Sicily Is Resisting Mafia Influence with Poignant Public Art

A program called Spazi Capaci organized by anti-Mafia organization Fondazione Falcone brings public art to Palermo, reminding locals of its not-so-distant entanglements with organized crime.

“Pack” by Velasco Vitali. Image courtesy Velasco Vitali

With its alluring mix of architectural styles and scenic bay setting nestled within Sicily’s Monte Pellegrino, the city of Palermo teems with energy and vitality, its charming streets bustling with tourists and alfresco trattorias. But it wasn’t always that way: Palermo was once a stronghold of organized crime, with quarreling mobsters whacking one another in the streets, using public funds to build unsightly high-rise apartments, and leaving its historic city center unpreserved. Things changed after the 1992 murder of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in a bombing, a watershed moment that galvanized the reeling populace into organizing against the mob with mayor Leoluca Orlando. 

Three decades after Falcone’s murder, Fondazione Falcone has unveiled four public artworks throughout the city to remind locals of Palermo’s grimmer years and encourage them to resist the creeping influence of organized crime. Founded by the late judge’s sister, Maria, the organization seeks to circumvent the Mafia by marking its territory: “We’ve always known that culture is one of the best weapons against the Mafia,” Falcone tells the New York Times. “Repression alone is not enough. You also need social and cultural work for that.”

“The Triumph of Memory” by Peter Demetz. Image via @heifo97 on Instagram

Spazi Capaci’s art installations both memorialize Mafia victims and seek to instill strength in locals. Among the highlights is Gregor Prugger’s Tree of Everybody, which brings a tall fir tree with wooden figurines of Mafia victims affixed to its bare branches into the roofless Church of Santa Maria della Spasimo. It joins a poignant vignette of wooden figurines depicting Falcone and fellow victim Paolo Borsellino hand-carved by Peter Demetz. Across town, where Falcone’s tomb resides in the Church of San Domenico, Velasco Vitali installed more than 50 life-size canine sculptures evoking “the contrast between the sublime and the profane” made from rusted metal, concrete, and paper. 

“In the last few years, we Palermitans have demonstrated that the city is ours,” Falcone told the Art Newspaper. “This was not so easy during the lockdown, so we filled the city with art to show we’re still here.”

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