ROME – Saturday was bad news, and somewhat good news for Sabrina Lautoca, mayor of Realmonte, a small town on the west coast of Sicily.
I woke up that morning to find that vandals had dumped iron oxide powder across the white cliffs known as the Scala dei Turchi, or Staircase of the Turks, staining Realmonte’s main tourist attraction with bloody red spots.
But by nightfall, much of the damage had been undone thanks to the efforts of a crew of cultural heritage experts, municipal workers and local citizens who spent the day cleaning up the site with the help of mops, brooms, and water pumps.
“They are an example of the best of Sicily,” Ms Lautoca said of the people who helped clean up. “Within 24 hours, this teamwork was able to restore the beauty and splendor of the Scala dei Turchi,” she added.
Formed by waves and winds over thousands of years into a stately natural staircase, legend has it that it was the favorite landing place of pirates and invaders from faraway lands, like the Turks, hence the name.
The Marlston Cliffs have gained widespread seaside fame for Sicilians, thanks to a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano by the late Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, who praised the site’s “amazing beauty.” The works were later turned into a popular TV series.
They also achieved cinematic fame in Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Malina” and other films.
Investigators in Agrigento, the region’s largest city, about 10 miles east of Scala dei Turchi, are searching video footage from surveillance cameras on roads leading to the site at night between Friday and Saturday, when the vandalism occurred.
Major Marco La Rovere, commander of the Agrigento Military Police branch, who is investigating the case, said his officers and local prosecutors had an “idea” of who may have vandalized the site, which has been marred by graffiti in the past. He said they are now looking for evidence to support their hunch, but he declined to give details. “It’s an open investigation,” he said.
Mrs. Lautoka had no doubt that the vandalism “was the work of a madman”.
“There is no other explanation for such an absurd act,” she said.
Instead, Michele Benfari, Agrigento’s chief cultural heritage officer, said the “enormous wound” left by the oxide powder may have been a statement left by a “disappointed artist” grappling with the tragedy of the pandemic.
He cited an artist who made headlines when he threw red dye into Rome’s Trevi Fountain in 2007 and threw thousands of colored balls at Spanish Steps a year later.
“That could be one explanation,” he said. He said that acts of vandalism were rare in his region of Sicily.
Fortunately, Banvari notes that the iron oxide powder used by the Vandals is relatively harmless if not mixed with other chemicals. Special vacuum cleaners were used to remove the powder and the remaining traces were rubbed with simple soap on some patches.
“We were lucky,” he said.
Scala dei Turchi is currently closed to the public for safety reasons, as well as fears that the site may be damaged by mass tourism. It is also the subject of litigation to determine the ownership of parts of the site between the district, the local government and a private individual.
Before the pandemic, Giuseppe Tibi, the local representative of Fondo Ambiente Italiano, an organization often referred to as the National Trust of Italy, which in past years successfully lobbied for the demolition of two illegal immigrants, said the site was attracting an estimated one million visitors a year. structures that were built there.
It was a major victory in a region of Sicily notorious for its dismal record of illegal building projects. In 2016, Fondo Ambiente Italiano opened an observation deck overlooking the cliffs on the former site of a demolished building.
“That sent a strong signal,” Mr. Tibi said. “It’s also a way to admire the site without destroying it” by allowing too many visitors, he said.
Fondo also promoted the Scala dei Turchi in the list of places to protect in Italy. “It is, in fact, a legacy of humanity that must be protected,” Mr. Tibi said.
The locals clearly agreed.
“As soon as we heard that the Scala dei Turchi had been mutilated, we rolled up our sleeves and went to work,” said Claudio Lombardo, who heads the local branch of the Mariamico Environmental Society, which monitors and preserves coastal areas.
“So white and so immaculate, the Scala dei Turchi is the emblem of clean and honest Sicily, it must be preserved and protected,” said Ms Lautoca, Mayor of the city.