Sicily and modern art: seems like an oxymoron doesn’t it? Magellan and I were ambivalent about going to Favara. Mostly because we had found so little about an art complex begun in 2010 that we wanted to see, Farm Cultural Park. Paradoxical name isn’t it? Also, getting there required a triangular diversion that would add considerable driving time on head-shaker backroads. In going, we discovered a pastoral road, a town centre transformed into a Sicilian casbah—and a backstory of how cultural agitators create social change.
Favara dates back to the Copper Age, 2400 BC. There’s even a contradiction in the two most famous people from its past: an educator who introduced arts as a way to defeat illiteracy, and a mafia boss on the country’s most-wanted list who was captured here. Like most places in Sicily, Favara prospered under the Greeks and Arabs. Noble families built castles, churches (the names of the two most famous make me laugh: Purgatorio and Rosario) and a Baroque town square. It used to be a centre for agriculture, especially almonds and olives, as well as sulphur mining and marble quarrying. But by the end of the last century, Favara, with a population of 35,000 people, had one of Italy’s highest rates of unemployment and “an unparalleled reputation for urban eyesores.”
Tragedy in 2010 provoked action—a fork in the road we didn’t know about, until now.
The city centre was neglected, rundown and semi-abandoned. A squatted home collapsed, killing two young sisters. The local council began knocking down dilapidated historic buildings.
But a local couple, Florinda Saieva and Andrea Bartoli had a better idea.
After living in Paris they had returned so their daughters Carla and Viola could grow up in Favarra. Inspired by similar districts in Marrakesh, Andrea and Florinda felt the centre’s maze of empty stone dwellings was perfect for an art marketplace, a Sicilian casbah. Andrea has been quoted as saying
We decided to come back and share everything we have: time, economic resources, passions, friends, networks and values. We had an immediate vision: that this forgotten, abandoned and humiliated place could become a centre for cultural production and social transformation.
They bought the Sette Cortili, a little enclave of seven connected courtyards with derelict small palaces and Arabian gardens, infamous for drug dealing and street crime, its only remaining inhabitants a centenarian priest and the “aunts,” four women in their 80s. Farm Cultural Park they named it. I don’t know why. Like farmers, the couple funds this private venture from the ground up, relying on their own savings and donations and help from volunteers—they get no public funding. They’re growing the Farm with a range of street art, installations, screening spaces, shops and bars. Add in marketing the experience to a network of professionals in architecture, art and educators, tourists and locals, they’re likely working harder than the sheep-farmer we saw on the road. Plus, they’ve both kept their day jobs!
The difficulty of finding a parking spot in the centre of town on a Saturday was offset by the welcome from the Farm’s student greeters, a group known as FUN (Favara Urban Network) with their clipboards, maps and suggestions for our visit. (I forgot to tell you that Farm Cultural Park’s tagline is A place that makes you happy.) At one point we were on a balcony overlooking a courtyard full of people. Peering into a little apartment that can be rented. Passing through a classroom for teaching children about architecture. Browsing in a shop selling vintage souvenirs. Wandering alleyways with provocative street art.
The place is a funky renaissance, a modern medina, curated and designed with variety and edginess. There are three art galleries. A handful of exhibition spaces. A centre for contemporary architecture. The Sicily Foundation. Kitagawara, a section of the Japanese pavilion from Expo 2015 in Milan. Libraries. Language labs. Dance academies. Residences for artists, designers and architects who are curating temporary projects. Spaces for meetings, parties and events. Bike rentals. Boutique B&Bs. Open-air film festivals. Secret gardens where you can escape the heat under oleanders and by a red swimming pool. A “Motivational Toilette,” where we could have watched Steve Jobs’s “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” were it not time to select lunch from the al fresco restaurants like Nzemmula, Basta Bar, Good Food-Good Mood and Arancina Meccanica.
Is Sicily’s first centre of contemporary art, culture and design a success? “People who come to Favara today find a place that is still outwardly dreary and mundane, but compared to what it was like before, they don’t know how much it has changed,” Florinda said in an interview in 2016, and she said they had “gone from zero to 50,000 tourists per year, and from nine hotel beds to 250.” Curators of the Italian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture included Farm Cultural Park in the programme, “Taking Care: Designing for the Common Good.” The adjacent area has had an influx of restaurants, bars and new businesses. The town has a new Museo della Mandorla Siciliana showcasing the area’s almonds. Most of all, Farm Cultural Park offers hope “that investing in art and culture, taking care of their own land, make it possible to reverse a consolidated trend.”
Calling this a road story is another contradiction isn’t it? Metaphorically, no. Zigzagging the Internet roadways led to the backstory of Farm Cultural Park, “mind-bendingly wonderful” for me, a feel-good trip as exhilarating as any scenic drive.
My diary entry for Favara concludes with these words: “Zaniest quick-corner turns into pipe-cleaner streets to get out of town. Magnificent driving by K.” I think I’ll pen a P.S., these words from Vesna Maric in Lonely Planet:
It’s one of the great joys of travel, and indeed life, to come across something so unexpected and mind-bendingly wonderful in the midst of what appears to be the bleakest of places, that one’s ideas of what’s possible change entirely.
Faraci, Dr. Giorgio. “Farm Cultural Park, an experience of social innovation in the recovery of the historical centre of Favara.” International Green Urbanism Conference, Palermo, 2017.
Here’s Farm Culture Park’s website.
Google Arts & Culture has an awesome site on Farm Cultural Park called For ordinary people. If we had found this superb source, we’d have extended our stay. We highly recommend you watch this.
There’s a good article about Farm Culture Park in The Guardian (2012—how did we miss it?)
Lombardo, Elena. “Culture-led urban regeneration in Sicily: The story of Farm Cultural Park and Favara | Italy.” Culture 360. November 19, 2019. (After our stay, we read this quote from Andrea in this article.)
Peci, Lorena. “A dreamer’s utopia: the small miracle of Favara Cultural Park.” Sicilian Post. January 18, 2019. This article appeared nine months after our visit to Sicily.
This YouTube gives you a sense of the place.
Farm Cultural Park
*University of Palermo, Palermo 90133, Italy