The landscape around Route A29, which connects Palermo and Mazara del Vallo, is a travel-brochure version of rural Sicily: rolling hills dotted with barley fields, olive groves, and vineyards, and the occasional cluster of ancient ruins. Exit at Salemi, however, and follow the signs for Gibellina Nuova, and a surprise awaits. Like a postmodern version of Roman era city gates, there stands a 70-foot-tall steel sculpture of a five-pointed star by Sicilian sculptor Pietro Consagra. Porta del Belice (Door of Belice) or the Star of Belice marks the entrance to Gibellina Nuova, a town that hosts one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world and a reputation as a failed art utopia or a surreal, postmodern ghost town.

Sometimes referred to as “Sicily’s Marfa,” a reference to the Texas town that has become a nexus for contemporary art, Gibellina Nuova (New Gibellina) was built in the 1970s after Gibellina Vecchia (Old Gibellina) was destroyed by an earthquake. The old town was not rebuilt as it was, or replaced by bland apartment and office blocks, but instead reformulated with strangely spherical churches, wide avenues, squares that recall the surrealist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, massive public sculptures, and brutalist buildings, assembled by a roster of world-renowned artists and architects.

Its fate, so far, has been the fate of many utopias over the years. Initial enthusiasm faded. Weeds sprouted. People left. It became a curiosity rather than a model. But in recent years, some Gibellina Nuova locals have been trying to put it back on the cultural map, to stage yet another resurrection in the Sicilian highlands.

The central square in Gibellina, called <em>Il Sistema delle Piazze</em>, or <em>The System of Squares</em> was designed by architects Laura Thermes and Franco Purini.
The central square in Gibellina, called Il Sistema delle Piazze, or The System of Squares was designed by architects Laura Thermes and Franco Purini. Abaca Press/Alamy

Nestled atop a hill in the Belice Valley, Gibellina Vecchia was a town of about 20 acres and 6,000 people. On January 15, 1968, a magnitude-6.4 earthquake destroyed most of its centuries-old buildings and killed an estimated 300 people. “I remember that it was snowing on the night of the earthquake,” says Salvatore Sutera, mayor of Gibellina Nuova, who grew up in the old town and was eight years old when it was leveled. “My family took shelter with some relatives in a nearby town after the first earthquake wave hit.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, residents were housed in temporary shelters while the Italian government worked out a plan. At the time, Sicily had been mostly left behind by the “economic miracle” that helped lift millions of Italians out of poverty during the 1950s and 1960s. “The state saw the reconstruction in the Belice Valley as an opportunity to launch western Sicily into the future,” says Angela Badami, a professor of architecture at the University of Palermo and the author of Gibellina, la città che visse due volte, on the history of Gibellina.

The state entity tasked with rebuilding Gibellina—Istituto Superiore per l’Edilizia Sociale, or ISES—looked at trendy urban models of the time, Badami explains. They eventually settled on the “garden city,” a design popularized in the 1960s by English urban planner Ebenezer Howard. With satellite communities separated by greenbelts, garden cities were designed to combine aspects of urban and rural living to alleviate the density of the United Kingdom’s industrial cities. Applied to an agricultural area in western Sicily, the garden city framework had a weird effect. “It was like putting a mountain hut in the desert,” Badami says.

An earthquake in January 1968 destroyed the old town of Gibellina and killed approximately 300 residents.
An earthquake in January 1968 destroyed the old town of Gibellina and killed approximately 300 residents. Keystone Press/Alamy

It was a controversial plan from the start. Ludovico Corrao, a famous progressive lawyer, got heavily involved in the vision for a new Gibellina. A dedicated art collector, he and his artist and intellectual friends had discussed creation of a hub for Mediterranean arts and culture. In a town that was a blank slate, he saw an opportunity.

“He sought to recreate a shared identity through arts and culture,” explains Davide Camarrone, author I Maestri di Gibellina, a book about the town. “Sicily has always been at the crossroads of different civilizations, people coming from Africa and from the eastern Mediterranean have all transited through the island, taking with them different languages, religions and cultures.”

Corrao thought Gibellina could reflect this cultural melting pot and revive it as core to Sicily’s cultural identity. He was elected mayor of Gibellina Nuova in 1969 and in 1970 he shared a call for artists, architects, and intellectuals to contribute to the new town. The call, cosigned by novelist Leonardo Sciascia, modern painter Renato Guttuso, and cultural patron Giovanni Treccani, brought the attention of artists, architects, and urban planners, including Consagra, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Ludovico Quaroni, Nanda Vigo, and Alberto Burri.

The reconstruction of Gibellina had taken on epic proportions.

Ludovico Quaroni designed <em>Chiesa Madre</em> (<em>Mother Church</em>) for Gibellina Nuova.
Ludovico Quaroni designed Chiesa Madre (Mother Church) for Gibellina Nuova. Courtesy Thorsten Burkard

Not everyone could see Corrao’s vision, and big plans require big investment—at personal and official levels. “Some of us were disoriented by all that change happening in such a short amount of time,” Sutera says. “The earthquake projected us from an agricultural world into a modern world basically overnight.” Some citizens grew particularly skeptical when little construction took place in the early 1970s, and when reports of state-level corruption began to circulate in the middle of the decade. Eventually the state funds came through, and by the 1980s, the town was frantic with development.

Diego Fontana, who was eight at the time of the earthquake and came of age during the Corrao era, remembers the 1980s as Gibellina’s version of a medieval town’s cathedral-building, a communal effort that channeled the creative energy and labor of an entire populace. “Artisans, blacksmiths and carpenters were all involved with the realization of artworks,” he says, “people had the feeling they were involved with something bigger than themselves.”

Rosalba Durante, who runs the town pharmacy, agreed to let her home become new an experimental project by architects Franco Purini and Laura Thermes. “Corrao had a vision to create a town based around contemporary art,” she says, “most of us believed in it and took risks.”

The <em>Torre Civica</em> (<em>Civic Tower</em>) of Gibellina Nuova was designed by renowned designer and architect Alessandro Mendini.
The Torre Civica (Civic Tower) of Gibellina Nuova was designed by renowned designer and architect Alessandro Mendini. Courtesy Thorsten Burkard

Overall, citizens seemed to embrace the mayor’s project. “We are the ones who voted in Corrao,” Fontana says, adding that he opened the first restaurant of the new town, where artists and locals would have dinner and stay up talking until late at night.

More than 50 works of public art and architecture were built during the Corrao years, including the Chiesa Madre or Mother Church, a gigantic sphere resting on a concrete square designed by architect and urban planner Ludovico Quaroni (inspired by the various ancient civilizations that ruled parts of the island a thousand years ago); the Torre Civica or Civic Tower, a megaphone-equipped 65-foot-tall concrete tower by Alessandro Mendrini that marks time with sounds from the audio collection of Palermo University’s Anthropology Institute; and the Teatro, a brutalist building composed of rounded blocks of concrete designed by Consagra. As a result, Gibellina is currently the city with the highest number of artworks per capita in Italy, Badami says.

Inspired by the ancient Greek city-state model, Corrao envisioned a town where performance was at the center of public life. He turned a former textile laboratory into an arts foundation, called Orestiadi. Locals were actively involved in plays, and the Orestiadi Festival would become one of Europe’s leading arts events. “During the Orestiadi, Gibellina felt like the center of the world,” Sutera says. “Every hotel in this part of western Sicily was fully booked.”

But the visitors didn’t stick around for long.

Sculptor Alberto Burri created the massive <em>Il Grande Cretto</em> (<em>The Great Crack</em>, also known as the <em>Cretto di Burri</em>), a landscape-scale artwork that encased the ruins of Gibellina Vecchia in concrete. It was completed after the artist's death.
Sculptor Alberto Burri created the massive Il Grande Cretto (The Great Crack, also known as the Cretto di Burri), a landscape-scale artwork that encased the ruins of Gibellina Vecchia in concrete. It was completed after the artist’s death. Michal Balada/iStock

Corrao’s vision continued to take shape through the 1980s, but the focus on art and artists who did not live there rubbed some the wrong way. In 1994, with some of the most ambitious projects (including Alberto Burri’s massive land art memorial, Il Grande Cretto (The Great Crack), also called the Cretto di Burri, which encased all of Gibellina Vecchia’s ruins in gleaming concrete) uncompleted, Corrao lost a mayoral election.

Over time, a lack of funds led to the decay of some of the new projects. Weeds started to envelop the Cretto di Burri before it was completed, as well as the Palazzo di Lorenzo, a roofless building designed in 1981 by architect Francesco Venezia to preserve some of the walls of a historic palace that crumbled during the earthquake.

“After Corrao was gone we lost our sense of direction as a city,” Durante says. Many families left the town to look for jobs. Over the course of 40 years, Gibellina’s population decreased from 6,000 to 3,500. The garden city, however, was designed for 50,000. Where the old, medieval town covered about 50 acres, the new one sprawled across nearly 500. Large boulevards for cars took the place of cobblestone streets, and there was no piazza that provided a locus for public life. “It feels like a city designed with perfect geometrical proportions,” says 27-year-old Riccardo Falcetta, whose family relocated to a nearby town after the earthquake, “but perfection without people can feel alienating.”

By the late 1990s Gibellina was labeled as a “failed experiment.” The city was ranked on lists of “failed architecture,” while journalists referred to it as a “ghostly disaster” and a “euthanized utopia.”

Sculptor Pietro Consagra's <em>Teatro</em>.
Sculptor Pietro Consagra’s Teatro. Massimo Brucci/Dreamstime

But some artistic visions sometimes die hard. Though Corrao died in 2011, by the mid-2010s the idea of a cultural hub started to take hold again. In 2015, the Cretto di Burri was finally completed after local artist Nicolò Stabile issued a call for its completion, featuring signatures from international artists such as Marina Abramović.

In 2016, the city hosted the first edition of Gibellina Photoroad, an international, open-air art exhibition hosting large-scale photos, prints, and installations arranged around key landmarks. “The Photoroad exhibition gave Gibellina a breath of fresh air,” Fontana says. The 2021 edition, hosted a few months after the end of pandemic lockdowns, was particularly heartfelt.

In 2019 global fashion house Yves Saint-Laurent shot an ad campaign on the Cretto di Burri, boosting the town’s fame on social media. Sometimes Americans whose ancestors left Sicily for the United States pop up in Gibellina, looking to learn more about its history, Sutera says.

But echoes of its past remain, like a palimpsest: destroyed town, grand vision, international art destination, depopulated town, largely empty between events. More than 30,000 people visited Gibellina during the three months of the 2023 Photoroad, and appreciated the town’s sites. But otherwise it can still feel like a postmodern ghost town.

According to Giuseppe Maiorana, president of the Belice’s Cultural and Natural Museum Network and director of the Belice/EpiCentro Museum of Living Memory, Gibellina could still be a year-round cultural destination, perhaps if paired with other nearby attractions, such as the archaeological parks of Selinunte and Segesta, and the famous vineyards of Salaparuta. What’s lacking, he says, is tourism infrastructure, from hotels, to bus and train connections, to English-speaking guides. Right now, Sutera explains, the town can only host 70 overnight visitors in small bed-and-breakfasts.

The Photoroad exhibition, seen here in 2023, brings crowds of art lovers to Gibellina.
The Photoroad exhibition, seen here in 2023, brings crowds of art lovers to Gibellina. Courtesy Gibellina Photoroad

Official pathways to development in Italy take time and money, so some locals are taking matters into their own hands. During the 2021 Photoroad, Fortuna noticed that a lot of visitors were interested in Gibellina’s 50 public artworks but had no tools to learn about them. “There aren’t many signs or pamphlets explaining the history of these works,” he says. In the past three years, he worked with a local print shop to create leaflets, and has volunteered as a tour guide. “The best part is witnessing people reaction when we explore Gibellina’s key landmarks like Quaroni’s church,” he says. “It’s like leading people to find a hidden treasure.”

A similar DIY spirit animates Nicolò Stabile, the local artist who fought to complete the Cretto di Burri. In recent years, he has worked with architecture departments of major European universities to organize workshops on Gibellina’s postmodern architecture. “There seems to be more interest in Gibellina’s heritage by foreign institutions than by local ones,” he says.

According to Stabile, the future of Gibellina will mostly depend on a common vision that is shared by most citizens, as during the Corrao years. Last summer, urban designers ran a series of workshops with local citizens to better understand their experience of post-earthquake reconstruction. The findings were presented during a week-long exhibition at Consagra’s Teatro, which was opened to the public for the first time. “Participants mostly approve of the arts part of the reconstruction,” says Valentino Matteis, an urban designer at Progetto Materia, a cultural association that organized the workshop. “But they lamented the lack of clear socialization spaces and of work opportunities.”

Maiorana, who has been working to promote awareness of Gibellina’s heritage by hosting free educational events at the town’s contemporary art museum, wonders if it will eventually become a version of Noto, a Sicilian city famous for its UNESCO-recognized Baroque architecture, and was also rebuilt from ground up after a powerful earthquake destroyed a previous settlement in 1639. Half of old Noto was wiped out and reconstructed following what at the time was contemporary architecture. “Today, Noto attracts visitors from around the world and is a must-see for students of Baroque architecture,” he says, “Maybe in 100 years that will be the fate of Gibellina.”