MILAN — Piera Aiello is hardly unknown. She wrote a popular autobiography in 2012 and was elected to Italy's Parliament in March, winning 52 percent of the vote in her Sicilian constituency as a candidate of the populist Five Star Movement. She was even featured on the cover of a popular magazine last month.
But no one knows what she looks like.
When Aiello attends sessions of Parliament, which are expected to resume soon, video cameras will be prohibited from zooming in on her. She plans to change her seat for every session and even obtained a special permit to have her parliamentary ID card issued without a picture. Piera Aiello isn’t even the name on her driver's license.
Aiello is a former mafia insider turned police informant. Together with her sister-in-law, the late Rita Atria, she helped authorities crack down on the Sicilian mafia, or Cosa Nostra, in the early 1990s. Fearing vendettas, she cannot have her face shown to the public, and she lives under an assumed name.
Although Aiello was never a member of the mob, she is the widow of a mafioso and had useful information for police. “I simply had the courage to tell [the police] what I saw," she wrote to The Washington Post in an email. “That has always been the hardest part of my experience, to get people to understand that I was never a criminal."
Born and raised in a Sicilian village, Aiello, 51, was forced to marry the son of a Cosa Nostra boss when she was in her teens. In her book, "Maledetta Mafia" ("Cursed Mafia" in English), co-written with journalist Umberto Lucentini, she detailed how the young man intimidated her and her family into accepting his marriage proposal.
For five years, Aiello endured a life of fear and domestic abuse. But when her husband was murdered in a mafia dispute, Aiello decided she was done with the mob life. She ran to the police, where she became a close confidant of Paolo Borsellino, a famous prosecutor who would was killed by car bomb in 1992.
After Borsellino's death, Aiello was relocated and given a new identity. In 2018, though, she decided to run for Parliament under her real name, hoping to bring her crime-fighting experience to Rome. "I decided to run because I relate [to] what the Five Star Movement stands for and because I am firmly convinced that we can finally change the collusion [with the Mafia] that has ruined Italy," she wrote to The Post.
Aiello announced her candidacy in January and began her campaign the next month with a news conference, which only a handful of journalists were allowed to attend. She also gave an interview to a Sicilian television station with her back to the camera but otherwise campaigned mostly via her Facebook page
But there are doubts about having a lawmaker with no recognizable face. A Sicilian radio station mocked Aiello, saying she would have to wear a burqa in Parliament. Speaking to Italian news agency AdnKronos, Aiello said she was particularly hurt by the fact that the attack came from fellow Sicilians. "How can we put and end to the Mafia mentality when people behave this way?" she asked.
Others wonder how a member of Parliament can be held accountable by her constituents if she can't show her face in public. But Francesca Rosa, a scholar of comparative constitutional law at the University of Foggia, said there are no constitutional problems with Aiello's situation.
“As long as she shows her face to the Parliament’s administration, allowing them to verify her identity, there’s no legal issue," Rosa said in a telephone conversation. “It’s not that she’s truly hiding her identity, she’s being extremely reserved about it, and for a good reason."
And, like any other lawmaker, Aiello's full parliamentary record will be available online. That, Rosa argued, “is the public identity that makes her accountable."
Aiello understands that remaining faceless will now become harder, but says she's willing to face the consequences of her choice. "I am well aware that, eventually, a journalist could expose me," she wrote. "I took that into account and try not to think too much about it. I am just trying to do the right thing"