Houses in Sicily for 1 euro? Maybe

ROME, Italy — It’s a novel way to recover from natural disaster: A village in Sicily is selling houses in its earthquake-battered city center for just 1 euro, provided the buyer spends at least 100,000 euros ($135,000) to restore it with traditional methods and local labor. 

The project was launched in 2008 by a celebrity mayor who parachuted into town just in time to carpetbag that year’s elections. Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic turned politician turned television provocateur, was an odd choice for the mayoralty of Salemi, a conservative village of about 12,000 perched on a hill in western Sicily. But for the past year, as his plan has gathered steam, it’s seemed just possible that he might be able to deliver what its residents need.

Call it urban renewal by media storm. At a profanity-studded press conference held in a church in downtown Rome last month, Sgarbi announced he had finally twisted the local bureaucrats into providing legislation that would allow the project to move forward. Since the initial media blitz more than a year ago, the city has received 10,000 inquiries for the roughly 1,000 houses available.

People have written in from the United States, Australia, Canada and all of Europe, Sgarbi said. Applications have been received from as far as Japan and Korea and from unlikely countries like Afghanistan and Iran. Among those interested, he added, are Bill Gates, Peter Gabrielle and Massimo Moratti, the owner of the Inter Milan soccer club. “It’s another earthquake,” said Sgarbi. “Not of earth this time, but of an idea!”

Sgarbi’s effort has attracted some powerful backers. Midway through the press conference, the proceedings were interrupted by the disembodied voice of Italy’s Minister of Culture Sandro Bondi. He had called in from northern Italy so he could be patched over the public address system to announce that the initiative could provide an example for the country’s increasingly depopulated historic villages. “It’s a model that we can turn and export to other provinces,” boomed Bondi’s voice. “It could work for all of Italy.”

If it does work, recovery will have been a long time coming. The earthquake that struck Salemi shook its buildings down more than 40 years ago in 1968. What little money came in was used to build houses in the modern periphery.

The historic center once served as the first capital of Italy — for a single day in 1860 after the Italian unifier Giuseppe Garibaldi declared himself dictator of Sicily from its central piazza. Despite this historic pedigree little has been done to rebuild Salemi. In many areas, the bricks lie where they fell. Some of the “houses” on sale are nothing more than vacant lots. “Nothing has changed,” said Sgarbi. “It’s been abandoned as if it were right after the earthquake, as if it were three days after.”

If he pulls it off, the old city will rise again: as beautiful, but stronger. “There are old materials and ancient techniques that allow us to rebuild with earthquake resistance,” said Lelio Oriano Di Zio, an architect with the project. As an example, he pointed to the city of Santo Stefano di Sessanio not far from the epicenter of last year’s earthquake in Abruzzo, where buildings he had designed in the antique style stood firm while the concrete edifices around them collapsed.

But the project’s greatest strength could also prove to be its most devastating weakness. Sgarbi spent the press conference in and out of his chair, sweeping over to the side of the hall to talk on the phone, rushing past reporters to greet a new arrival, pausing to compliment a woman on her looks.

Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani — best known for his Benetton ads depicting criminals on death row — was also present. Sgarbi once called Toscani his “Alderman to Nothing.” The two men occupied a good part of the two-hour press conference in a joking debate over whether or not the mafia was still present in Salemi (Sgarbi maintained it wasn’t).

During much of the rest of the time, Sgarbi riffed on Rome’s zoning regulations, Italy’s regional elections, transsexuals and Prime Minister Silvo Berlusconi. Probably no more than 20 percent of the discussion addressed the matter at hand.

After the press conference had finished, Toscani threw cold water on the project’s prospects. Of the 10,000 applicants, the city has already decided that only 600 are likely to have the means to carry out the construction if a house is awarded. It’s unlikely that the celebrities Sgarbi has collected will invest much more than their names. “I called Peter [Gabriel],” said Toscani. “He said ‘Yes, I’ll have a look, but I’ve got something in Sardinia. That’s probably enough.’”

He gestured toward the corner where Sgarbi was addressing a scrum of television cameras. “Sgarbi is an incredible optimist, but he’s not practical,” Toscani said. “The politicians will do a speech. You're going to write an article. But it’ll never happen. Zero.”

Last year, Toscani had convinced New York City’s iconic Kim Videos, which was closing, to donate its collection of 55,000 cult videos to Salemi. The tapes are now sitting in a warehouse, gathering dust. “I feel so angry,” Toscani said. “I could have given them to some university.”

“The creativity of the bureaucracy is bigger than the creativity of the ideas,” Toscani said. “I hope I’m wrong. But that’s that.”