January 30, 2011

Another New Book for 2011

[Earlier this month we posted an announcement about some new books on Southern Italy scheduled for release in 2011. We would like to add Virgil's Golden Egg by Michael A. Ledeen to the list.]

Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles
An Investigation into the Sources of Creativity
Michael A. Ledeen

An imaginative and original interpretation of Neapolitan culture and history that explains Naples’ unique contribution to Italian and world civilization.

Italian History
Cultural Studies
JUNE 2011
IsBN 978-1-4128-4240-2
Cloth. 176 pp. 5 ½ x 8 ½ inches
$39.95(s) / £35.95 / $C47.95
Rights: World First publication

Savvy Italians will tell you that Neapolitans are considered the cleverest, most imaginative, most romantic, and the most entertaining people in the country. The world’s finest men’s fashions are Neapolitan, Italy’s most celebrated popular songs and a high proportion of popular and operatic singers are Neapolitan—starting with Enrico Caruso. Sophia Loren and Totò are famously Neapolitan. Divorce Italian Style and Marriage Italian Style were based on plays written by the great Neapolitan Eduardo de Filippo. If you check the Italian literary awards year after year, you will find an amazingly high proportion of Neapolitans walking off with the highest honors.

Naples has been a great creative center for hundreds of years. Neapolitan creativity has survived centuries of foreign occupation, widespread misery, the end of its role as a great capital city, repeated natural catastrophes, and terrible epidemics. What accounts for the creativity of Naples? The sorcerer Virgil is said to have created a Golden Egg, inside a crystal sphere, to save Naples from natural catastrophe. The egg, locked in an iron cage, was buried beneath a castle—still known as the “Egg Castle”—to give it stability and to give eternal life to Naples. Michael Ledeen suggests some surprising answers in a highly original exploration of Neapolitan life and death that ranges from religion to organized crime, war and violence. His deep affection for this remarkable city and its people is evident on every page. “These exuberant people cannot be easily governed, either in daily activity or in the life of the spirit. They are extremely playful and do not readily accept the restraints of social niceties, or even law. They break a lot of rules, despite the best efforts of the meddlesome bureaucrats who are suffocating the rest of Europe in a welter of regulations. The EU really has no chance to win this contest; the Neapolitans have outmaneuvered rulers as different as the spanish monarchy and Benito Mussolini’s fascist state.” —from the book

Of Related Interest:
D’Annunzio: The First Duce
With a new introduction by the author
Michael A. Ledeen

Paper. 235 pp.

About the Author
Michael A. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to National Review Online. He was also a previous advisor to Secretary of State Alexander Haig as well as a consultant to the National Security Council and the Defense Department of the United States. Some of his numerous books include Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War against the West and Freedom Betrayed: How America Led a Global Democratic Revolution, Won the Cold War and Walked Away.

To Order: 1-888-999-6778

(Reprinted from Transaction Publications online Catalogue 76, spring/summer 2011)

Raimondo di Sangro, The Prince of Alchemists

Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero
By Niccolò Graffio
“All scientific men were formerly accused of practicing magic. And no wonder, for each said to himself: ‘I have carried human intelligence as far as it will go, and yet So-and-so has gone further than I. Ergo, he has taken to Sorcery.’” – C.L. de Montesquieu: Persian Letters, CXLV, 1721
In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic play Faust, the protagonist, Heinrich Faust, sells his soul to the Devil (Mephistopheles) in exchange for infinite knowledge and worldly pleasures. Faust, a scholar who was a member of the aristocracy, made the infernal deal due to his despairing belief in the vanity of scientific, humanitarian and religious learning.

Goethe’s character was fictional, though many believe he was an aggregate of several historical personages. The play, considered to be one of the greatest works of German literature, is taken by many to be an allegory for man’s insatiable and never ending quest for knowledge.

Faust-like characters permeate the history of the world, and their endeavors in the arts and sciences have brought us, for better or for worse, to where we are as a species today. Their knowledge-at-all-costs attitude often brought them fame and fortune, but just as often brought them ruin and disrepute. Even our people, the children of i Due Sicilie, have produced some. This article is dedicated to one of them.

Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, was born on January 30th, 1710 in the town of Torremaggiore in the Kingdom of Naples. The main source of knowledge concerning his life is to be found in the second volume of Istoria dello Studio di Napoli by Giangiuseppe Origlia. His father, Antonio, Duke of Torremaggiore, claimed descent from Charlemagne. His mother, Cecilia Gaetani dell’Aquila d’Aragona (daughter of the Princess Aurora San Severino), died shortly after giving birth to him.

Growing up, Raimondo di Sangro would seldom see his father who was often called away from Italy for long periods of time for personal reasons. Instead, he was left to the care of his grandfather, Paolo, sixth Prince of Sansevero and Knight of the Golden Fleece. Through the unfortunate early deaths of his two brothers he inherited the title of Prince of Sansevero at the age of 16 (upon the death of his grandfather), making him head of one of the more powerful families in that part of the Italian peninsula. His father, Antonio, had refused the title and withdrew to a monastery for the rest of his life, never having fully recovered from the death of his wife.

At an early age Raimondo di Sangro showed clear signs of the remarkable intellect that would characterize his life. By the age of 10 he had already been enrolled in the Jesuit College in Rome, one of the most prestigious schools of its time. Under the tutelage of some of the most learned scholars in Europe, he excelled in his studies of philosophy and linguistics. By the time he graduated, he is known to have mastered at least eight languages (including Arabic and Hebrew).

In addition to philosophy and linguistics, di Sangro also studied the natural sciences as well as hydrostatics, pyrotechnics and military architecture. Though an accomplished polyglot, his real interests were in the natural sciences, mechanics and the pseudoscience of alchemy.

He first came to notice in 1729 with his creation (for a theatrical performance) of a folding stage; a feat which impressed even Nicola Michetti, Royal Engineer of Czar Peter the Great of Russia. A year later he returned to Naples where he befriended Carlo Bourbon, who became King of Naples in 1734. As a gift for his new friend, Prince Raimondo created a waterproof cape, which delighted the future monarch.

A prolific inventor, among his many creations were colored fireworks, a printing press that could print in different colors in a single impression and a hydraulic device that could pump water to any height.

As one might imagine, Prince Raimondo’s friendship with the King greatly enhanced his prestige. When he married his cousin Carlotta Gaetani dell’Aquila d’Aragona, the great philosopher Giambattista Vico of Naples wrote a sonnet in honor of the couple.

A mind as great as that of di Sangro’s bores easily and often wanders to a variety of subjects to keep it engaged. In addition to the aforementioned subjects, Prince Raimondo developed a keen interest in Freemasonry. This however, did not sit well with the Roman Catholic Church, still a formidable power in the Italy of the early 18th century. He translated a number of works of Freemasonry and eventually became Grand Master of the Orient Lodge in Naples (1750).

His work in propagating the “scandalous ideas” of the Freemasons resulted in his excommunication from the Church, an act which gained for him the undying enmity of Cardinal Giuseppe Spinelli of Naples. As a precondition for him to return to the ‘good graces’ of the Church (and avoid the dreaded “Holy Office” of the Inquisition), di Sangro was forced to recant his Masonic activities…and to proffer the names of all his Masonic cohorts in Naples! Given the fact the ranks of Freemasons by this time included many members of the nobility in Europe, di Sangro’s testimony implicated some of the best and brightest of Neapolitan society.

Prior to this, and seeing the proverbial ‘handwriting on the wall,’ Prince Raimondo turned over to King Carlo Bourbon a list of all Neapolitan Freemasons in the Kingdom as well as all documents related to Masonic operations. He then wrote a letter to the Pope confessing all and putting himself under his protection. The King, not wanting to see half his court imprisoned (or worse), merely issued what amounted to a slap on the wrist. In doing this, di Sangro saved himself and many others from the redoubtable Cardinal Spinelli!

Nevertheless, he betrayed Masonic secrets. For this reason Raimondo di Sangro was loudly denounced in Masonic lodges across Europe, and his name remains a term of reproach among many of them to this day.

It is believed by historians that di Sangro himself was able to escape the horrors of the Inquisition due to the prominence of his family and his erstwhile friendship with the King. His excommunication was eventually revoked by Pope Benedict XIV.

Embittered by his experiences, Prince Raimondo afterwards withdrew from society at large and devoted himself passionately to the ‘study of Experimental Physics’. These studies were carried on in his castle in Largo San Domenico Maggiore, which became a focus on the Grand Tour for academics and travelers anxious to see his inventions and discoveries.

In addition to his scientific and engineering pursuits, di Sangro also probed the mysteries of alchemy (albeit in secret). That someone so intelligent and learned would find interest in a subject already coming into disrepute in European society is certainly strange but not unremarkable for the times. It was only several decades earlier in England that alchemy tickled the fancy of no less a personage than Isaac Newton!

Desirous of leaving something to posterity to extol his genius, Prince Raimondo spent the last years of his life redecorating the Capella Sansevero in Naples with marble works from some of the greatest artists of his time. Statues from notable sculptors such as Antonio Corradini, Giuseppe Sanmartino and Francesco Queirolo, as well as anatomical models by di Sangro himself, adorn the chapel.

Visitors to the chapel describe being in awe at the sight of marble statues covered with veils and nets made of marble as well. The best of these is undoubtedly The Veiled Christ by Neapolitan sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino. A number of hypotheses have been proposed to explain how the veiled and netted effects were created, but to date none have been shown to be correct. Many believe (probably correctly) that Prince Raimondo di Sangro’s genius had a hand in their creation.

He died on March 22nd, 1771 in Naples. Many believe his premature death was hastened by the numerous chemicals to which he was exposed in his scientific and alchemical pursuits. Until the day of his death he remained under a cloud of suspicion by the Church. Sadly, shortly before his death he destroyed his large scientific archive, no doubt to protect his family. After his death, his family, under threat of excommunication due to di Sangro’s earlier involvement with Freemasonry and alchemy, destroyed what was left of his writings and laboratory equipment. Thus, almost all we know of him and his discoveries is from second-hand accounts.

His legacy can best be described as mixed. Many legends, good and bad, some utterly fantastic, have grown up around him since his death. Pious (and superstitious) Neapolitans are said to this day to make the sign of the cross at the mere mention of his name. As mentioned earlier, many Freemasons have nothing good to say about him. Yet from his time down to this day he still has his fans.

For example, the noted Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg named the plant genus Sansevieria in honor of him.

Further reading:

January 22, 2011

A National Disgrace: Italy’s Crumbling Historical Monuments

One of Pompeii’s many ghostly streets
Photo by Niccolò Graffio
By Niccolò Graffio
“He that would know what shall be, must consider what hath been.” – H.G. Bohn: Handbook of Proverbs, 1855.
“A building once used by gladiators in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii - one of the world's most important archaeological sites - has collapsed.”

The words leapt off my computer screen as I sat there drinking my coffee. “What the....?” I thought to myself. I had just returned from a vacation to (Southern) Italy about a month earlier. Part of my tour of il Sud was a trip to Pompeii. Though we did not see the famous “House of the Gladiators”, the news was disconcerting, to say the least.

How could something like this happen? More importantly, how could anyone allow this to happen? I wanted answers!

To anyone who doesn’t already know, Pompeii was a town located near Naples that was founded by the Osci, a central Italic people, sometime late in the 7th century BC. It changed hands several times over the centuries before finally coming under the authority of Rome at the end of the Samnite Wars (343–290 BC).

It remained loyal to Rome until it joined the rebellion during the Social War (91-88 BC) when it was captured by the armies of the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla annexed the city to the Roman Republic, expelling a large percentage of its population and granting lands to his victorious soldiers. 

Under the Romans the city’s infrastructure was vastly expanded and modernized. Among other things, two amphitheatres, public baths and a palaestra were built. In addition, numerous villas to accommodate the city’s wealthier Romans were constructed. The city became famous as a vacation destination. At its height, it is believed to have had a population of about 20,000.

All that came to an end on or about August 24th, 79 AD when Mt. Vesuvius, “the Evil Old Lady of Italy”, violently erupted, destroying Pompeii along with the towns of Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis. Serious work to excavate the cities didn’t begin until the middle part of the 18th century. The Bourbon kings used the antiquities discovered to reinforce the political and cultural power of the Kingdom of Naples.

This brings us back to the present. Most of the city of Pompeii (90% in fact) has been excavated, revealing a wealth of archaeological treasures, many of which are now sitting in museums in Italy, and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, many others are still sitting in Pompeii and Herculaneum, where they are being allowed to slowly decompose, along with buildings such as the now-destroyed House of the Gladiators. For a place that attracts about 2.5 million visitors a year (UNESCO estimate), this is nothing less than a disgrace to the country of Italy!

It wasn’t always this way. In 1924 Benito Mussolini appointed the famed Neapolitan archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri as Chief Archaeologist over the Pompeii site. He served in that capacity until 1961. By all accounts he worked with an almost superhuman fervour in excavating, cataloguing and preserving Pompeii’s priceless antiquities. To him it was a labor of love!

The first visitors to the newly liberated city caught a glimpse of a time long gone; a window into the ancient Roman world. Things have changed quite a bit in only 50 years.

Stray dog in the Tepidarium
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Stray dogs freely roam the confines of the site, urinating and defecating as they please. The wear and tear of hundreds of thousands of visitors a year is enormous! Few guards patrol the site in order to prevent vandalism and theft. In addition, many of the priceless and irreplaceable frescoes are allowed to sit out exposed to the elements.

Things have gotten so bad that two years ago Italy’s Milanese PM Silvio Berlusconi (perhaps the country’s biggest disgrace) declared the Pompeii site a “disaster zone”. Never mind the fact this was a proverbial case of the pot calling the kettle black, Berlusconi, instead of rectifying the situation, has actually helped to exacerbate it!

He appointed a man named Renato Profili as commissioner of the site. Instead of dealing with the real problems Pompeii is facing, Profili devoted much of his time chasing away the prostitutes who congregate around its periphery, when he wasn’t encouraging tourists to adopt one of the many stray dogs found there.

His “Cave Canem” project must be a resounding success, since this writer still saw stray dogs while he was in Pompeii.

To be sure, dogs are not the only cause of Pompeii’s problems. As mentioned previously, exposure to the elements as well as poor drainage contributes mightily to the site’s deterioration. Since the collapse of the House of the Gladiators, two more structures in Pompeii have shared its fate. All that, plus Italy’s looming sovereign debt crisis do not bode well for the future of one of Italy’s most famous landmarks. Sadly, the same can be said for many of Italy’s other historical treasures.

In the city of Naples, for example, I witnessed what could only be described as a horror! During a tour of the Castel Nuovo Museo Civico I noticed virtually no safeguards were in place to protect the paintings from the ravages of time and the elements. Upon first entering the museum I sensed something was seriously wrong when we were handed wrinkled, coffee-stained, photocopies of pamphlets describing the museum. Worse still, we were asked to return them when our tour was over!

Roaming the halls, it was hard not to notice the lack of temperature and humidity controls. Just as badly, the paintings were left exposed to the ionizing effects of the sun’s rays pouring through windows. I literally wanted to cry when I saw flecks of paint coming off some of the most beautiful paintings in the building. When one leaves a museum one expects to be filled with a sense of wonder, not rage!
Annunciazione by Ignoto Pittore Napoletano. The glare was caused by sunlight; 
I never use a flash when photographing paintings! 
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
What is the excuse for this? Across town at the National Archaeological Museum things were a world apart! The paintings and statues were protected by the proper temperature and humidity controls and sheltered from the sun’s rays. Why the difference?

My companion, Giovanni di Napoli and I could only notice the National Archaeological Museum contained statues and frescos from ancient Greco-Roman times along with paintings from famous Renaissance and Baroque masters. The Castel Nuovo Museo Civico, on the other hand, contained works from lesser known masters from Southern Italy such as Luca Giordano, Francesco de Mura and Mattia Preti.

Is that it then? Could it be that Italian authorities in Rome put a premium on antiquities from ancient times? How then, does one explain the recent debacles at Pompeii?

Could it be more likely, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which is known to house the most important collection of Greco-Roman antiquities in Italy, is the sole beneficiary of an otherwise corrupt, inefficient system that has historically looked down upon anything produced in more recent centuries by Southern Italians? I’m left to wonder.

Further reading:

January 12, 2011

Restoring Culture in Sicily: An Interview with Anti-Mafia Activist and Architect Giusi Imborgia

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

I met restoration architect, Giusi Imborgia (Left) this past summer, during a period of research and travel in Sicily, and was deeply inspired by her passion and unwavering professional commitment to the preservation of many of the historical landmarks and churches that have stood for centuries in and around Palermo. For over twenty years, Giusi has dedicated her life to transforming buildings from sites of unrecognizable disrepair back into their original state. In doing so, she both honors and recaptures the stylistic characteristics that have defined the historic time periods of Sicily’s culturally assorted past. Along with directing the restoration work of such famous churches as the Chiesa Maria SS. Della Neve in Lercara Friddi and the Chiesa Maria SS. Delle Grazie of Via Villagrazia, Giusi is also a fierce anti-Mafia activist. Her work is a stand against contemporary political corruption and its ongoing entanglement with the Mafia, forces that continue to debase Sicily’s great architectural and artistic heritage, through a serious lack of government funding and community awareness. I recently had the honor of speaking with Giusi directly about her experiences as an architect and activist, and her fight for a better Sicily.

La Chiesa di Maria SS. Della Neve of Lercara Friddi, Palermo

Olivia Kate Cerrone: What drew you to pursuing a career in architecture?

Giusi Imborgia: I have loved art since I was a child, when my father used to take my brother and I on tour of our city landmarks on Sundays, when he had the day off [from work]. Growing up, I realized that our city could base its economy on tourism, thanks to its architectural masterpieces and its historic center. But at that time, buildings and landmarks in the old town were already in obvious disrepair. So I decided I would give my contribution to “treat” them.

OKC: As a leading Palermitan architect, have you encountered gender discrimination in the traditionally male-dominating field of architecture, and if so, how have you dealt with those challenges?

GI: Among architects there is no gender discrimination. Believe me! It was already evident when I was studying at university. Gays, lesbians, heterosexuals--there was no separation between them and no gender or social class discrimination either. Things are like this in the workplace as well. The only problem [for women] is gaining initial trust and authority, especially when you have to deal with workers, usually all men, in the yard. But when you put your safety helmet on and go up the scaffolding with them to check the works, at an altitude of 30 to 40 meters, they look at you in amazement. Not only do you look professional, but you also become a kind of hero to them.

OKC: Why is the restoration of churches and historical landmarks in Sicily important? Why is the preservation of this art and architecture important for all people, not just Italians and Italian Americans alike, to be aware and supportive of?

GI: One of the things that shock me the most is how it is possible that an architectural masterpiece like the Teatro Massimo was closed for almost thirty years! Thirty long years! Not only did [those in charge of the restoration] prevent people from visiting it as a work of art itself, but they also prevented operas such as La Traviata, La Boheme, and Rigoletto, from being performed. They imprisoned art within art itself. More than this, they stopped its productivity, and cost hundreds of people their jobs.

The “excuse” for this to happen was the nature of restoration itself. Never-ending works were undertaken and they decided that the theatre had to stay closed. First they wanted coverings against rainwater infiltrations, but the whole operation was essentially “leaky!” That is why the restoration of a monument can often represent its main problem! Behind a restoration there are public funds, variance surveys and also experts, architects, engineers that can be “influenced.” I would say that all of the people working on the Teatro Massimo's restoration were constantly “influenced.” It's like they always had a bad “flu” and the cost to treat it was very expensive!

Our political leaders today are more committed and there's more community awareness, but the paradox is that Sicily's vast architectural heritage requires very big funds, while private interests here don't support architectural restorations with their money. Money for restorations only comes from public funds.

OKC: During my travels throughout different parts of Sicily, I came across many, many churches and historical buildings that were in obvious states of serious disrepair. With everything from cracks in the foundation, water damage, erosion from the effects of weather and pollution, to damages sustained in bombings from World War II, what is your opinion of the state of historical architecture as it stands now in Sicily?

GI: Consider also that you were not able to visit some churches [that are] closed because [they’re] in danger of collapsing or due to a lack of [security] personnel. The problem is that there are more churches and historical buildings than there are resources and people able to monitor and maintain on a regular basis, so that their structures might be preserved and prevented from decay and disrepair, which certainly requires more expensive attention.

Italian politicians don't realize that our architectural heritage must be preserved not just because it is part of our human heritage, but also that it represents an economic and fruitful treasure as well. If collapses are not even prevented in Pompeii, one of the most unique sites in the world, perhaps we already have the answer to the question [you pose].

After the Mafia committed its terrorist attacks in the 90s, the people of Palermo went down in the streets, which, perhaps no TV has ever shown on the news, but on Youtube you can watch some extensive footage showcasing our rage.

We, “the civil people” wanted to turn that rage into action. We formed an alliance with local cultural associations, called “Palermo Anno Uno” (Palermo Year One). Among various proposals, we thought it was necessary “to use our city's history and culture to let a better future advance inside our dark present.” This project, first realized in Naples, was called “La Scuola Adotta un Monumento” (The School Adopts a Historic Building). The aim was to let our cultural heritage be known as much as possible and to promote its preservation, by “adopting” buildings of architectural value. Students, being directly involved in “adopting” a monument, became aware of their city's history, thus fighting against architectural oblivion and disregard. This project let some monuments be restored and opened again, after a period of oblivion and decay. Perhaps it might be [more] helpful if politicians adopted historical buildings. One building for each politician, who should be committed to its preservation!

OKC: How does the Mafia play a role in preventing progress of restoration architecture in Sicily?

GI: I would begin talking about Vito Ciancimino, who was a well-known member of the Mafia and remained close to its other affiliates. He held the position of City Councilor of Public Works from 1959 to 1964, when he carried out the so-called “sacco di Palermo” (sack of Palermo), with the help of the accommodating mayor, Salvo Lima. Afterwards, in 1970, many citizens of Palermo directly “promoted” him to mayor of the city, having received countless favors when he was councilor.

Think of the laws established in 19th Century Paris, where the likes of Haussmann and Napoleon III expropriated private properties for the purposes of public interest. The aim of these laws was to let the government easily possess buildings in the areas where new streets should be created, thus destroying “Ile de la Cité.” On the other hand, Lima and Ciancimino, backed by countless strong and powerful Mafia-entangled “businessmen,” and local entrepreneurs' consent, modified city planning schemes during City Council meetings, thus turning green areas into residential ones. A prominent example of this is the “Fondo Anfossi” [residential] zone near Mondello. Palermo's historic center paid a lot of consequences from those shady deals.

I will try to clarify how the Mafia's entanglement with politics and vice-versa, can forever change a city's layout, natural inclinations and planning schemes. Whole buildings could be closed on [account of] a single crack or minor problems in their structure, under the discretion of the “Edilizia Pericolante” (Unsafe Building department). The name itself gives the presentiment that something is wrong, and was named in part because it was taken for granted that unsafe houses would always exist in an unchangeable atmosphere of danger!

That department was made up of compliant engineers and city councilors who informed the owners of such buildings that immediate restoration was necessary. A lot of these individuals, however, were away as emigrants or had little financial responsibility. As a result, the City Council automatically started the works, choosing its own experts and workers and, requested enormous bills to be paid, as if the Colosseum itself had been restored. Consequently, many owners were forced to sell off their properties, sometimes even giving them away. If investigations were made into the matter, you can’t imagine how many engineers and former city councilors (or representatives on their behalf) turned out to be the owners of buildings in the historic center of Palermo, buildings of enormous value.

The old town [historic center] was a city inside the city, made up of houses, handicraft businesses, churches, historic buildings. People lived and worked there under the so-called “casa e putìa” system. This meant that their homes were situated very close to their shop or business premises, in order to save time and avoid moving difficulties.

The priorities were two: first to preserve and defend Palermo's historic and artistic heritage; second to defend its productive activities as well. Yet the result could not be more tragic, considering how Mafia-entangled politicians had control over the whole situation. The destruction went on at different levels. They demolished both Liberty-style villas (one of the most damaging cases was the Villa Deliella, designed by Ernesto Basile in Piazza Croci of Croci Square, where now a car wash can be found instead), and also destroyed I Piana dei Colli (literally “Hills' plain”), a green area with gardens, citrus and orange groves, and Palermo's historic center as well. As a result, the old town's inhabitants were moved to a very peripheral area of the city called ZEN, Zona Espansione Nord (“Northern Expansion Area”). It consisted of prison-like high-rise concrete buildings, lacking in the most basic services. Afterwards, architect Vittorio Gregotti designed one of the worst Italian architectural complexes, called ZEN 2, after winning a competitive tender. Consequently, the inhabitants of the historic center were sent off to an awful and wretched suburban community. This area resembled a sort of “ghost town,” where drug pushing, prostitution and crime flourished, essentially condemning these new inhabitants to a hopeless future.

Everything they left behind was destined to be lost, much like a Christmas crib that loses its lights and shepherds, and that’s exactly what happened to the jobs and culture of many lifetimes. That is how unscrupulous city councilors can literally “swallow up” parts of a city, contributing to the destruction of our culture.

In 1993, Palermo became filled with new life. The City Council set up the Historic Center Department, which met various objectives, such as creating a new public lighting system. This literally “turned on” people’s hope again, and led to the creation of new handicraft businesses, shops and commercial activities. A rise in employment and new social organizations followed. The Teatro Massimo was opened again, together with Villa Trabia’s park, among many other things. But recently, just when it seemed Palermo was coming back to life, it’s beginning to face another slow death, due to the ongoing workings of an irresponsible city government.

OKC: Do you believe that the current government in Palermo is taking effective steps toward addressing the problem of so many historical landmarks in current disrepair?

GI: My answer to this question is uncertain, as the regional government budget has not been approved yet and therefore we cannot know the amount of money assigned to the monuments. I touched upon this when I previously spoke of [the influence of] politicians and monuments.

OKC: Thank you so much for sharing with us your experiences. Any last thoughts on anything you would like to mention that we haven’t already covered?

GI: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my beloved city. I have tried to explain some situations which are well-known and, therefore, clear to us [Sicilians]. From the outside, however, it may be difficult to understand because the various events are really complicated; so it is important to discuss and examine them more closely. It is a great honor for me.

* * *

Restaurare la cultura in Sicilia: Colloquio con Giusi Imborgia, architetto e attivista anti-mafia

Ho incontrato l'architetto restauratore Giusi Imborgia la scorsa estate, durante un periodo di ricerca e di viaggi in Sicilia, e ho tratto profonda ispirazione dalla sua passione e incrollabile dedizione professionale rivolta alla preservazione di molti luoghi storici, edifici e chiese che resistono da secoli a Palermo e nei suoi dintorni. Da più di vent'anni, Giusi dedica la propria vita a edifici e costruzioni che versano in un irriconoscibile stato di rovina, trasformando e riportando questi luoghi alle loro condizioni originali. Così facendo, onora e, al contempo, recupera le caratteristiche stilistiche che hanno delineato le epoche storiche del passato culturalmente vario della Sicilia. Oltre ad occuparsi della direzione dei lavori di restauro di chiese particolarmente famose come la Chiesa Maria SS. della Neve a Lercara Friddi e la Chiesa Maria SS. delle Grazie di Via Villagrazia, Giusi è anche una grintosa attivista antimafia. Il suo lavoro rappresenta una ferma opposizione alla corruzione politica del nostro tempo e al crescente coinvolgimento di questa con la mafia, forze, queste, che continuano a svalutare il grande patrimonio artistico e architettonico della Sicilia, attraverso una preoccupante mancanza di stanziamenti da parte del governo e di consapevolezza da parte della gente. Recentemente ho avuto l'onore di parlare personalmente con Giusi delle sue esperienze come architetto e attivista, e della sua lotta per una Sicilia migliore.

Olivia Kate Cerrone: Che cosa l'ha spinta a intraprendere una carriera nel campo dell'architettura?

Giusi Imborgia: Il mio amore per l'Arte è nato da bambina, quando mio padre, la domenica, libero dal lavoro, portava me e mio fratello in giro per i monumenti. Crescendo mi resi conto che la nostra città, grazie ai suoi capolavori monumentali e al suo Centro Storico, avrebbe potuto fondare la sua economia sul turismo. Ma già da allora era palese il degrado in cui versavano monumenti ed edifici del Centro Storico. E così pensai che avrei voluto contribuire a "curarli".

OKC: Essendo lei uno dei principali architetti palermitani, si è imbattuta in discriminazioni di genere in un ambito tradizionalmente dominato dagli uomini come quello dell'architettura e, in questo caso, come ha affrontato quelle sfide?

GI: Tra architetti non esistono discriminazioni sessuali. Davvero! Già era evidente nell'ambito universitario. Gay, lesbiche, etero: non esistevano recinti, nè discriminazioni di sesso, nè di classe e così è nel campo lavorativo, tra noi architetti. L'unico problema è essere credibili in cantiere anche tra operai tutti uomini. Ma quando col casco di protezione sali sul ponteggio insieme a loro, per verificare i lavori, lì all'altezza di 30/40 metri, ti guardano stupiti e, oltre ad essere professionale, per loro diventi una sorta di mito e, comunque, sei una di loro.

OKC: Perchè è importante il restauro delle chiese e dei luoghi e monumenti storici in Sicilia? Perchè è importante che tutte le persone, non solo gli italiani e gli italo-americani, siano consapevoli e sostengano la conservazione di questo tipo di arte e di architettura?

GI: Una delle cose più allucinanti è come sia stato possibile tenere chiuso per quasi trent'anni, un capolavoro monumentale come il Teatro Massimo! Trenta lunghi, interminabili anni! Non hanno soltanto proibito la sua visone come opera in sè, ma non hanno permesso che altre opere, liriche, ma sempre Opere, come la Traviata, la Boheme, il Rigoletto, venissero rappresentate. Hanno chiuso l'arte nell'arte. E non solo, hanno fermato la sua produttività, hanno reso disoccupate centinaia di persone.

Questo è potuto accadere con l' “alibi” del restauro. Si effettuavano lavori infiniti e si decise che il teatro dovesse rimanere chiuso. Si iniziò dalla copertura per infiltrazioni di acque piovane. Ma tutto "fece acqua"! Ecco come il restauro di un monumento diventa, al contrario, il suo problema! Dietro un restauro si muovono finanziamenti pubblici, si muovono perizie di varianti, si muovono tecnici, architetti, ingegneri che, essendo uomini, sono suscettibili di influenze. Ecco, diciamo che tutti quelli che lavoravano attorno il Teatro Massimo erano perennemente "influenzati", con tosse e raffreddore! E le loro cure erano costosissime!

Adesso c'è una classe dirigente più attenta e anche un'opinione pubblica più vigile, ma il problema è che, paradossalmente, il grande patrimonio monumentale della Sicilia esige grandi patrimoni finanziari, e qui i privati non investono nella sponsorizzazione del restauro dei monumenti. L’unica fonte di denaro per i restauri sono i finanziamenti pubblici.

OKC: Durante i miei viaggi attraverso differenti parti della Sicilia, mi sono imbattuta in molte, molte chiese ed edifici storici che necessitavano in modo evidente di importanti restauri. Essendo presente in tali edifici ogni genere di danni, da spaccature nelle fondamenta, danni dovuti all'acqua, erosione a causa degli agenti atmosferici e dell'inquinamento, fino ai danni subiti durante i bombardamenti della Seconda Guerra Mondiale, qual è la sua opinione sullo stato attuale dell'architettura storica in Sicilia?

GI: E pensa che non hai potuto visitarne alcune chiuse al pubblico per il pericolo di crolli, oppure per mancanza di personale. Il problema è che la mole delle chiese e dei palazzi monumentali è tale che è difficile monitorare e, soprattutto, provvedere ad una manutenzione ordinaria che ne preservi così la struttura, in modo che questa non degeneri in dissesti, che presuppongono interventi più costosi. Sicuramente i politici italiani non hanno ben chiaro che il patrimonio monumentale non è da preservare solo perchè bene dell’Umanità, ma è anche un patrimonio economico–produttivo. Se si permettono crolli in un sito unico al mondo come Pompei, magari alcune risposte sono già sottintese. All’indomani delle stragi, il popolo palermitano si mobilitò, come forse nessun telegiornale mostrò (ma su Youtube ci sono alcuni filmati esaustivi della nostra rabbia che, se vuoi, poi ti racconterò).

Noi “popolo civile” volemmo tramutare quella rabbia in proposte. Costituimmo con tutte le associazioni a noi vicine un cartello che venne chiamato “Palermo Anno Uno” e, tra le tante iniziative, pensammo che fosse necessario “fare avanzare il futuro dentro l’oscuro presente, utilizzando la storia, la cultura e la memoria della nostra città”, e questo progetto prese il nome di “La Scuola adotta un Monumento” (l’iniziativa nacque a Napoli). Lo scopo era quello, attraverso l’adozione dei beni monumentali, di diffondere la conoscenza del patrimonio culturale e di promuoverne la salvaguardia. Gli studenti, impegnandosi in prima persona nell’affidamento, prendevano coscienza della memoria storica della città, contrastando la cultura della dimenticanza e dell’abbandono. Questa iniziativa permise l’apertura ed il recupero di alcuni monumenti abbandonati e dimenticati. Forse sarebbe opportuno che la politica adottasse un monumento. Ad ogni politico un monumento, con l’impegno di preservarlo!

OKC: In che modo la mafia gioca un ruolo nell'ostacolare i progressi nel restauro architettonico in Sicilia?

GI: Abbiamo tre, quattro giorni di tempo per parlarne? E’ importante comprendere il ruolo che gioca la mafia nella politica e viceversa. Iniziamo da Vito Ciancimino, notoriamente mafioso e amico dei mafiosi, che ricopre la carica di assessore comunale ai lavori pubblici dal 1959 al 1964, attuando il cosidetto “sacco di Palermo” e altro, insieme ad un Salvo Lima, sindaco compiacente! Successivamente, nel 1970, molti palermitani, avendo tratto innumerevoli vantaggi dal suo operato, lo promuovono direttamente Sindaco di questa città! Mentre nell’ '800 a Parigi, Haussmann e Napoleone III attuano, con poteri straordinari, espropri per pubblica utilità (grazie al principio per cui il potere pubblico poteva impossessarsi di un immobile lungo le future vie da costruire, radendo al suolo “Ile de la Citè”), Lima & Ciancimino, dall’alto dei loro poteri affaristico-mafiosi e con il plauso degli imprenditori locali, modificano, nelle aule del Consiglio Comunale, i piani regolatori, trasformando aree adibite a verde pubblico in aree residenziali (si veda, ad esempio, il Fondo Anfossi nei pressi di Mondello). Di questi loschi affari paga un caro prezzo anche il centro storico di Palermo. Cerco di spiegare come la mafia nella politica e la politica nella mafia, cambino l’assetto di un territorio e modifichino inesorabilmente la vocazione e l’urbanistica di una città. Andava pressappoco così. Per una crepa o piccoli problemi strutturali, venivano chiuse, da un ufficio denominato “Edilizia Pericolante”, intere palazzine (già il nome non faceva presagire nulla di buono, perché si dava per scontato che esistessero delle case pericolanti e come tali dovevano essere considerate, quasi in una condizione di perenne pericolo!).

Tale ufficio era formato da tecnici ed assessori compiacenti che esistessero tanti edifici pericolanti, i quali informavano i proprietari sull’urgenza di provvedere ai lavoro di restauro. Ma molti di loro erano emigrati o non avevano le possibilità economiche. Il comune provvedeva così ad eseguire d’ufficio i lavori con tecnici ed operai di loro competenza, esibendo successivamente cifre stratosferiche, come se avessero restaurato il Colosseo. Così a molti proprietari non restava che “vendere” anzi svendere e magari regalare. Se si facessero ricerche approfondite, sai quanti tecnici, uscieri, ex assessori (o chi per loro) risulterebbero proprietari di immobili nel Centro Storico di Palermo, ora con un valore centuplicato? Il Centro Storico di Palermo era una città nella città, costituita da case, attività artigianali, chiese, palazzi storici. Era formato da gente che vi abitava e lavorava, con casa e “putia”, ossia con l’abitazione vicino al negozio, all’attività, per economizzare il tempo ed evitare i problemi di spostamento.

Le esigenze da rispettare erano di due tipi: la prima, conservare e tutelare un patrimonio storico ed artistico; la seconda, tutelare le attività produttive. Ma tutto questo, nelle mani di politici affaristico-mafiosi, non poteva avere un epilogo più tragico. Lo scempio avveniva su più fronti, da una parte si demolivano le ville Liberty (uno dei casi più eclatanti fu Villa Deliella, di Ernesto Basile, a Piazza Croci, dove oggi c’è un lavaggio per auto), da un’altra si distruggeva la Piana dei Colli con verde, giardini, agrumi, aranceti e, inoltre, si assisteva allo svuotamento del centro storico.

Gli abitanti di quest'ultimo vengono trasportati in un’area assolutamente periferica denominata ZEN, Zona Espansione Nord. Vi si trovano orribili casermoni in cemento armato, privi dei servizi più elementari. Successivamente viene indetto un concorso vinto dall’architetto Vittorio Gregotti, che progetta uno degli scempi architettonici italiani, denominato ZEN2. Vengono così dispersi in un’orribile e squallida periferia, con conseguenze inevitabili anche per la legalità (in una sorta di città fantasma e, quindi, regno di spaccio e prostituzione), gli abitanti del centro storico, trasportati in un ineluttabile destino senza vita.

Ciò che lasciano muore inevitabilmente, come un presepe senza luci e senza pastori, e così le loro botteghe e il lavoro di una vita. Ecco come amministratori senza scrupoli fagocitano e contribuiscono alla distruzione di una città.

Nel 1993 una Rinascita pervade questa città. L’amministrazione comunale istituisce un Assessorato del Centro Storico e si pone obiettivi, che porta a termine, come la creazione di un nuovo impianto di illuminazione che “accende”, oltre ad una speranza, una nuova vita con la creazione di nuove botteghe artigianali ed attività commerciali che riqualificano creando occupazione ed un nuovo assetto sociale. Viene riaperto il Teatro Massimo, il Parco di Villa Trabia e tanto altro, e pare che Palermo si avvii verso una rinascita, ma poi precipita in una lenta eutanasia che perdura ancora, a causa di una conduzione comunale a dir poco “incosciente”.

OKC: Crede che l'attuale governo di Palermo stia prendendo delle misure efficaci verso la risoluzione del problema di così tanti edifici e luoghi storici attualmente tanto degradati?

GI: Questa è una domanda che presuppone una risposta incerta, in quanto non è ancora stato approvato il bilancio regionale e, quindi, non è riscontrabile l’importo destinato ai monumenti. E comunque rimanda alla risposta di cui sopra a proposito dei politici e dei monumenti!

OKC: Grazie infinite per aver condiviso con noi le sue esperienze. Ha delle ulteriori considerazioni da fare su qualunque argomento di cui non si sia già discusso?

GI: Grazie a voi per avermi dato l’opportunità di parlare della mia amata città. Ho cercato di spiegare delle situazioni che a noi, che le conosciamo bene, appaiono chiare, ma che, magari, viste dall’esterno non lo sono, perché in realtà le dinamiche sono molto complesse; quindi possiamo approfondirle quando volete. Sarà per me un grande onore.

Translated from the Italian by Daniele Romeo

Olivia Kate Cerrone: olivia.cerrone@gmail.com

Giusi Imborgia: archimborgia@virgilio.it

Photos of La Chiesa di Maria SS. Della Neve of Lercara Friddi courtesy of Giusi Imborgia