ROME — Letizia Battaglia, an Italian photographer who documented the arrests of Mafia bosses and the bodies of their victims, has died in her native Sicilian city of Palermo. She was 87.
Among the authorities announcing her death was Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando, who stood vigil next to her coffin during her wake in city hall on Thursday, a day after her death. No cause of death was cited, but Battaglia had been in frail health for some time.
Much of her work, predominantly in black-and-white, explored the everyday lives of those who lived in Palermo’s poor neighborhoods, where Cosa Nostra bosses held sway. Battaglia photographed ordinary Sicilians in moments of grief and joy.
Among her noted photos was that of the body of Sicily’s assassinated governor being held by his brother, who 35 years later would be elected Italy’s president.
Battaglia recounted how, on Jan. 6, 1980, she raced to the scene of a fatal shooting of a man in a car and began photographing it, before she knew who the victim was.
Only shortly later would she learn that the deceased was the governor, Piersanti Mattarella, and that one of the men rushing to hold his body as it was removed from the car was his brother, Sergio, who 35 years later would become Italy’s president.
Asked frequently about that photograph, Battaglia would say that while she captured a scene of death, for her it represented a moment of hope as Sergio Mattarella would have the resolve and courage to follow a political career and later hold Italy’s highest office.
Besides death in Palermo’s streets, Battaglia photographed their life. The cover photo of a book of her photographs, “Palermo amore amaro” (Palermo bitter love) features a thin young girl, almost an adolescent, holding a soccer ball in one hand and giving the camera a hard look as she leans against a graffiti-marred door in 1982 in Kalsa, a tough Palermo neighborhood.
Another photo captures a girl, washing dishes in a home so poor, there’s a toilet bowl in the kitchen. Other photographs show couples embracing at the beach or kissing in the countryside.
Other photos by Battaglia capture scenes all too familiar to Palermo’s people, especially in the 1980s, when Mafia clan turf wars bloodied the city. One 1983 photo shows three bodies — one slumped on the ceramic floor, another on a couch and the third in an armchair — in a triple homicide in an apartment.
There there’s the photo of a mother, advanced in years, holding the photo of her son, a radio journalist who dared denounce the local mobsters by name on the air — and who was killed, tied to a railroad track and blown apart by sticks of dynamite stuffed into his clothes.
“Letizia Battaglia with her snapshots captured the souls of Palermo,” Sen. Pietro Grasso, who formerly was Italy’s top anti-Mafia prosecutor, wrote on Facebook in a condolence tribute. ”Those of the women and of the girls that she took photos of for all of her life, and the crime photos, of the Mafia, often arriving at the scene of the crime before the police forces.”
She captured the “sorrow of the victims the arrogance of the mob bosses, the blood on the street, the protagonists in the fight against Cosa Nostra,” Grasso said.
Born in Palermo on March 5, 1935, she married when she was 16 and had three daughters. In her 30s, she began to take photographs, working in Milan but then hired by a Sicilian newspaper to work in Palermo. Battaglia’s work was also published by major Italian newsweekly magazines L’Espresso and Panorama.
Battaglia also spent several years in politics, serving as Palermo culture commissioner during one of Orlando’s earlier administrations and as a representative in Sicily’s regional legislature.
Volcanic in personality, forever young in outlook, Battaglia, whose surname means “battle” in Italian, worked through her last months of failing health. One of her last assignments was the cover for 7, a weekly magazine of Corriere della Sera daily. The photo portrayed a 19-year-old Italian singer-songwriter, Ariete,
In an interview in the “Palermo amore amaro” book, the interviewer notes at the end that the two of them in their conversation never spoke about the Mafia.
“Well, better,” Battaglia replied. “Why always talk about them. Let’s step over them.”
Her family said her remains would be cremated and scattered in the sea near Palermo at her request.