Gibellina, Poggioreale and the earthquake of 1968


The force of nature and the art of man

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On the night of 15th January 1968, a terrible earthquake raked through the Valle del Belice in southwest Sicily. Around 900 people died and ten towns and villages were significantly damaged. Two, Gibellina and Poggioreale, were left in ruins.

The story of how Gibellina and Poggioreale overcame this cataclysmic event and how they dealt with the bleak task of rebuilding and relocating is one of the most fascinating chapters of 20th century Sicilian history.

The mayor of Gibellina at the time of the earthquake was Ludovico Corrao, a well-connected politician who also sat in the Italian senate. He enlisted the talents not only of Italy’s top town planners but also architects and artists of the calibre of Pietro Consagra, Mimmo Paladino, Mario Schifano, Ludovico Quaroni and Franco Purini, to create a new town situated about 10km to the west of the original Gibellina. The project, known as the “Dream in Progress”, featured public gardens, large piazzas, post-modern buildings, wide roads and numerous works of gigantic contemporary sculpture. As the project developed, more and more artists from around Italy donated works, and soon there was enough to stock the newly built Museum of Contemporary Art.

After about 10 years of living in temporary prefabricated houses near the ruins of their former homes, the Gibellinesi finally moved to their new town. What these humble, hard-working people thought of their new, highly intellectual surroundings is hard to imagine.

In 1983, Corrao, who had dedicated the rest of his life to Gibellina and its inhabitants, invited the internationally renowned artist Alberto Burri to visit new Gibellina. During his stay, Burri asked to see the ruins of the old town and it was during his visit there that a new idea took form: to transform the rubble and destitution of old Gibellina into a work of art that would both provide a fitting memorial to those who had died and create an artistic link between the old and new towns.

And so began work on one of the largest opere d'arte ever created. With the exception of the streets, which were left open for visitors to wander through, the whole area of the old town (120,000 square metres) was covered with a five-foot strata of white concrete, as if a shroud had been laid over the ruins. Looking from above, one has the impression of seeing an enormous grey-white tortoise shell moulded over the side of the hill. Immersed in glorious countryside and offering stunning views of the idyllic Valle del Belice, the Cretto di Burri is an awe-inspiring work that is at once uplifting and solemn, a testimony to man's durability and creativity in the face of adversity.

Until that fateful night of 15th January 1968, Gibellina’s closest neighbour was Poggioreale, situated just 3km away to the east. Occupying a panoramic position overlooking the gently undulating valley below, Poggioreale was also destroyed when the earthquake struck. After assessing the damage, it was decided that rebuilding the town on the existing site would be uneconomical and so a new area was proposed a few kilometres down the valley. As with new Gibellina, architects soon got to work on the construction of the new Poggioreale. But while contemporary town-planning ideas and techniques were employed for the project, there were to be no extravagant artistic flourishes, no gigantic sculptures and little post-modern architecture. As far as the townsfolk were concerned, their new town had one significant advantage over that of their former neighbours: it was close to their old homes, which were visible across the valley. This meant that, unlike the inhabitants of Gibellina, the Poggiorealesi were not cut off from their old life and not a significant distance from the land many of them worked.

The Mayor of Poggioreale evidently had no great artistic pretensions, nor artist friends of note and so, while Burri completed his Cretta across the valley, old Poggioreale was left as it was, frozen in time, a ghost town gazing with melancholy across the countryside at its modern successor. Wandering around the streets of old Poggioreale is an extremely evocative, slightly eerie but thoroughly fascinating experience.

Both old Gibellina and old Poggioreale suffered the same fate, but their post-earthquake destinies could hardly be more different. And while both have now found peace in the tranquil surroundings of their gentle vine-carpeted valley, they are also a reminder of how nature, so prolifically productive and giving, can so quickly turn destroyer.

Staying in a Thinking Traveller villa in the west of Sicily? Why not let us organise a guided tour of Gibellina and Poggioreale for you?

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