I thought today might be the last Palermonday, but then I remembered that in addition to the Capuchin Catacombs (come back next Monday for those!) I also wanted to tell you about i Beati Paoli, a secret society that may or may not have existed in Palermo.
[I think it did, but then I do love secret societies and whatnot.]
I hadn’t heard anything about this group until Cherrye and I zeroed in on a restaurant in Piazza Marina that shares its name with this mysterious sect that was immortalized in Luigi Natoli’s book I Beati Paoli.
The pizza was absolutely fabulous, and it’s obviously a popular local spot as the place was packed by 8 pm–and they had only started letting in patrons about 10 minutes before. Inside, the atmosphere is also amazing; it is constructed like a cave, complete with black textured walls, lanterns lighting the way and little alcoves at every turn.
Sorry there are no food or inside photos but Cherrye and I were *starving* at that point and the cameras didn’t even make it onto the table.
Back to the group, the existence of the Beati Paoli is still in dispute, but it is commonly believed that Natoli’s book was at least part historical account with some fiction thrown in. The book takes place between 1698 and 1719 during which Sicily passed from being under Spanish rule to Piedmontese to Austrian.
Throughout this difficult time for Sicilians, the secret society is said to have fought against both the Church and the State in favor of the common man–think “rob from the rich to give to the poor” kind of thing.
There was also an element of delivering justice for the people when the throne was so far away and not doing much for them; in that sense it is also believed that i Beati Paoli may have had its origins in the“Braccio della Giustizia,” or Arm of Justice, actually sanctioned by the State; the group carried out vendettas on behalf of perceived crimes committed against both individuals and the community.
It is said that their principal meeting place was a cave in the Capo quarter near the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Gesù, also called Santa Maruzza; the church is still there but the cave entrances have been blocked off. The photo on the left is labeled “The Tribunal of the Beati Paoli” and comes from the official website of the Duomo of Palermo, which you’ve seen before on Bleeding Espresso here.
Even the group’s name is a mystery but may come from the legend that by day, its members dressed as monks of San Francesco di Paola (Saint Francis of Paola in Calabria) and sat in church pretending to pray the rosary. By night, however, the men wore black hoods (like in the photo above, except black, I suppose) and carried out their business, hiding and meeting in the hidden passageways and abandoned catacombs that still lie under the streets of Palermo.
I Beati Paoli is considered by some a precursor to the current Mafia, the roots of which are in agrarian Sicily. Although the two groups haven’t been directly linked, similar mentalities and principles, including the famed “omertà” or code of silence, show some definite overlap.
Indeed, at least one Mafia pentito (turncoat), Antonio Calderone, is quoted as saying he was told to “follow the example of the Beati Paoli” when he was initiated into the Mafia.
You probably won’t come to any concrete conclusions about the group when you’re in Palermo, but whether or not this group ever existed, the restaurant is definitely worth a stop:
Al Covo dei Beati Paoli
Piazza Marina, 50
And as for the rest, I’m looking forward to checking out Natoli’s book.
Read more about I Beati Paoli in Roberto Savona’s excellent article here.