Vittorio Sgarbi, the mayor of Salemi in Sicily, is a notorious philanderer who is obsessed with art, beauty — and the mafia. James Silver spends a day with him
When Silvio Berlusconi was in trouble last year, accused of trysts with girls young enough to be his granddaughters, his former undersecretary for culture Vittorio Sgarbi rode nobly to his defence. ‘The thing you have to understand about Silvio,’ he declared, ‘is that unless he gains sexual satisfaction he cannot govern properly.’ Such a claim could only be taken seriously in Italy, where womanising is a national pastime and the more colourful public figures are widely admired. They don’t come much more colourful than Mr Sgarbi.
Now mayor of Salemi, Sgarbi is a celebrity in Italy. He is a revered art critic, known for his excoriating attacks on political and cultural opponents. He also appears as a ‘judge’ on prime-time television talent shows, surrounded, of course, by bikini-clad girls. His political allegiances are so flexible that they would make even a Liberal Democrat blush. Over the years, the 58-year-old has been a communist, an anarchist, a liberal, as well as a centrist who served in an earlier Berlusconi administration.
His mission now is to put Salemi on the map. It is a tiny, medieval town on the western coast of Sicily which was a stepping stone in Garibaldi’s unification of Italy and became the country’s first capital in 1860. One of Sgarbi’s first acts was to put 3,700 earthquake-hit houses on sale for E1 each, on the condition that buyers agreed to fund the restoration costs. The scheme has yet to be officially green-lit, but it was a publicity masterstroke attracting headlines and enquiries from as far away as America and South Korea.
I meet Sgarbi in a baglio, a courtyard surrounded by farm buildings, just outside Salemi — and I discover that he wants to do the interview in the car. As it speeds away, we discuss the mafia museum that he has recently launched — using archive, artworks and video to explore the blood-spattered history of the Cosa Nostra. ‘A few years ago the town of Corleone announced they were going to open a museum about the mafia but when it came down to it, they got scared.’ Sgarbi has no such inhibitions.
And yet, might he be a little fearful of the criminals whose tail he is tweaking? We are speaking, after all, in the back of a crowded police car, with armed bodyguards following us in the vehicle behind. Sgarbi says that the mafia have indeed been unimpressed by his attacks on organised crime in Sicily — subjecting him to some minor ‘warnings’. A dead dog was left outside his home and a pig’s head was dumped at the local police station, with his name on a note attached to it. ‘Colourful things,’ he smiles. ‘But nothing serious. If someone really wanted to harm me, they wouldn’t warn me first.’
Our mini-convoy arrives in the small coastal town of Cinisi, half an hour from Sicily’s capital, Palermo. During the journey, our party has grown in number. We had stopped to pick up a raven-haired woman in thigh-high boots. ‘She’s a belly-dancer,’ I am discreetly informed. ‘One of Sgarbi’s girlfriends.’ We pull up at a private house to visit Cesare Inzerillo, the artist Sgarbi commissioned to depict the mafia’s victims for the museum. His studio is crammed with sculptures of skeletons, often headless, dressed in dirty, tatty clothes. Whatever else people think of the museum, the mayor is not going to be accused of glamorising crime.
‘They’re opening a mafia museum in Las Vegas too,’ he says. ‘But of course in Las Vegas they’re going to turn it into a funfair.’ He pauses in front of a sculpture of a woman cowering on all fours, awaiting death. ‘We’re European and we’ve got a more dramatic view of the mafia.’ We move on. Further along the coast in Trabia, to the east of Palermo, our growing convoy stops again, this time in a beachside car-park. ‘We are going to see a castle,’ one of the mayor’s aides tells me. ‘Sgarbi loves castles.’
Dusk draws in as we cross the beach towards a magnificent, privately owned, semi-derelict 16th-century building, now boarded up and left to the rats and seagulls. It looks entirely unsafe, but that doesn’t deter the mayor. Nor is he put off by the fact that we are possibly trespassing. ‘Let’s go inside,’ he says, leading the way. He is followed, in turn, by two armed bodyguards, the off-duty belly-dancer, and several others (including, I later learn, an Italian prince who has fallen on hard times). Soon we are all clambering over precarious floors and up rickety staircases, with Sgarbi shaking his head as he examines gaps left by looted floor tiles, missing masonry, frescos and sculptures. ‘So beautiful,’ he keeps muttering.
Beauty is something of an obsession for Sgarbi. Throughout his career, he has railed against what he regards as the ugliness of modern Italian art and architecture. He set up the Party of Beauty to halt the construction of modern buildings in Italian cities. It lasted only one election.
The day finally limps towards a close several pitstops later, in the small hours, with a full staff meeting in the Hotel delle Palme, a famous Palermo hotel once favoured by mafiosi. Sgarbi summons members of his city hall team from their beds in Salemi to the capital to berate them for, among other things, failing to bag enough VIP guests for the President of the Italian Republic’s forthcoming visit. He gets out his contacts book and starts pulling out names for them to call. ‘Gina Lollobrigida will come if I invite her, but she’ll want something from me in return,’ he jokes.
I make some excuses and wander off for a sleep on a sofa in the hotel lobby. I’m stranded, waiting for one of his team to give me a lift back to Salemi. I’d only expected to spend an hour with the mayor, but here I am some 12 hours later desperate for my bed. It is not before 4 a.m. that Sgarbi’s weary staff begin to emerge, one by one, eventually followed by Sgarbi himself. His shirt is unbuttoned to the waist and he is embroiled in a blazing row with one of his aides. ‘He’s flying to Milan in five hours,’ whispers someone to me as we gather in the street outside the hotel. ‘Good thing he doesn’t really sleep. People ask if he’s on cocaine. But he doesn’t take anything. His only vice is women.’ In Italy, it seems, this makes him a secular saint.
As if to prove the point, the mayor comes out to say goodnight — clutching each of us by the hand in turn, before going back to the lobby where his belly-dancer companion is waiting. Daylight is little more than an hour away, and the mayor needs to govern properly.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.