maintain respect for its laws and how to apply those laws, more than any police, carabinieri, or prosecuting magistrates ever knew what to do (or could do) with Italian law.

There was a time when the true Mafia boss felt he wore the authority of a singular judge, a severe, impartial administer of justice.

A judge able to condemn a man to death before any defense attorney or witness could ever make use of him. A judge who decided a man’s fate using one and one criteria only, his sense of justice (Mafia justice): his respect for unwritten law.  

Usually the motivation behind the sentence was there on the condemned man’s corpse: a rock in the mouth (betrayal), shoes still on (attempting to flee), genitals cut off (sexual offense), prickly-pear pad in a pocket (stealing Mafia money), testicles cut off and stuffed in the man’s mouth (adultery with the wife of a Mafioso).

In a similar vein, killing wasn’t a crime; it was an execution, an act of justice, and so the judge himself might serve as executioner and, from his high place, not feel the least degraded by the role.

This is Provenzano’s achievement with the Mafia, a return to the elite, tried-and-true methods of old.

First you reason, weigh your options, consider, calculate, and then and only then, as extrema ratio, you move on to execution.  But you must try to the very last not to impose the death sentence. Because in the end, a death is always damaging.


MAFIA. In all of Provenzano’s pizzini, there’s not a single trace of this word.

And it never appears in any of the pizzini he receives, either.

Excuse the comparison, but this is like the managing director of Fiat and all the Fiat dealers, in all their business correspondence, not mentioning Fiat even once.


PIZZINI, SYSTEM OF. That Provenzano typed his hidden orders on a pizzino, then sent this note by a long, circuitous route, passing through many hands, until it finally reached its recipient, might seem like an absolutely primitive method of correspondence. In keeping with this modest man who, seen on TV at the time of his arrest, looked like a peasant; in keeping with the bare, rustic farm where he hid those last years; in keeping with the bitter surrounding countryside.

But if you thought the pizzini system was primitive, you’d be wrong.

Because this system he’d concocted and that he (modestly) insisted had come to him directly from Divine Providence, was, in the end, the most secure option, since they had to avoid the mail and landlines and cell phones, as these were all too easily intercepted.

Plus, the hand-delivered letter has illustrious precedent: it’s no accident that Gabriele D’Annunzio had private messengers carry his secret love letters by train from city to city.

And doesn’t our State Auditors’ Department have a “walker” on staff, who hand-delivers important documents?

Other so-called primitive methods, like carrier pigeons and smoke signals (and why not?—if he found them even remotely useful, Provenzano would surely have adopted them), were ruled out, the first because it required a permanent base (so, not compatible with sudden necessary relocations), the second because it was just too visible.

If the pizzini system was complicated, it also had one great advantage over the telephone, which Provenzano was ingenuous enough to exploit: with pizzini, there was almost zero room for equivocations or misunderstandings, intentional or otherwise. 

So the handy line—“But I didn’t understand: I thought you were saying”—couldn’t be used. Scripta manent et verba volant.

In fact, when Provenzano was communicating the written opinion of one party to another, he’d faithfully copy that opinion into his own pizzino.

As compared to actual conversation, the pizzini system had another solid advantage: you couldn’t reply right away to the “advice” you received. By the time you got a pizzino and then returned one disagreeing in any way with Provenzano, your resolve was weakened and any reasons for disagreeing were diluted or stamped out entirely.

Plus: with the mysterious distance it covered, its unknown place of origin, its impersonal, typewritten nature, and the authority it exuded, the pizzino took on the power of a supreme oracle, and was hard to respond to, argue against, because in the end, any opposition seemed like sacrilege.


TYPEWRITER. All of the pizzini are typewritten.

And when it came to typewriters, Provenzano wasn’t very thrifty.

By studying the different type alignments, the way certain letters struck the page, police experts concluded that Provenzano used a good five typewriters, electric and manual, over the years.

The police found an old Olivetti when they raided the farm, plus a newer electric model. And the other three?

Probably left behind in the rush to escape, in old hideouts the investigators haven’t discovered.

What’s beautiful is that the police scientific-experts managed to identify Provenzano’s typewriters through one word in particular, augurio, which means “wish,” as in tanti auguri—best wishes—and which he used constantly.   

On the second (manual) typewriter, the letters G and U were oddly spaced, and the O tended to be raised. The third typewriter was an electric Olivetti with a U that slanted to the left, the letters GU that overlapped at times, and an O that leaned to the right. On the fourth typewriter, the A was high.

In short, the augurio Provenzano sent to others didn’t wish him very well.

But why was he so set on typing? Was holding a pen just too much effort?

Maybe the reasons were more pointed, more subtle.

In the end, something typewritten, though it can reveal the personal characteristics of the writer, does maintain the quality of being impersonal, while something handwritten inevitably betrays the writer’s feelings at the time.

And, really, isn’t this impersonal quality how Provanzo maintains the distance he wants between himself and his outside collaborators?

Provenzano can’t call the bosses together anymore because someone’s always right on his heels, but maybe that’s not really a situation that he minds. Instead, he reveals himself through a machine that registers his thoughts, and in this way, moves closer and closer to that abstract entity he’d like to become.  

There might be another good reason for using a typewriter.

Once Provenzano had become the absolute boss, he probably felt a bit uncomfortable showing himself for what he really was: semi-illiterate. If he wrote things out by hand, the errors would be his. On a typewriter, he can pass off grammar errors as bad typing.

And in fact, with some of the pizzini, when he asks to be excused for his errors, it’s not clear what errors he’s talking about, and he doesn’t explain…


YOU DON’T KNOW.  When Deputy Police Superintendent Renato Cortese breaks into Montagna dei Cavalli’s barn, he surprises Provenzo at his electric typewriter, composing a pizzino to his life-long love. 

On the table are two satchels, one with recently delivered pizzini and the other with those to be sent out; plus an Italian dictionary (which, given all the errors in his pizzini, we can assume Provenzano never consults) and his favorite Bible, the 1978 edition (which, given all the citations in the pizzini, he must consult all the time).

The TV’s on in the corner: the election results. The center-left has won by a slight margin. Perhaps while Provenzo was writing his lover, he was distracted by the possible repercussions of this new political climate.

Cortese doesn’t ask him the typical question, if he’s Provenzano; he declares it outright: “You’re Bernardo Provenzano.”

And then: “You’re under arrest.”

Surprised, Provenzano doesn’t react at first; then he gives a slight wave of annoyance and mutters just loud enough for them all to hear: “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Instead Deputy Police Superintendent Cortese and his men could say they knew exactly what they were doing: after eight years of obsessive investigation, they were finally arresting him.

It was the end of an era. From that moment on, the lives of the men they were arresting would change, become disorientingly normal.  

Provenzano’s comment, however, is fairly enigmatic and can be read in a number of ways.

One interpretation is that Provenzano imagined a bloody war of succession to the throne.

But it’s not likely he was thinking of anybody but himself just then.

Another interpretation is that Provenzano feared his arrest would result in the Mafia’s returning to its militant ways, to the bombings and mass murders which, through his authority, he’d managed to quell. In short, he was afraid his painstaking efforts and belief in submersion would be repudiated by his heirs. And that the submarine he’d kept at periscope depth would break the surface firing like crazy. In short, his comment meant: arrest me, you open Pandora’s box.

Of course it’s only natural for the CEO of any large company to worry about what will happen when he’s gone. But this wasn’t a matter of a director’s resignation or his worries; this was an arrest presaging jail for life, after forty-three years in hiding.

Is it conceivable that Provenzano was worried just then about the fate of the Mafia business?

Perhaps, since Provenzano was an avid reader of the New Testament, what popped into his head at this moment was a passage from his favorite gospel, Luke:

And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

Just a coincidence?


Read more from the December 2012 issue
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