“The mafia is a world based on deception and lies. I continued to live in the lie because I was forced into a double identity and a life in a secret location. Today even the smallest lie weighs on me.” —Piera Aiell
Pupetta Maresca — murderess, mafiosa, diva, film-star wannabe — would have loved how people remembered her when she died shy of New Year’s Eve 2021. Local authorities banned a public funeral for her, disallowing the celebration of a life so badly lived. She would have reveled in that, I know. She would have thought to herself, “Fuck you, bastards, I have the last word.”
To be the first woman to be sentenced for carrying out a fatal vendetta in the history of Italy’s rather long dance with organized crime; to be banned from a funeral due to her mafia affiliation elevated her to the ranks of big bosses. That police banned even the meager flowers I took to her grave from being laid next to it would have made her smirk. When I put them on the grave of a family name I recognized as an enemy clan, I felt her looking down at me. To say I didn’t feel a tinge of relief that she died before my book, The Godmother, about her came out is an understatement. When I heard the news, a wave of calm swept over me. She can’t get me from the grave, I thought, knowing of course she will indeed haunt me forever.
By the time she died, she had spoken to me a dozen times over several years for a book project I had started out hoping would be about good women, but ultimately realized bad women are far more interesting. Pupetta caught my eye because of the audacity of her crimes — avenging the hit on her mobster husband at the age of 18 in the third trimester of pregnancy. Another two murder charges, and countless other accusations would be lodged against her throughout her long life.
She killed for love (the first time), she told the court that convicted her. And 60 years later, when we sat in her kitchen in a town of questionable character south of Naples, she had no regrets. She was later convicted of another murder that was for revenge, not love — a heinous decapitation and blood letting of a former close ally. She was ultimately acquitted of that one and the one that came after, but I never fully believed she didn’t kill any of those people. She had blood on her hands, and, in many ways, in her soul.
I liked Pupetta a lot despite knowing I shouldn’t. I was captivated by her stories, the way she flipped through the yellowing pages of her scrapbooks — some filled with wedding photos and others newspaper clippings of her various criminal trials. She was an egomaniac and a manipulative liar, but she was likable in a way I had hoped she wouldn’t be. She asked about my children by name, about my family in the U.S., and about how the book was coming along in our final visits. Did she really care or had she just known how to keep me in her grip?
But of all the things I liked about Lady Camorra, as she was known, was how she was able to harness her beauty to bolster her criminal acumen in a patriarchal society in which so many women after her have faltered always intrigued me. She told me time and again that sexism is not a curse, it’s a tool. And that men who use it against women can be easily manipulated as fools. Many successful women have indeed beaten the patriarchy in Italy not by fighting it but by exploiting it.
Still, glamorizing women like Pupetta — bad women who in many ways are the seams that reinforce the fabric of Italy’s extensive organized crime problem — is wrong, of course. But understanding how women in the criminal circuit have been able to achieve a level of empowerment and dubious success, which women in Italy’s legal community still struggle for, is part of the history of Italy. As one anti-mafia prosecutor explained to me, the mafia does not exist in spite of the “good Italy” but because of it. Organized crime is part of this beautiful country’s DNA; it is a scourge that has killed thousands of people and ruined millions more. But turning away from the reality of its existence will not make it go away. Indeed, exposing it for what it is might just ignite a spark that could eventually bring change.
Like the mafia itself, Pupetta succeeded not in spite of Italy’s good side, but in many ways, because of it. And even though police made it illegal to celebrate her life, there is something notable in how she lived it.
PUPETTA WILL NEVER be remembered as a good person, even as age had softened her tough exterior. Her bold lies and bloody crimes are unforgivable — and why would they be forgiven, since she felt no remorse for any of them at all. Women like Pupetta who bask in the spotlight and seem to take great pride in their notoriety have in so many ways made it easier for other bad women to follow. That she lived freely despite her two murder convictions and one murder investigation among other allegations is not so much a testament to her own strength and will, but to the failure and weakness of the state that cannot seem to eradicate the deep roots of organized crime in Italy.
Twice I met her daughter, Antonella, and both experiences were unnerving. She has hints of her mother’s beauty but little of her charm, and instead came across as a slightly bitter woman who envied her mother’s fame. Antonella is not a mafia woman, as far as any police investigation shows. She managed her mother’s affairs for years, so if Pupetta had ever been found culpable, she could have been considered complicit. It is impossible to know if she would like to be as notorious as her mother or if she was rejected from having an organizational role, but it seems clear that if she were affiliated with a clan she would be a different person and her agenda would be clearer. She was her mother’s gatekeeper until her death, and now she guards her legacy.
Her objective seems to be to keep her mother from doing anything for free. The first time we met, I was leaving Pupetta’s apartment when Antonella walked in. She seemed annoyed when she saw my espresso cup on the table. As I gathered up my notebook and pen to leave, she asked me simple questions that seemed to have no real purpose: Where would I publish the piece? Who would be reading it? And who else was I interviewing?
The second time we met, she seemed angry that I had come back without going through her and told me in no uncertain terms not to return. Her mother, a woman I had by then spent enough time with to have seen as willfully strong-minded, seemed almost afraid of her. She kept her head down when her daughter spoke. She looked away when I tried to make eye contact. In fact, nothing I knew of Pupetta through my interviews and her interaction with others made sense when she was with Antonella, who made her immediately seem weak and frail. At that moment, I felt sorry for Pupetta, assuming her daughter had taken complete control of her life and affairs. But on further reflection, I wonder if it was an act on Pupetta’s part — if she was playing the part of the frail, elderly mother to keep her daughter from suspecting how capable she still was, part of an effort to convince Antonella that she had given up her previous life.
Though not much is known about Antonella’s very private life, she and Pupetta seemed to have long been close. By the time Pupetta had Antonella and her twin brother, Pupetta had served 13 years and four months of an 18-year sentence for murdering the man who shot the father of her first child Pasquilino, who Pupetta thought was murdered by Antonella’s father on his 18th birthday. The mother and daughter ran cheap clothing stores in Naples and Castellammare di Stabia until they went out of business in 2005. Pupetta was the shop sales clerk, selling gaudy polyester tops and tight skirts for five to 10 euros to people who would come in just to brag that they had bought clothes from Pupetta Maresca. Antonella had other work, but she ran the business side of the operation, and her name was on the tax records undoubtedly because authorities were keeping an eye on Pupetta for anything that looked like tax evasion or money laundering. The way the business was set up on paper, Pupetta worked for her daughter, though the money to start the business may well have come from Pupetta. The spotlight never found Antonella, despite her ongoing proximity to her famous mother.
My final interview with Pupetta was cut short by Antonella, who shooed me away one winter afternoon just a few minutes after I arrived. Her mother didn’t argue, and, in fact, I felt at that moment she was probably relieved. Antonella had come to her rescue spontaneously, it seemed, but perhaps the two had hatched the plan to cut things off. “I think you are done with your research now,” she told me, making it clear she was in charge. “I don’t think you’ll be back.”
After that interview, I tried in vain to meet Antonella separately, but she would not agree, citing the second wave of the pandemic and various lockdowns that kept the region around Naples hard to reach. But I felt she didn’t want to meet with me because she would have nothing to say, that maybe she knew nothing of her mother’s dark past except what she read in press reports. The two were close, undoubtedly, but the fact that she exists in the public imagination only as “one of Pupetta’s twins” is likely a painful reality. She grew up in a home that was beyond dysfunction, likely knowing that her father was suspected of killing her stepbrother and surely knowing that her mother was an admitted murderer. In the end, I could forgive her for being standoffish. The last time I heard from her was a simple text message to tell me Pupetta had died in which she wrote “mamma è morta.” I had planned to see her a week after the funeral at the cemetery in Castellammare di Stabia, where there were clandestine plans to have a prayer service to mark the week since Pupetta’s death. But police again prohibited any such celebration of such a villainous life. I doubt I will ever hear from Antonella again.
DETAILS OF HOW the mafia works behind the headlines are garnered from turncoat confessions. But coercing a confession out of someone whose life and identity are so intertwined with the criminal underworld is daunting. Mafia women have been brainwashed since birth, and convincing them that there is an alternative way to live takes a special kind of persuasion. Crippling poverty leads to idle hands. Even though the various mafia families ’Ndrangheta, Cosa Nostra, and the Camorra have spread their tentacles north, their power still lies fundamentally in the impoverished southern regions of Italy. These areas produce the greatest despair and, though rarely, stories of immense courage and hope. Piera Aiello’s is the latter. As a 14-year-old growing up in rural Sicily in the 1980s, she met a local teen Nicolò Atria, who she did not know at the time was the son of top Cosa Nostra boss Vito Atria. The don loved Piera and decided that she should marry Nicolò, even though they were young. While Piera didn’t quite understand her young boyfriend’s status in the local community, she knew that he was not like other boys because of the respect he garnered from people much older than he was.
As Piera recounted the story to me in 2018, after she had won a parliamentary seat, she and Nicolò had a spat and she broke up with him, only to be visited at home by Vito, who told her, in no uncertain terms, that she would marry Nicolò or her parents would be killed. Piera had no choice so, at 18, the two wed.
For Years I Have Lived in A World of Lies
Their marriage started badly, with bouts of Nicolò’s temper leading to daily beatings. He forced Piera to wait tables in the pizzeria owned by his family — a family that changed greatly only eight days after they wed. Vito was killed by a hit man, leaving Nicolò more power and, with it, the drive to avenge his father’s death. “He swore he would kill the men who killed his father,” Piera remembered.
Nicolò soon wanted a son, but Piera was not in love, and she secretly took birth control pills to avoid pregnancy. When he found out, he beat her even more and made her go off the pill and repeatedly raped her until she became pregnant. Their daughter, Vita, which means life in Italian, was born shortly after Piera had failed the Italian state exam to become a police officer — a betrayal that angered Nicolò even more. How could she dare join what was then seen as the enemy while carrying his child? “If I found drugs, I threw them away and was often beaten for this,” she said. “I was kicked in the belly and risked losing the baby when I was eight-months pregnant. I was forced to learn to shoot, I was forced to keep weapons at home.”
Then, on June 24, 1991, armed men stormed the pizzeria while Nicolò was there and pumped more than three pounds of ammunition into him, killing him immediately. “My face was covered with my husband’s blood,” she said. “I despised Nicolò, but I felt pity for him. He was just a boy, 27 years old, and they killed him like an animal.”
Piera went to the police the next day and turned herself in with Nicolò’s sister Rita, and the two went on to work with anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino as state’s witnesses until he was killed by a car bomb in 1992. Rita committed suicide a week later, and Piera and her then-four-year-old went into hiding under Italy’s witness-protection program until 2018, when she surfaced to run for parliament for the Five Star Movement. She handily won, even though she did not show her face until she was elected. Once in office, she had full police protection and changed her name officially back to Piera Aiello.
While living under witness protection for 28 years with her daughter Vita, she married and had three more daughters. She eventually left the Five Star Movement, but remains an influential lawmaker with a different party. She has worked on anti-mafia legislation and works to improve the quality of life for many who live under witness protection, sometimes forgotten after they testify. “For years I have lived in a world of lies,” she said. “Yes, because the mafia is a world based on deception and lies. I continued to live in the lie because I was forced into a double identity and a life in a secret location. Today even the smallest lie weighs on me.”
Today she is president of the anti-mafia association named after Rita, which works to help women find the courage to leave crime families, risky as it is. For her courage, in 2019, Piera was named one of the top 100 most influential women around the world by the BBC.
Some women have become involved with the mob through their work. Letizia Battaglia, a red-haired Sicilian chain-smoking photojournalist now in her eighties, describes her archives of photo negatives documenting the mafia crimes as “full of blood.” She has come to believe the mafia has ruined the country. “We were like a country at war,” she told me. “But it wasn’t even a civil war. It was good against evil, and it was bloody.”
Battaglia has little hope that the mafia will ever be eradicated in Italy. “It is such a part of society now,” she says. “It is no longer just about shooting and killing, they have infiltrated the governments, the successful enterprises … you can’t even tell the good guys from the bad anymore. At least before [when crimes were more blatant] it was easier.”
Shortly before her death, I reached out once again to Pupetta, hoping for one last meeting — one last hit of what had come to give me an incredible sensation of risk and excitement. My book was finished and I wanted to read her a few choice excerpts. I wanted her blessing, as fucked up as I know that sounds. I wanted her to like my rendition of her horrible life. She was nowhere to be found, the number I had used now suddenly dead. I called a police source to see where she might be, and she told me that last she heard Pupetta was in a casa di riposo, or nursing home, which made no sense given that in Italy children take care of their elderly parents. In fact, it wasn’t true at all, just one more fabrication to fit the circumstances. The letter Pupetta wrote to ask for help in employing her son in the Camorra’s businesses was now a central part of an investigation that clearly wouldn’t have been easy to try if Pupetta was somehow deemed infirm. I imagined she instead went into hiding, perhaps on a terrace in Sorrento where she still owned a property.
But less than two months after I last tried to reach her, she died in her sleep at home. Wherever she had been, she drew her last breath in the apartment where I had come to know her. I wonder what clothes she was buried in. I would like to think someone had dressed her in a low-cut, animal-print blouse and choker, pulled her hair back, and set her mouth into a sort of Mona Lisa smile. I want to remember her that way. I am sure that is also how she would like to be remembered.
By few standards of measure could Pupetta be described as a good person. She was involved in a criminal industry that ruins thousands of lives each year. But she was smart, courageous in ways both good and bad, and an exceptional self-made woman loved by many in spite of her obvious flaws. She was incredibly loyal to the Camorra, a doting parent (if you don’t count not avenging the murder of her son), a dutiful wife (if helping commit murder defines that), and a role model to hundreds of mafia women who have followed her. And even though I know that I should not, I can’t help but admire how she — like many women in Italy — managed to find her way around all the obstacles in this male-driven society and come out on top.
From “The Godmother,” by Barbie Latza Nadeau, published by Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Barbie Latza Nadeau. Buy it here.