If you give them an inch

If you give them an inch

From the “inchino” this spring to the recent dissolution of Corleone’s city council, recent events in Corleone demonstrate the relevance of research into mafia genealogy.

Science is cool, but also, sometimes boring. In order to bring some rigor to my work, and quantify some of my hunches, I decided last week that I need a control group. The problem is, controls are boring. They’re by definition, the group in which I have far less interest. I’d much rather find the common ancestors of known mafiosi than scrutinize their neighbors in a randomized fashion. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but it didn’t happen this week, and the reason why is, sometimes science is boring.

If you follow Mafia Genealogy on Facebook, or keep up with current events in Italy, you’ve seen the news of an earthquake on the peninsula that has taken more than 250 lives. Tremors of lesser note included the passing of Bernardo Provenzano in prison in July, and the historic dissolution of Corleone’s city council, due to mafia infiltration.

Late in June, it was reported that four councilors had resigned in protest of the mayor, Leoluchina Savona. The investigation that led to its dissolution implicated Antonio di Marco, who was arrested in 2014. He is named as a capo and a civil employee in the Repubblica.

It appears from the coverage that the investigation into the city of Corleone, which uncovered shady construction deals, began with a series of incidents back in the spring, at Easter. In Corleone and elsewhere, traditional processions performed a ritual “bow” to the houses of known members of the mafia, which is against both civil law and Church rules. The one person who has been named in Corleone in connection with the inchino is Leoluca Grizzaffi, a member of the confraternity of San Giovann’Battista, and a second cousin of Toto Riina’s wife, Ninetta Bagarella.

The mafia is a living organism, one that changes and evolves. But at its roots, its character and form are dictated by centuries old customs. Risky, public demonstrations of respect—like the inchino, or the naming of “men of respect” as godparents—are part of its DNA. Quite literally, the genetics of the mafia in Corleone have remained constant. By understanding how it has already adapted to changing circumstances, it’s possible there is more to be learned about what to expect from the mafia in the future.



Antonio Fraschilla. “Il Consiglio dei ministri scioglie per mafia il Comune di Corleone.” Published 10 August 2016. Accessed  http://palermo.repubblica.it/politica/2016/08/10/news/il_consiglio_dei_ministri_scioglie_per_mafia_il_comune_di_corleone-145759589/?ref=HREC1-8 10 August 2016.

Josephine McKenna. “Homage to Mafia boss angers Catholic Church.” Published 6 June 2016. Accessed https://inews.co.uk/essentials/news/world/homage-mafia-boss-angers-catholic-church/ 6 June 2016.

“Corleone, si dimettono i consiglieri del Pd in polemica col sindaco.” Published 25 June 2016. Accessed http://palermo.repubblica.it/cronaca/2016/06/25/news/corleone_si_dimettono_i_consiglieri_del_pd_in_polemica_col_sindaco-142809649/ 10 August 2016.


Image credit: Easter procession image is from https://etinkerbell.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/bows-ships-and-godfathers/ Available for noncommercial reuse.

Measuring consanguinity and dispensation rates in Corleone

Measuring consanguinity and dispensation rates in Corleone

Finding proof of the high rate of cousin marriage in Corleone proves more difficult than expected.

In an earlier post, “Kissing Cousins,” I wrote about the high rates of marriage between close relations that have been detected throughout Sicily. Before 1918, dispensation was required for marriages in Sicily, out to the fourth degree of consanguinity, or between second cousins. Nearly half of all marriages in Palermo and Agrigento provinces required dispensation from the local archbishop. But was it the same in Corleone?

Anecdotally, I’d noticed a lot of consanguineous marriages among families I was beginning to think of as “mafia families,” based on their surnames, professions, honorifics, and marriage patterns. Yet by “high,” I didn’t mean almost half of all marriages. I wondered what the real rate of consanguineous marriage was in Corleone, if it matched existing research for the province of Palermo, and whether Corleone’s rate, and that of the mafia families of Corleone, differed from the provincial average, or from one another.

FamilySearch has microfilm copies of the Church’s vital records from Corleone, available for free online. Originals or copies of those handwritten documents were sent to the provincial capitals or the archdiocese. The records available online are those which had been preserved at Monreale, the seat of the archbishop for Corleone.

It may be that the copies I’m reviewing, do not mention all of the dispensations that were granted. Of the 96 marriages performed in Corleone in 1860, not a single record mentions a dispensation. After not finding even one dispensation in 1860, I continued looking at the first 49 records of 1861, which brought me to the end of April, and still, I did not find any mentions of dispensations in the marriage records. Did the priests just forget them, that year?

I have come across dispensations both before and after 1860, but not in every year. I haven’t yet, to my knowledge, found a marriage between close relations that did not get the dispensation. I have found marriages that required dispensation between a couple who were more distantly related than second cousins. In at least one case, I was able to determine that, due to having multiple sets of common ancestors, their coefficient of relationship was higher than typical second cousins. Priests were instructed to look for these multiple lines of descent, before marrying a prospective bride and groom.

There are other reasons dispensations are given, too. One of them is when someone is widowed and remarries to the sibling or close relation of their late spouse. For example, when Lucia Ligotino married her first cousin’s widower, their marriage received a dispensation despite that fact that Lucia and her groom, Giovanni Provenzano, are of no known relation. I was ready for these numbers to inflate the rate of apparent consanguinity. Instead, the numbers of dispensations are far lower than I expected.

In 1864, fourteen out of 104 records that year, or 13.46 percent, included a dispensation. However, only four of those records, 3.85 percent, mentioned second degree consanguinity. (There were no marriages that recorded a dispensation for first degree consanguinity this year.) This is far lower than the staggering 48.66 percent of marriages in Palermo province between first cousins or closer relations (second degree) that Cavalli-Sforza found between 1860 and 1864.

There are several possible explanations for the low rate of dispensations in Corleone marriages. One possibility is that consanguineous marriages were conducted at the same rate in Corleone as elsewhere in the province, but that not all were being detected. The decision to request a dispensation may not be written down where I’m looking for them, in the copies of marriage records sent to the archdiocese. The decision to approve a consanguineous marriage may have been made locally, without dispensation. Finally, it’s possible that consanguineous unions are, in fact, far less common in Corleone than average.

Corleone is distinct from its neighbors in a few ways. It welcomed strangers who would enrich the town, and at the same time was well defended against foreign threats. The town has a reputation dating back to the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, for vigorous military defense and patriotism. In its streets and buildings, the town reflects its origins under Ottoman rule, in its winding alleys, gardens, and plazas. Being in the interior of the island, Corleone was protected from pirate raids, which ravaged coastal towns for centuries. Other than the city of Palermo, Corleone is perhaps the most important location in the province for trade. In the 1800s, Corleone was home to a hundred churches, a college, and a hospital. Being a free town (it was not owned by a king or lawyer, after 1648) it was attractive to skilled artisans, who made up some ten percent of the heads of household in the town. It’s hard to parse the possible reasons why Corleone would not demonstrate the same level of consanguinity, but in one regard, its relative isolation, the town may have been at an advantage over most of its rural neighbors.

This week, I plan to sample other years in the latter half of the 19th century, looking for dispensations. If I continue to find very low rates, I may have to find another way of studying consanguineous marriages in Corleone. I might use documenti matrimoniali, the documentation the priests drew up to discover common ancestors between prospective brides and grooms. I may also create a control group of families to study as closely as I have the mafia families, establish all of their ancestral lines for 3-4 generations, and determine, based on this research, whether consanguinity exists and to what degree. When I’ve solved the problem of detecting an average consanguinity rate for families in Corleone, then I can find out whether the rate for known mafia families is distinctive.


Further reading:

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Antonio Moroni, and Gianna Zei. Consanguinity, Inbreeding, and Genetic Drift in Italy. 2004: Princeton University Press.


Image credit: An arranged marriage between Louis XIV of France and Maria Theresa of Spain. Public domain. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage#/media/File:Lodewijk_XIV-Marriage.jpg

Family time

Family time

I’m taking a break from Mafia Genealogy.

When I began writing this blog in February, I had only been studying the subject matter for a couple of years, at most. I thought, I know enough to begin, and as for the rest, I’ll grow into it. That strategy worked… for a little while.

In order to keep up the level of writing and analysis, I’m going to take off writing Mafia Genealogy for the summer. I’ll still be doing research—you can count on that—but I’ll also be taking a break from weekly posts, to concentrate on building a bigger picture of the mafia families of Corleone. (I’ll be going on vacation, too, but probably not to Cinisi.)

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Feature image of Cinisi from Wikipedia

Three coasts

Three coasts

There were three men named Marino, on both sides of the Leggio-Navarra war in Corleone. One is related to two Mafia bosses.

In my first post on the relations among defendants at the 1969 Corleonesi trial, I focused on the Leggio-Riina connections. Another set of defendants with a common surname are the Marinos, whose paternal lines I’ve traced to three different couples who lived in the 1600s. One of these are the ancestors of both Dr. Navarra and of Toto Riina.

In Italian, “marino” refers to the sea or the coast. The triangular island of Sicily has three coastlines, with the closest to Corleone being to the north. In mountainous, inland Corleone, the name “Marino” suggests an origin elsewhere, on one of those coasts. It’s not yet known where the family got their name, when they came to Corleone, or even if they share a common ancestor.

Of the men named Marino who were involved in the Leggio-Navarra war of the 1950s, there were associates of both cosci. I’ve traced their roots to three different men who lived in Corleone in the 1600s. Of two of their families, little is known, but the third is rich in mafia connections.

Some background on the war: Luciano Leggio was recruited by Dr. Michele Navarra in 1945. By that time, he’d already served a six month prison sentence for murder, when he was still a teenager. He was imprisoned again in the late 1940s, where he met Toto Riina, who would become his criminal accomplice back in Corleone.

Leggio is described as an arrogant and volatile man. The kidnapping and murder of the trade unionist Placido Rizzotto, which Leggio was seen participating in, happened in broad daylight, yet Leggio was acquitted twice in the murder. He was clearly already a powerful mafioso when he began building a close group of associates who were loyal to him alone, and not to Navarra.

In 1956, Leggio’s men (sometimes called the “cosca leggiana” or the Liggiani) went to war against the Navarriani. An attempt was made on Leggio’s life two years later, which he escaped with slight injury. He retaliated, killing the brothers Marco and Giovanni Marino, and Pietro Maiuri, another associate of Navarra, on 6 September 1958.

The assassinated brothers are identified as the sons of Paola Pomilla in Zingales’ book on the life of Bernardo Provenzano. Paola is the wife of Salvatore Marino: they married in 1924. Marco is named after his paternal grandfather, and so is presumably the elder. I’ve traced the brothers’ male line back to (Carlo Marino‘s parents) their fifth great grandparents Antonino and Rosa, who I estimate were born around 1651.

Two of Leggio’s men were also named Marino, Bernardo and Leoluca. Because they appear at Bari, their birthdates and parents’ names are known from the trial record. They’re of no known relation to one another, or to the brothers from the navarriana cosca.

As part of the violence of Leggio’s war for dominance of the mafia in Corleone, one of his targets was Francesco Paolo Streva, Dr. Navarra’s fearsome, ambidextrous hit man. Bernardo Marino was one of the assassins. Streva’s face was disfigured, according to the farmer who found his body, and a finger from Streva’s left hand was removed. Bernardo is named in connection with the top members of Luciano Leggio’s cosca, including Bernardo Provenzano, Calogero Bagarella, Salvatore Riina, and Leggio himself. I’ve traced Bernardo Marino’s male line back to his fifth great grandparents (Onofrio Marino‘s parents) Antonino and Anna, who I estimate were born around 1668.

Leoluca Leggio, who was on trial at Bari with three of his brothers, his father, and his uncle, is Toto Riina’s third cousin. (The large Leggio family, of which there were so many members on trial, and Luciano Leggio, their leader, do not have a common ancestor, going back at least five generations.) Riina would take over from Leggio, upon his arrest.

There is no known relation between the brothers who were killed on Luciano Leggio’s orders, and his brother in law, Leoluca Marino. Marino was a defendant at Bari along with his wife, Carmela Leggio, the sister of the boss. Marino’s parents were first cousins, once removed. (Endogamy is very common among mafia families.) I’ve traced Leoluca’s paternal line back to his fifth great-grandparents, Nunzio Marino and his wife, Maria, who I estimate were born around 1649. Through Nunzio, Leoluca Marino is also related to Toto Riina: they are sixth cousins, once removed.

Nunzio is also the ancestor of fourth cousins Michele Navarra and Toto Riina. One of Nunzio’s twice great grandchildren was Maria Marino, who married Puntillo, an associate of Rapanzino. Another is Lucia Marino, who married Gioachino Riina: they are the third great grandparents of Toto Riina. Nunzio Marino is the sixth-great grandfather of both Toto Riina, who took over leadership from Luciano Leggio, and of Dr. Navarra, their murdered rival.



Attilio Bolzoni and Francesco Viviano. “Provenzano fantasma di Corleone che da 40 anni vive in latitanza.” Published in La Repubblica 17 September 2003. Accessed http://www.repubblica.it/2003/i/sezioni/cronaca/provenzano/provenzano/provenzano.html 16 June 2016.

Luciano Leggio entry on Wikipedia. Accessed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luciano_Leggio 16 June 2016.

Leone Zingales. Provenzano: Il Re di Cosa Nostra. Pellegrini Editore, 2001.

Legacy of the Rapanzino gang

Legacy of the Rapanzino gang

While most of Rapanzino’s gang was exterminated by the police in the mid-1830s, their legacy continues, with a clear line of descent, all the way to the Five Families of New York and the Mafia in Corleone today.

The Rapanzino gang of cattle thieves, active in the early 1830s in Palermo province, were closely related to known mafia members in Corleone. Two of the members,  Bernardo and Antonino Palumbo, were brothers, and their second cousin, Leoluca Mondello, was also in their gang. Mondello and the leader, Rapanzino, were killed on the same day by the police. Two other members of the gang were Biagio Jannazzo and his older brother, Paolo. Although not closely related to the Palumbo brothers, by blood or marriage, the two families were evidently close: Biagio and Paolo’s parents were Antonino Palumbo’s godparents.

Ninetta Bagarella
Ninetta Bagarella

On their mother’s side, the Palumbo brothers were cousins of Vincenzo Maida, a rural guard. A common practice in that time, was for guards like Maida to negotiate for the return of stolen property. For this reason, it was a requirement of the position, that guards have close relations with criminals. Salvatore Lupo describes a typical arrangement: a mafia boss would go to the victim of a theft to express his sympathy, and to say maybe he can make some inquiries and find out what happened to the stolen goods. But he’s behind the theft and makes his money from the owner who pays to restore his goods.

Denis Mack Smith writes that the most common crimes in Sicily around this time were smuggling food into towns to avoid taxation, the illicit control of water, extortion—often through threats of arson to crops—and “abigeato”: stealing farm animals. It’s likely that Rapanzino’s gang worked with Maida, and other rural guards, to whom the thieves would kick back a proportion of their gains.

It’s not clear to me, what forces led to the police action against this band. Possibly the geographic scope of their activity brought the thieves from Corleone into conflict with neighboring mafias, each district an ecosystem of peasants, thieves, guards, and landowners. Or members of the band may have angered their local boss in some way. At any rate, by 1833, they were being hunted down by police, on orders from Palermo.

Despite being a wanted man in June 1834, the young widower Nicolo’ “Puntillo” Ciavarello remarried in Corleone, to Maria Marino. The Palumbo brothers were guillotined in Palermo the following year… that is, unless they escaped to Tunis, as legend has it. Paolo Jannazzo’s fate is not known. He did not marry in Corleone, and there is no record of his death there, either. Possibly he met the same fate as the Palumbo brothers.

In 1838, “Puntillo” and his wife stood as godparents to Mariano Cascio, Maria’s first cousin. Puntillo’s old band mate, Biagio Jannazzo, married Rosa Cascio, the sister of Mariano, in 1843. Rosa and Mariano’s sister, Emmanuela, married Vincenzo Maida, the guard, in 1849. Another of their sisters, Lucia, was the mother of future boss, Michelangelo Gennaro.

In 1840, a sister of the Jannazzo brothers, Lucia, married Vincenzo Terranova. Their son, Bernardo, is a known member of the mafia in Corleone, and the stepfather of Giuseppe Morello, a founding member of the Genovese crime family in New York.

Rapanzino, killed at age 27, didn’t marry. His niece, Maria Carmela Milone, married Domenico Moscato. Domenico’s cousin, Maria Carmela Chiazzisi, married Spiridione Castro, a cart driver—one of the rural entrepreneurial professions associated with the mafia. Spiridione’s nephew, Luciano Castro, is called a mezzano, an “intermediary” or middleman, in the 1853 civil record of his son’s birth: another mafia-related profession.

One of Biagio Jannazzo’s daughters, Leoluchina, married Bernardo Moscato, first cousin of Domenico. Leoluchina and Bernardo’s daughter, Domenica, married Placido Crapisi, son of mafia member Luciano. Her brother, Luciano, married their first cousin on his mother’s side, Angela Gennaro, sister of Michelangelo.

Biagio’s youngest son, born in 1849 and named Paolo, after his uncle, married twice, the second time to his long time domestic partner, when Paolo was considered to be “in extremis,” close to death, in 1906. He lived another nine years.

Epifanio Palumbo, the uncle of the Palumbo brothers, is the third great grandfather of Ninetta Bagarella. Ninetta is the youngest daughter of Salvatore Bagarella, a soldier in the Liggio-Navarra war. Salvatore and two of Ninetta’s brothers were named as defendants in the 1969 trial in Bari. She is the wife of Toto Riina. The family has been in the news recently, after a local Church confraternity paid homage at Ninetta’s home in Corleone. The “inchino” (a word that translates to “bow” or “curtsy”) a gesture of respect made during religious processions, is forbidden toward known Mafia figures by decree of the archbishop in Monreale. When it has occurred elsewhere in Italy, as in Caltagirone in March, there have been charges of disruption of public order. The family and the mayor of Corleone both deny that the inchino happened there.


“San Michele di Ganzaria tra inchieste e processioni sospese.” Published in Il Giornale d’Italia on 31 March 2016. Accessed http://www.ilgiornaleditalia.org/news/cronaca/875849/San-Michele-di-Ganzaria-tra-inchieste.html 7 June 2016.

Salvatore Lupo. History of the Mafia. Translated by Antony Shugaar. Columbia University Press, 2009.

Josephine McKenna. “Homage to Mafia boss angers Catholic Church.” Published 6 June 2016. Accessed https://inews.co.uk/essentials/news/world/homage-mafia-boss-angers-catholic-church/ 6 June 2016.

Real Segreteria di Stato presso il Luogotenente Generale in Sicilia Ripartimento Polizia Repertorio anno 1836. Accessed at http://archiviodistatodipalermo.it/files/inventari/file/1263903377anno1836.pdf 6 August 2015.

Salvatore Salomone-Marino. Leggende popolari siciliane in poesia raccolte. Published 1880. Accessed online 5 April 2015.

Denis Mack Smith, A History of Sicily: Modern Sicily After 1713. Dorset Press, 1988.


Feature image credit: Giovanni Fattori, Cowboys of the Maremma Driving the Herds, 1893.

The family of Giuseppe Morello

The family of Giuseppe Morello

There are many undocumented claims made about the relationships between notable mafiosi. One mafia writer who has led me on a merry chase for the mythical relations of Giuseppe Morello is Joe Bruno. In a blog post from 2005, he repeats the legend that Giuseppe had an older brother named Antonio. Antonio Morello was born in 1864, Bruno writes, and another Morello brother, Nick, was born in 1866.

It’s true that Giuseppe had a younger half brother named Nick—Nicolo’ Terranova, born in 1890. But Antonio Morello, the made man of Corleone, never existed, although Joe Bruno says he was suspected of 30-40 murders in the 1890s.

Not to say Giuseppe Morello didn’t have family relations to organized crime in Corleone. His stepfather, Bernardo Terranova, was the nephew of Biagio and Paolo Jannazzo, who were both active in Rapanzino’s gang in the 1830s. Through Morello’s maternal grandmother, his Grizzaffi relations connect him to important families in the local mafia: Di Miceli, Gagliano, Streva, Cascio, and Majuri.

Antonio, Nick and Joe Morello were all inducted into the mafia in Corleone, Joe Bruno wrote on his mafia blog in 2010. He names two more half-brothers of Giuseppe Morello, Ciro Terranova, and Ignazio Saietta. In fact, Ciro was Morello’s half brother, as was Nick. Who Bruno calls Saietta is actually Ignazio Lupo: Lupo’s mother’s maiden name was Saietta. “Lupo” means “wolf,” which is how Ignazio got his nickname.

Bruno goes on to write that Antonio Morello was killed in 1898. There is a man by this name who died on 18 February 1898 in Manhattan. He was older than Joe says Antonio was, 46 (born around 1852). The decedent was married, and his parents’ names appear as Linone (which is probably a transcription error—possibly Simone) and Catrina. Giuseppe Morello’s parents’ names were Calogero and Angela.

Mike Dash dispels the myth of Antonio Morello in the preface to his book, “The First Family”:

“Another account held that Giuseppe had a brother, Antonio, who preceded him as boss in New York, and who once shot dead the dreaded leader of a rival criminal society, the Camorra. The battered transcripts of Antonio Morello’s 1892 murder trial, rescued in the early 1980s from a dumpster and now archived in an obscure law library, reveal that he was neither a member of the Mafia nor any relation to his more celebrated “brother,” and also that the man he killed was a one-armed organ grinder with no criminal record who had crudely insulted Morello’s wife.”

Giuseppe Morello is the son of Calogero Morello and Angela Piazza, who married in Corleone in 1866.

calogero morello angela piazza marriage record
The marriage record of Calogero Morello and Angela Piazza

Giuseppe was born the following year, named after his paternal grandfather. He had only one full sibling, Maria, named after their grandmother. Calogero died in 1872, and Angela remarried the following year to the mafioso Bernardo Terranova. Angela and Bernardo had six children that I know of: Lucia (1877), Salvatrice (1880), Vincenzo (1885), Ciro (1888), Nicolo’ (1890), and Rosalia (1892).

Giuseppe married twice, first in Corleone to Maria Rosa Marsalisi. Their first child, Angela, died in infancy. They had a son, Calogero, who immigrated with his mother and paternal relatives in March 1893. The extended Terranova family—Giuseppe’s mother and stepfather, siblings, his wife and their son—originally immigrated to New York. At some point, Maria Rosa returned to Corleone, where she died in 1898. Her son, Calogero, remained in the US with his father. The family moved south when the American economy collapsed in the 1910s. Their New Orleans contact was Giuseppe’s first cousin once removed, Leoluca Trombatore, from Corleone.

Another Corleonesi who lived in Louisiana was Vincenzo Collura. In 1908, Vincenzo’s brother, Giovanni, escorted his bride on the voyage to join him. Also traveling at that time were brother and sister, Leoluca and Serafina Grizzaffi, bound for another thriving southern community of Sicilians, in Bryan, Texas. The Grizzaffis were third cousins, once removed from both Leoluca Trombatore and from Vincenzo Collura, and third cousins of Giuseppe Morello. (There is another Vincenzo Collura from Corleone, eighteen years younger, and of no known relation. The latter, known as “Mr. Vincent,” also lived in the US for a time, but returned to Sicily and was an associate of Dr. Navarra’s after WWII.)

When the Terranova-Morello family returned to New York, Ignazio Lupo and Giuseppe Morello married, just weeks apart. Ignazio married Giuseppe’s half sister, Salvatrice. Giuseppe, a widower, remarried to another Corleone native, Nicolena Salemi, the daughter of a gabelloto. (Nicolena is my second cousin, four times removed.) At Giuseppe’s marriage, Ignazio and Salvatrice stand as witnesses.

Giuseppe’s son from his first marriage, Calogero, followed his father into the family business, and was killed in 1912. Giuseppe and Lena named their third child after him, around nine years later.



Joe Bruno on the Mob – The Morello Brothers. Accessed http://joebrunoonthemob.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/joe-bruno-on-the-mob-the-morello-brothers/  28 May 2016.

David Critchley.The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. Routledge: New York, 2009.

Mike Dash. The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia. Random House, 2009.

“New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W6B-8FD : accessed 29 May 2016), Antonio Morello, 18 Feb 1898; citing Death, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,322,940.

A Rosa by any other name

A Rosa by any other name

Sicilian names, first and last, are handed down through the generations.

There has probably always been someone named Lucia Marino in Corleone. If we got into a time machine and went back to any of the last 400 years, not only could we meet a Lucia Marino in this town, we could also find a man named Giuseppe Quaglino living here. Given names are nearly timeless here, because of the strong tradition of naming the first and second born of each gender, after the grandparents: first the paternal, then the maternal. Although there’s no formula for naming subsequent children, they are most often named after aunts and uncles, and sometimes great-grandparents. I’ve even found children named after a parent’s late, former spouse. In other words, children in Corleone are given family names—names with local and religious significance, that give further clues to a child’s lineage. Unlike American given names, which have been changing rapidly through the years, reflecting the individuality of our culture, Sicilian names, first and last, are handed down through the generations. As a result, a name has meaning to other Corleonesi, revealing a person’s position and connections in a way that surnames only begin to do.

When I made a count last year of the most popular names in 19th century Corleone, these were the top twelve for boys:

  1. Giuseppe
  2. Leoluca
  3. Vincenzo
  4. Salvatore
  5. Giovanni
  6. Francesco
  7. Antonino
  8. Calogero
  9. Bernardo
  10. Gaetano
  11. Carmelo
  12. Liborio

And for girls:

  1. Maria (about a third in combination with another another name)
  2. Anna (about a quarter in combination with another name)
  3. Lucia
  4. Giuseppa
  5. Francesca
  6. Biagia
  7. Rosa
  8. Carmela
  9. Giovanna
  10. Vincenza
  11. Antonina
  12. Salvatrice

Other popular names that didn’t make the top twelve include Biagio, Gioachino, and Luciano for boys, and Leoluchina, Domenica, and Caterina for girls.

Some once popular names die out, for no reason I can discern: Elena, the patron of a local church, is one that is no longer given to girls. Other saints, no longer recognized by the Catholic Church, see their popularity wane but slowly. Ninfa (St. Nympha) was one of four patron saints of Palermo before 1624, with a feast day on the tenth of November. The virgin martyr of Palermo was determined never to have existed, however, and removed from martyrology. What was a popular name for girls in the 1700s, is now rare. Spiridione, another former saint, was the onomastico of Spiridione Castro, a cab man born in 1816, and one of the only people I’ve ever found with this name.

Settimo Castro, born in 1784, may have been named in honor of Pope Alexander VII, from the previous century, but I think it’s more likely he was named “Seventh” because he has six older brothers. None of Settimo or Spiridione’s grandsons inherited these unusual monikers. But the most popular given names, even from the 17th century, continue to be handed down. I still meet people who were born after me in Corleone, and are called after a grandparent or other close relative.

Local patron saints are popular names, as are the local churches and confraternities, named after saints and Catholic dogmatic concepts: the immaculate conception (Concetta and the less common Concetto), innocence (Innocenzo and Innocenza), salvation (Salvatore, Salvatrice), the rosary (Rosario, Rosaria). Parenthood, and particularly the stepfatherhood of Joseph, are especially revered among Sicilian Catholics, and this is reflected in the enormous popularity of the given names Maria and Giuseppe: Giuseppe Morello and Giuseppe Battaglia were named in honor of Jesus’ earthly father. Morello, also named after his paternal grandfather, lost his own father when he was five, and was brought up mainly by his stepfather, Bernardo Terranova.

The most notorious gangsters from Corleone, even in the 20th century, have very common, and religiously significant, given names: Luciano Leggio is named for a Syrian ascetic. Leoluchina Sorisi is named after San Leoluca, a patron saint of Corleone. Bernardo Provenzano is named after the other patron saint of Corleone, Fra Bernardo. Salvatore Riina is named for Jesus Christ: his given name means “savior.”

Two given names that are technically different, but very often conflated, are Antonio and Antonino. Men baptized Antonio are called Antonino so frequently in the official records, that when I saw two defendants among those at Bari, Antonio Mancuso Marcello and Antonino Mancuso Marcello, with the same parents and different birth dates, that I thought at first there must be some mistake. As it turns out, even this confusion is inherited: the brothers are named after their paternal great-uncle and grandfather, respectively.


Feature image of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. In public domain.