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Houses in Sicily for 1 euro? Maybe

Will a project to restore earthquake-ravaged Salemi overcome the personality of Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi?

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.”