The Beati Paoli: legend or reality?

A secret cult whose history and origin, after five centuries, are still shrouded in mystery; a group of Sicilian men, who acted in the shadows for centuries, between secret passages and a thick network of tunnels, spread between Palaces and Churches in Palermo.

The first written record of the existence of such cult, dates back to the late XVII century.

One of the most popular assumptions states that the Beati Paoli originated from another secret organization, the Vendicosi ( the Vengeful), already operating in XII century, with the one purpose of defending the citizens of Palermo from the injustice carried on by the noble men. About the etymology of the name, there are different theories, but the most accredited claims that it derives from the devotion for St. Francesco Di Paola and the fact that the members of the cult, walked in secrecy throughout the city dressed with habits.  

One of the most important sources, through which we’ve been able to find out more about the Beati Paoli, is the work of the Marchese Di Villabianca, who was able to put together the tales of the oral tradition, passed on to him when he was a little boy, in his Opuscoli Palermitani (Palermo Pamphlets). Villabianca was also the first to report the names of at least three members of the cult and to historically date its existence between the XVI and the XVII century. He describes it as the cult of the wicked, bearer of summary justice and cruel murders and tortures against powerful social classes, in order to protect the oppressed.

The hidden places of the cult

According to the Marchese Di Villabianca, the Beati Paoli, used to gather after midnight in the tunnels beneath an area of the town called Capo.

Today it is possible to visit the hidden passage in that block through a small door in Vicolo degli Orfani. 

From the Beati Paoli to Mafia: only assumptions?

The purpose and the ways of the cult, has led to the theory that there’s a link between it and the origins of the Mafia. In particular, when the New York Police lieutenant Giuseppe Petrosino was killed in Palermo in Piazza Marina (March 12th 1909), the investigations revealed that some Mafia members, had started to secretly meet in the same spot in which the Beati Paoli supposedly held their mysterious rendezvous.

Seventy years later Tommaso Buscetta, a sadly well-known Cosa Nostra boss, stated that: “Mafia[…] goes way back in the past. First there were the Beati Paoli[..]: we’ve sworn the same oath, the same duties.”

As a matter of fact, though, the link between the two phenomena has never been proved.

The unsolved mystery

So, who were the Beati Paoli? A cult existed for real or the result of legends passed on, generation after generation, and lost in time?

We don’t have a definite answer, but given the fame of the cult and the documentation about it (even if very limited), we have to consider the possibility that there’s some truth behind the stories concerning its existence…

Suggested books:

The Beati Paoli, by Luigi Natoli

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