WORDS AND PHOTOS BY FRANCESCA DONDI
Gibellina is a Sicilian village in the province of Trapani, whose history and location are divided between a ruined city enclosed in white concrete and an expanse of monuments at the mercy of the sun.
In the history of Gibellina, many issues are intertwined, starting with problems of the Italian state and the Sicilian territory, and ending with criticisms of the ideologies and personalities involved, which it is not possible to go into in the short space of this article. The following contribution aims to make the history of this country and its reconstruction known. The research begins where my trip began, at Burri’s cretto, the largest Land Artwork in Italy and the reason that brought me to Gibellina.
One topic that the history of Gibellina opens up, and which I believe to be topical, is the utopia of a society in which culture is an essential – useful – and not marginal component of life, with respective considerations on the potential and responsibilities of the cultural sector in the society itself.
Before, perched on top of five contiguous hills, Gibellina was one of the many farming communities that could be traced and identified with the social and cultural universe of the island’s urban reality. Most of the streets were narrow and small, some paved, others with cobblestones and marble slabs. […] The main street, which was only one, Via Umberto, cut the town in two […]. The neighborhoods were connected by a web of alleys and courtyards that intertwined asymmetrically(1).
On the night between 14 and 15 January 1968, a powerful earthquake destroyed the entire Belice valley and its villages(2).
The state was faced with an unprecedented tragedy, the first major natural disaster since the Second World War […]. The government provided each displaced person with an emergency passport and the purchase of a one-way ticket: about 30,000 refugees left the area to emigrate to northern Italy, Europe, America or Australia. The Belice area was in danger of being emptied for good(3).
Since the 1950s, Danilo Dolci and Lorenzo Barbera’s Centro Studi per la piena occupazione (Study Centre for Full Employment) had been present in western Sicily, so when the earthquake victims arrived in the tents, they arrived with a proactive spirit, creating tent city unions that were involved in the creation of a common plan indicating the priority actions to be taken to ensure that reconstruction was an opportunity for democratic development.
When they were moved to the barracks, however, they were excluded from decisions concerning reconstruction.
Ludovico Corrao, a leading exponent of the socialist party who became mayor of Gibellina immediately after the earthquake, supported the idea of rebuilding the town on a new site, the contrada Salinella, close to the land cultivated by Gibellina’s citizens, being aware that the A29 motorway, which would link Palermo with Mazara, was being planned in the area […] ‘Reconstruction,’ said Corrao, ‘could be about the memory of the future and not the memory of the past’. Going against the proposal to flee in favor of a reconstruction that would sew the threads of the history of a center of peasants to the great cultural centers that had settled in the area in the past, would have been possible […] through “art, culture, music and poetry [which] could weave the threads of rebirth”(4).
The Burri Cretto is part of the reconstruction project carried on by Ludovico Corrao; work began in 1984, stopped in 1989 and was only completed in 2015, thanks to a 2010 appeal by Nicolò Stabile, signed by many names in national and international culture. Alberto Zanmatti, the architect who oversaw the construction of the work, recounts:
We drew up the plans perimetering the intervention area with a rectangle that covered almost the entire surface of the ruins, eliminating the perimeter fringes. Only then did we realize the size of the project, the work covered more than ten hectares of land, which amazed the pharaohs but not Burri, who impatiently, on a model of the terrain, prepared in no time, laid out his surface of white mortar within the limits of the hypothesized rectangle to obtain the fissure. He carved the main road network, allowing the crack to form spontaneously. The executive drawings were prepared, which provided for the demolition of the walls still standing and unsafe, then compacting the rubble and covering it with wire mesh, according to the shapes of the project and all covered with white cement(5).
On 31 August 1969, the Gibellina town council, contradicting the proposal for a conurbation presented by ISES(6), unanimously voted for the Salinella plain area on which the new town was to be built – which ISES was forced to accept – furthermore, Danilo Dolci’s idea of a city-territory could be part of the plans to develop the Belice Valley(7).
For the occasion, ISES called together the most famous architects and town planners on the Italian scene in those years, about five hundred names in the field, belonging to different parties and currents. The design of the new urban settlement of Gibellina was carried out by engineer Marcello Fabbri, a former employee of ISES.
During the design process, the hypothesis of a butterfly-shaped city was born – with large wings joined by the body of public buildings – determined by reasons purely related to the morphology of the area, but which nevertheless linked symbolically to the concept of rebirth and resurrection, recalling the transformation of the chrysalis into a butterfly. The design envisaged the creation of a “city without suburbs, with a wrapping of the residential settlement through facilities, services, but also significant architectural or visual images (the first hints of urban art)”. The five thousand inhabitants were to occupy an area of approximately 35 hectares, which compared to the approximately 15 hectares on which the old town was perched, gives a measure of the dispersion introduced by the new plan(8).
In 1970, an appeal for solidarity from Italian culture was circulated, signed by, among others, Leonardo Sciascia, Renato Guttuso, Giovanni Treccani, Sergio Zavoli, Cesare Zavattini, Caruso, Corrado Cagli, Corrao and the other mayors of the Belice Valley. The idea was to put a stop to the state’s reconstruction project – perceived as being imposed from above – by inviting the leading contemporary artists of the time to design the church, squares, museum and monuments of Gibellina Nuova. Among others, Pietro Consagra, Carla Accardi, Francesco Venezia, Laura Thermes, Nanda Vigo and Alberto Burri responded to the call(9).
It was Pietro Consagra, in particular, who collaborated with the mayor on the reconstruction project and acted as a bridge between Corrao and the artists.
About his personality and poetics, Corrao writes:
Consagra is a person with very strong artistic and social convictions, violent and moody, even in his polemics against modern architecture and other forms of art, but very gentle in human relations and in the construction of a city system that also reflected the principle of transparency, freedom and light, denying three-dimensionality. Therefore, bifrontalism, so that everything can be understood from one side and the other and learned without man needing to walk around and behind the work to understand it, to suffer it, to expect a different counterface. Against the multiple faces of monsters and animals of a certain Sicilian baroque, in a land where duplicity and hypocrisy are often the rule. In Consagra’s works, on the other hand, it is man who enters into the work of art, lives it and allows himself to dream in it in order to achieve happiness. Art,’ Consagra said, ‘in Gibellina affirms the right to dream and to fantasise(10).
The Meeting, designed by Consagra in 1976 as the first frontal building from the broader idea of the frontal city and intended to house places related to sociability, is now limited to housing a pub on the ground floor. The bus station, designed inside, has never been activated, as there is a complete lack of city buses in Gibellina.
Franco Purini and Laura Thermes, a pair of architects in partnership since 1966, also worked on the reconstruction of the town. For Gibellina they designed the Casa del farmacista (1980), the system of squares (1982) and Casa Pirrello (1990). To facilitate understanding of the system of squares, the photo captions contain the description given in the Atlas of Contemporary Architecture.
The architects tried to co-ordinate their projects with each other, but immediately misunderstandings arose regarding stylistic and character differences. The entire Gibellina project was conceived as a succession of architectural facts of great quality, to be read as dissemination of aesthetic objects. They do not seem to have a physical and conceptual link between them that would allow a univocal reading and a unitary vision of the urban system. They seem more like dialogues in a purely self-celebratory form with the surrounding landscape and “floating surrealistically in space as mute and solitary objects individually displaying the configuration desired by each author”(11).
“Instead of assessing the damage of destruction,’ wrote journalist Giuliana Saladino in 1976, ‘we have to assess the damage of reconstruction.”(12)
The complaint mainly concerns the work of ISES, accused of using models that are foreign to the local culture – according to Giuseppe La Monica, the urban planning model Fabbri refers to is that of Hebenezer Howard’s garden cities, designed to stem the problem of overpopulation in 19th-century English cities, a problem that was absent in rural Sicily in the 1970s, the failure to take into account the climatic and orographical characteristics of the site, not considering the need to create shady areas to allow rest and spaces in which sociability was possible, the change in the scale of the built-up area, with the consequent dispersion of services and housing density, which created serious social effects and the feeling of disorientation that the city suggests in those who find themselves traveling through it.
Gibellina Nuova was baptized on 3 June 1979 with a ceremony held at the ruins of the old village, where a performance of Aeschylus’ Orestiadi reinterpreted by the Sicilian poet Emilio Isgrò took place. The sets were designed by Arnaldo Pomodoro, the actors came from the Teatro Massimo in Palermo and the entire local population was invited to participate, even as extras. Since then, every year Gibellina launches its Orestiadi: theatrical, musical, opera, and art events in all their strands(13).
Isgrò himself declared: ‘the sense of this work consists above all in giving voice to a community buried by the misfortune and arrogance of technologized society. So I chose the Oresteia, a tragedy of the principle of blood and the ineluctable because it seems to me that it contains, beyond the pessimism of reason, a kind of optimism of the will'(14).
Casa di Stefano, sede di Fondazione Orestiadi e del Museo delle Trame Mediterranee, Marcella Aprile, Roberto Collovà, Teresa la Rocca © Francesca Dondi, 2020
In the 1980s, Gibellina became a reality that the intellectual world was forced to confront. A ‘civic art factory’ had been established, an ideal intellectual laboratory in which the population was personally involved, also and above all as a workforce. The artists, who donated their works to the town, built them on-site, creating work and a skilled labor force, which over the years led to the emergence of stagecraft, weaving, and embroidery activities in the area, as well as other activities related to the creation of valuable works in ceramics, iron, and marble. Furthermore, research carried out at the University of Palermo on the number of students enrolled in the various faculties of the university (2007-2008) showed that the percentage of students living in Gibellina enrolled in artistic, literary, and architectural degree courses is higher than in the province of Trapani.
Thus, starting from pragmatic needs for rebirth, the utopian ambition created its own discourse, founding together with the new Gibellina, a model of society in which art is necessary and usable in everyone’s everyday life(15).
Although this model was supported by part of the population, it represented a conflictual moment in the development of community identity. Not all Gibellinians were able to identify with and fit into the new reality and the town that was being shaped by it.
Corrao insisted at length that Alberto Burri come to visit Gibellina and contribute one of his works. After the visit, Burri only agreed on the condition that he could work on the site of Gibellina Vecchia. Of Gibellina Nuova he said:
They had wanted to represent the ideal city, and Attardi’s ceramics recalled a Renaissance color, but there was something discordant like a beautiful piece of music where someone was out of tune. We were walking in a huge open-air museum, out of time, alive, but the city… where was the city?(16)
Ludovico Corrao was not re-elected mayor in 1994.
Many of the works have not been completed and for those that have been completed there is the problem of maintenance, which is unsustainable for such a small municipality.
Of the 5,000 inhabitants for which the city was built, 3,873 remain(17), steadily decreasing(18).
About 30% of the dwellings are second homes, 20% uninhabited(19).
– The city,’ you insist on asking.
– We come here to work every morning,’ some reply, and others: ‘We come here to sleep.
– But where does one live in the city? – you ask.
– It must be,’ they say, ‘over there,’ and some raise their arm obliquely towards a concretion of opaque polyhedrons on the horizon, while others point behind you to the specter of other cusps.
– So I passed it without noticing?
– No, try going on again(20).
When I arrived in Gibellina Nuova the town was as deserted and disorientating as described, impossible to tell where I had arrived, whether in the center or on the outskirts of the town.
In order to study and illustrate the succession of events that involved the town and characterised its formation, I used Flavia Ditta’s thesis, La rifondazione di Gibellina per mezzo dell’arte contemporanea. History of reconstruction between the utopia of the artistic project and reality, which can be consulted in full here, (link sul qui https://etd.adm.unipi.it/t/etd-04272015-214931/ ), in which the author mentions The Year 2440, a novel in which the author sets the utopian society he describes in the future, establishing for the first time an explicit relationship between utopia and the future as the time of its realisation through progress and human action. At the end of this research I tried to understand what the situation is today. Below are some links to recent projects in the area.
1Flavia, Ditta, La rifondazione di Gibellina per mezzo dell’arte contemporanea. Storia della ricostruzione tra utopia del progetto artistico e realtà, 2015, pag. 12
4 ivi, p 19
5 ivi, p.84
6 In addition to Ludovico Corrao’s proposal, two projects were presented for reconstruction: one by ISES, a state-run, industrial proposal, and one by Danilo Dolci, an innovative bottom-up design proposal. NdR
7 ivi, p. 22
8 ivi, p.23
11 ivi, p.34
12 ivi, p. 107
13 ivi, p. 40
14 ivi, p.101
15 ivi, p.74
20 Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili, Einaudi, Torino 1972, p. 77