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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.