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Mayor is what puts ruined Sicily town on the map

In 1968, an earthquake devastated this ancient hilltop town crowned by a castle, littering the place with thousands of abandoned homes and submerging it in a slumber that lasted decades.

Until another force of nature hit Salemi.

His name is Vittorio Sgarbi: art historian, political brawler, television madman, media hog. After this bon vivant from the prosperous north swooped into the heart of Sicily and got elected mayor last year, Salemi awoke.

Spewing ideas, announcements, jokes, profanities and insults like a flamethrower, Sgarbi has hurled himself into the task of putting his municipality of 11,800 on the map.

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He has drawn a torrent of international interest by offering to sell empty homes for a euro ($1.35) apiece. (Word is that rock star Peter Gabriel will be one of the first buyers.) He has filled his Cabinet with dolce vita pals with titles like “advisor for Nothing,” “advisor for Culture and Agriculture” and “advisor for Hands in Pasta” (a phrase that means “having a finger in every pie”). He has promised to create a cultural mecca, proposing a film festival and a museum of the Mafia. He has even tilted at metal windmills that mar the pastoral landscape.

“We have showed that it’s useful to have a Mayor Sgarbi,” he said. “I hate to waste time. Life is too short. I have no time to lose.”

On a recent Saturday, the mayor made one of his periodic parachute visits from Rome, where he keeps a palatial apartment crammed with art treasures. (He has also lived in Milan and served as mayor of a town in northern Italy.) Frenzy ensued. A crowd turned out for the arrival of a shipping container carrying 55,000 DVDs and videos donated by a Korean American merchant in New York.

“We convinced him that Salemi was the new New York,” Sgarbi declared as cheering youths formed a chain to transport the DVDs into a cultural center.

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As the mayor charged around town, an entourage accompanied him like pilot fish: advisors, politicos, a poetry-spouting Sicilian film critic and the police chief, who looked like an admiral in his uniform cap and blue coat. Reporters hurried alongside asking about a recent casualty of his administration: The deputy mayor, an old-school politician pushing 70, resigned after deciding he had had enough.

“Hey, if he wants to leave, that’s fine,” said Sgarbi, a 56-year-old with longish graying hair and a habit of pushing his glasses up onto his head to peer at the flip-up screen of his cellphone. “It’s not like he’s -- wait, who’s that showgirl I like -- Belen Rodriguez” -- an attractive television personality -- “or something. He was too slow. He couldn’t keep up.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sgarbi ran for mayor on a whim. He had known Salemi because of its historic significance: The coexistence of Christians, Jews and Muslims is preserved in architecture dating from medieval times. After talking to local politicians who agreed that his celebrity would inject energy into a neglected community, he bested half a dozen hometown candidates and led a centrist coalition to victory in the runoff.

Sgarbi’s career has been defined by craziness and conflict. He has bounced around in the pinball machine of Italian politics, from left to right to somewhere in between. In the 1990s, he became a fixture on political talk shows on television. He snarled, ranted and threw the occasional punch, sparking anger, admiration and lawsuits.

His emergence accompanied the ascent of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as that billionaire media tycoon unleashed a center-right revolution in Italian politics. A 2006 book about the prime minister titled “The Sack of Rome” says Sgarbi acted as a media “Doberman” on a network owned by Berlusconi.

“He often literally shouted, the veins in his neck bulging as if about to burst, inveighing against Berlusconi’s enemies,” writes the author, Alexander Stille. He says Sgarbi has a “wild, disorderly and extravagant personal life that requires an extremely generous cash flow to maintain.”

Sgarbi does not necessarily deny that. In an interview with a Sicilian magazine, he recounted affairs that produced three out-of-wedlock children and two child-support lawsuits. With his casual propensity to shock, he told the magazine that he has not married because he would be unfaithful and that his adult son “doesn’t take drugs and isn’t a [homosexual], and that’s enough for me.”

On the political level, Sgarbi has had ups and downs with the ruling party, as he explained while munching a sandwich on the rooftop of his official residence. The spot overlooks green hills and a city hall where national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi gave a historic speech in 1860 declaring his campaign to unify Italy.

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Quarrels with the center-right mayor of Milan led to Sgarbi’s firing as that city’s director of culture in May. Hoping to become deputy minister of culture in the Italian government, a post he had held before, he lobbied kingmaker Umberto Bossi, the equally pugnacious leader of the rightist Northern League party.

“So I spent four hours at a soccer game with Bossi, you can imagine what a [pain] that was,” Sgarbi said. “Finally he got on the phone with Berlusconi” -- he mimicked Bossi’s rasp -- “and said, ‘Sgarbi must be with us!’ But it didn’t happen. I ended up without Milan and without the government. I registered my candidacy for Salemi the day before the deadline.”

The town, founded by Arabs in the 9th century, derives its name from the Arabic salaam, or peace. In a region with a strong Mafia presence, Salemi is notorious as the fief of the Salvo political clan. In 1987, the Salvos allegedly hosted a clandestine summit during which an Italian prime minister exchanged the ritualistic “kiss of honor” with the murderous chief of the Mafia.

Sgarbi’s friendly invasion is comparable to a bunch of celebrities from New York taking over a town in South Texas. His advisor for Human Rights, Creativity and Communication is photographer Oliviero Toscani, the creator of edgy Benetton ad campaigns featuring American death row inmates and AIDS victims. Fulvio Pierangelini, a top Tuscan chef, serves as the advisor for Hands in Pasta. Graziano Cecchini, a swashbuckling figure known for a guerrilla “art” assault in which he dumped red dye into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, took the Nothing portfolio.

Highbrow north and rustic south converged at a news conference on the recent Saturday in a castle built by Arabs and Normans. As Sgarbi fidgeted and checked e-mails, young intellectual friends recounted to reporters and townspeople how they had secured the New York video collection. They also sang the praises of Salemi.

“Sicily has different rhythms, the heart breathes, people listen,” said Franca Paoli, a graphic designer with short hair, an earnest manner and a northern accent. “In New York, people don’t listen. Sicily, you could say, is a more feminine land, in fact, a place that is open and accepting.”

You might think it would be a tricky business describing Sicily as feminine. It has an image as a stern, secretive, macho island that is hostile to outsiders, especially northerners who dominated from afar over the centuries. But the audience listened calmly. Although critics grumble that the absentee mayor is all talk, the Sgarbi show appears to have won acceptance so far.

“I belong to the opposition, so I am not going to praise him too much,” said Maria Grillo, a jovial leftist with glasses and a pile of curls. “But it’s true that when he is here, you know it, because there is a lot of activity.”

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As she spoke, Sgarbi stormed through the site of a recreation center being converted into a theater for films and plays.

Then he led a breakneck tour of the historic Muslim and Jewish quarters, which bore the brunt of the quake and lost most of their population to modern housing elsewhere. As dusk fell, he bounded up steep lanes and down stone staircases, impervious in his blue blazer to the chill in the labyrinth of small plazas and twisting streets.

The hillside area has an eerie, silent beauty. Some facades survived the earthquake; others are skull-like ruins. A few families still live in well-kept homes next to squalid craters. In one urban clearing, a stone monument inscribed with Hebrew letters commemorates the Jewish tradition of Salemi.

Sgarbi’s decision to sell 3,500 abandoned houses has been a public relations coup. Buyers will only be charged a euro, but they have to commit themselves to restoring the property. The city has been deluged with e-mails and calls from potential buyers: Norwegians, Australians, Britons and quite a few Italian Americans. City officials say the first sales will be made to notables, including rock star Gabriel and an Italian entrepreneur who owns the Palermo soccer team.

Sgarbi’s next stop was the municipal museum, which has an impressive collection of Renaissance art. He described plans for an expansion and fired off expletives about the use of metal frames to display sculptures.

“This was done by modern architects, so it’s ugly,” he complained.

But as he examined the art, his pace slowed. His attention span lengthened. He contemplated the statue of a saint from the late 15th century, reaching out to touch the marble as he narrated.

“Look at the beautiful detail, the dog tugging the garment,” he murmured. It was clear that whatever else he may be, the art historian knows his stuff.

It seems an open question how long the Salemi experiment will last. Sgarbi said he intends to serve his full five-year mayoral term. But he also said his whirlwind arrival had already accomplished much of the mission.

“It’s easier to do a restoration of image, it’s more cumbersome to do a physical reconstruction,” he said. “I could leave now and, in one sense, my job would be done.”

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sebastian.rotella@latimes.com


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