From a narrow passageway in the labyrinth of Palermo’s medieval heart, a hooded figure ducks out suddenly from behind an ancient carved doorway. I know this is a re-enactment, but I still give an involuntary start. The black, cowled shape vanishes abruptly – only to reappear moments later behind me, and this time I really do jump.

The figure lifts its hood to reveal the smiling face of Gino Pojero – an expert on all things Palermitan and, above all, the Beati Paoli. Literally, the “Blessed of the Village of Paoli”, this bizarre, secretive 16th-century sect of noblemen, priests and citizens of Palermo, would use the tunnels, passageways and catacombs of the city, holding secret tribunals in church crypts and cellars.

Clad in the sinister black robes of a Benedictine monk, this blend of freedom fighter and vengeful gangster would emerge from its secret hiding places to carry out summary justice. The Beati Paoli, it is said, were the forerunners of the Mafia – the most secret and perhaps the most successful of all secret societies.

Gino, myself and a small group of tourists had begun our walking tour of Beati Paoli haunts on a bright morning down near the city’s old port – an area heavily damaged by Allied bombers in 1943, but where many churches and buildings of the 1500s have survived. On Via San Giorgio dei Genovesi the medieval orphanage of the city is now a rambling music conservatory, and we hear a cacophony of melodies cascading from its open windows.

Back in the 16th century, the director of the orphanage and the nearby hospital was one of the most powerful and wealthy people in Sicily, controlling farmlands and estates throughout the island. And it is here that the original Beati Paoli is believed to have been formed by immigrants from Pisa seeking safe haven on Sicily from the frequent wars that ravaged the Italian mainland.

As we walk on down the narrow street, Gino tells us how historians believe the Beati Paoli, determined to wrest the lucrative control of the orphanage from rivals….

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