When Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia died on April 13, 2022, the biggest shock among those of us who wrote about her was that she did not die at the hands of the mafia.
For nearly five decades, she fearlessly fought the criminal enterprise. Armed with her 35mm camera, she publicized the Sicilian Mafia’s reign of terror with her photographs of the bullet-riddled bodies of officials, innocent bystanders and Mafiosi. She then worked as a local politician and activist to wrest the streets and squares of Palermo from the grip of the Mafia.
Exposing the mafia culture of death
Battaglia achieved international acclaim for his photographs of Sicily – images that captured the island’s beauty, poverty, spirit and, perhaps most famously, violence.
His early years working as a photojournalist for the Palermo daily L’Ora coincided with the first Mafia murders of public figures in the 1970s and the years of the second Mafia War in the 1980s, known simply as of “massacre”.
The struggle for power and profits pitted the rural clan of Corleone, led by Salvatore Riina, against key clans operating in Palermo, the capital of Sicily. During the conflict, machine gun fire and car bomb explosions became commonplace in Palermo and outlying towns.
Politicians in Rome responded to the national crisis by asking General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa to become prefect of Palermo. After spending four months restoring order, Dalla Chiesa, his wife, Emanuela Setti Carraro, and police bodyguard Domenico Russo were murdered in a barrage of machine guns on September 3, 1982 – what became known as the name of Via Carini massacre. Dalla Chiesa’s death, along with attacks on police chiefs, prosecutors and investigators, left law-abiding citizens feeling hopeless and abandoned.
On some days, Battaglia would rush from town to town photographing several corpses – of mafiosi, judges, policemen, politicians and journalists – “so much blood”, she later recalled.
—Larry Tyner (@LarryTyner1) April 24, 2022
Mafia murders became so common – some 600 between 1981 and 1983 alone – that she sometimes stumbled upon crime scenes by chance.
This was the case with his famous photograph of the corpse of Piersanti Mattarella, the former president of the Region of Sicily. On January 6, 1980, while riding in the car with her daughter and fellow photojournalist Franco Zecchin, Battaglia saw a small group of people gather around a car. She spontaneously took photos from the car window, capturing Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s current president, as he tried to help his brother, who had been shot in an ambush.
— io boh (@exFuffaroDiego) April 23, 2022
Battaglia’s photographs of mafia violence were regularly published on the front page of L’Ora. She has also exhibited large-format prints of it at pop-up exhibitions she and Zecchin have organized in downtown Palermo and at local schools.
In doing so, she forced people to face up to what they had disavowed: that the mafia existed and that it killed.
Of course, most Sicilians were aware of the influence of the criminal organization. They watched public parks overrun with drug dealers and tiptoed around the used syringes that dot the sandy beaches. Some 80% of businesses in Palermo regularly paid the “pizzo”, that is, the money demanded by the Mafia to protect businesses from Mafia violence.
But Battaglia’s bloodshed images made it impossible to keep closing my eyes, and a change gradually took place.
Beginning in 1983, an uncompromising anti-Mafia pool of prosecutors and police began arresting many Mafia members. More than 450 of them were eventually tried in the famous Maxi-Trial, which began in 1986.
With public confidence in the justice system strengthened, a social, cultural and political revolution took place between 1985 and 1990. Ordinary people and new members of the city council began to directly confront the Mafia and work to loosen its grip on the region. It became known as the “Spring of Palermo” and Battaglia was one of the driving forces behind it.
In 1985, she was elected a member of the council. Along with the mayor, Leoluca Orlando, who appointed her Commissioner of Gardens and Public Life, Battaglia worked to stop the mafia’s looting of Palermo for decades. Mafia bosses and their political allies had left schools, historic palaces and gardens to crumble, with the intention of eventually razing downtown neighborhoods and making windfall profits in reconstruction.
Battaglia was driven by the belief that providing all citizens with free access to spectacular gardens, parks, beaches and historic sites was essential to creating a culture of respect and appreciation for Palermo and its heritage. Through its projects to make Palermo more beautiful and livable, Battaglia has recovered block by block the spaces controlled by the Mafia. She has worked with other city council members on projects such as the removal of abandoned cars, the creation of a pedestrian mall downtown, and the restoration of public gardens to their original beauty.
In the streets and squares controlled by chieftains, where a wrong look or word can represent an offense worthy of violent reprisal, Battaglia’s actions directly challenged the chiefs. But public support quickly allied with Battaglia and his allies.
One example is particularly memorable. After having mountains of garbage hauled away from the beach near Foro Italica near the Kalsa neighborhood, famous for its high concentration of powerful mafiosi, she had benches to enjoy the view bolted into the cement. The next day they were gone.
Journalist Antonio Roccuzzo was with Battaglia. He remembers her going straight to the neighborhood and shouting, “I know who you are. The benches do not belong to you. They belong to everyone. If you don’t turn them all in within the hour, I’m going to screw up!”
An hour later, the benches were put back in place.
Keeping a mafia invisible to the public eye
In 1992 and 1993, a series of bombings claimed the lives of judges Giovanni Falcone, famous architect of the Maxi-Trial; Francesca Morvillo, prosecutor at the Juvenile Court of Palermo and his wife; and Paolo Borsellino, who had worked closely with Falcone and investigated his murder. Bodyguards and bystanders in Sicily, Rome, Milan and Florence also perished.
With these bombings, known as the “strategy of massacres”, the mafia attacked the symbols of justice, government, finance and state culture. Their goal was to intimidate politicians into weakening organized crime laws.
However, the violence elicited even more public reaction and the criminal organization soon adopted the strategy of going underground and quietly pursuing its diverse criminal activities. This change marked a break from the spectacular bombings, brazen assassinations and shootings in the streets of the city.
Letizia Battaglia poses in front of one of her photographs in 2016. Eric Cabanis/AFP via Getty Images
Yet the threat of the mafia remains. Their victims now mostly die of “lupara bianca” – any trace of their bodies being destroyed by fire or acid.
In the absence of visible evidence, Battaglia’s snaps documenting Mafia bloodshed and mourning continue to do the job of keeping the ramifications of Mafia violence in the public eye.
These painful images have also become vehicles for expressing hope. In a project Battaglia began in 2004, known as “Rielaborazioni” – or “Re-elaborations” – she takes the original images of violent deaths and superimposes symbols and signs of renewal, often through vibrant female figures. In his reconfiguration of his iconic image of Falcone at Dalla Chiesa’s funeral in 1982, a young woman appears in the foreground, bathed in water gushing from a fountain.
In death, as in life, Battaglia’s passionate commitment to creating beauty and hope in his beloved Palermo lives on. You can see it in the streets of a reborn city and in the faces of its honest, well-meaning citizens.
About the Author: Robin Pickering-Iazzi is Professor of French, Italian and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. This article was originally published on The conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.