People think the mafia is first and foremost violence, hit men, threats, extortion, and drug trafficking. But before all else, the mafia is language and symbols. Who doesn’t recall the opening scene of The Godfather, when Vito Corleone extends his hand to Bonasera, the Italian who has come to ask him a “favor,” and who reverently kisses the boss’s hand to ingratiate himself?
Such customs are not obsolete. In June 2017 Giuseppe “the Goat” Giorgi, a boss of the ’Ndrangheta (the Calabrian mafia) and one of Italy’s most dangerous criminals, was arrested. He had gone into hiding twenty-three years earlier, after being convicted of international drug trafficking and sentenced to twenty-eight years and nine months in prison. He was found above the fireplace of his family’s house, in a concealed space that opened by moving a stone in the floor, where he could hide in the event of searches while passing his fugitive days in the comfort of home. As the boss left the building under police escort, fellow villagers paid him tribute, one not only shaking his hand but kissing it.
Although hand-kissing is best known as a gallant way of greeting a lady, to kiss the knuckles of a man is a familiar gesture to anyone who, like me, grew up in southern Italy. It’s a tribute that has been adopted by the mafia, but its origin is quite different: this kiss was first bestowed upon the hands of Christ, from which miracles flowed. The custom spread to popes, cardinals, and priests, in whose hands the miracle of the host was renewed, and from there to the sovereign, who ruled by divine right. It’s a gesture that indicates not only respect but submission to someone whose authority is recognized. Every king, viceroy, general—and in more recent times certain mayors and local politicians—who have governed in southern Italy have received a kiss on the hand from citizens offering submission in exchange for protection.
That’s the idea behind the kissing of a mafia boss’s hand, which has the power to dole out life or death—or bread, when the state can’t. (The south has the highest unemployment rate in Italy, and often it’s the mafias that have jobs to offer, however illegal.) Kissing the hand of a boss, then, means submitting to him and acknowledging that he’s in charge, as does using the honorific “don” (derived from the Latin dominus—lord, master), which once indicated members…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.