Filippo Bentivegna was born in Sciacca in 1888. At the age of 20 he enlisted in the navy and ended up in America where he fell in love. Sadly, he was rejected by his girlfriend and beaten up by his love rival, leaving him depressed and homesick. When he returned to Sciacca he started carving heads into every piece of stone and wood that he could find, their faces symbols of his enemies. He bought a small holding above the town and filled it with his work. Locals would often meet him wandering around town with a short stick, held like a sceptre, proclaiming himself a king and asking to be called ‘His Excellency’.
He died in 1967 but his estate remains and is managed by a foundation. I stop by to visit, not really sure what to expect and prepared to be disappointed after handing over €5 for a ticket. I’m pointed towards a path which is lined with stone heads, the faces glaring at me as I pass. Some sculptures have more than one face, some are quite crude, others more complex and detailed. As I follow the path I reach a terrace with rows and rows of heads. They are everywhere, including some which have been carved into the ancient olive trees.
At one point a goat wanders past and I feel like I’m in a dream as I explore the ‘Enchanted Castle’. Then I realise that the goat is one of several animals left behind from a nativity production. At the top of the garden is Filippo’s house, a very simple one-room cottage whose walls are decorated with painted skyscrapers (perhaps representing New York) and large fish with smaller ones inside (perhaps representing the journey across the Atlantic in a ship). Beyond is a network of limestone caves where even more faces have been carved into the walls.
It’s a fascinating place and quite unlike anywhere else I have visited in Sicily. It does remind me of the ‘Owl House’ in South Africa which artist Helen Martins also decorated with her work. Filippo and Helen belong to an artistic group known as Outsider Artists, artists who are often self-taught and create work purely for themselves and not for the public. These people choose their own materials and prefer to work in isolation. I think Filippo must have been a little bit crazy to have created such a world for himself, but then I suppose all great artists are a bit crazy.
As I wander down the paths to the exit I feel as if the faces are all turning to watch me leave.