a r t h o u s

[ 18:07 Wednesday 5 September – Palermo, Sicilia ]

Sitting in a sleak and sparsely-populated coach, just departed from Stazione Centrale, on my way to Catania on the east coast. With splendid Sicilian perversity this is a faster way to make the journey than the train.

This afternoon I finally got my Italian email services working properly. I thought I was being very efficient by setting up an account before I left London, but of course it didn’t work. While I was in Ginostra there wasn’t much chance to rectify the situation.

Meanwhile my Motorola uber-telefonino developed severe personality problems as soon as it tasted the Palermo airwaves. Perhaps it remembers the traumas of last year? It now turns itself on and off at random and has completely lost its appetite for recharging. Yesterday I was quoted a ridiculous sum for repairing the wretched thing, with the ominous prediction that it might have to go off to Milan. About half an hour ago I acquired a device which should allow me to recharge the battery externally, which will at least allow me to continue using the thing. It’s a damn nuisance though. I should have stuck to Finnish engineering…

Castel di Tusa was a fabulous experience. Antonio Testi is a fully-fledged maverick, a large man in his forties with a deep voice and bone-dry humour. He inherited one of the largest construction firms in Italy but at his father’s death he refused to deal with the Mafia and instead devoted himself to contemporary art. Over the last decade he has commissioned a series of huge open-air projects in the north of Sicilia. Most of these have been undertaken without planning permission, which has resulted in a succession of complex legal proceedings with the Messina public prosecutor. On each occasion Antonio has secured support in Rome and succeeded in getting the law re-interpreted to his advantage.

He bought the hotel in Castel di Tusa ten years ago. It has forty rooms, fourteen of which have been created by major artists. This amounts to rather more than slapping some pictures on the wall. I spent the night in the room designed by Renato Curcio (who I am informed is a terrorist in the Brigata Rossa). The bedroom is completely empty except for a sweeping plaster installation incorporating panels in a variety of ancient scripts. I swoke to alpha and omega picked out in red above me. The bed sits in the middle of the room with a cover continuing the pattern. The bathroom is a kind of cave. Twisting a little iron figure causes water to trickle down the walls. Another lever activates a shower, splashing hot water off a rock ledge. The loo is cased in corroded steel.

The other rooms are equally dramatic. One has a massive cylindrical bedroom with a circular rotating bed. Turning a crank on the wall opens the ceiling to the stars. Another room consists entirely of triangles, inspired by the shape of Sicilia. You can probably see some pictures at http://www.ateliersulmare.com, though I have not yet looked at the site.

Antonio’s next project focuses on a poverty-stricken area of Catania called Librino. He plans to invite world-famous photographers to work with residents of twenty massive tenement blocks and to cover one side of each building with giant portraits, rather in the manner of the Armani posters in Milano. By turning the neighbourhood into a public gallery in this way he believes the inhabitants will rediscover a sense of their own beauty, by which he means not just outward beauty. As a vision of regeneration I find this inspiring. I have offered my support. It was a slightly intimidating experience sitting on the roof of the hotel with Antonio and his associates on Sunday night as they interrogated me about my plans in the south of Italy. It is a frustrating disability that I am not yet able to converse in their language. But I hope I managed to avoid saying anything too offensive.

For the last couple of days I have been once more with Gabriele, which has been a great pleasure. Miraculously I survived this time in palermo with no theft. My computer has scarcely been out of my grasp.

This afternoon Gabriele introduced me to his friend Vincenzo di Leonardo, a hydraulic engineer who now wishes to devote himself to social projects. He wants to establish a scheme providing opportunities for disabled or miscreant youths to learn sustainable agricultural skills.

As I write we are driving through rolling hill-country. To my left a long concrete road bridge spans a valley. But it stands in curious isolation, with no road attached to either end. I keep coming across abstract pieces of civil engineering like this, which I fear are probably the result of Mafia financial logic.

Or perhaps the bridge is just another of Antonio’s projects.

: cH

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