A decaying and impoverished hill town in the heart of Sicily known for little else than its Mafia connections and the earthquake that demolished it 40 years ago is being reborn as a new and improbable centre of la dolce vita, thanks to its new mayor, a celebrity art critic.
Vittorio Sgarbi has been a violently unpredictable TV chat show host, a senior functionary in the Culture Ministry, the art tsar of the city of Milan and the founder of his own political party, the Party of Beauty. In the summer, after being sacked from his art job in Milan, he was elected mayor of the town of Salemi, despite having no links to Sicily.
The election was seen by many as a stunt by a man desperate for the oxygen of publicity, but Mr Sgarbi is working overtime to prove them wrong. And his first brain wave - to offer ancient and derelict homes in the historic town centre for a token price of 1 euro - has put Salemi on the map all over the world.
"We have had more than 6,000 enquiries," Sgarbi told The Independent. They have come from Britain and the United States, from Canada and Australia, France, Germany, the Baltic states, Mexico Columbia. They have poured in from the worlds of fashion, style and music which know Sgarbi as one of the sharpest aesthetes in Italy: American Vogue's Anna Wintour and world music's Peter Gabriel have thrown in their one euro.
Some of Italy's most beautiful women, including socialites Anna Falchi and Afef Jnifen, will be there. The mayor of Milan who sacked him, Letizia Moratti, has buried the hatchet and signed up. A fistful of ministers from Berlusconi's government have declared an interest, as have politicians from the other side.
Sgarbi stresses that buyers must also put at least 20,000 euros into their new house to knock it into shape. The man he has put in charge of the scheme, a Sicilian environmentalist called Prince Bernardo Tortorici di Raffadali, makes no bones of the problems the plan will involve. "But we will make it," he insists.
As Sgarbi sees it, the new invaders of Salemi will overturn an historic wrong. "They will upturn a migratory flux which has seen the Sicilians go north in search of money and fortune," he said. "Now it will be the rich from the north who will come here and there is no way they cannot bring riches with them."
The local opposition is deeply sceptical. Angelo Calogero, head of the centre-left opposition on the local town council told La Stampa, "What we are seeing is the politics of announcements and that's all. It will not be at all easy to realize a project which has got such a slim grounding in reality." "In other words," commented the newspaper, "Sgarbi is dreaming."
Prince Tortorici admits that the office which has the task of cataloguing the homes available is struggling to cope. "The office closed down after the earthquake of '68, the year in which the exodus from the historic centre of the town began. The law encouraged people to choose to move out of the city centre: they were promised 100 per cent indemnity if they moved elsewhere. Now we are busy cataloguing the houses to work out exactly how many we will be able to hand over to people. And this creates plenty of stress in the council offices. But we will get the job done." So far only 219 empty houses have been identified as definitely in the town's possession.
Yesterday Mr Sgarbi claimed that one of the most important figures in the restoration of old Italian towns has come on board: the Italo-Swedish developer Daniele Khilgren, who has brought other ancient hill towns back from the brink and recently turned cave dwellings in the ancient southern town of Matera into a unique hotel. Rather than encouraging new individual owners to restore their homes ad hoc, Sgarbi plans to entrust 20 or 30 houses to Mr Khilgren to restore in a way that is in sympathy with the town's ancient heart.
Mr Sgarbi also hopes to open a Mafia museum in the town, on the grounds that "while there are still Mafiosi, the Mafia is not the power it was; it's almost defeated."Reuse content