la famiglia

so, we saw that at the time of italian unification — presumably a period of lots o’ social upheaval — italians started marrying their cousins more and more:

cavalli-sforza, et. al., put this down to increasing population size (more people around in the population, more cousins available to marry), and that may very well be right (altho i wonder about that). but i also think that people might just turn to marrying family as a sort-of security move in times of distress — like after the two world wars in italy.

another way that italians turned towards their families around this time period, especially in sicily, was in the development of the mafia. the feudal system (finally!) collapsed in sicily in the early part of the nineteenth century — and then the island was united to the rest of italy in 1860. (interesting times!) during all this upheaval, the mafia was born. originally it was simply a bunch of groups of extended family members and villagers (i.e. extended extended family members) banding together to protect themselves and their properties. aaaaand pretty soon they got into the protection racket. and the rest is godfather prequel material history.

a lot of the stories about the modern mafia (at least the ones i’ve read over the past couple of days) like to emphasize the almost corporate nature of the group now. you just swear an oath and you’re in. well, in some cases, yeah — but the various mafia clans are really mostly still that — clans.

from “Honour and Violence” [pgs. 88-89]:

“As is well known, mafia enterprise involves control over the local economy (including real estate, building contracts and markets), canvassing votes for politician-protectors and (since the 1970s) international drug-trafficking. There were well over a hundred of these families in Sicily as a whole and about twenty-five in Palermo alone. In total there were several thousand mafiosi. What is known about the composition and structure of these families?

“First, they include agnatic kinsmen — that is, blood relatives who are exclusively related through males or, differently phrased, related on the father’s side. Often, the core of these families consists of a father and his sons, a set of brothers, sometimes including one or more agnatic uncles and cousins. In particular, sets of brothers have always been very common in mafia families, both in the city and in the countryside.

“All these people are related by blood…. If in the absence of effective state control trust can be found anywhere, it is primarily in the bonds between agnatic kinsmen.

“Succession to positions of leadership usually follows the same agnatic lines. The oldest son often takes the place of his father, or, sometimes, his father’s brother or, less commonly, his mother’s brother….

“Bonds within and between mafia families are reinforced by intermarriage. Along with agnatic kinsmen, therefore, these families include in-laws, or affines. Also defined as kinsmen (parenti), they are relatives by marriage and as a rule not people to whom one is related by blood, although marriage between cousins does occur. Bonds with in-laws figure prominently in coalitions of mafiosi. Next to sets of agnatic kinsmen, one often finds sets of brothers-in-law as the core of these local groups of mafia families….

“Moreover, in order to illustrate the organizational flexibility and structural fluidity of the Sicilian mafia, matrilineal relations are also used to build powerful alliances. Of particular importance are the bonds between a mother’s brother and sister’s son since the position of leadership may also be transferred matrilineally….”

and, here from a report from the palermo public prosecutor’s office [pgs. 91 & 93]:

“The Spatolas were found to be one of the four Mafia Families forming a transatlantic colossus. The Cherry Hill Gambinos were another. The Inzerillos, closest of all clans to Stefano Bontate, were a third. The fourth, related to the other three by blood and marriage, were the Di Maggios of Palermo and southern New Jersey. Their intercontinental family ties resembled the Hapsburgs’ or Hohenzollerns’, the marriages arranged to strengthen dynasties and preserve the blood royal. There were six Spatolas involved, five Gambinos (three brothers and two cousins), four Di Maggios, and fifteen Inzerillos. The Gambinos’ mother’s brother was a Spatola. The Inzerillos’ father has married a Di Maggio, who brother had married a Spatola.

Salvatore Inzerillo, the biggest heroin broker of all, had been chosen to head the Family’s clan by his retiring uncle, Rosario Di Maggio…. Inzerillo was married to a Spatola [his mother’s brother’s daughter]. His sister was married to a Spatola. His uncle in New Jersey was married to a Gambino. His cousin and namesake in New Jersey was married to a Gambino. His cousin Tommaso was a brother-in-law of John Gambino, who was married to a different Gambino. His cousin Maria Concetta was the wife of John Gambino’s younger brother, Giuseppe. All the American-side members of these families were made Men of Honor from Sicily; and all had homes in or around Cherry Hill….

“These four families, living partly in Sicily and partly in New York, form a single clan unlike anything in Italy or the United States — the most potent Family in Cosa Nostra. John Gambino is the converging point in the United States for all of the group’s activities in Italy, and the final destination for its drug shipments. Salvatore Inzerillo has emerged as the Gambino brothers’ principal interlocutor, the central personage in Sicily, with myriad interests and heavy capital investments.”

la famiglia, indeed!

previously: il risorgimento and italian inbreeding? and inbreeding in italy and i wasn’t imagining it

(note: comments do not require an email. i know it was you.)


  1. I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time, and wish to commend you on the always interesting material you excavate and the concise manner in which you present it all.
    Don’t have anything more to add other than you have more fans than you know and please don’t stop.


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