Sicilian town surrenders in celebrity coup

As an image of local Mediterranean democracy in action, it was hard to beat. Under the deep blue sky of late afternoon, and beneath the solemn gaze of 100 or more local citizens packed into a courtyard shaded by lemon trees, the new mayor and the new town council of the little Sicilian town of Salemi had just been sworn in. Squashed into dark suits and ties, the councillors stood up one after another to give speeches of immaculate boredom.

Yet the national media had flown down from Rome, not something you would expect at such a parochial event. The reason: the new mayor of Salemi (population: 11,254), is Vittorio Sgarbi: one of the oddest and most colourful figures in contemporary Italy. In turn he has been art critic, TV talk-show host, powerful functionary in the Culture Ministry, leader of his own political party, and culture tsar of Milan. Sgarbi has made personal re-invention his trade mark. This is his strangest incarnation to date.

The new mayor has found jobs for some of his famous friends. Pouting quizzically at the crowd at this week's ceremony was Oliviero Toscani, the photographer whose reliably scandalous advertising campaigns for Benetton went round the world. He is Sgarbi's "executive officer for human rights and creativity". In charge of "urbanism and patrimony" is a Sicilian prince. The entourage also includes Graziano Cecchini, a "neo-Futurist" artist who gained fame when he dyed Rome's Trevi Fountain crimson last year; in Salemi, Sgarbi has appointed him assessore al nulla, "executive officer for nothing".

The gang rolled into town this week in a convoy of 4 x 4s and basically seized power in a democratic coup. Salemi, in the western region of Trapani, is used to it. Conquered by the Romans in 272 BC, it fell in turn to the Vandals, the Goths, and the Byzantines. The Arabs introduced the cultivation of oranges and lemons, created the historic centre, and gave the town its name, from "salem", peace. In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi crowned his invasion of Sicily by scaling the castle, and declaring himself dictator and Salemi the first capital of united Italy. It clung to the honour for a single day.

Rich in history, the town is in every other way a very poor place. It has been losing population since 1921. In 1968 it was hit by an earthquake. Rebuilt in cement and concrete, architecturally, apart from the ancient centre, it is a disaster zone.

That is what Sgarbi is here to change. Throughout his roller-coaster career, his commanding passion has been his loathing for the mediocre ugliness of modern Italy. He launched his political party, the Party of Beauty – it only lasted one election – to fight it, and in Salemi he has found fertile ground. "The challenge is to restore the spirit of the place," he said, "to bring it back to life. I have assembled this group of people who have the potential to transform the town." Yet Sgarbi will be essentially an absentee mayor, jetting in from time to time. So why has he taken on this bizarre challenge?

In May he was sacked from his Milan job after a string of recklessly undiplomatic initiatives and slanging matches with his boss. A local Sicilian politician, a pillar of the old Christian Democratic establishment – and tainted, his enemies say, by links to the Mafia – was looking for a figure to mend a rift in the party. With his charisma, Sgarbi was the man to do it.

It was a canny choice because Sgarbi, thanks to his frequent explosive television appearances, is an Italian celebrity; he also has a reputation as a lothario which brings him hosts of female admirers. Poverty-stricken Salemi surrendered one more time. Sgarbi won 61 per cent of the vote. Two questions hung in the air as his term as mayor got under way yesterday. Does his patronage by veteran Christian Democrats – old allies of Giulio Andreotti – mean that Sgarbi will be hamstrung in anything he tries to do by the shadow of the Mafia? And how long will it take before he gets into one of the noisy rows that have always proved his undoing?

According to some disenchanted citizens, he has got off on the wrong foot already. At a table outside the bar in Piazza Liberta, one woman says: "I didn't vote for him and I don't support him. The mayor should be the papa of everyone, and he should be a local person. I went up to Sgarbi before the election and I said, 'What are you planning to do for the handicapped people in the town?' You know what he said? 'Don't break my balls.' To me, a woman, someone he'd never met! Very vulgar! I'll give him six months before they chase him out..."

Civic leaders who broke the mould

Jesse 'The Body' Ventura

Elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Ventura had careers as a Navy Seal, an actor, and a professional wrestler before entering politics. He went on to serve as Governor of Minnesota from 1999 until 2003.

Antanas Mockus

Mayor of Bogota until 2003. In a crackdown on bad civic behaviour, he walked around dressed as "Supercitizen", and hired mime artists to make fun of jaywalkers at junctions.

Traian Basescu

A former naval officer who guaranteed his popularity as mayor of Bucharest by cutting the stray dog population from 250,000 to 25,000. Dog bite injuries slumped from thousands to 200 a month.

Edi Rama

Former painter who became mayor of Tirana in 2000. Put his artistic side to good use by ordering the Communist-era buildings of the Albanian capital to be repainted in vivid colours.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor