Leonardo Sciascia

leonardo sciascia2
Leonardo Sciascia | Photo upload by Agrigento Notizie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
This month’s essay brings Leonardo Sciascia into focus. He was a writer and politician who has been described as: “The conscience of Italy. Defiant by Definition.” He was one of the most popular authors of postwar Italy. Sicily was his world both in reality, and in his fiction. The place was complicated by the negative views of most Italian public opinion. In Italy, he was novelist, polemicist, occasional politician, and perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize, although never winning the award. In a philosophically eclectic environment, typified by intolerant Leftist journalists and, at the opposite extreme, right-wing politicians, he was unafraid to write about moral and ethical issues, especially dealing with the Mafia. In such writings, he often took stands that were decidedly not liked in late 20th century Italy. If he sometimes seemed more popular outside his own country, we should understand that, despite Sicily’s remarkable literary heritage, true intellectuals themselves are rarely respected, or even recognized, by the Sicilian public. Ethics and politics aside, in academia and in the press, six decades of sometimes hostile influences, ranging from Existentialism to Catholicism, from Communism to Neo-Fascism, have eroded the popular appreciation of objective social commentary and unbiased reporting. This author stood against this trend.
CELEBRATED: Author, Politics, and Social Commentator
ASSOCIATIONS: Influential Writer
Lived 1921 – 1989
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Italy

Early Years

Leonardo Sciascia was born in Racalmuto (roughly 56 miles Southeast of Palermo) on January 8, 1921, to Pasquale (1887–1957) and Genoveffa Martorelli (1898–1979). Pasquale emigrated to the United States at the age of 25 in 1912, but returned to Sicily after World War I. He married Genoveffa in March 1920 and had three children. Leonardo was the eldest, followed by his brother Giuseppe (born in 1923) and his sister Anna (born in 1926). Sciascia’s early years were spent in Racalmuto; it became the place of his early development. (These development years coincided with the development of the Fascist regime in Italy). He attended his first 5 years of elementary school there; the school building was physically deteriorated, and the classrooms were cold and gloomy. Leonardo writes that most of the students were poor like himself. Leonardo contracted malaria and had to repeat the fifth grade. As a boy during the summer months, he worked in his uncle Salvatore’s tailor shop to learn the trade. (He continued as a tailor’s apprentice until he was 14 years old). He also worked in the town cinema/theater, the Regina Margherita Theater, which was managed by his uncle Giuseppe. He loved the movies of this period, and these would greatly influence his later writings. He also learned much from his mother, who was the sister of one of his elementary school teachers, and also from his three paternal aunts.
In 1935, when he was 14, his family moved to Caltanissetta, a town that lies in the mountains of central Sicily west of the Salso River. It was here in high school, the Istituto Margistrale IX Maggio, that the teenager Sciascia studied under Vitaliano Brancati, who would become his model in writing and who introduced him to French novelists. Another influential teacher was Giuseppe Granata, a future Communist member of the Italian Senate, who taught Sciascia about the French Enlightenment and American literature.
Sciascia always enjoyed reading, but under the guidance of these teachers he developed a voracious reading habit, reading books they recommended, among them: Alessandro Mazzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (The Wretched People), Giacomo Casanova’s Histoire de Ma Vie (Story of My Life), Denis Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le Comédien (Paradox of the Comedian Actor), as well as numerous opera librettos, which he especially liked.
The Spanish Civil War (1936–39) definitely removed whatever little Mussolini-nationalism that Sciascia had developed. It led him to a staunchly anti-Fascist position; thus, he associated with peers who were members of the clandestine Communist Party and Catholic anti-Fascist circles. While in Caltanissetta, he also became a close friend of Salvatore Sciascia (no relation). Salvatore owned a bookstore and publishing house; the bookstore became the principal meeting place of the town’s intelligentsia. Leonardo met with these intellectuals, and they greatly developed his thinking on politics and culture.
In 1941 he enrolled at the Faculty of Teaching in Messina. He passed 17 exams but did not graduate. He returned to Racalmuto and took a job at the Racalmuto agricultural consortium as a grain storage worker. After a short time at this job, he began teaching in the primary school at Racalmuto. There he met Maria Andronico, a teacher at the school, whom he married in 1944. They had two daughters, Laura who was born in 1945, and Anna Maria who was born in 1946. Also, profoundly affecting his life at this time, was the death by suicide of his brother, Giuseppe, in 1948 at the age of 25.
In 1949 Salvatore Sciascia’s publishing house launched a bimonthly literary magazine, Galleria (Gallery). Beginning with the fourth issue, Leonardo Sciascia became the director of the magazine. (He held this position until 1959).

Early Works and Influences

Sciascia’s early works were essays and articles dealing primarily with Sicilian literature. His first published work was Favole della Dittatura(Fables of the Dictatorship, 1950), which was a satire on Italian Fascism. He also published two early collections of poetry: La Sicilia, il Suo Cuore (Sicily, its Heart, 1952) a book of his own poems, and his edited anthology, Il Fiore della Poesia Romanesca: Belli, Pascarella, Trilussa, Dell’Arco (The Flower of Roman Poetry: Belli, Pascarella, Trilussa, Dell’Arco, with an introduction by Pier Paolo Pasolini and published by his close friend Salvatore Sciascia, 1952). In 1953, he also published an essay Pirandello e il Pirandellismo (Pirandello and Pirandelloism) in which he analyzed the unpublished letters of the Sicilian Nobel Prize winning (1934) dramatist and novelist Luigi Pirandello with the literary critic Adriano Tilgher. For this essay, he was awarded the Premio Luigi Pirandello prize given by the Sicilian Region.
He had started to read when he was in high school. He looked at the reality of Italy with a mind free from superstition and mythology as these French writers had. In his writings, he used reason and irony and analyzed reality with freedom and truth. His first significant novel, Le Parrocchie di Regalpetra (The Parishes of Regalpetra, published in English as “Salt in the Wound”, 1956) continued his analysis of Sicilian life. It is an autobiographical novel inspired by his experiences as an elementary school teacher in his hometown of Racalmuto. The novel chronicles the history of a small Sicilian town and the effects of politics on the lives of the townspeople. In 1954 he moved to Caltanissetta and began teaching in elementary school there. In 1957, he moved to Rome where he struck up a lifelong friendship with the Sicilian artist, Bruno Caruso. In the autumn of 1957, he published the novel Gli Zii di Sicilia (The Uncles of Sicily, published in English as “Sicilian Uncles”), in which he continued what he termed an analysis of sicilitudine (“Sicilian-ness”). It is a collection of four novellas that offer a tantalizing glimpse of Sicilian life. In these stories, illusions about ideology and history are lost in mirth and in suffering. All innocence is abandoned. Each novella has an historical moment as plot: the Allied invasion of Sicily; the Spanish Civil War; the death of Stalin; and the revolutionary events of 1848 in Sicily.
racalmuto (ag) qui è nato leonardo sciascia
Racalmuto–Community and setting for his first novel, “Le Parrocchie di Regalpetra”

Finding His Voice

After one year in Rome, Sciascia moved back to Caltanissetta in 1958. Although Sicilian life and attitudes continued to be the chief subject of his writing, he did not discover his favorite genre for writing, the giallo novel (the Italian term for detective fiction and crime novels), until the publication in 1961 of Il Giorno della Civetta (The Day of the Owl, translated in English as “Mafia Vendetta“), one of his most famous novels about a study of the Mafia. Set in the 1960s, the novel tells the story of a Carabinieri Captain Bellodi who is investigating the Mafia killing of a local building contractor in a small town in western Sicily. In the story, there are powerful, shadowy, unidentified figures who not only have a vested interest in frustrating the captain’s murder inquiries but also advance the idea that the Mafia does not exist. Sciascia’s intention in writing the book was to bring to as wide an audience as possible an awareness of the problem of the Mafia and its hold, not only on Sicily, but on important areas of Italian public life: the police, the judiciary, politics, and even the Catholic Church.
He followed this novel in 1963 with the historical novel Il Consiglio d’Egitto (The Council of Egypt) that is set in Palermo in 1783, when Sicily was under the control of the Spanish Bourbons ruling from Naples. The local barons feud among themselves and plot petty schemes. Their wives spend their time reading forbidden French novels. The boorish Benedictine Abbot Vella is a schemer who sets out to exploit the Sicilian aristocracy, and who is eager to curry favor with Naples. He “invents” an ancient Arabic chronicle, “The Council of Egypt,” that enhances some families’ rights and justifies Naples’ claim over Sicily by rewriting Sicilian history.
After writing a series of essays, in 1965 Sciascia wrote the play L’onorevole (The Honorable), which was a denunciation of the collusions between the Mafia and government. Throughout the 1960s, his interests and activity diversified and expanded, while remaining faithful to a nucleus that had its center in Sicily. His subject matter was literature, history, art, and politics and his media were short stories, plays, even filmed documentaries. Novels continued to serve as a major vehicle for developing his ideas, especially about the moral corruption of the Mafia and Italian, i.e. Sicilian, society. A Ciascuno il Suo (To Each His Own), another political mystery novel, was published in 1966. It is a short, powerful, and unconventional detective novel that deals with the complicities and accomodations of power within Italian politics. It is an anatomy of a society founded on secrets, lies, collusion, and violence.
In August 1967, Sciascia moved to Palermo but he continued to spend his summers near Racalmuto in the town of Contrada Noce. From these two Sicilian places, he observed the events that profoundly changed society at the end of the 1960s. The Soviet repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 inspired him to write a play Recitazione della Controversia Liparitana Dedicata ad A.D. (Recitation of Liparitana Dispute, dedicated to A.D.). It was dedicated to Alexander Dubček, the leader of the Prague liberalization. The play was based on an episode of Sicilian history from the 18th century, the Liparitana controversy between the kingdom of Sicily and the Holy See, which concerned Lipari, the Sicilian island in the Tyrrhenian Sea.In August 1967, Sciascia moved to Palermo but he continued to spend his summers near Racalmuto in the town of Contrada Noce. From these two Sicilian places, he observed the events that profoundly changed society at the end of the 1960s. The Soviet repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 inspired him to write a play Recitazione della Controversia Liparitana Dedicata ad A.D. (Recitation of Liparitana Dispute, dedicated to A.D.). It was dedicated to Alexander Dubček, the leader of the Prague liberalization. The play was based on an episode of Sicilian history from the 18th century, the Liparitana controversy between the kingdom of Sicily and the Holy See, which concerned Lipari, the Sicilian island in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
In 1971, Sciascia started to write novels that dealt with current issues that were no longer linked exclusively to Sicily. He dealt with political and social phenomena that impinged on the entirety of Italy and the world. In that year, he returned again to the mystery novel with Il Contesto (The Challenge, published in English as Equal Danger), which inspired Francesco Rosi’s 1976 movie Cadaveri Eccellenti (Excellent Corpses). The novel involves Inspector Rogas who is investigating a string of murders and finds himself caught in political intrigues. As soon as he makes progress, he is transferred and encouraged to pin the crimes on the Left. But how committed are the cynical, fashionable, comfortable Leftist revolutionaries to revolution–or anything? Who is doing what to whom? He begins to believe that there is more to this case than a mere personal grudge, and he must find a way to prove it.
The novel is set in an imaginary country, one that seems all too real. It is informed by the corrupt politics and the Mafia that Sciascia experienced in 1970s Sicily. The novel created a firestorm of controversy because of its mercilessly, critical portrayal of Italian politics and the Mafia. (Although Sciascia does not name the locale as Sicily and Italy, his readers cannot help but make the connection). He followed this with another mystery novel in 1974, Todo Modo (One Way or Another, or All Ways), causing more controversy, especially with its depictions of Italy’s Catholic clergy. The novel begins in a quiet and ascetic monastery where the leaders of Italian politics, industry, and the Church are gathered to meditate following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. But the peace of the retreat is violently interrupted by a series of mysterious murders of some of the participants, including the clerical leader. Sciascia uses tension and irony in the novel to picture the corrosive nature of uncontrolled power. He forces the reader to confront an important truth: coexistence in society is irremediably corrupted by the experiences of injustice, the facetious spirit, and the most turbulent self-interests.
The strong controversies from these and other works came especially from part of the Italian left, the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI: Communist Party of Italy), but nevertheless Sciascia’s first foray into politics was his participation alongside the Communists in the referendum campaign in defense of the law against abortion in 1974. Then, in 1975, he agreed to run for office and was elected to the municipal council of Palermo as an independent on the PCI slate. However, he resigned controversially after two years in 1977 from the PCI due to his strong opposition to the “historic compromise” between the PCI and the Democrazia Cristiana (DC: Christian Democratic Party) in which the PCI agreed to work with the DC.
His 1977 novel Candido, Ovvero, un Sogno Fatto in Sicilia (Candido, or A Dream Made in Sicily) is essentially the story of his disappointment and resignation. The novel follows the events in the life of Candido Munafo, who was born in a cave in Sicily on the night of the Americans’ landing in 1943, and continues until 1977. The novel follows the events of his life in a series of chapters that recall those of Voltaire’s Candide. This latter-day Candido is an innocent at large in the corrupt world of post-war Sicily where the Catholic Church and the Communist Party are fighting over men’s souls in general, and that of Candido’s in particular. It combines Voltaire’s light touch with Sciascia’s darkly ironic wit. Things are always simple, Candido sometimes murmurs. And it will be precisely his desire to name things and happenings by their correct name that will cause him various misadventures. This meek, stubborn and thoughtful young man ends up appearing, in the eyes of the world, as a little monster. Thus, a novel that was born as a rewriting of Voltaire’s masterpiece ends up being an effective testimony to the tensions and problems of contemporary Italy.
Sciascia re-entered politics again in 1979 when he accepted the Partito Radicales (PR: Radical Party) offer to run as a candidate for the elections to the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Parliament. The PR’s tenets were closer to his own anarchist leanings than were those of the PCI. After his successful election, he also became an Italian representative of the PR to the European Parliament during its term 1979–84.

3 Essays: Investigative Studies of Actual Historical Events

During the mid-1970s, Sciascia focused his literary skills not on novels, but on works analyzing real historical events. Three of these works are described here. He used his master novelist skills in investigating, analyzing and writing historical narratives that were created to solve real historical mysteries, while at the same time allowing him to comment on questions of the immorality of Italian and Sicilian society and politics.
A few months after the publication of Todo Modo, in 1975 Sciascia investigated and published an important non-fiction, book-length pamphlet, La Scomparsa di Majorana (The Disappearance of Majorana), which was an investigation exploring the mysterious end of the brilliant Italian theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana, a colleague of Enrico Fermi. He had disappeared on March 25, 1938, at age 32 after withdrawing most of his money and purchasing a boat ticket from Palermo to Naples. The assumption of most investigators at the time was that he had committed suicide by jumping off the boat. The mystery, however, was further intensified since his body had never been recovered.
The essay was an opportunity for Sciascia to use his novelist’s skill in developing a story based on his research of the available evidence and commenting on it. In the pamphlet, he developed various controversial reflections on the historical responsibilities of science. He opened it with documents of Ettore Majorana’s research on the theory of the atomic nucleus, then continued with his own probing for the reasons for Majorana’s mysterious disappearance. Dominating the book is the theme of scientists’ responsibility in the uses that other people make of their research. Sciascia was convinced that Majorana had decided to disappear because he foresaw that the nuclear forces, which he had been working on, would lead to nuclear explosives a million times more powerful than conventional bombs, like those that would eventually destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once again, his reflections led to controversy; this time with the Italian physicist Edoardo Amaldi, who was a close friend and working colleague of both Majorana and Fermi.
A second essay resulted from another historical event. On March 16, 1978, Aldo Moro, a former Italian Prime Minister and a former leader of the DC party, was ambushed in Rome. Within three minutes, the Communist Red Brigade had killed all five members of his escort and bundled Moro into one of three getaway cars. An hour later they announced that Moro was their prisoner; and on March 18 they said he would be tried in a people’s court of justice. Seven weeks later, Moro’s body was discovered in the trunk of a Renault parked in the crowded center of Rome.
After his election to the Chamber of Deputies, Sciascia became a member of the parliamentary commission of inquiry into Moro’s kidnapping. The committee found that there was negligence on the part of the governing DC Party in their position that the state was bigger than one person, and that they would not swap Moro for 13 political prisoners that the Red Brigade demanded. This was contrary to what Moro himself had stated when he was Prime Minister and party leader that the swapping of innocent people for political prisoners was a valid option in negotiations with terrorists. However, senior members of the DC party disagreed with this position and refused to go through with the prisoner swap.
Sciascia himself took on the responsibility of looking into the case to determine what might have provoked the kidnapping and slaying. In fact, during his political tenure in the Chamber of Deputies, he worked feverishly on researching the historical documents related to Moro’s captivity and murder. He held committee hearings to help with his investigations. The result of this research was once again the development of a narrative of events from a master storyteller that included his own reflections on the evidence. L’Affaire Moro (The Moro Affair) was published in 1983. It was a penetrating and uncompromising account of one of the greatest scandals in modern Italian politics. Sciascia denounced the hypocrisy of those DC politicians who, remaining faithful to their uncompromising positions, doubted the authenticity of letters that Moro wrote during his captivity to his family and colleagues. Through the use of those letters and committee testimony, Sciascia laid out a narrative that untangled the real-life events of those crucial weeks and provided a unique insight into the dangerous and hypocritical world of Italian politics in the 1970s.
A third book-length essay that Sciascia used to investigate a historical event is I Pugnalatori (The Knife Stabbers). It was published by Sciascia in 1976. The historical reconstruction that he built focused on a strange series of crimes that took place in Palermo during the night of October 1, 1862. In thirteen separate parts of the city, thirteen people who were unknown to each other were stabbed at the same time, causing a great uproar and terror in the city. The essay reconstructed the trial that had been conducted by Guido Giacosa, an honest Piedmontese prosecutor/magistrate who had just arrived in Sicily. At the trial, Giacosa revealed some of the background of a neo-Bourbon (royalist) plot that was aimed at destabilizing the newly formed Italian state. The text is permeated by Sciascia’s thoughts, which very often were influenced by the political mysteries of Italy, and especially of Sicily.
Sciascia, in retracing the entire story, scrutinized the validity of the trial, in which Giacosa indicated that Romualdo Trigona Gravina, the Prince of Sant’Elia and some of the Italian Church hierarchy were responsible for the murders by their planning and monetary payments even though they did not actually participate in the murders. Sciascia also explored the motives that induced the political leaders of the time to be content with a trial of only the actual perpetrators of the crime, and not these aristocrats, the “higher-ups,” who had instigated, planned, and financed it.
Throughout the 1980s, Sciascia focused his writing on articles and reviews for journals. However, in the last years of the decade, just before his death, he published several important books. His novel Una Storia Semplice (A Simple Story, 1989, published in English in 1991 as A Straightforward Tale), is a slim detective story that is both moral and political; it was the last novel Sciascia published. It was based on a real event, the theft in October 1969, by two thieves who entered the Oratory of Saint San Lorenzo in Palermo and stole Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence from its frame. (Experts estimated its value at the time to be $20 million). Former Italian Mafia members stated that the painting had been stolen by the Sicilian Mafia and displayed at important Mafia gatherings. They also said that the painting was damaged and had been destroyed. The whereabouts of the painting are still unknown. (A reproduction currently hangs in its place in the Oratory of San Lorenzo).
In Sciascia’s telling of the story in his novel, an apparent suicide proves to be a murder involving the Mafia, the police, art thieves, drug merchants, a devious priest, and a hapless motorist who tries to help and ultimately winds up in jail. Although the crime is solved in the novel, not all the guilty parties are punished, and the heroism of the detective who solves the case is dismissed as an accident.
Another work was an important piece of literary criticism, Pirandello dall’ A alla Z (Pirandello from A to Z; also known as Pirandello’s Alphabet), published in 1986. This was a literary study of one of the most important Sicilian dramatists and authors– Luigi Pirandello. In this book, Sciascia examined particulars of Pirandello’s life, his literary work, and influences on him. Using these elements, he presented each as if it were a letter of the alphabet. He thus built this alphabet to illuminate Pirandello in order to make him real and more accessible to Italian and especially Sicilian readers. Using this unique paradigm for his study helps us to understand Sciascia, who asserted his truth to his readers in his writings by often following the most ingenious and unique paths.
Another work, A Futura Memoria: se la Memoria ha un Futuro (A Future Memory: if Memory has a Future) came out in 1989 and contains articles published by Sciascia in the 1980s which explored and exposed the context of silence, security, and protection within Sicilian society that allowed the Mafia, with its hidden structure, to extend and to perpetuate itself with no check on its influence or power.

Death and Appraisal

Leonardo Sciascia died in Palermo, Sicily on November 20, 1989 at the age of sixty-eight. He had been in poor health for several years, when he discovered that he was suffering from a rare form of bone marrow cancer that forced him to undergo long and painful treatments. He was buried at Cimitero di Racalmuto in Racalmuto, Provincia di Agrigento, Sicilia. After his wife (Maria Andronico Sciascia) died in 2009, she was buried in a separate grave next to him.
Leonardo Sciascia left behind a legacy as a prolific writer and critical thinker who shed light on the realities of Sicilian society and politics that he had experienced: linking of families to political parties, the treachery of alliances and allegiances, and the calling in of favors that resulted in outcomes that did not benefit society, but rather those individuals who are in favor. Central to this view is the role and influence of the Mafia and the Catholic Church in this Sicilian experience. His books are rarely characterized by happy endings or by justice for the ordinary man.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to cover more than a few of his important writings. What I wanted to postulate was that, like Alessandro Manzoni, Sciascia believed that literature must have a “moral” goal. He wrote not only because he loved to write, but also because he desired to talk about justice. In his works we witness the nevrosi (neurosis or obsession) of justice. As with both Voltaire and Manzoni, justice is Sciascia’s principal passion. For him, justice practically becomes a religion, the most useful religion to humanity in society.

In a certain sense Sciascia was a destabilizzante (destabilizing) writer. That is, he gave literature a certain social strength because he broke the code of silence which had kept Sicily and the entire world in chains for centuries. He expressed his legacy to the world in one of his final books, La Sicilia Come Metafora (Sicily as Metaphor)

“I am rather an Italian writer who knows the Sicilian reality well. I continue to believe that Sicily offers a reality consisting of many problems and many contradictions which are not merely Italian but also European. …Sicily is a metaphor of the modern world.” La Sicilia Come Metafora, p. 78. (Cited in Montante, “Leonardo Sciascia: The Intellectual Writer,” p. 337).

Adapted by James J. Botiano, PhD from:

“Leonardo Sciascia: Italian Writer and Public Figure.” Biographs Website
Chu, Mark. “Sciascia and Sicily: Discourse and Actuality.” Italica, Vol. 75, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), pp. 78-92
“Leonardo Sciascia: Italian Author.” Encyclopedia Britannica Website, January 4, 2024
Farrell, Joseph, “The Ethics of Science: Leonardo Sciascia and the Majorana Case.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 102, No. 4 (Oct., 2007), pp. 1021-1034
“Leonardo Sciascia: Biography.” Fondazione Leonardo Sciascia Website
Montante, Michela. “Leonardo Sciascia: “The Intellectual Writer.” World Literature Today, Spring, 1997, Vol. 71, No. 2 Italian Literature Today, pp. 335-337
Montante, Michela. “Leonardo Sciascia: The Writer.” World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Winter, 1991), pp. 65-68
Salerno, Vincenzo. “Leonardo Sciascia.” Best of Sicily Magazine Website, 2021
“Leonardo Sciascia: The Life.” The Website of the Friends of Leonardo Sciascia
“Leonardo Sciascia.” Wikipedia Website

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