Weapons of Italian criminal tradition

In 2017 “Unsolved Crimes” newspaper conducted a journalistic investigation and filmed 10 episode documentary on the history of the Italian criminal tradition. One of the episodes covered an investigation of the history of bastone, which is the weapon used in the criminal tradition of Italy. This article is about the mysterious and at the same time favorite weapon of the Sicilian Mafia.

Documentary “Weapons of the Italian criminal tradition. Public failure.”

We are going to consider the tradition of working with bastone as well, the technique that continues to exist and is used by the criminal tradition nowadays. Since the investigation revealed facts that shed light on both – the history of the origin of this weapon in Sicily and certain nuances of technique with a bastone. However, first things first.
As part of the investigation, almost all Italian documents regarding sticks and handling this type of weapon were studied. First documents related to this subject date from the beginning of the XVI century. First question which arises is as follows: why do modern bastones (long ones) look different than ones depicted on engravings and historical documents?
It is necessary to turn to the history. It has been quite a while since the times of seizure of the Sicily by the legendary “Thousand” of Giuseppe Garibaldi. However, the arsenal of weapons of the Italian criminal tradition has not fundamentally changed. This is confirmed by a huge number of photographs and clippings from newspapers, where the results of the criminal tradition’s work are graphically presented. Certainly, the target range of firing, technical characteristics and damaging properties of firearms have changed. Considering the same tradition of blade weapons one can be sure that the range of blade weapons has not changed much nor the role of Italian bastone in this range.

Bastone is an extremely and unexpected tool in close range. For this reason, it is considered a favorite weapon of the Sicilian Mafia. Pay attention to bastones that were carried along by top officials of the Sicilian mafia, and the technique of handling them. If you compare these bastones with those used by today’s Sicilian masters, you will see a distinct difference both in their appearance and in the technique itself. As for today, this is a completely different stick, and its appearance differs from the bastones captured in archival photographs.

The editorial staff of the newspaper “Unsolved Crimes” appealed for an expert assessment of this issue to the Scientific Research Institute of world martial art traditions study and criminalistic research of weapon handling. Ph.D. Oleg Maltsev explained in the interview that from the point of view of criminalistics, the stick has a specific purpose and acts as:
– a substitute for a weapon, when a stick is used instead of a blade weapon;
– a container to hide a blade weapon;
– an improvisational item (in times when the weapon was necessary and was not nearby, the stick was used);
– a religious symbol. In the history of Middle Ages, there are episodes that indicate that most people treated the stick as a sacred object.
It was in these four areas that the modern long bastone was investigated.
Obviously, long bastone is not exactly a container for transporting stilettos and other types of cold weapon.
In the frameworks of the study, in order to understand the origins of the longest bastone, editorial staff of the newspaper visited the University of Bologna, to meet a friend of Ph.D. Oleg Maltsev Professor Antonio Merendoni. Professor Merendoni is one of the leading experts in the history of Italian arms and martial arts and has an undeniable authority in this field. In 2011, Antonio Merendoni published a book about the bastone fencing in Italy “La scherma col bastone in Italia dal Quattrocento al Novecento”. During the study of this book no historical confirmation of the existence of today’s Sicilian bastones were found.
There are also treatises on fencing with cane exist, with explanation of technical elements of handling it, and this technique of work simulates the work with a sword, an epee, etc. However, these treatises do not have any data nor any engravings of long bastones that are used by nowadays masters.
The nature and origin of the long bastone was explained by Professor Merendoni. It turned out that these sticks were originally used by shepherds, and in view of this, the combat technique of long bastone handling is the same everywhere. As a part of an expert assessment, Dr. Maltsev explained that due to the reason of the large size of such bastones they are not applicable in urban conditions, and therefore they were not used in the criminal tradition. But the paradox lies in the fact that such long bastones are attributed to the Sicilian tradition. Therefore, in the course of the study, a certain trace in history-engravings, paintings, newspapers and police protocols was examined. However, all the documents examined has confirmed the expert assessment of Dr. Maltsev. There was not a single historical confirmation of the existence of the current Sicilian bastone. Analysis of historical documents showed that the image of bastones in the paintings strictly corresponds to newspaper clippings and police protocols. Long bastones cannot be seen there, but practically everywhere one may see the cane.
The classification of sticks used in the criminal tradition can be attributed:
1) a stick in the form of a Neapolitan bastone – cane. This cane is not a hollow one, it is made of a solid wood (for instance ebony) with a Venetian knob;
2) fencing cane, which was intended, rather, for protection against blade weapons and not for offense.
Doctor Maltsev drew the attention of the editorial staff to another important point: the grip used with the modern long bastone which does not occur anywhere in Italy, in France, or in Spain, etc. Probably, the grip was demonstrated by one of the authoritative people and they began to copy him.
As for the question of the technique and skills of handling the bastone, historically Spanish technique was established on Sicily. Since Spanish wars the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and wars in Sicily left a serious mark in the technique as well. A forensic study of compliance with weapons confirmed that, since the end of the thirteenth century, as a result of the Sicilian Vespers Spaniards came to power in Sicily. Spain held its power in Sicily for six centuries. In view of this, it can be assumed that an Italian technique of working with sticks has Spanish origins.
In a comparative analysis of all types of sticks that can be seen in Italy with Spanish sticks (tolette, vara, garotte, masa or makana, fyriaki), a fundamental scientific work was used – the book of Professor Merendoni on fencing weapons in Italy. All existing photo-facts and historical evidence, on the technique of working with a stick in Italy are collected in the given book. The results of this comparative analysis fully confirmed the Spanish origin of the technique stick handling in Italy.

Different types of Spanish sticks


Nevertheless, the question still remains unresolved as to what is the origin of the modern long bastone is. And the actual answer was found in the story. Additionally, except Spain, countries such as Germany and France had a significant influence on Italy. During the study of treatises on fencing, the same long sticks were found. They can be seen in the French treatises on fencing, which show the position of stick handling. This study showed the French origin of the technique of working with a long stick, which today Italian masters give out for Italian and Sicilian. Undoubtedly, the origin of this technique is French, which was confirmed by the forensic investigation.

The original page from the book “The Nouveau Larousse Illustrated,” published in Paris between 1897 and 1907


Finally, we ought to consider the key issue – the grip with both hands used by Sicilian craftsmen in stick handling. The origin of this grip is most likely about certain person who having returned to Sicily – brought that same grip, thus the local masters had copied the grip. This man had to be unequivocal authority in Italy. But in Sicily, it is not so easy to gain authority, as it is known, needless to say he must have had certain relation with a criminal world. In the history of Sicily there is one who was a criminal authority, on one hand, and on the other hand, one who brought an unconventional and completely new grip in stick when work. Presumably this man was Lucky Luciano, an indisputable criminal authority, who was deported from the USA to Italy in the middle of the 20th century and spent the rest of his life in Naples.

Charles “Lucky” Luciano

Accordingly, the “motherland” of the grip which is shown and used by today’s masters on Sicily is the United States. This assumption was confirmed when it was discovered that in the United States there are two games, “sacred” ones America. They are: baseball and golf. When one looks into the grip used with a baseball bat, it becomes evident that it does not look resemble the grip used with Sicilian long bastones during the demonstrations. In this case, the grip used in golf, fully corresponds to the way Sicilian masters handle the stick today. In view of this, it is not surprising that Lucky Luciano could have brought this grip to Sicily, since golf is considered a game of the elite in the United States, and during his life in there legendary Luciano was among the circles of this elite.

Golf grip


A conclusion which shall summarize this article based on such a volume of forensic study of treatises, paintings, engravings, documentaries and expert assessments looks as following. From the point of view of the criminal tradition, which is the most effective one, there are two directions for bastone handling which had lasted for centuries in Sicily and were transmitted through many generations: the original Spanish direction, which corresponds to the Palermitan side of Sicily, and the French technique of working with the baston on the right side of the island. The Palermitan side apart from Spanish technique has two types of bastones and fencing cane. On the right side of the Sicily, the distinctive feature of the French direction in the view of the bastone grip most likely came to mainland Italy from the US golf clubs, along with the criminal authority of Lucky Luciano.
In addition, it has to be noted, while considering the technique of the master Luchano Trimingo (Apulian technique), it was found that it resembles to demonstrations of the technique by some current modern masters of Sicily. The technique in Sicily has also Pulian origins. The exhaustive and final number of systems that have formed the modern Sicilian technique of handling the bastone are 3 which is: Spanish, French and Pulia-Calabrian.

Author: Oleg Starinov