Vittorio Sgarbi: The Eccentric Art Critic That Resigned After Mafia Infiltration

Very little has been written about Sgarbi's exploits, but in post-Berlusconi Italy, he's trying to hang on to his bad-boy image
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Very little has been written about Sgarbi's exploits, but in post-Berlusconi Italy, he's trying to hang on to his bad-boy image

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The word "polemicist" was invented for people like Vittorio Sgarbi, the conservative art critic and, until last February, mayor of Salemi, Sicily. A typically polarizing Sgarbism came during the winter holidays when he announced—echoes of “bunga bunga”—that his vice mayor should be a young woman with no political strings attached.

Ever the curator, Sgarbi opened a Mafia museum in the middle of Salemi's old center in 2010. More Halloween spook-house than cultural institution, the attraction that bore a blood-splattered logo was made adults-only after the “slaughterhouse cabin” display reportedly sickened two visitors.

To his credit, the mayor refused a judge’s order to remove a newspaper blowup from the museum’s wall depicting the arrest of Salemi natives Ignazio and Nino Salvo. Nino’s widow had made the initial request, adding that her husband, though indicted, had died days before his trial. (The Salvo cousins, entombed in the town cemetery, were decidedly mafiosi per investigations.)

Yet Sgarbi the freedom fighter has threatened to sue art critics over unfavorable reviews. The headline-stealing critic who holds the contemporary art world in contempt made a keen mockery of it when he curated the Italian exhibit at last year’s Venice Biennale. According to a write-up,

“The resulting display has the sprawling randomness of a flea market. There are works featuring sex, religion, violence, nudity, as well as a giant pomegranate and a polar bear. Also on show are multi-coloured mummies in flagrante, and a beaten-up doll next to a sign that declares, ‘I'm a warrior not a  doll.’ In the middle of it all there are occasional gems such as Giovanni Iudice's depiction of refugees, Humanity, 2010, but unfortunately these get lost in the visual mess. Many are wondering if Sgarbi's exhibition is an ironic gesture—or an attempt to undermine Italian contemporary art.”

The resulting display has the sprawling randomness of a flea market. There are works featuring sex, religion, violence, nudity, as well as a giant pomegranate and a polar bear.

The gesture was undoubtedly a thumb to the nose, fingers wriggling furiously. The mayor who brought works by Cézanne and Picasso to tiny Salemi (and who curated Caravaggio in Milan last year) had also unveiled, in 2010, The Madonna of the Third Reich—depicting Mary and Der Baby Führer—a painting as clever as a rejected National Lampoon magazine cover. His explanation to an island full of devout Roman Catholics? “Hitler was also a child. And Evil, in Christian theology, is as unavoidable a presence as the demon in religious iconography.”

This from the guy who wrote, “There’s no difference between giving a lecture and giving a blowjob. You can give a lecture for free or you can give it for pay.” Searing logic, yes, but it was written in defense of Silvio Berlusconi during “Rubygate,” the scandal brought on by the former prime minister’s dalliance with an underage hooker.

Sgarbi drifted freely across the political spectrum as he gained fame with a steady output of books, articles and televised commentaries on the subject of art. During the last two decades, the northern Italian native has landed in various elected and appointed roles: here a Communist mayor, there a deputy for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

In 2008, after being bounced from the Milan city council for falsifying a resolution that would grant legal aid to a gay theater company, Sgarbi was invited by Sicily’s Christian Democrats (DC) to come to Salemi. The showy critic jumped at the chance to run for mayor and remake the town into his personal playroom.

One of Sgarbi’s first acts after winning office was to appoint Oliviero Toscani as Salemi’s “Minister of Creativity.” The shock-ad photographer best known for his nude images of an anorexic model seemed the perfect co-conspirator in a locale once a stop on the international narcotraffic circuit. Toscani trademarked the acronym M.A.F.I.A. (the Mediterranean Association for International Affairs) to “demythologize the Mafia.” (Good luck with that.)

2008 was the year Sgarbi began saying, “The Mafia doesn’t exist.” He repeated it to reassure buyers in his program to sell the town’s decrepit villas for a euro a pop, requiring their restoration. And he said it again in February as the state moved to dissolve his city council for Mafia infiltration.

Toscani trademarked the acronym M.A.F.I.A. (the Mediterranean Association for International Affairs) to “demythologize the Mafia.” (Good luck with that.)

Toscani had already quit his post, in October 2009, at the first whiff of Mafia. He blew the whistle on Sgarbi’s chief political sponsor, Giuseppe “Pino” Giammarinaro, a former DC regional deputy who was, for a time, aligned with Senator Giulio Andreotti’s shadowy faction in Rome.

“Since joining the city council, I could detect the constant presence of Giammarinaro at meetings,” Toscani told a panel of anti-Mafia magistrates. “He participated and made decisions, without holding any title, in the presence of Sgarbi and the other council members.” Sgarbi faced Toscani’s questioners and accused the photographer of being “a mini-mafioso who counts for nothing.”

The bond between the two provocateurs has now devolved into a schoolyard tussle.  Toscani said recently, “Sgarbi? He’s not mafioso. As they say in Milan, he’s a pirla (stupid dick)!… With Sgarbi, it’s impossible to do anything. Always late, totally unreliable, interested in TV, always with his hands on the thighs of a woman.” Sgarbi’s snappy comeback: “I’ve never touched the thighs of a girl. If anything, it’s the women who were touching me.”

“Sgarbi? He’s not mafioso. As they say in Milan, he’s a pirla (stupid dick)!… With Sgarbi, it’s impossible to do anything. Always late, totally unreliable, interested in TV, always with his hands on the thighs of a woman.”

But what of Pino Giammarinaro, the unelected leader who, according to an investigation called Operation "Salus Iniqua,” caused the municipality of Salemi to be “conditioned by the Mafia?”

At the time that Giammarinaro was bankrolling Sgarbi’s mayoral run, he was known to be an ex-parolee who had served a sentence in the nineties for Mafia-related embezzlement and extortion. (A third charge had evaporated in the courtroom when informants suddenly clammed up.) But his political influence stretched far beyond the ancient cobbles of Salemi: he was considered the godfather of the healthcare system in Trapani province.

According to two fellow DC politicians elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2001, Giammarinaro had hosted then-governor of Sicily Totò Cuffaro at his house. The disgraced leader, a former radiologist nicknamed Vasa Vasa (“Kissy Kissy”) for his exuberant displays of public affection, languishes in prison for a host of Mafia crimes. Many are related to the health racket.

In 2002, police cameras caught Giammarinaro meeting with another accomplice, DC secretary Saverio Romano, who is seen slipping the deputy falsified medical passes that allowed him to leave Salemi on business despite his parole confinement. Romano, currently the Berlusconi-appointed Minister of Agriculture in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, is himself fighting charges of Mafia links. The politician known for his creative accountancy of enormous party funds continues to defend Giammarinaro:

“He is a respectable person. I’ve known him for twenty years.” But when Romano was confronted with evidence of the fake passes, he flippantly announced, “I’ll promote a law designed to prohibit the trading of paper notes between politicians.”

Sgarbi’s troubles with Giammarinaro began in the summer of 2010 over the allocation of assets seized from Salemi godfather Salvatore Miceli, the fugitive drug lord captured in Venezuela a year earlier. The mayor resisted Giammarinaro’s urging to give the money to one of his own interests, a charity that benefits the disabled. They argued publicly.

That’s when the symbolic threats came: the head of a pig was delivered to the local police station; the carcass of a dog appeared near Sgarbi’s office at city hall. (Sgarbi, having previously charged that “the anti-Mafia is worse than the Mafia,” refused to award funds to Libera, a respected group opposed to organized crime. Phone taps revealed that even a request from the Slow Food movement was turned down.)

That’s when the symbolic threats came: the head of a pig was delivered to the local police station; the carcass of a dog appeared near Sgarbi’s office at city hall.

Things came to a boil on the morning of May 17, 2011, when Operation “Salus Iniqua”—Wicked Salus (the Goddess of Health)—swooped in to seize thirty-five million euros worth of Giammarinaro’s assets, including physical therapy and hemodialysis clinics, family aid charities and senior centers. A joint report by the Flying Squad and Financial Guard revealed that Giammarinaro’s secret control of this healthcare empire had lined his pockets with government financing.

The next evening, Sgarbi debuted a national television program. He paced the stage, issuing bizarre self-denials and reading a Dylan Thomas poem dedicated to his former sidekick Toscani that begins, “Friend, my enemy, I call you out.” The network promptly killed the series.

Though Sgarbi is not being investigated for Mafia association, the very act of the state’s dissolving his city council has driven him to make ever more desperate statements: “I never gave a dime to Giammarinaro. In Salemi he was a fossil.” He led his citizens on a mystifying torchlight procession, shouting sarcastically, “There’s Mafia here! Citizens, rebel!” (An anonymous artist punked one of the banners, effectively changing the meaning from “rebel with the mayor” to “rebel against” him.)

Sgarbi topped himself last February by announcing that he would name the “fossil” Giammarinaro as his Vice Mayor, even as investigators were busy sequestering the bank accounts and luxury cars of the mafioso benefactor.

But now, after years of threatening to resign over one matter or another, Sgarbi’s fabulous Salemi show is curtains. At his final press conference on the matter, the outgoing mayor inveighed against “deviant” law enforcers, from rookie to brass, blaming everyone but himself:

“What the Prefect [of Trapani] has done is an offensive act against the city. I myself still want to defend the city. What the carabinieri and police did was an abuse…. The Prefecture has prosecuted the appearance of Mafia, not the acts of Mafia, according to the disgraceful stereotypes of TV soap operas.”

Sgarbi really bombed this time, but his hubris is intact. In another context, the critic would be an art anti-hero, a Situationist who stages provocative fuck-yous to deflate the pompous and subvert the status quo. But in post-Berlusconi Italy, an aging politician who will try anything to hang on to his bad-boy image—including Mafia as performance art—is pathetic and, for Sicilians, an embarrassment. Who's the fossil?