Famed White Cliffs of Sicily Are Defaced in an Act of Vandalism

ROME – Saturday was bad and good news for Sabrina Lattuca, mayor of Realmonte, a small town on the west coast of Sicily.

She woke up that morning to find vandals had thrown iron oxide powder on the white cliffs known as Scala dei Turchi, or Turkish Staircase, smearing Realmonte’s main tourist draw. bloody red spots.

But by nightfall, much of the damage had been repaired thanks to the efforts of a team of cultural heritage experts, municipal employees and local citizens who spent the day cleaning up the site at the using mops, brooms and water pumps.

“They are an example of the best of Sicily,” Ms. Lattuca said of the people who helped with the cleanup. In 24 hours, she added, “this teamwork has brought beauty and splendor back to the Scala dei Turchi”.

Molded by waves and wind over the millennia in a grandiose natural staircase, legend has it that it was the preferred landing place for pirates and invaders from distant countries, such as the Turks, hence its name.

Long a seaside draw for Sicilians, the Marl Cliffs gained wider fame thanks to a series of detective novels starring Inspector Salvo Montalbano by the late Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, who praised the “stunning beauty”. The works were then turned into a popular television series.

And they also achieved cinematic fame in Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Malena” and other films.

Investigators in Agrigento, the largest town in the region, about 16 km east of Scala dei Turchi, are now browsing video taken by surveillance cameras on the roads leading to the site on Friday night in Saturday when the vandalism took place.

Major Marco La Rovere, commander of the Agrigento military police branch, which is investigating the case, said his officers and local prosecutors had “an idea” of who might have vandalized the site, which had been degraded by graffiti in the past. Now they were looking for evidence to back up their intuition, he said, declining to give details. “It’s an open investigation,” he said.

Ms. Lattuca had no doubts that the vandalism “was the work of a madman”.

“There is no other explanation for such an absurd act,” she said.

Michele Benfari, Agrigento’s top cultural heritage official, instead said the “gaping wound” left by the oxide powder may have been a statement left by a “disillusioned artist” grappling with the tragedy of the pandemic .

He cited an artist who made headlines when he threw red dye into the Trevi Fountain in Rome in 2007 and threw thousands of colored balls in the Spanish Steps a year later.

“It could be an interpretation,” he said. Acts of vandalism were rare in his region of Sicily, he said.

Fortunately, Benfari noted, the iron oxide powder used by vandals is relatively harmless if not mixed with other chemicals. Special vacuum cleaners were used to remove the powder and the remaining traces were cleaned with a simple soap on some areas.

“We were lucky,” he says.

La Scala dei Turchi is currently closed to the public for security reasons, as well as fears that the site will be damaged by mass tourism. It is also the subject of litigation to determine the ownership of parts of the site between the region, the community and an individual.

Before the pandemic, the site attracted around a million visitors a year, said Giuseppe Taibi, local representatives of Fondo Ambiente Italiano, an organization often referred to as the National Trust of Italy, which in recent years has successfully lobbied to demolish two structures that were built there.

It was a major victory in an area of ​​Sicily infamous for its dismal record in illegal construction projects. In 2016, Fondo Ambiente Italiano inaugurated a panoramic terrace overlooking the cliffs on the former site of one of the demolished buildings.

“It sent a strong signal,” Taibi said. “It’s also a way to admire the site without destroying it,” by allowing too many visitors, he says.

The Fondo also promoted the Scala dei Turchi on its list of places to save in Italy. “It is de facto a heritage of humanity that must be protected,” said Mr. Taibi.

The locals clearly agreed.

“As soon as we learned that Scala dei Turchi had been disfigured, we rolled up our sleeves and got down to work,” said Claudio Lombardo, who heads the local branch of the environmental association Mareamico, which monitors and maintains the coastal areas.

“Because it is so white as snow, so pure”, the Scala dei Turchi “is the emblem of a clean and honest Sicily, and it must be preserved and protected”, declared Mrs. Lattuca, the mayor.

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