“I offer culture and beauty without asking anything in return,” he says. “It’s a gift I have, it’s my nature. But doing that in Sicily is subversive. When you ask nothing in return, the pigs can’t bump you off. The politicos can’t censor you. The Church can’t rein you in.” After having shown us the magic steel pyramid by his friend, the sculptor Mauro Staccioli, perched on the peak of a mountain overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Aeolian islands, Antonio Presti tells us his story in simple words, without the slightest affectation. With the aplomb of a man who knows he has won the game.

Presti was born in Messina in 1957. He has been staging his resistance for 30 years. At the age of 21 he decided to use the fortune left by his father – a public works contractor who worked hand in glove with local politicians and Cosa Nostra bosses – to combat the mafia system on the island. How? By investing in culture. His maiden project was called La fiumara d’arte [The Torrent of Art]. It involved building a sculpture park, the biggest in Europe, from the Nebrodi mountains, near Pettineo, his father’s village, all the way to the northern coast of the island.

Denounced for illegal construction

That was back in 1982: after trying to obtain funding from the mayors in the region, Presti called in Italian and international artists and began putting up sculptures and donating them to the municipalities. A big vagina symbolised the birth of the project, which culminated in a dry riverbed with a monumental black-and-white sculpture of limestone and lava, representing death.

A few months later, Presti was denounced for illegal construction and unlawful land appropriation. The municipalities demanded that the sculptures be demolished. “Now that’s paradoxical in a country where everyone’s been building without permits for decades – and with highly regulated illegal kickbacks,” he observes. The litigation was to wear on for 23 years. In 2007, at long last, the Supreme Court found for Presti. La fiumara is now fully above board. A score of remarkably beautiful works are on display there; the autonomous Sicilian region set up a tourist route through the site, and Presti commissioned his friend Staccioli to build an iron and steel pyramid on the edge of a cliff “as a sign of victory, of new-found peace”.

Used to receive death threats

The pyramid was inaugurated in early April with a big party Presti threw a few miles away in one of his other dream projects: the Hotel Atelier Sul Mare, located in a lovely little port, Castel di Tusa. It is a fairly small-scale hotel, with just over a hundred beds and 40 very special rooms: artists’ rooms. Presti gutted the building back in 1990 and then entrusted the decoration of each room to a different artist, including sculptors Mario Ceroli, Paolo Icaro and Hidetoshi Nagasawa, ex-terrorist Renato Curcio, filmmaker Raúl Ruiz et al. The marvellous “Prophet’s Room”, a tribute to Pasolini, was done by the poet Dario Bellezza, stage actress Adele Cambria and himself. The lift is wallpapered with Presti’s poetry, and the reception area packed with newspapers recounting the exploits of this oddball agitator.

When the going was tough, Presti used to receive death threats. Far from throwing in the towel, he settled in the lawless cities of Catania and Palermo. In 1999 he set up an Artists’ House, 12 rooms of contemporary art by local artists. In 2001 he brought the best Italian poets by train to Catania. And in 2002 he threw himself into the lion’s mouth, setting up his foundation in Librino, a dormitory town in the vicinity of Catania, where there is hardly a single legitimate shop or business and where 120,000 people live apparently without any other future prospects than playing for the local football club or working for the Cosa Nostra.

“We floated the idea of the Third Eye, a museum/school of photography and art,” explains Presti. “Some photographers and filmmakers came to film and photograph the soul of the neighbourhood, its residents. We wanted to make them the main characters, restore them to their civic rights, help them to respect their patch, to find their identity and their pride through beauty.” This patron of the arts puts his take on art in a nutshell: “Art that is nothing but aesthetic appearance doesn’t interest me. Artistic action has to move people, to change their lives.”