Flamboyant Italians: Vittorio Sgarbi

Sometimes, living in Italy is like being inside an awful soap opera; it’s a vibrant, quirky, melodramatic place filled with controversies, corruption, and paradoxes.

Italy is a place of great beauty, creativity and unique experiences, overshadowed by equally abhorrent ugliness, criminality and hypocrisy. The Italian people themselves manifest these conflicting traits.

I have come across many prominent Italians in the spotlight who are flamboyant and seem more like characters in a satire than real people. Many well-known figures are famous in Italy but are relatively unknown outside of the country, so I thought I would occasionally share some truly outstanding characters who will leave you slack-jawed and flabbergasted.

One of my favourites is Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic, teacher, defender of the history of this country and voice of common sense in amongst loads of rhetoric. I love how he has made a career out of a mixture of a love of beauty, art, history and politics. Yet some of the things he has said and done are cringe-worthy!

Sgarbi’s academic qualifications are impressive; he has a degree in philosophy, specializing in art history from the University of Bologna, one of the oldest and best universities in Italy. He has also been responsible for maintaining historical sites and art for the region of Veneto, of which Venice is the capital.

Sgarbi has published many books dedicated to visual art; one on my bookshelf includes a systematic analysis of art from Giotto in the Renaissance to the Picasso and the twentieth century. His art history books are considered recommended reading for art students and academics.

I recently bought myself his two volume guide to 20th century art as a Christmas present and I have been enjoying it immensely. His knowledge and passion for visual art is undeniable. And apparently he has an impressive private collection of antiques and artworks.

However, Sgarbi has some shady elements to his character, which tarnishes his impressive resume. When he was younger he saw himself as a playboy professing to be incapable of being faithful to a woman and allergic to marriage. As a result, he has three illegitimate children, which he has been forced to acknowledge through the courts. He has declared: ‘I am against parenthood. The category of Father isn’t one I want to belong to. Everything said I am against abortion. Some women want to have children by me, not I with them; why should there be the obligation to become a Father.’

Original Italian quote taken from Wikipedia: ‘Sono contrario alla paternità. Quella del padre non è una categoria a cui ritengo di dover appartenere. Ciò detto sono anche contrario all’aborto. Ci sono donne che hanno voluto figli da me, non io da loro perché non può esserci l’obbligo di diventare padre.’

Sgarbi is now nearly 70 and so his playboy days are behind him. But despite a health scare a few years ago (he nearly had a massive heart attack but checked himself into hospital where he was treated before any major damage was done). Thanks to a bypass operation he returned to his usual energetic, fiery and controversial self.

Sgarbi has many contrasts in his character; he is an intellectual who has admitted and been charged with plagiarism (if this were any other country, his academic life would be finished after such a scandal, not the case in Italy!) His work as an art critic has coexisted with his career as a television personality, opinionist and politician. Sgarbi’s opinions are always sought after as he is seen as an academic and Italians are always impressed by academics.

Vittorio Sgarbi is an amazingly controversial character, and I really can’t get enough of him! Following Sgarbi is like watching terrible reality television; it draws you in despite better judgment.

Even Sgarbi himself admits his polemic nature as a guest on endless Italian t.v programs through the years; he has been involved in many now legendary arguements on the small screen.

A long list of now-infamous conflicts and verbal insults launched by Sgarbi, who is arrogant, chauvinistic and passionately defends his point of view, not always in the most polite way. Probably the most famous of his on screen confrontations is when he went head to head with former European parlimentarian Alessandra Mussolini who is also the grand daughter of the former Italian Fascist dictator. They were disagreeing about something in the local press and they both lost their cool. The situation escalated and Sgarbi called her a Fascist to her face.

He has a perchance for calling people’ goats’ or ‘capre’ (initially a slur against ignorant people). Nowadays he affectionately calls his social media followers his ‘goats’ and has launched his merchandise, including a yearly diary of the goat filled with illustrations of goats from famous artworks.

If Sgarbi was in an Anglo-Saxon country, there is no way he would ever be invited on as a guest after being seen as a loose cannon, apparently not an unattractive attribute in Italy.

As a guest on a 1990’s talk show hosted by Maurizio Costanzo, Sgarbi presented a popular segment dedicated to the world of art. After arguments with other guests, he has the dubious honour of pronouncing the first live to air swear word in the history of Italian television!

From 1992 to 1999, Sgarbi conducted his program titled Sgarbi Quotidiani on Canale 5. The most famous episode of this series was when Sgarbi himself remained silent for fifteen minutes, the entire program length as a protest against Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi had vetoed any criticism of himself on his privately owned television stations. The episode was watched by more than three and a half million viewers.

As a politician, Sgarbi is a chameleon chopping and changing parties and roles through the decades. It is confusing how often he has shed his political skin, beginning his political life as a member of the now-defunct Italian Socialist party then moving to the conservative right.

Sgarbi left the Christian Democrats to join Berlusconi’s Forza Italia movement, which he then left for the extreme leftist Radical party. He had a glorious falling out with the Radical’s founder Marco Pannella and moved onto the eternally protesting Consumers list. Vittorio then went back to the radical left of the Unione and lastly has been an independent candidate. 

The way Sgarbi chops and changes his political ties makes your head spin. He has also been the mayor of Sutri, Salemi and San Severino Marche. He has held the position of the Sicilian Regional Assessor
of Cultural Heritage and has been the curator of the Italian pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennial art show.

Sgarbi was also Minister for the Arts at the city of Milan and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the same town. Sgarbi returned to the centre-right to become mayor of the Sicilian city of Salemi from 2008 to 2012.

A recent cause the irrevocable Vittorio Sgarbi has taken up is the debate against wind turbines and solar panels, suggesting these waste millions of Euro’s and are the centre of organized ‘Mafia’ crime interests and contributes to damaging the environment and the Italian countryside.

Sgarbi speaks his mind, and this is why the Italians love him. Even if he is a bit of a loose cannon and has been accused of defamation, his personality undeniably makes him so popular.

Ironically Sgarbi’s surname comes from the Italian word sgarbo, means rudeness. While ironically garbo is the word for politeness.

Vittorio Sgarbi is a truly flamboyant Italian.