At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Dr Michele Navarra – physician and Mafia boss

Hospital doctor who headed Corleone clan


Michele Navarra was an eminent  physician in Corleone
Michele Navarra was an eminent
physician in Corleone
Michele Navarra, an extraordinary figure who became the leading physician in his home town of Corleone while simultaneously heading up one of the most notorious clans in the history of the Sicilian Mafia, was born on this day in 1905.

Dr Navarra was a graduate of the University of Palermo, where he studied engineering before turning to medicine, and became a captain in the Royal Italian Army. He could have had a comfortable and worthy career as a doctor.

Yet he developed a fascination with stories about his uncle, Angelo Gagliano, who had until he was murdered when Navarra was a boy of about 10 years old been a member of the Fratuzzi – the Brothers – a criminal organisation who leased agricultural land from absentee landlords and then sublet it to peasant farmers at exorbitant rates, enforcing their authority by extorting protection money, as well as by controlling the hiring of workers.

As the son of a land surveyor, Navarra already enjoyed privileges inaccessible to most of the population and his medical qualifications only further lifted his standing in the community. Somehow, though, it was not enough.

After the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, having co-operated with the Anglo-American forces, Navarra took advantage of his relationship with Angelo di Carlo, a Sicilian cousin in the American marines who had used his Mafia connections to become a vital go-between for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor of the CIA) in obtaining intelligence ahead of the invasion.

Navarra, along with a fellow doctor, was killed in his  car in an ambush on a country road
Navarra, along with a fellow doctor, was killed in his
 car in an ambush on a country road
The occupying army were determined to remove Fascist party members from power on the island, so Navarra presented himself as an anti-Fascist and, with Di Carlo’s help, secured the right to round up and take possession of all military vehicles abandoned by the Italian army.

He used some of these to set up a regional bus service but others became vital to his cattle rustling operations, which enabled him to establish himself as an important figure in the criminal underworld, to the extent that, when Corleonese clan boss Cologero Lo Bue died in 1944 – from natural causes – Navarra was able to fight off a challenge from Vincenzo Collura, a Sicilian-born American gangster, to take over as Lo Bue’s succssor.

At the same time, remarkably, Dr Navarra was advancing his medical career.  In 1946, he was appointed the lead physician at Corleone’s local hospital (after his predecessor was mysteriously murdered) and enjoyed enormous respect in the community for his skill and diligence, and his generosity in waiving fees for those in financial hardship. Often, he would be invited to be godfather to the children of grateful patients.

When Corleone people spoke of him, they called him 'u patri nostru - Sicilian dialect for 'our father'.

Luciano Leggio, Navarra's former lieutenant, ultimately betrayed his boss
Luciano Leggio, Navarra's former lieutenant,
ultimately betrayed his boss
Yet it was his criminal activity that was the real source of his wealth and power. The Corleonese clan controlled not only cattle rustling but all manner of other activities, legitimate or otherwise, thanks to Dr Navarra’s influence in the award of local government contracts.

As a member of the Christian Democrat party, he did what he could to keep the party in power locally and was duly rewarded, even if his methods were somewhat unusual.  Voters were often escorted into the polling booths by gang members to ensure they voted the right way, Dr Navarra having issued certificates to say they were blind had to be assisted at the ballot box.

More sinisterly, he despatched his young lieutenant, Luciano Leggio, to murder Placido Rizzotto, a trade union leader who was gaining popularity for the Socialist party.

Navarra exploited his standing to develop powerful political allies, who in turn handed him prestigious positions.  For a while, for example, he was the official medical adviser to Ferrovie dello Stato, the state rail network.

He was always well dressed, genteel even, yet almost every week he would issue the order for someone to be killed, either an opponent or an individual who in some way was an impediment to his progress.

Navarra was careful to keep his own hands clean, always commissioning murders through a third party. Seldom could a killing be traced back to him, although he was sent into exile in Reggio Calabria after being accused of personally silencing, though a lethal injection, the only witness to the Rizzotto murder.

It was during his exile that his former underling, Leggio, developed his own rackets and tried to seize power. Navarra tried to have him killed in the summer of 1958 but the plot failed and it was only a few months later that Navarra's car was ambushed on an isolated country road and he died, along with an innocent colleague from the hospital, in a hail of machine gun fire.

Among the suspected killers were two notorious future bosses of the Corleonese clan, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.

The Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri
The Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri
Travel tip:

The University of Palermo, founded in 1806 but with roots in learning traceable to the 15th century, when medicine and law were first taught on the site, is home to about 50,000 students.  It is notable among other things for the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, the 14th century palace that was once the home of the powerful Sicilian ruler Manfredi III Chiaramonte, which now houses the rector’s office and a museum, and the 30-acre Orto Botanico (Botanical Gardens).

The Palazzo Comunale overlooks the Piazza Garibaldi
at the heart of Corleone
Travel tip:

Although the town of Corleone was immortalised in fiction by Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather and the film of the same name, its Mafia past is only too real and citizens lived an oppressed life for many years, fearful of even admitting that the secret society existed.  Nowadays, there are organisations that are proudly anti-Mafia and the confiscated home of one-time leader Bernardo Provenzano has been turned into an anti-Mafia museum and art gallery in memory of Paolo Borsellino, the anti-Mafia magistrate who was murdered in 1992.







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