The History of Sicily


Living conditions in the east had begun to improve in the 1890s, but western Sicily continued to suffer. The Mafia’s hold on that part of the island was strong. After the unification, the Italian government attempted to raise money by closing the monasteries and other houses of worship and selling off the properties at auction. By 1860, fully 10% of the land of Sicily was owned by the church. These estates employed many artisans, and the clergy did business with many local merchants. They also helped the poor. Without question, they contributed to the Sicilian economy.

The government’s intention was to break up the estates and sell them to farmers who, up to that point, had been sharecroppers. But the aristocracy and the Mafia colluded to keep these people from bidding, and the estates were sold off for next to nothing. In fact, the government earned only about 10% of what it had predicted, and the common folk of Sicily lost out again.

In 1909, an Italian-born police lieutenant, Joseph Petrosino, who was fighting organized crime in New York City, traveled to Palermo to attack the root of the problem. Unfortunately, he was murdered by thugs hired by a local Mafia boss who had colluded with local authorities.

Yet Sicily did profit somewhat from the Risorgimento. Rates of literacy rose, and many young men returning from the military brought new ideas about what could be achieved in a unified stand against Sicily’s problems. During the last half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, three Sicilians were to become prime ministers of Italy: Francesco Crispi (1818-1901), Antonio di Rudini (1839-1908), and Vittorio Orlando (1860-1952).

In the early 1890s, a group of trade unionists began to agitate for better pay and working conditions. Some of their demonstrations became violent, and the Italian government became concerned. In 1893, Prime Minister Crispi sent in troops to quell the disturbances. When Rodini became Prime Minister, he tried to grant Sicily a modicum of self-rule, but he appointed Giovanni Codronchi (1841-1907), a northerner who knew little about the Sicilian temperament, as regional commissioner. Once again Italy’s attempt to clamp down failed.