- The largest city in Sicily with over 700,000 inhabitants, Palermo is the island’s political center and principal port. Founded around 700 BC by the Phoenicians, Palermo is one of the oldest cities in the world. Part of Carthage from 480 BC to when it became part of the Roman Empire in 254 BC, Palermo has endured wave after wave of foreign conquest. The Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans all conquered the city after the fall of the Roman Empire. The last two invasions, in particular, left an indelible architectural impression on the city. The “Palace of the Normans,” one of the finest buildings in Italy, is a ninth-century Arab building that was restructured by the Normans in the twelfth century. The city’s modern history can be said to have started in 1738, when the city became a possession of the Bourbons. In 1820, Palermo revolted against rule from Naples(the capital of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), but the populist uprising was put down by troops sent by the constitutional liberal government of Naples, which itself was crushed by the Austrians shortly afterward. In 1831, there were further riots in Palermo against Bourbon rule, and then, in 1848, an insurrection in Palermo was the trigger that set off the famous “year of revolutions” throughout Europe. In 1860, the city’s people rebelled again, ensuring victory for the redshirts of Giuseppe Garibaldi. The contemporary city has been scarred by persistent misgovernment and by the pervasive presence of the mafia. Probably nowhere in Italy has the link between the political class and organized crime been so strong. Since the early 1970s, in particular, Palermo has been the scene of a dozen so-called “excellent crimes,” the murders of judges, politicians, or police commanders opposed to the mafia. In 1992 alone, the mafia killed judges Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone and gunned down Salvo Lima, a politician close to Giulio Andreottiwho was widely reputed to have been the mafia’s political facilitator in Rome. Nevertheless, resistance to the mafia has taken political form. The “Palermo spring” of the late 1980s and early 1990s turned Leoluca Orlando into a politician of national status. Orlando has been sindaco (mayor) of Palermo for most of the last two decades, and, under his leadership, civil society has asserted itself and the mafia’s hold has been greatly reduced.
Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. Mark F. Gilbert & K. Robert Nilsson. 2007.
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