Picturing Sicily: A Scholarly Look at Sophia Petrillo’s Homeland
by guest scholar Gina Montenaro
The Golden Girls first aired in 1985, when the character of Sophia Petrillo was 80 years old.
She was born in Sicily in 1906, spent her childhood in a small village, and came to the United States as a teenager. Sophia Petrillo is, of course, a fictional character, but many of the stories that she relates, the jokes she doles out, and the values and beliefs she lives out every day reflect some very real truths about being Sicilian.
At times, her references to Sicily are outrageous and seem full of exaggeration. Truthfully, some of the tales she tells are incredibly similar to actual reports of Sicilian life during the early 1900s.
I believe that anyone that had lived in or knew someone that lived in Sicily at the time of The Golden Girls would be very much able to relate to the tiny old woman who jokes about growing up in severe poverty, puts family above all else, knows how to hold a vendetta across oceans and decades, and isn’t afraid to throw down a curse when necessary.
The Mediterranean’s Largest Island, & The Difference Between Sicily & Italy
Italy is a relatively new country. Tribes, kingdoms, republics, and all other sorts of civilizations have existed in the provinces making up modern-day Italy for thousands of years, but the “boot-kicking-a-ball” shaped country of today has only existed since 1860. Most Italians still have a tendency to identify with their region more than with their country. This island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea has a history that is quite different from most of mainland Italy, taking this regional identity to the extreme.
When I arrived in Sicily in 2015 with my sister, it was clear, sunny, and beautifully warm. Our Sicilian host seemed pleased when we reported that just a few hours ago we had been boarding our connecting flight from Rome in the rain, wind, and relative cold. “Yes,” he told us, “It often rains in Italy in June — but not here in Sicily.”
A Beautiful Young Peasant Girl, & The Intensity of Poverty
In the early pages of his work, Excellent Cadavers, Englishman Alexander Stille gives an eloquent description of Sicily containing “in highly concentrated doses and highly dramatic form” the characteristics that Italians are known for. The focus on regional identity, honor, and family can be seen all over Italy, but rarely with the intensity expressed in Sicily. These characteristics can present themselves as virtues like dignity, warmth, and loyalty. They can also easily shift from virtue to vice and contribute to a lack of governmental law and order that leads to a culture dominated by crime, the Mafia, and the patronage system. Sophia Petrillo personifies these characteristics, both virtue and vice, with her complete loyalty to family as well as her complete disregard for rules.
When The Golden Girls aired in the mid 1980s, the lower and middle classes of Sicilians were finally seeing improvements in daily life that the rest of Italians had been enjoying for decades. Sicily’s economy was mainly focused on agriculture, but poor management and mafia interference kept the economy from growing. Poverty is well documented in the late 1800s and continues without much change into the late 1900s.
There are several examples of extreme wealth in Sicily. The famous Sicilian novel, The Leopard, tells of the lavish life of the elite nobles around the time of the unification of Italy in the late 1800s. The gap between the city-dwelling landowners and the village peasants was extreme. And even among the city-dwellers, the rich and the poor were living worlds apart.
In 1876, two Northern Italians from Tuscany produced a report that showed how tax money in Sicily was being spent. Most of the money was spent on bribes or for personal gain and whatever was left was usually spent on public works and grand buildings. The Tuscans took note that Palermo was able to produce some of the most expensive and impressive theaters in Europe before it produced a functional hospital. The wealthy areas of Palermo were beautiful and grand, while the poor areas of the city were rife with disease and completely lacking in infrastructure, resources, or access to education.
Brought Up in a Cave, & Booker T. Washington Thinks It’s Quite Grim
In 1910, around the same time that our fictional Sophia Petrillo would have been a small child, Booker T. Washington, a man born into slavery, took a 6 week international trip to non-tourist destinations to meet the poor people of other countries for his book, The Man Farthest Down. According to an article by Michel Huysseune, one goal of Washington’s journey was to find living conditions that were worse than the living conditions of the Black Farmer of the American South. Washington found those conditions in Sophia Petrillo’s Sicily and he gave the Sicilian peasant the honor of being the titular character of his book – the man farthest down.
Sophia cracks jokes about living in a cave, sharing a bed with more than four other family members, and other references to abject poverty. Three of my sources are books based on interviews with Sicilian peasants in the 1950’s that support my claim that modern Sicilians are not that far removed from the poverty that Sophia describes.
Danilo Dolci, Gavin Maxwell of the UK, and American, Jerre Mangione, shared impressions, observations, experiences and interviews with Sicily’s urban and rural poor throughout the 50s and 60s. The reports of the levels of poverty, violence, and corruption are stark and show that little had changed since Booker T. Washington’s trip.
“In Sicily, four in a bed is a treat. It means half your family is on vacation. I slept with my two brothers until I was seventeen. I was engaged to one for a very short period of time.”
Large families lived crowded into small homes with dirt floors. Farm animals were often kept in the house. A single bed could sleep an entire family. Food was scarce and small amounts of nourishment were stretched to last for several meals. Running water and indoor plumbing were essentially unheard of. Meat was almost never consumed by most Sicilians, even on holy feast days, and even the middle class would not have dropped into a café for a coffee. Regular work was nearly impossible to find and most adults did not have an income for large parts of each year. Food was scavenged, gathered, and sometimes stolen. Sophia’s jokes about the poverty in her Sicilian peasant village of the early 1900s reflect actual conditions of villages at the time.
“Don't forget the four gold teeth from when your father worked at the funeral parlor. 'Perks' he called them. That's the kind of stock you come from, Dorothy.
“I come from grave robbers?”
In many places, these conditions did not improve until the 1960s or 70s. American writer, Theresa Maggio, noted that even in the 1990s some Sicilians, like her friend, Rosetta, still lived in such conditions, sharing a room with multiple family members and living in a home on the verge of falling apart. If people were wealthy enough to have access to a telephone, there was less than a 50% chance that any call would be completed without going dead in the middle. And even residents of Palermo in the 1980s only had working running water about every other day.
While a few rich families continued to live in comfort, most of Palermo in the 50s and 60s was a dirty slum. Families and children were infected with diseases due to lack of sanitary conditions and overcrowding. Curable illnesses turned fatal because hospitals and medical facilities were almost never up to par. Sophia’s jokes about the medical practices in her fictional village manage to reflect the realities of many Sicilians. Gavin Edwards’s work about Scopello reveals that medical conditions remained far behind the rest of Italy and other developed countries even into the 60s and 70s. Doctors were passed through medical school and given posts based on their connections to mafia or to wealthy nobles rather than on their skill or ability. Hospitals and Medical Centers continued to be a low priority for funding, just as they were when the Tuscan researchers made their report in 1876.
Education and literacy rates were embarrassingly low, while rates of murder and other violent crime in Sicily far surpassed those in most other parts of Italy. Interviews conducted by Dolci and Maxwell demonstrated that education in the small, poor towns was a complete joke. Boys seemed to remember learning to masturbate or experiment sexually with girls much more than they remembered any lessons, leading to an adult population in one small city that was over 1/3 illiterate and another fifth of the “literate” residents were actually only capable of drawing something that could be considered a signature.
“They invented chores in Sicily. Crossing the street without getting pregnant was a chore in Sicily.”
Sophia’s one-liner about getting pregnant by crossing the street probably came from the general acceptance of the idea that Sicilian men had stronger sexual urges than others and it was worthless to even try to control it. Her other joke about being engaged to her brother could have stemmed from the practice of Sicilian families sharing a bed between multiple family members. According to some interviews, parents did not refrain from having sex even while sharing a bed with their children, so as the children grew into adolescence continuing to share beds, they would often be the first to experiment with each other. Sicilian women were strictly bound by old traditions of decorum and would be seen leaving the house only with an accompaniment of family members on their way to church. This seclusion may explain in part why interactions between Sicilian girls and boys were limited to school or within their own home.
The #1 Export of Ransom Notes, & The Mafia’s Influence
As for crime, in the villages of western Sicily, Gavin Maxwell reported 80% of the adult male population had spent a year or more in prison and over 60% of adult male Sicilians had committed murder. Only the other poverty ridden areas of Calabria and Naples, areas that were also controlled by criminal societies like the Sicilian Mafia — known as Cosa Nostra — could compete with the levels of crime and violence in Sicily.
Cosa Nostra played an important role in keeping the Sicilian peasant down and out for many years. It is hard to trace the origin of Cosa Nostra, because one of their greatest feats, similar to old adages about the Devil, was their ability to convince the rest of the world that they did not exist.
In the mid 1980s, right around the time The Golden Girls was first airing, Sicilians and Americans were given a glimpse of how the mafia had infiltrated every-day life with The Pizza Connection court cases. Family-run pizza parlors in small towns across America were found to be fronts for mafia-controlled heroin sales and seemingly harmless neighbors turned out to be Mafia drug dealers. Most of the court cases ended with lenient sentences. The Mafia had used their immense influence to further the illusion that their power and control was grounded in legend rather than reality.
In Sicily, magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were finally making some headway in the fight to expose the Mafia control of the police, the church, the government, and businesses of Sicily. Cosa Nostra had infiltrated Sicilian life all the way to the Italian Prime Minister and the Italian Supreme Court. Sicilian peasants could (and by some reports did) work harder and better than other folks, and they knew they would never see the fruits of their labor. Projects would be stalled or ended completely in mid-stride due to Mafia interference and many improvements that could have made a real difference for many Sicilians never came to light.
In fact, one of the movements that Danilo Dolci organized in the 50s was to lead a “strike in reverse”. As opposed to going on strike and stopping to work, laborers in Sicily resisted by continuing to work and attempting to complete some of the public projects that had been abandoned, including dams and roads.
“You call yourself an Italian and can’t tell the difference between a toy and a real piece?”
Sophia makes some references to the presence of the Mafia, mostly as jokes around long-lasting vendettas, ransom notes, and bribes. All of these jokes would ring true to Sicilian ears. The Mafia relations researched and described by John Dickie and Alexander Stille reveal an ongoing battle between mafia families to step into positions of power, creating webs of distrust that lasted for generations. Vendettas would be fulfilled years after an initial betrayal, often having to be put on hold until the betrayed were released from prison or able to return from exile.
Dickie describes mafia boss battles that started in 1925 and the score settling and retribution that continued through the years of Fascist control, into the Allied Military Government of the 40s, and on into the 1950s. It also wasn’t unheard of for vendettas to be carried out across the Atlantic. Bodies of Sicilian Mafiosi would sometimes turn up in the U.S. or in Latin American countries and vice versa.
Kidnapping is a business that Cosa Nostra had centuries’ worth of experience perfecting. Despite Sophia’s claim that ransom notes were a top export, Sicilians actually had lower rates of kidnapping than other parts of Italy. Regardless of the actual numbers, I think that Sophia’s claim reflects that the fear of kidnapping was always present. A kidnapping in Sicily was more likely to be for political reasons or to impress another mafia family than for the money and even if Cosa Nostra did not have the most prolific kidnapping record, they managed to be effective in controlling the industry. Non-mafia-sanctioned kidnapping attempts were typically shot down before they even got started, often literally.
Cement Pays Homage to Tradition, & Leveraging Extortion
Sophia references bribes quite a bit. For years, the economic growth of Sicily had been stunted by the culture of bribes, extortion, and corruption. After the unification of Italy in 1860, delegates from Turin came to Sicily expecting to see a more poverty-stricken version of Piedmont. Instead they were greeted by an entirely different world with a completely different set of values. Nepotism and patronage were accepted, encouraged, and held greater value in Sicilian governance than fairness, efficiency, or public good. No attempts from the Northern Italian administration proved able to change this.
As the 20th century continued on, studies showed that the cost of living in Palermo was just as high as many Northern cities, but without any of the same amenities and infrastructure that Northern Italians took for granted. Nepotism and patronage made life expensive in Sicily, but did not improve the quality of life. Contracts were made for public works, money was exchanged, and the work was never done. Hospitals and health care were extremely expensive and yet considered some of the worst in the country despite all the money poured into it. This was because, of course, the money being poured into health care was not actually going to health care.
The same trend found in the health care system could be found all over the city of Palermo and is documented in 1983 when mayor Elda Pucci attempted to open up the city water contracts with very little success. Palermo continued to be a modern city that struggled to provide potable water to residents on a regular basis due to the presence of heavy metals, poor pipe-works, and insufficient purification methods. Sicily had the resources to provide her people with water, but the culture of bribes, nepotism, and patronage averted those resources away from where they were needed most. Any resident of or visitor to all but the wealthiest corners of Sicily throughout the 20th century, would easily be able to see the hold that bribes have on the development of the island.
We Do For Family, & Symbolic Vendettas
Sicily is an island that has been conquered and ruled by others for about 3,000 years since the arrival of the sea-faring Phoenicians. Alexander Stille describes the way Sicilians identify with their region, their town, their neighborhood, or their family to a much greater degree than they ever identify with a ruling government. There is a focus on friendship, family, and honor and a tendency to see all situations in strictly human terms, uninhibited by institutional or bureaucratic rules and regulations. Personal relationships are fundamental and the length that a Sicilian will go for a family member can be extraordinary.
There are countless examples of how Sophia Petrillo displays this extremely Sicilian value. Because honor and integrity in Sicily is not attached to following the rule of law or the values pressed upon them by foreign rule, skirting the rules set by any institution does not take away from a Sicilian’s virtue. The downside of this romantic ideal is that it is easily corrupted into the Mafia system of patronage that Sicily is stuck in.
For Sicilians like Sophia Petrillo, there is no shame in discarding the rules or the law as long as you remain true and loyal to your family and loved ones. The Golden Girls demonstrates this regularly with plot lines and jokes centering on Sophia’s complete disregard for following the rules, but also with her staunch determination to stick by her family.
“There are two things a Sicilian won't do: Lie about pizza, and file a tax return.”
When she jokes that paying taxes is one of the things Sicilians never do, she isn’t far from the truth. Again, ever since the Phoenicians set up trading ports on the well-positioned island, Sicilians have devised ways to avoid paying tribute to their conquerors. After the unification of Italy, it was common for villagers to dress up their male children as girls to avoid conscription and certain taxes that demanded more money from families with more boys.
Voter fraud was extremely common throughout the entire 20th century. Dead Sicilians often participated in elections. In the 1950s, hundreds of residents of Corleone faked that they were blind so Mafiosi could accompany them to the polls. At times, the voting board would declare highly educated people as illiterate or single out middle aged Sicilians as too young to vote and effectively suppress the voters that would hinder their family and friends from growing wealthy and politically powerful.
“Ma, you have relatives that threw priests out of windows.”
“That was business.”
As for Sophia’s curses, again, I think any person that has spent time with Sicilians would be able to relate to her willingness to curse someone as well as her fear of the curses directed at herself and her family. Sicilians have adopted a wide range of superstitions. The ritual of the tuna slaughter, called the mattanza, is conducted using many Arabic words, titles, and songs, as well as being full of Catholic prayers to patron saints and protectors. The rituals of Cosa Nostra, when boys become “men of honor”, is traced back to Spanish soldiers and includes promises sealed in blood and fire. The Catholic festivals held throughout the year take on an atmosphere of ancient pagan worship that Sicilians trace back thousands of years to the gods of the Greeks and Romans. The patron saint is treated like a deity that decides the fate of the town for the upcoming year based on how pleasing the “festa” turns out to be.
According to Maxwell, in his tenure in Sicily between 1954 and 1958, every town had several religious women that villagers came to when they were afflicted with the “evil eye” or other Sicilian curses. These women were called on to help with curing worms, exorcise evil spirits, and bring needed rains. The woman Maxwell interviewed confessed that some people think of her as a witch, but she claimed everything she does is sanctioned by God and by the Church.
Dolci notes in his writing that the Sicilian version of Catholicism is more of a pagan religion with a sprinkling of Catholic observances. The saints most revered in Sicily do not represent Catholic morals, but can provide practical assistance with miracles such as restoring sight to the blind or improving digestion. Going against any of these rituals or superstitions is not taken lightly. As Maggio remembers, the fishing crew she observed in 1994 booed the Catholic priest that came to bless them, because he used the wrong word to wish them luck. A festa committee that does not create a satisfactory festival will face the wrath of the entire town and probably be charged with embezzlement. And of course, a Mafioso Man of Honor that breaks his vow is guaranteed to meet a gruesome demise.
Boom, You Wash Your Hands of the Whole Thing
In summary, I feel that the fictional character of Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls did an effective job of representing a Sicilian-American of her age. In fact, some of her least believable statements in my opinion are also some of the least questioned by modern viewers. For example, anytime she talks about going to a trattoria or ristorante in her small peasant village, I am less likely to believe her story than if she is describing extreme poverty and horrible living conditions. Her spirit and sense of humor capture something that is accurately Sicilian. To Sophia Petrillo, life is what it is and she enjoys what she can. Rules don’t hold her back from what she wants or believes. Even through her sarcasm and irreverence, the well-being of loved ones is what guides her in all she does.
In my travels to Sicily in 2015, I was delighted to see how things have been improving there. The grip of the mafia has been loosened by grassroots organizing and tourism has become a viable industry. In the 21st century, I am happy to say that the living conditions of Sicily have finally improved enough that Sophia’s jokes and stories indeed seem outrageous to Americans, even Sicilian Americans.
But I would guess that people living in Sicily even now in 2021 would relate to the Sophia Petrillo of 30+ years ago. My hope is that Sicily will continue to grow economically and eventually the stories shared by Booker T. Washington or Danilo Dolci in the first half of the 20th century will no longer be stories that a modern Sicilian can relate to, but instead they will seem like stories from a different world.
About the Author
Gina Montenaro thought she was Sicilian until her mid 30's, when family research revealed that her ancestors were from the regions of Calabria and Basilicata on the Italian mainland. Gina enjoys her Italian heritage and spends a lot of time cooking and eating Italian food. Her current focus is on pizza farms in the U.S., a subject that combines her love of food with her desire to create a more local, sustainable, and equitable food system in our country. She is the co-founder and current administrator of the premier pizza farm website, Last Night's Pizza Box.
Gina is well-known in certain circles for doing flaming shots of Sambuca and singing karaoke with a fake Italian accent that would make Rosemary Clooney proud.
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