Rosario Crocetta smokes two to three packs of cigarettes a day, lighting them without putting them to his lips, often glancing at the three cellphones arrayed before him as he does so. If you are speaking to him, as an emissary from Turin named Antonio Saitta was on the day I first met Crocetta, he often picks up one of the phones in midconversation, without apology, and urgently begins reading text messages.
It was spring, and we sat in Crocetta’s office in the Palazzo dei Normanni, built by the first Norman king of Sicily in the 12th century and later home to a ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Spanish viceroys and a Bourbon king. Since 1947, it has been the seat of the Regional Assembly, the governing body of Sicily, whose current president is Crocetta, a 62-year-old gay Catholic leftist with a penchant for romanticism and poetry, who is unlike any president the region has ever seen.
Normally in Italy, it is the politicians from the impoverished south who go north with hat in hand, but Saitta had flown to Palermo to try to convince Crocetta to abandon his plan to abolish Sicily’s provincial governments — a layer of bureaucracy in Italy that exists between the regional and municipal levels, which Crocetta was arguing was a source of waste and mismanagement. As president of the Union of Italian Provinces, Saitta was of course invested in the preservation of Sicily’s nine provinces, and he was working hard to keep Crocetta’s attention and convince him that the new model he was proposing could not work. After several minutes, Crocetta tired of following the man’s argument. The real problem, he wanted Saitta to understand, was of an entirely different nature. “There is a revolution at our gates,” Crocetta said, “and if we don’t change everything — really change — the people will invade the government buildings. They’ll come in here to toss us out the window. And you know what?” — he paused and looked at each of the people in the room. “I’ll throw myself out along with them, because they’re right.”
In the eight days I spent with Crocetta, not one passed without some group protesting outside the Palazzo dei Normanni or the nearby Palazzo d’Orleans, where the presidential offices are. Some of the protesters were maintenance workers (many of them former convicts), who work for the city of Palermo, which no longer has the money to pay them. Then there were representatives of Sicily’s 26,000 forest rangers, also now a target of the president’s cuts, and large groups of workers from Sicily’s trade schools, which employ about 8,000 people in the region, nearly half of all trade-school employees in the entire country. Many of these schools are created only to get a piece of the public payroll, and Crocetta had made clear that their days were numbered.
By this point, the police knew the protesters by name. They shared smokes in the quiet moments, then when tensions rose, out came the riot gear. On my third day in Palermo, some of the ex-cons-turned-maintenance-workers took over a conference room in the Palazzo d’Orleans, saying they wouldn’t leave until the government provided them some relief.
The financial crisis has been especially brutal in Sicily — which has been referred to as the “Greece of Italy” — a place where the debt has spiraled so far out of control that many fear it will bring the rest of Italy down with it. Even by Italian standards, Sicily has long been extreme in its waste and corruption. The government spent lavishly on companies and projects that had little or no purpose other than to guarantee votes and keep political parties in power. Directly or indirectly, the regional government that Crocetta oversees employs about 50,000 people, whose salaries total more than a billion euros a year. Past presidents were able to avoid the day of reckoning, but now the money has all but dried up. And according to a study by the European Commission, among 262 European regions examined, Sicily is 235th in terms of competitiveness.
Days after he took office last December — having been elected on the ballot of the political movement he co-founded, the Megaphone — Crocetta fired his predecessor’s 21 press officers. He then took aim at about 250 of the trade schools after proving that some were operated by the chauffeurs of regional politicians. When he greeted me for the first time, he proudly announced that he had discovered even more waste: “The region looks after about 800 exotic birds,” he said, “spending astronomical sums every year — as much as 500,000 euros. It’s time to stop!”
The birds were kept in the delightful park behind the Palazzo d’Orleans, and among them were members of endangered species like the Egyptian vulture. Crocetta decided to revoke the contract with the company that maintained the park and to instead use researchers from local zoological institutions to look after the animals. Naturally, the decision sparked yet another protest, this time from the man who was the caretaker and the heir to the family that had managed the park for decades. The birds belonged to him, he claimed, although many of them are simply descendants of the original flocks brought to the park in the 1950s.
“They will be fine,” Crocetta said of the birds as he hurried through the corridor, past paintings depicting scenes of Greek mythology. He was trailed by a clutch of reporters accustomed to hearing him cite the Sufi mystic Rumi in response to questions about sanitation, or Bertolt Brecht, when asked about public health. “The cockatoos,” Crocetta announced to the group, “will live like royalty.”
Crocetta’s predecessor is currently being prosecuted on charges of ties to organized crime. The one before him is serving time in jail. Another one, Piersanti Mattarella, was killed by the Mafia in 1980. “Either dead or in jail,” Crocetta told me. “I don’t know yet how my story will end.”
The threats against him are serious enough that he travels with an escort of six armed men and every outing involves a caravan of armored cars. In January, Giuseppe Di Giovanna, president of Palermo’s manufacturers’ association, received a warning in the mail: “Mind your own business — otherwise you will end up like that faggot Crocetta: slaughtered like a pig.” To this day, the threats persist, coming in the form of letters or phone calls or messages posted to Crocetta’s Facebook page saying that he will be killed.
Last spring, the city’s deputy prosecutor received a letter that included the line, “We cannot be governed by clowns and fags.” According to some interpretations, “clown” referred to Beppe Grillo, the comedian whose political party, the Five Star Movement, has become the third-strongest political force in Italy. And the “fag” is Crocetta, who in trying to build a coalition with Grillo’s group (the “Grillini,” as they are called), was thought to be creating a “Sicilian model” that could be exported to the rest of the country.
For this and other reasons, Crocetta has become popular far beyond his own region, regularly invited to appear on prime-time talk shows, a voice so different that it cannot be ignored.
Every night Crocetta leaves Palermo and travels to spend the night in the seaside town Castel di Tusa, an hour away. He goes there, he says, because he likes to hear the sound of the waves. But it’s also a survival strategy. He ventures out as little as possible, and when he is not in his office in either the Palazzo dei Normanni or the Palazzo d’Orleans, he is surrounded by a small circle of confidants and bodyguards. “Before you shake hands with somebody in Sicily, you have to ask for his criminal-clearance certificate,” he jokes.
In Tusa, his center of operations is a hotel called the Atelier sul Mare. At the entrance to the hotel is a two-story gold column in the shape of the goddess Nike; above the concierge’s window is the motto “devotion to beauty.” Twenty of the hotel’s rooms were decorated by artists or other notables. The Water-Carriers’ Room, where I slept, is a work by Danielle Mitterrand, widow of the former French president. Crocetta used to sleep in the Room of the Forbidden Sea, which has six overhead screens all showing the same video clip of a wave breaking on a shore. He has also stayed in the Room of the Prophet, which is dedicated to the Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. In that room, the walls and ceiling are made of straw and mud to imitate a house in Yemen, where Pasolini shot many of his films, and beneath the bed is sand from the beach near Rome where he was killed. Inscribed in Arabic is the famous refrain from his 1974 denunciation of corruption: “I know. But I have no evidence.” Instead of a bathroom shower, there is a system of pipes that spray strong jets of water everywhere (“It tends to flood the room,” the guide who gave me a tour said), what the brochure describes as “a great purifying bath where each of us is washed and spun like the car that ran over Pasolini and killed him.”
Crocetta, too, is designing a room. “There will be no separation between it and the sea,” he tells me. “And when you press a button, the bed will come down from a golden dome modeled on the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni. There will be built-in banquettes covered with golden mosaics, like the ones in Monreale, to relax on during the day, alone or with someone else. The bathroom will have a waterfall gushing from the wall. It will be Arab-inspired, and I’d really like to include verses by the Syrian poet Adonis, one of the great contemporary poets of love.”
He relocated to a nearby apartment for the summer, to avoid tourists and for security reasons, but he maintains a room in the Atelier that has his initials on the door in rhinestones. When I visited, there were piles of clothes on every surface, a table full of creams and a small television on which, in the morning, he watched the Disney Junior channel (he is fond of Peppa Pig, a cartoon about a family of pigs and their animal friends).
The Atelier sul Mare has become a kind of alternative capital of Sicily. Crocetta often convenes executive-committee meetings in the Hall of the Double Dream, where two columns seem to plunge into the wall and shatter it. By day, crowds of people arrive to meet with him, but in the evening only his intimates remain. They call the hotel a “convent,” and when they are in good spirits, they refer to one another as “Sister” or “Abbess.” When I told Crocetta that I felt as if I had dropped into the movie “Birdcage,” but with bodyguards placed outside the doors, he replied, “Unfortunately, it’s not Miami out there, but Sicily.” After a moment he added: “I don’t care. This is how I am. And anyhow I prefer the films of Almodóvar.”
His extended family at the hotel includes a septuagenarian, who prepares meals at all hours (dinners often start after midnight); Giuseppe Comandatore, his personal assistant, who keeps Crocetta’s suitcase ready and is always on the lookout for special ingredients for the next meal; and Michela Stancheris, a former assistant who is now in charge of tourism for the region. (After my departure, a new man, Moussa Ndoye, a Senegalese married to a Sicilian, was brought on as Crocetta’s personal secretary. “Again, I’m sending a strong message of progress in a country where Cécile Kyenge” — Italy’s first black government minister — “was outrageously referred to as an ‘orangutan,’ ” Crocetta said.)
And then there is Antonio Presti, proprietor of the Atelier, who many Sicilians believe is Crocetta’s partner. On the night I arrived, however, Presti told me that he has been with another man for 12 years. Presti has also had his own long struggle against the Mafia. His father owned a cement factory, and Presti learned after his death in 1983 that he had been paying bribes to the Mafia in order to conduct business. Presti knew that if he took over the factory, he would have to do the same, but he was unwilling to pay the bribes his father had paid. “I realized I only had three options: to be killed, kill myself or give up. I chose beauty.” Instead of paying for protection, he invested in works of art, creating an outdoor museum in Tusa. In 1992, a bomb went off in Presti’s hotel, and another in the cement factory. “I got threatening letters,” Presti said. “No one on the street spoke to me.” He met Crocetta two decades ago. “This is the story of a generation that’s now 60 years old,” Presti said. He was troubled by the way that power, whether by the Mafia or by the “anti-Mafia,” was wielded in Sicily and the way that counterculture figures became part of the establishment. “It bothers me a little bit now,” Presti said, “because Rosario embodies the power that I have fought for years. I am interested in Rosario my friend, not the politician.” (Not long after I visited, Crocetta offered him a job in his administration, as a minister of culture, and Presti refused.)
The following night, when I told Crocetta what Presti said, he shook his head in disagreement. “It is not true that politics has nothing to do with the soul,” he said. “Pope Paul VI said that it is the highest form of charity. But then the Gospel also has the passage that says, ‘I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents.’ ”
It was after midnight and everyone had gone to bed, leaving us alone at a table that had a plate of sliced oranges sprinkled with cinnamon and a bowl of raw fennel bulbs that Crocetta chewed whole. When I asked him whom he considered his enemies to be, he said, “The old leopards who think that because I want to change everything, nothing will change, who think I’m just a temporary phenomenon and that all they need to do is wait me out.”
He pulled out a plastic supermarket bag from the black backpack that he carries everywhere and plucked out a pill for his back pain. “It’s wrong to think that Sicily is any different from Rome,” he said. “You find useless institutions there, too, public utilities created only as a favor for a friend and not because it serves the community. Sicily always turns into a metaphor, because here everything is exaggerated.” In Sicily, he explained, the Mafia has magnified the same corruption that exists everywhere, and has perfected it. “The Mafiosi no longer even need to fire a single bullet,” he said, “because they are inside the machine, doing legal business with illegal methods.”
From 2003 to 2009, Crocetta was the mayor of Gela, a small city 115 miles south of Palermo where Aeschylus died and that remained a seaside resort until the 1950s, when oil was found underground and just off the coast. In 1963, the energy company Eni built its first Italian refinery there, a plant that now dominates the city with its towers. The refinery brought money and a new social stratum, an industrial underclass, where once there had been only farmers and fishermen. The population quickly increased by 50 percent, to 85,000 inhabitants, without any strategic plan. People simply occupied land and began to build houses for themselves; there are now about 20,000 unauthorized buildings in seven neighborhoods that need to be regulated.
I rode through one of these neighborhoods with Elisa Nuara, who was the deputy mayor of Gela under Crocetta and is now a prominent lawyer. “The illegal houses have their pillars left up and protruding,” Nuara said, pointing out that many buildings lack roofs. “They are ready for the construction of more floors in case another child is born.” In 1983, Nuara told me, when the mayor tried to put an end to such construction, the city was set aflame and thousands of people took to the streets, occupying the town hall, burning the archives that detailed the unlawful building and seizing the mayor, forcing him to read a public speech of solidarity with the protesters.
Crocetta grew up near the refinery in Gela. His father was a firefighter until government cuts forced him to take odd jobs before finding a position as an aqueduct worker. The children were supported for a number of years by their mother, who sewed clothes for the city’s wealthy and, according to Crocetta, forced him to go to school wearing a smock made from his grandmother’s old dress.
He was the youngest of four brothers. When he was 23, he got a job working for Eni, where he later became a computer technician, and eventually left Gela to work in other parts of Italy and for three years in Bahrain. When he returned, at 39, he founded a center for at-risk children.
It was the early 1990s, and Gela was torn by an intense Mafia war: the Cosa Nostra pitted against the Stidda, an organization made up of men who had been expelled from traditional Mafia families and who refused to abide by the Mafia codes of honor. On one night in November 1990, the Stidda left eight men dead and several wounded in the streets of Gela.
“You could get killed just for putting your motorbike in the wrong place,” Nuara said. Before a truce was called, business owners and shopkeepers had to pay protection money to both groups, and any refusal was punished, sometimes with a random execution. In 1992, the names of shopkeepers who were reluctant to pay were written on slips of paper and placed in a pot. The Mafiosi pulled out the name of Gaetano Giordano, a man who ran three perfume shops in the center of town. They killed him outside his house.
Crocetta ran for mayor in 2002 on the promise that he would usher in a renaissance of Gela, that it would become a city, as his billboards proclaimed, “where beauty and peace leave no space for the Mafia.” When he lost by 107 votes, he filed a complaint of electoral fraud, and the judge who oversaw a ballot recount determined that the original count had indeed been manipulated; instead of losing by 107 votes, he had won by more than 500.
“The city was in the hands of criminals,” Nuara told me, “and when Rosario was elected, they thought that they would go on as before.” The first threat came one minute after the official announcement of the recount. “My office phone rang,” Nuara said, “and someone said: ‘What does this guy want to do? We’ll swallow him in one second.’ ” While marching in a procession in Gela on Good Friday in 2003, a few weeks after he was sworn in, Crocetta found, directly at his back, Salvatore Di Giacomo, the city’s chief of maintenance, who for years doled out jobs to Mafia-connected companies instead of calling for bids. “His message to the people watching us was quite clear,” Crocetta told me. ” ‘I’m still in charge, I’m right behind the mayor.’ I felt scared, but I stayed put, because otherwise I would have sent a misleading message to the people.”
Crocetta moved Di Giacomo out of his post and eliminated all noncompetitive contracts. To work with the city, businesses now needed an anti-Mafia certificate from the prefecture, and everyone on a work site had to have a clean record, to prevent Mafia infiltration. He urged shopkeepers to unite and refuse to pay for protection.
Di Giacomo, who is under house arrest for an attempted murder, has been linked to the Stidda, but Crocetta also went after the Cosa Nostra. Right after his election, he held a rally at which he read the names of the city’s Mafiosi. After several were arrested, he was present in the courtroom for their trials; at one, he waved two fingers at the men behind bars, signaling V for “victory” but also the length of the punishment to come — two decades in jail.
Perhaps Crocetta’s most sensational gesture as mayor came when he discovered that among Gela’s municipal employees was a woman named Virginia Di Fede, the wife of Daniele Emmanuello, the boss of the area’s leading Mafia clan. At the time, Emmanuello commanded an army of perhaps 200 Mafia soldiers and was among the 10 most-wanted fugitives in Italy. Crocetta fired Di Fede immediately, then denounced the official protection that kept Emmanuello from being captured.
A special police team was created to track down and arrest Emmanuello, and on a cold December dawn in 2007, officers surrounded the country house where Emmanuello was hiding. Usually the police avoid killing mobsters, but this time the officers shot him in the neck and killed him as he tried to escape. During the autopsy, doctors found several small squares of paper in Emmanuello’s esophagus and stomach. These were pizzini, the handwritten messages that Mafia bosses use to communicate. During the ambush, Emmanuello had swallowed the pizzini in a desperate attempt to hide them. Once deciphered, they contributed to the indictment of members of the clan, some of whom reported to investigators that Emmanuello had sentenced Crocetta to death. And since a Mafia death sentence can be revoked only by the person who made it, they explained, an eternal condemnation now hangs over Crocetta.
When Crocetta’s mother saw a news report about a plan to kill her son, she phoned him in fear. She was 98, and from that day she stopped eating. “I believe that she could not bear to survive if I died,” Crocetta said, “and that’s why she let herself die.”
For the first time in his life, Crocetta turned to therapy. “It was a mixture of Freudian and Jungian, the way it’s done nowadays,” he said. “But I don’t go anymore. The doctor let me down, because I saw that he was under his girlfriend’s thumb. I wanted to avoid the possibility of succumbing to the same thing by transference,” he said, laughing.
Crocetta laughs often, a long, whooping laugh that is quite contagious. He likes to lighten moments of gravity with facetiousness, and to mix the sacred and the profane. When I asked about his religious faith, he said: “I like the figure of the Virgin Mary, who bears everything and never judges the incomprehensible and unfathomable acts of God. She just says, ‘Thy will be done.’ Perhaps I identify her with my mother,” he went on. “The older she got, the more I idolized her suffering and linked her to the Virgin. The Mafiosi also use a holy card of the Virgin in their initiation rites. It’s like I want to repossess the Virgin, like I want to steal her back from the mobsters. We’re fighting over the sacred.”
When Crocetta was young, Sicily was in the hands of the Christian Democrats, the party that governed all of Italy in those years. His father, too, voted for the Christian Democrats, in gratitude to the Gela politician who found him a job and saved his family from poverty. But Crocetta had several arguments with his father over his political beliefs, because the Christian Democrats were associated with the Mafia. “I was an altar boy and flirted with the idea of going to the seminary and becoming a priest,” Crocetta said. “But already at 12 years old I was going to school and telling the teachers, ‘Enough with the Christian Democrats and corruption.’ I got myself expelled from religion class.” The young Crocetta began to move away from the church and later joined the Communist Party, which stood for the rule of law and resistance against the Mafia system.
“I chose to be a Communist at the same time that I understood that I was homosexual,” Crocetta told me. “But I soon realized that I had simply shifted from a ‘white church’ into a ‘red church.’ When I was 25, a leader of the Communist Party came to Gela and asked me nastily if I was gay. I asked what difference it made to him. He replied that my homosexuality could be a scandal for the party. So I distanced myself from the Communist Party too, while continuing my civic engagement. Suddenly a very private thing became an instrument of modern torture.”
Crocetta took pains to tell me that he does not think of himself as a gay man, but as a homosexual. “There is a huge difference between these two terms. Gay is someone who identifies with a culture that I’m not part of. I never went to a gay disco. I’m in favor of gay marriage and gay adoption, but I will never marry and I don’t want a family, because that, for me, is conforming to the norm. I never fell in love with an openly gay man. That does not mean that I like heterosexual men. I like a person who is unaware of his emotions. I like unaware beauty.”
Last March, on the evening of the election of Pope Francis, Crocetta appeared on a popular talk show, “Le Invasioni Barbariche” (“The Barbarian Invasions”). The plan was to do an interview about his life, but he ended up commenting — this was before Pope Francis’s recent conciliatory gestures — on the Catholic church’s aversion to gay marriage. “We should start talking about a church where a woman can become pope,” Crocetta said, “where priests can marry, where even gay marriages can be performed. A church that is an expression of — I won’t say contemporary life, but an expression of humanity. I don’t think you can get close to the sacred by denying the human being.” At that point the host, Daria Bignardi, interrupted him to ask if his confessor knew that he thought that way. “Of course he knows,” Crocetta answered. “If not, what are we talking about?” Bignardi pressed on, “And he absolves you anyway?” Crocetta replied: “Why shouldn’t he absolve me? Confessors give absolution to Mafiosi who have killed people. Why shouldn’t he absolve someone who frankly admits that he doesn’t feel it’s sinful to consider that love is a gift given by God?”
Crocetta’s confessor was a priest named Luigi Petralia. The two had been friends for 17 years, but the next day Petralia gave an open letter to the media saying that he was surprised that the president of the region would make such statements. He then said that by airing these views, Crocetta had placed himself outside the church: “He can be forgiven and come back only if he demonstrates — not only in words but in deeds — that he sincerely repents what he said.”
When Crocetta heard of Petralia’s statement, he fell into a funk that lasted for two days. In Palermo, protesters were occupying the Palazzo d’Orleans, but every conversation went back to his confessor. “It’s as if he’s gripped by sacred fury,” Crocetta told me. “Like a man who suddenly starts killing prostitutes. He’s made a very violent attack.”
He felt as if he had been excommunicated, Crocetta said, despite knowing that excommunication can come only from the Vatican. At dinner that evening he ate very little and spent his time sending text messages back and forth with the priest, who apologized for his remarks. The next day, as we drove to a rally at a church in the mountain town of Mistretta, Crocetta read aloud his final messages to Petralia: “I want to remind you that when your former associate pastor would come to church with his lovers, who he presented as just friends, you never accused him in the press, nor in front of the congregation.
“Instead what prevailed was love for the clique of the clergy. You stabbed me cruelly in the name of pride. A priest does not attack people; he says he does not share their view. You excommunicate, and you get written up on the front page. You destroyed half of my work of the past four months, my insomnia, my dedication to my land. And I’m supposed to apologize for you lynching me. Never again. We will not see each other again, not even in heaven, because your condemnation will keep me out! I’m not going to ask you to forgive, because you destroyed the relationship between confessor and sinner, by dropping down to the level of degradation that you accuse me of. Goodbye Luigi. Too bad — I believed in you.”
Two days later, Crocetta announced that he wanted to go to Gela. We made plans to go in the afternoon, but we didn’t leave Palermo until midnight, after a long, tense dinner with his entourage. Courteous as always, Crocetta did not want to say that he was too exhausted to answer my questions; instead he fiddled with his phone, nodded off, then startled awake, pressing buttons on his phone to appear busy. We arrived at 3 a.m., and he went to sleep in the apartment he keeps there, armored to withstand automatic-rifle fire.
The next day we ate lunch at a cafe where many people stopped at our table to greet Crocetta. To everybody there he is still just “Saro,” the nickname he had as a boy. Eventually, Petralia arrived at the cafe, wearing jeans and a clerical shirt with a stained white neckband. “He must have heard from someone that I was there,” Crocetta said. “Word gets around in Gela.” The two men stepped outside and talked for 10 minutes.
Later, I asked if they had reconciled, and Crocetta said: “I always forgive. But I don’t know if I want him as my confessor. Now I confess my sins directly to God, that’s the safest thing.” What wounded him the most, he said, was that it “brought me back to being an altar boy, when I discovered my sexuality that I had denied. I discovered that I had to die — someday — that I would go to hell if I masturbated. It was a flashback to all the repression I had suffered. Just terrible.” After a moment he added: “But more than anything else, a thing like that delegitimizes you. It makes you more vulnerable. It makes people understand that you can be hit. The messages of solidarity that I received all said, ‘Keep going, but make sure you’re protected.’ People read the confessor’s words and think of bodyguards, because an attack like this makes you more fragile.”
The tenuousness of Crocetta’s political survival only became clear to me when I visited Giancarlo Cancelleri, the head of the contingent of Grillini (from Grillo’s Five Star Movement) that permits Crocetta’s governing coalition to survive. The “Sicilian model” that had been so widely discussed was all but laughable to Cancelleri. “We are the Sicilian model,” he said. “Crocetta is not part of it. He works both sides of the street. I respect him, but we do all the work. He’s nothing but talk and a badge,” Cancelleri added, quoting Robert De Niro as Al Capone in “The Untouchables.” It seemed that Crocetta was much more alone than he wanted to believe, that even his supposed allies would not stand up for him. And this was only a start; relations between Crocetta and the Grillini would turn even more sour in the coming months.
While I was there, both the brashness of Crocetta’s vision and the limits of his power were on display in negotiations over a satellite communications system (called MUOS, for mobile-user objective system) that the U.S. Defense Department was building at Niscemi, in the province of Caltanissetta. Part of an agreement between the American and Italian governments, the MUOS base sits in a cork forest that is an important stopover for birds migrating between North Africa and Europe. Because of the site’s potential dangers — not only for birds but also for humans — the Grillini vigorously opposed the base. Groups of protesters that have included mothers and children from Niscemi have frequently blocked construction trucks from reaching the base. Crocetta, caught between the Americans and the government in Rome on one side and the Grillini on the other, told the press on the day I arrived in Palermo, “I’m sitting on a powder keg.”
For the next several days he practiced on me the arguments that he would repeat in a formal meeting with Donald Moore, the American consul in Naples, who came to visit him at the Palazzo d’Orleans: “The Grillini are anti-militarist and anti-American,” he said. “I’m not. I’m just a poor soul who ended up in this inferno. Everyone wants to do me in, and I’m trying to survive.” He then explained to Moore that opposition to the base was not just local but national, and that the work had to stop to make way for an independent scientific study on the impact the antennas might have on citizens’ health. On top of that, Crocetta pointed out, there was an investigation into Mafia ties to a construction company that was working on the base.
The more Crocetta talked, the sharper and more bold he became. “This isn’t the first time I’ve asked you to listen to me,” he told the American. “By not blocking the base earlier, like I told you, you handed Sicily over to the Grillini, making them into the strongest party — on the basis of the unpopularity of your initiative. If you go forward now, you’ll have to take the responsibility for toppling my government and returning Sicily to the Mafia. But I won’t go along. There is a Sicilian proverb that says, ‘A killer always wipes the blood off his knife using someone else’s jacket.’ I do not want my jacket to be used for this. But I don’t mean this in a hostile way at all. I’m behaving like any governor in the United States would behave if his state’s citizens raised doubts about the danger of a military base. We should wait for the independent study.”
Crocetta settled himself, and the meeting ended cordially, but one week later Sicily’s regional government revoked authorization for construction at the military base.
The day before his meeting with the American consul, Crocetta won his greatest political victory so far. After six hours of debate, the Sicilian Regional Assembly voted for the abolition of the Sicilian provincial governments within the year. Before entering the chamber for the debate, Crocetta went to his computer and searched the terms “courage to change” and “Pasolini.” His speech ended with an attack on those who criticized his initiative: “You want a Sicily of waste and ruin,” he said. “I want to give the Sicilians a dream — a dream that change is possible.”
He was beaming as reporters surrounded him on his way out of the Palazzo dei Normanni. “It’s a great victory,” he said, but soon went off on a tangent, as he so often does: “What was I doing during the debate?” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “Reading poetry on my iPhone.”
The reporters didn’t take him seriously, but that evening, driving back to the hotel in Tusa in the armored car, I asked him if he had been joking. “No, I was very serious,” he said. “Parts of the debate bored me badly, parts of it irritated me because of the aggression. I had to take refuge in poetry.”
In an hour we would be where he is most comfortable, at the Atelier. Signora Maria would have dinner ready: chickpea soup followed by meatballs and raw fennel. Crocetta would search YouTube and find one of his beloved Gregorian chants to play in the background while we talked of his youth and his travels outside Italy.
That spring evening at the Atelier was, in retrospect, a rare oasis in what has turned out to be a difficult year in office. The struggle over whether the American military base would be completed left Crocetta more alienated than ever. In July, the National Institute of Health, in Italy, published the study saying that there were no apparent health dangers from the antennas at the American military base, and work has continued despite the ongoing protests. To the anti-MUOS movement — and to the Grillini — Crocetta was now seen as a traitor.
Any illusions that the “Sicilian model” could persevere now seem permanently dashed. The Democratic Party, which had fully supported Crocetta earlier in the year, is now demanding more power in the government. A satirical Facebook page called “Crocetta can do it” now gets regular updates. (“Turn water into wine? Heal the blind? Get resurrected after three days? The President of the Region of Sicily is no amateur! Crocetta can do it!”)
Crocetta’s claims that he would bring a revolution to Sicily now ring more hollow. But if the revolution dies, it may not be from a Mafia assassin’s knife in the back but from a thousand political cuts. When I spoke with him by phone in mid-September, however, Crocetta seemed upbeat. Isolation is something of a natural condition for him. He did not manage to cut many jobs (“This is not a time for social slaughter,” he told me), but he saved money in other ways. “When I came into office, Sicily was risking bankruptcy,” he said. “We have cut more than 2.5 billion euros in expenses without significant job losses, and we succeeded in freeing 850 million in European funds” — earmarked for aid to Sicily — “that were tied up in bureaucracy.” He went on, anticipating questions about the criticisms that are now regularly lodged against him: “We cannot make miracles. Even President Obama has to wait to see the effect of big revolutions like the health care reform.” He went silent for a while on the phone, then said: “I don’t know if my government will be the one to harvest the results of change, but I’m sure that I have disrupted things. It’s my presence, more than my accomplishments, that signifies change.”
The conversation brought me back to that night of celebration in the spring, after the vote on the province reform, and Crocetta’s expression of exhaustion and relief as we drove in his car to Tusa. He seemed to want to talk more about the poetry that he was reading in the chamber as the debate wore on than about the debate itself, and so I asked him what it was.
“The ‘Duino Elegies,’ ” he said, “by Rainer Maria Rilke. I could have quoted every verse in there, especially those beautiful passages about the impossibility of a dream. But it would have been too big a leap, too incomprehensible. In that chamber,” Crocetta said, “they don’t speak the language of love.”
Marco De Martino is a longtime U.S. correspondent for Italian magazines and currently writes for Vanity Fair Italy. This is his first article for the magazine.