The great Sgarbi

He lives in a Roman apartment once occupied by Pope Innocent X. He is rich, clever and cultivated. He has lovely hair. He is also brusque, ill-mannered and is accustomed to being 'treated like God'. He is the leader of a new political party, the Party of Beauty, which aims to change Italian culture forever.
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He's somewhat tired. He's been to Milan and back on the campaign trail today. His campaign director is arriving in 20 minutes. This foreign journalist is sitting mutely on the sofa covered with antique velvet brocade, gazing about him as if dazed. Meanwhile the moron from the printers, to whom he is talking on his mobile, can't seem to understand the simplest instructions.

He's somewhat tired. He's been to Milan and back on the campaign trail today. His campaign director is arriving in 20 minutes. This foreign journalist is sitting mutely on the sofa covered with antique velvet brocade, gazing about him as if dazed. Meanwhile the moron from the printers, to whom he is talking on his mobile, can't seem to understand the simplest instructions.

"Top line: Partito della Bellezza, okay? Then my photograph, halfway down on the left. Then the quote from Pope John Paul II... Get it? No? Listen, I'll go through it again."

He puts the phone down and massages his cheeks with the tips of his fingers, using tiny circular motions. On a large flat television at the far end of this extraordinary room, its ceiling covered with 17th-century frescoes, the walls weighed down with enormous pictures, his former boss and present neighbour, the Prime Minister, is addressing parliament, passionately defending Italy's involvement in Iraq. Vittorio Sgarbi watches, intent but impassive. It's just weeks before polling day in Italy's elections for the European Parliament. Come the vote, Vittorio Sgarbi is going to look like a chump, or a very clever man.

Italy had a political revolution 12 years ago, and practically all the pre-existing parties went down the plughole amid cacophonous charges of corruption. Vittorio Sgarbi - like Silvio Berlusconi, like Romano Prodi - is part of what happened next.

Like Berlusconi, the television tycoon, and Prodi, the economics professor, Vittorio Sgarbi is not the sort of person you would expect to find anywhere close to the machinery of power. Imagine if Jeffrey Archer hadn't come a cropper; if Jamie Oliver or Sting dropped what they were doing and turned their attention to Westminster and got elected and then, because parties and coalitions are suddenly in chaotic flux, became important ministers and began imposing their ideas on the nation. Such is the unlikely and vertiginous context of Vittorio Sgarbi's leap - rise doesn't do it - to power.

He has just turned 52, but looks perhaps 12 years younger. His hair is grey but very silky, like a small child's. He is said to be inordinately proud of his hair. During our tour of his flat he stopped in the bathroom and carefully brushed out his coiff in front of the mirror. His new political party's first election poster featured a large photograph of Mr Sgarbi, his silky hair in elegant disarray, with the slogan: "We don't need a face-lift" - a dig at his neighbour upstairs. The name on his doorbell says VANITAS.

The wild political seas that the huge corruption scandals of the early Nineties whipped up are still churning. They've thrown Silvio Berlusconi into the prime minister's chair, not once but twice now. Because he's been in place almost three years this time, longer than any other Italian leader since Mussolini, the talk on the government side is all about stability, normality, maturity. But Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, arose from nothing, pumped up by his millions, and could deflate just as fast. The opinion polls offer him nothing but gloom.

One who has been hurled from obscurity to great power by these big seas is Umberto Bossi, Minister for Reforms in Berlusconi's government. Currently recovering from a serious illness, Bossi is the most outrageous figure in Italian politics, notorious for his vulgar, unparliamentary language, his salty insults, his suggestion that the navy should fire on boats bearing illegal immigrants. A former bricklayer and guitarist, he was catapulted into politics by the dramatic success, post-'92, of the populist northern party he founded, Lega Nord, whose demand is for Italy to be divided in half, so the wealthy north no longer has to bail out the poor south.

Vittorio Sgarbi has founded a new party, the Party of Beauty, and Umberto Bossi is responsible for the gleam of hope in his eye. Bossi's party commands less than 4 per cent of the Italian vote - but thanks to his closeness to Berlusconi, his importance in the ruling coalition and his endless, deafening, tub-thumping rhetoric, Bossi has exercised power out of all proportion to his electoral strength. That, too, is Italian politics, after the revolution.

"With 3.9 per cent of the vote," says Sgarbi, "Bossi's party has succeeded in imposing those absurdities, devolution and federalism, on the nation. His demand to divide Italy was alien to the programmes of all the other parties in the coalition. Nobody was convinced, nobody saw it as important, nobody saw it as a priority. But they all gave in to Bossi's blackmail."

Vittorio Sgarbi has nothing in common with Umberto Bossi, except perhaps the delight he takes in causing offence. Sgarbi is an odd fish: hard to think of a close British equivalent. "An incredible buffoon," says an English editor who has dealt with him at close quarters. Let me cite a few of the widely known facts about him: he is the father of three illegitimate children by three different women. In the case of one he denied paternity for 10 years, only coming clean when the mother died (of leukemia). He has had an "official" girlfriend since 1997, but in that time has also had very public liaisons with a porn actress and a belly dancer, among many others. He is one of the best-educated and worst-mannered people in Italian public life, determined, apparently, to live up to his name, which means incivility, unkindness, brusqueness, curtness, gruffness. Few Italians have a deeper knowledge of Italian culture, or a stronger addiction to the limelight.

He flashed through Berlusconi's government like some garish, owlish comet. As under-secretary at the Ministry of Culture he lasted a bare year before he was sacked. He resigned from Forza Italia soon afterwards, though he remains an MP. He treated his ministerial duties, it was said at the time, like "a one-man dadaist performance". When he wasn't causing mayhem among his civil servants, he was on TV chat shows, where he once even punched someone. And now (he hopes) he's coming back for more.

Two months before next week's European elections, Sgarbi announced, in the columns of Libero, a maverick right-wing daily, that he was launching his own party, Il Partito della Bellezza, the Party of Beauty. Its single issue: protecting Italy's cultural heritage. Joining him, and giving the new outfit a little political ballast, were two older, more seasoned politicians, one a former leader of the Verdi (Greens) and former environment minister. Italy's political landscape post '92 is a field of mushrooms, where the passage from wizard wheeze to reality can be rapid. If they do well in the Euro election, the next big hurdle will be the national elections of 2006. "If we had as much money to put into the Partito della Bellezza as Berlusconi has we would be doing better than Forza Italia," Sgarbi boasts. With its mixture of personalities and ideas from both right and left, his venture has been written of as marmellata (political jam), a haphazard post-modern mélange. But if so, it is typical of the age.

Vittorio Sgarbi was born 52 years ago in the central Italian city of Ferrara. His parents ran a chemist's shop, a business that had been in his mother's family for generations. And it is his mother, Rina Cavallini, to whom he is still close, who doted on him and spoiled him rotten and is probably the single person most to blame for the way he has turned out. He telephones her at all hours with news of his activities and thoughts. He rings her up and dictates articles to her. He takes her on trips, along with his "official girlfriend".

As a child he became a bookworm, devouring his father's large library, frequently reading all night, reading anything he could get his hands on. He read so much that his parents struggled to wake him for school in the mornings, so when he was 11 they packed him off to a boarding school, the Liceo Manfredi, run by Silesian monks, to give someone else the chore. And if Sgarbi's mother is to blame for his strident personality the Liceo Manfredi, with its cold, lonely beds, its disgusting food and the bleak obligation to compete or go under, is probably responsible for the hint of the English young fogey about him. The headmaster looked like TS Eliot. Sgarbi remembers homosexual masters and priests, remembers how he hated sleeping in dormitories and built a sort of enclosure around his bed to give himself some rudimentary privacy.

"Treated like God" by his female Italian teacher, he went to university in Bologna - Europe's oldest - to study modern literature but was rapidly disillusioned and switched to philosophy. While there he fell under the spell of a teacher of art history, thereby discovering his true love. In 1977, aged 25, he sat a fiercely competitive state exam to become an inspector in the Ministry of Culture, based in Venice. He passed. He was on his way. While working as an inspector he tossed off a series of monographs on classic artists and architects: Carpaccio, Palladio e la maniera, Domenico Gnoli, Tutti i musei d'Italia, many others.

Why didn't he stick with this comfortable role, growing steadily in eminence, affecting a stoop and a condescending grin, basking amiably in the admiration of the young? Why instead does he live like a man in the grip of consuming passions, "living," as a friend put it, "in his Mercedes," constantly chasing round Italy with or without his mother, trailed by bizarre tales of excess, defamation suits, and the denunciations of the many he has offended? Why was he so restless?

The answer to that question comes in two parts.

The first part concerns the mystery of human character, and in particular the mystery of what can happen to character when it is repeatedly fed through a cathode-ray tube. Sgarbi, one is told, was always Sgarbi, with a brilliant, quicksilver brain, "an extraordinary memory" as one close friend put it, an excessively large ego: "the biggest ego I've ever met," says Nicholas Farrell, the English writer who is one of the Beauty Party's candidates in the coming election - an ego constantly stroked, stoked and gratified by the circle of less brilliant individuals and plain lackeys and flunkeys by whom he is often surrounded.

Sgarbi, therefore, was always special, but it took television, through the two shows he hosted in the late Nineties, to catapult him from being a wayward intellectual known only to a small elite, to national fame. Sgarbi's talent is intrinsically telegenic. He loves to pick an onscreen fight. He cannot resist being outrageous. Having learned what it means to be in the limelight, he can hardly bear not to be in it. In other words, all the fatuous compulsions of television fame found in Vittorio Sgarbi a ready victim.

But that is only half the answer to the question. Because in the process of becoming a household name, Sgarbi also discovered his real passion: not the classic art and architecture that he knows intimately, but the modern barbarism that he believes is eating away at it like acid, and steadily and quite swiftly destroying it.

"Here, above me, lives Berlusconi," says Sgarbi, showing me around. "He's on the piano ignobile - the floor of the poor. This here, where I live, is the piano nobile. Here in this room lived and slept Pope Innocent X. This was the balcony where he looked out and kept an eye on Bernini working on the fountain for Piazza Navona, and in August he flooded the piazza to make it nice and cool. This was his bedroom - it's the best bedroom in Rome. As this was the room for making love, here on the ceiling we see Aeneas and Dido - Aeneas the founder of Rome who therefore symbolises the Pope, Bishop of Rome, making love to Dido, while the dog in the scene represents fidelity. And it was a speedy love. Here arrives Minerva who grabs Aeneas by the hand, salutes Dido and kills her..."

The phone has fallen silent for a couple of moments and at last Sgarbi can talk. He is wearing a grey shirt, charcoal flannel trousers, sheer black socks, the Italian politician's trademark, that go all the way up to his knees. Like his face, his body seems trapped in youth, tense as a coiled spring. When he speaks his voice is a deep baritone, half an octave lower than one expects.

He talks about Italy's "homegrown barbarism", about the "desecration" that has become his obsession.

"To trace this catastrophe to its roots we have to go back to 1956 or 1957, when Italy emerged from the period of agriculture and everybody was busy with economic development. One man warned about the risks of this transformation, a great Italian writer who was also from Ferrara like me, Giorgio Bassani. This same Bassani founded Italia Nostra, Italy's first organisation dedicated to safeguarding our heritage.

"If instead of founding a charitable organisation he had founded a political party, perhaps Italy would not now be in such a condition. Because we would have had councillors, administrators who would have been vigilant - of course, progress would have occurred just the same, but the development that occurred was perverse. If a political party had emerged then, there might have been a more harmonious development, as occurred for example in the English countryside..."

The mention of England is brief but telling. Italy's unrivalled treasury of art and architecture has been dazzling foreign eyes for centuries, but beyond the obvious and well-known masterpieces, Italian notions of conservation have varied from the hazy to the non-existent. As a result, huge tracts of Italy that stunned visitors with their beauty as recently as the Fifties and Sixties have now been irreparably spoiled.

The photographs collected in Sgarbi's new book, For a Party of Beauty, tells some of the story: the massive concrete legs of the A/25 autostrada, trampling through a pretty village in the Veneto, ruining it; a medieval castle near the city of Isernia, hemmed in by nondescript suburban houses; a rural valley in Molise, in the south, houses and blocks of flats scattered across it without order or planning of any sort. These are scenes of aesthetic disaster that are so common in Italy today that one has to stare at the photographs for a moment or two to appreciate what's wrong. This is the new Italian normality.

Such banal, everyday desecration is part of the problem. But more urgent, in Sgarbi's opinion, is what is happening to the great cities of Italy, and to some of Italy's most revered masterpieces. It's a paradoxical state of affairs, and one which Sgarbi deserves credit for drawing attention to. This is not a question of jobbing builders legally or illegally damaging the appearance of provincial towns or villages, but of top regional and national politicians using their power and the prestige of office to hire world-renowned architects to change dramatically the look of palaces, museums and castles that are among Italy's priceless treasures. It's happening, Sgarbi claims, all over the country; and what is scandalous is that it's happening without a national debate, without any sort of national consensus that this is an appropriate way for Italy's masterpieces to be treated.

"Italy is not just any country!" Sgarbi declaims. "All countries have Green parties, but Italy is not a Namibia, a Uganda, an Australia, a Switzerland. It's the place where there is the greatest density of monumental beauty. So a party of beauty has more reason to exist here than it would in... Australia, let's say. You could have such a party anywhere, in any country in the world, but this is not just any country in the world. We shouldn't have suffered this catastrophe. So we are confronting it perhaps too late. But my idea for stopping it is to have a power like that which Bossi has, in which his small party succeeded in imposing absurdities on the government. We want simply to impose respect for the monuments, respect for civilisation, respect for beauty.

"The big-name architects can be very dangerous if they are not humble. Any architect makes a mess when he intervenes where there is no need for him to intervene. Where there is definite harmony, there is no need to add anything. Architects need to intervene in situations where there is damage, where there is the need to do something, where there is necessity. Not to do something for the sake of doing something."

Two of the most high-profile projects that crossed his desk in the Ministry of Culture provoked vivid slashes of the under-secretary's red pen, and the arguments that consequently erupted are still reverberating.

In Rome the former mayor, Francesco Rutelli - now one of the leaders of the centre-left opposition - ordered the demolition of a Mussolini-era building that enclosed the Ara Pacis, the 2,000-year-old "Altar of Peace" built by the Emperor Augustus to mark his victories in war. Rutelli commissioned Richard Meier, one of America's most famous modernist architects, to enclose the altar in a new building, the first new work to be built in Rome's historical centre since the war. Sgarbi was too late on the scene to get the project scrapped, but he did everything he could to hamper it and still explodes - "the coffin of peace," he calls it, "a Berlin wall on the Tiber!" - whenever the subject is raised.

Far more famous than the Ara Pacis is Florence's Galleria degli Uffizi, and here Sgarbi did succeed in imposing his will. The Uffizi is one of the most famous art museums in the world, built in 1560 and crammed with masterpieces from Leonardo to Van Dyck. The mayor of Florence commissioned the celebrated Japanese post-modernist, Arata Isozaki, to design a new entrance for it. Sgarbi hated the design, hated the idea of tampering with the Uffizi at all, and succeeded in getting the project frozen.

Why, I asked, attack the work of serious modernist architects when far more widespread damage is done all over Italy by mediocre ones?

"Mediocrity in architects is a serious matter," he replied, "but it doesn't justify the arrogance of architects like Isozaki, and Meier. They think that power produces images that can compete with the grandeur of the really great architects, people like Palladio and Bramante. I've seen the works of Isozaki in Japan - they are at least 15 kilometres from the historic centres of the cities. Certainly he is not allowed to set foot within the precincts of the Buddhist temples. Why should we allow him within 50 metres of the architecture of Vasari in Florence? What is the need? The arrogance of these people is a tragedy. Because they think they can do anything at all, just on the basis of winning a competition, because they have a big name. And there is nothing to be done about it."

Sgarbi aroused vast controversy by his peremptory decisions on the Uffizi and elsewhere, but in doing so he brought the fate of Italy's heritage back to the centre of national debate. And that is clearly where the issue belongs, for the most banal of commercial reasons: millions of people come to Italy every year to enjoy its patrimony. Many Italian cities were fortunate enough to get through the 20th century without drastic war damage, so visitors are able to enjoy them very much as their architects intended them to be enjoyed. Where that remains the case it is surely sensible, to put it no higher, to leave well alone.

But Sgarbi would put it far higher than that. Italy has produced great beauty, beauty that is the light of the world. The light should be allowed to shine, undimmed by the glory-seeking schemes of our contemporaries.

"I love him very much," says Giulia Maria Crespi, the founder of one of Italy's most respected conservation organisations, FAI. "He's a little mad, he thinks too much about himself, but he has an extraordinary memory and he is a great connoisseur of art. When he was at the ministry he said much that was right..."

He also has a quality that is rare to find in a politician: unalloyed passion. "In the 19th century," he says, "there was an exhibition held in Paris and Mantua about Italy called "The Enchanted Country". In those days great artists from England, Germany, Finland arrived in Italy and gaped. They painted Tivoli, Nepi, Nemi. You go to these places today and you see the most incredible violence that has been inflicted on them ... This is a country, formerly enchanted, that during the span of 100 years has been disfigured..."

And people are rallying, he claims, to the Beauty Party's message. "I have no regrets about having fought unpopular battles in the past, but with the Party of Beauty this is the first time I have fought a battle and not found anyone to fight against. The word bellezza has a formidable power of penetration; people like it at once, it's sufficient, it's positive... I have yet to find anybody who thinks I'm wrong." *