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.

The physician and the patient

The physician and the patient

Dr. Michele Navarra and his successor, Luciano Leggio, dominated the Corleonesi Mafia after World War II.

A few months before Domenico Liggio married, in the summer of 1834, he lived with his widowed mother and an older brother, Salvatore, near the ancient Ospedale dei Bianchi in Corleone: the same hospital Dr. Michele Navarra would run, a hundred years later.

Even in a place known for its poverty, misery is not evenly distributed. To one side of the hospital, in the 1834 census, live the families of the more fortunate: the skilled artisans, petty nobles, and priests. Meanwhile, on the other side, beyond the arch, Domenico Liggio and his family live among peasant farmers and their widows. One of his neighbors was my first cousin, seven times removed, Gaspare Cascio.

Ninety-one years after this census was taken by the local priests, Domenico’s great-grandson Luciano Leggio was born, a ten minute walk south of the center of town, on via Lanza.

Though some sources claim Leggio’s name is misspelled “Liggio” due to a court reporter’s error, in fact both are common spellings of this surname in Corleone. Luciano’s grandfather and great-grandfather both appear in Church records as “Liggio.” Sometimes the name is “lo Liggio.” In 1834, there was a courtyard named after Maestro Pasquale lo Liggio, near via Macaluso, in the southeast of town.

Genealogists would not be surprised to find multiple spellings of a Sicilian surname, in records maintained on behalf of illiterate peasants, which were kept in ecclesiastical Latin by the Catholic Church. My own family’s surname appears variously as Cascio, lo Cascio, and most confusingly, as Castro, in both church and civil records. There is another family in Corleone called Castro, from which I am also descended.

My last name, Corleone natives tell me, is most likely related to cacio, or cheese. “Castro” is Latin for “castle,” of which there are the remains of two in town, and probably the descendants of those who worked there are called by this name. Other surnames in town include Palazzo and Palazotto. There are a wealth of names related to apples (pomo, or mele) in my family tree: Pomara, Pomilla, and di Puma; Mangiameli, which means “apple eater.” A “leggio” is a lectern or music stand.

Luciano’s early life story is marked by tragedy and poverty. Thom L. Jones describes Luciano’s childhood home as a “hovel” near the police barracks. If you look at it today on Google Maps, it’s an undistinguished, shabby building on a narrow street, like many others in Corleone. In 1834, via Lanza would have been just beyond the southern limits of the city. When Luciano lived there, the animals would have lived inside the house with them, just as people have done there for centuries. Luciano suffered from Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis that attacks the bones, and gave him the ingiuriamulacciuni,” or hunchback. His condition was probably contracted in early childhood, from drinking unpasteurized goat’s milk. Even while on the run, Luciano frequently sought treatment for his symptoms, running successful criminal operations in mainland Italy while checked into hospitals under assumed names.

When Luciano went to prison, he left his associate, Toto Riina, in charge. Toto, born Salvatore Riina, grew up in Corleone, poor like Luciano. Toto’s father, Giovanni, was a poor farmer with seven children. After World War II, the countryside was littered with unexploded ordnance. One day, he brought home a bomb on mule back, to harvest the gunpowder. The explosion killed Giovanni, leaving young Toto, just thirteen, as the man of the house. His youngest sister was born a month later.

Despite his physical frailty, Luciano Leggio made a reputation for himself, first in the 19th century trade of cattle theft. His first conviction, at age 18 or 19, was for stealing wheat. Ultimately, he would succeed, not only in the traditional activities of the Mafia, but by dramatically altering the tenor and scope of the organization. Liggio’s use of violence, and his disregard for traditional values, were as much a part of his legacy as his expansion into international drug trafficking.

The SC 250 was one of the most common bombs dropped by the Germans in WWII. It weighed 250 kg (over 550 lbs). (Source: Wikipedia.) Smaller bombs were also used, sometimes in combinations. See Days of Glory: Luftwaffe bombs.

Corleone was an early seat of the Italian labor movement. In 1893, Bernardino Verro was killed for opposing the landowning class—and more importantly, their protectors, the Mafia—through his organizing. Fifty-five years later, on a March day in 1948, labor organizer Placido Rizzotto made plans to meet Dr. Navarra in Corleone, coming off the bus from Palermo. Instead, at the doctor’s orders, Rizzotto was bundled into the back of a car, taken to a deserted farmhouse, and shot. When his body was found, Rizzotto’s fiancee swore to eat the heart of his killer. Leggio was arrested, but the charges were dropped. Leggio is still widely regarded as Rizzotto’s murderer.

In 1963, thousands of mafiosi were being arrested. When the police found Leggio, he was in the home of Leoluchina Sorisi, the fiancee of the murdered Placido Rizzotto. She had been hiding the Mafia boss upon whom she’d sworn vengeance, in her home on the Mangiameli courtyard, a three minute walk from where Leggio was born. Upon his capture, she wept and stroked his hair.

There were murder trials, for Navarra’s killing and others, but Leggio and his associates were acquitted. The only crime the tubercular Leggio was ever convicted of, was the murder of the physician, his predecessor, Dr. Michele Navarra.

In addition to heading the Corleonesi Mafia, Navarra was the director of Corleone’s ancient hospital. According to John Follain, when a second hospital was built, Navarra was not made its director, so the vengeful physician successfully prevented the hospital from opening in his lifetime.

This was not the only development in whose way Navarra stood, and he’d already sensed the danger from his former underling. A foiled attempt on Leggio’s life by the doctor sealed his own death certificate.

Michele Navarra was violently assassinated by Leggio and his men. The physician’s body was torn apart by more than a hundred bullets, fired into his car. The attack came on an isolated country road, in the hottest part of the Sicilian summer. It must have been like a bomb going off.

Feature Image: “Operation Husky” Public domain.