I Beati Paoli: Secret Sicilian Society that Inspired La Cosa Nostra?

An intriguing photo and interesting post on the blog Bleeding Espresso emailed to us by our good friend Sonny Girard introduced us to i Beati Paoli, the name of both a Sicilian restaurant, as well as a secret society seen as a possible predecessor of the Sicilian Mafia.

First, check out this place (again thanks to Sonny and Bleeding Espresso):

Beati Paoli Ristorante Pizzeria, Palermo, Sicily on Flickr
Sicilian restaurant, i Beati Paoli, is named after a secretive sect, possibly a precursor
to the Mafia. A blogger writes, "The pizza is absolutely fabulous."

From Wikipedia -- and what would we do without you, Wikipedia -- we learned i Beati Paoli is the name of a secretive sect thought to have existed in medieval Sicily. The sect, as described by the author Luigi Natoli in his historic novel, i Beati Paoli (written as a series under the pseudonym William Galt in 1909, then re-published as books in 1921 and 1949), resembles an order of knights fighting for the poor and the commoners.

The Beati Paoli wore black hooded coats and operated at night from the catacombs and underground channels of Palermo. It is not known when the Beati Paoli was established.

In Sicily the Beati Paoli came to be seen as a precursor to the Mafia

"Sicilian mafiosi love to portray themselves as the successors of the Beati Paoli, and Cosa Nostra likes to trace its origin to the sect. The novel is still alive in today’s Mafia culture and its main characters are models of the ideal-typical sets of attitudes and behaviour of a mafioso.

"In one of their first confrontations in court, the Mafia boss of bosses Totò Riina and the turncoat (pentito) Gaspare Mutolo confronted each other referring to the characters of the novel. Another pentito, Antonio Calderone, said he was told when he was initiated into Cosa Nostra that a mafioso should "follow the example of the Beati Paoli."
From  Bleeding Espresso:   

I hadn’t heard anything about [i Beati Paoli] 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.
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.

There was also an element of delivering justice for the people when the throne was so far away and not doing much for them... 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 (above) 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 of the restaurant up top, 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.
[CNNews note: We can't find the book!]

Read more about I Beati Paoli in Roberto Savona’s excellent article here.