Sicily, where billionaires get back to basics – by booking an entire city | Tobias Jones

Sicilians were bewildered last week to see a Japanese billionaire, Kaoru Nakajima, block booking entire sections of their city for his extended birthday party. Palermo’s most deluxe hotels were completely occupied by Japanese celebrants. The seating of the grand Politeama theatre was rearranged so that his 1,400 guests could also dine and dance. The opera house, Teatro Massimo, was closed for a private performance of Don Giovanni, with Riccardo Muti conducting.

These pharaonic festivities caused consternation and controversy because Sicily is all about beguiling simplicity. There’s immense panache to the island, of course, but it’s sometimes at the spit-and-sawdust end of the spectrum. So Sicilians perceived something profoundly inauthentic, even unfair, about thousands of jet-setters renting their city for a lavish, gargantuan party.

But Sicily’s simplicity is precisely why it is the favoured party place for globe-trotting billionaires. Its earthiness is relished by those who long to be grounded: Google holds its annual retreat there every summer, calling it – the desperation for ruggedness is tangible – a “camp”.

TV shows and films have a pull effect too: recently, Inspector Montalbano and The White Lotus have showcased breathtaking backdrops, but it’s still The Godfather that defines Sicily in the global consciousness. Travellers come for that edginess, for the frisson that they might be among gangsters in even the most salubrious of settings.

One suspects there might have been secret excitement among Japanese guests last week when the star chef slated to cook for Nakajima’s party was reportedly unable to do so because he was under house arrest for drug-dealing from his restaurant.

But as well as giving that feeling that you’re on the set of a true-crime TV series, Sicily also allows travellers to enter a time machine. Rootless moderns and arrivistes use the ostentatious antiquities of Italy as settings to convey credibility, gravitas and longevity. So Google blazes coloured spotlights through the columns of Sicily’s Magna Grecia temples at its galas. The mooted brawl between social media moguls Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg was due to take place in Rome’s Colosseum.

There’s also, possibly, something reactionary going on. Recent memes have revealed how much men allegedly daydream about the Roman empire, perhaps because it’s perceived as an era in which men did manly things like build and fight. For some, it has a clarity lacking in our virtual, evasive and escapist lives.

For those who seek it, Italy offers thick traces of that clarity. It remains a gerontocratic country with – its present prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, apart – often rock-solid gender roles. That sense of entering another century, even millennium, isn’t just about the buildings: the rigid social set-up is reassuring to people who disdain the modernist mores of meritocracy and equality.

That makes the country home-from-home for a male Japanese pensioner: Japan is ranked 125 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index, and only 10% of its parliamentary seats are occupied by women.

One persuasive book, Machiavelli’s Children, suggests that Italy and Japan are extraordinarily similar: both were defeated Second World War nations that, with one corrupt party in power for half a century, made breakneck economic progress before their economies, and birth rates, hit the buffers. So for someone from Japan, Italy is both exotically different and eerily familiar. Ideal, perhaps, for a mega birthday bash.

Tobias Jones is a journalist and author of The Dark Heart of Italy and Blood on the Altar

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