Who Will Save These Dying Italian Towns?

Near-empty villages try to hold on to an endangered way of life — and some of the country’s most important artisanal traditions.


THE FIRST THING that must be said about the ancient town of Civita di Bagnoregio, just two hours away from Rome and Florence, is that it is beautiful. From a distance, it looks literally otherworldly: The town sits so high atop a perilously steep pinnacle of eroding volcanic rock that it seems as if it’s perched upon clouds rather than tethered to the earth. Its very sediment is strafed with 2,500 years of architectural history: Etruscan caves, ancient remains, medieval dwellings and Renaissance villas.

Originally a center along ancient trade routes, Civita di Bagnoregio was prosperous from Roman times through the late Middle Ages. But after a devastating earthquake in 1695, most residents fled for lower ground, and so began the city’s long decline. By the end of World War II, nearly all of its inhabitants had left in search of work in cities or abroad. For the last half century, its population has hovered around 10 or so full-time residents.

Because the erosion of the hill is so severe (houses have been tumbling off its sides since the 1700s), Civita di Bagnoregio will eventually be reclaimed by the landscape. Residents and visitors alike must park at the base and ascend a steep footbridge to enter through a huge Gothic archway. Past the backless facade of a Renaissance house, with several of its windows open to the sky like a stage set, lies a small, dusty piazza with a church, a fine seventh-century medieval tower, a small bar and not much else. There is no pharmacy or school, no hospital, none of the necessities that somehow serve to make a place a place. There are only a couple of inns, and a few restaurants. Civita is real without being actual, if that makes any sense.

FOR ALL THE ANCIENT Italian hill towns and villages that delight the traveler — the San Gimignanos, Montepulcianos and Fiesoles — there are scores of others (many equally or more beautiful) where few venture and in which very few reside today. According to a 2016 Italian environmental association report, there are nearly 2,500 rural Italian villages that are perilously depopulated, some semi-abandoned and others virtual ghost towns. A primary narrative of Italy in the 20th century has been what followed the collision of poverty, urbanization, mass emigration and natural disaster, a confluence of events that has devastated many towns that had otherwise managed to thrive, or at least get by, for centuries. These towns, most of which are in the historically impoverished south, had already lost tens of millions of inhabitants in the great waves of migration from the late 19th century to the mid 1970s; in the last 25 years, they lost another 15 percent. Now, houses and schools sit empty and fields fallow; shops are unattended.

These rural places were once intricately tied to the countryside around them, their inhabitants working as farmers and merchants, craftsmen and shepherds. But when these towns die, it’s not just the population that suffers: so too do the unique traditions and skills associated with each place, as well as the landscape that supported them. This phenomenon is, of course, not unique to Italy: Small towns across the developed world, including in the United States, are left behind as technologies and economies change, rendering the industries and the know-how that once sustained them obsolete, forcing their populations to relocate to urban centers. What is particular to Italy, however, is the exquisite architectural character of its hill towns, as well as the quality of the handiwork and traditions that were born, cultivated and perfected here. These towns and their craftsmanship are what we think of when we think of Italy — as fundamental to the country’s identity as its important cities and grand artistic legacies. It isn’t far-fetched to say that what’s at risk of being lost with their obsolescence is nothing less than Italy’s rural soul.

But though these towns may represent the essence of Italian history and the country’s artisanal tradition, the government has done little to help preserve them, aside from declaring 2017 ‘‘The Year of the Villages’’ in hopes of boosting tourism. It has therefore fallen to locals — citizens and mayors — to try to change their fates, often through inventive, sometimes ingenious, methods that mingle humor with a deep sorrow and desperation. One picturesque medieval hamlet in Tuscany, Pratariccia, sold itself on eBay for $3.1 million several years ago. Another, Calsazio, tried to follow, offering itself for only $333,000, listing the item’s condition as ‘‘used.’’ In Calabria, the mayor of Sellia (population 530) signed a decree banning death and illness in his town, and recently opened an adventure park with a giant zip line he thought would lure visitors. Most recently, the mayor of Bormida in Liguria floated a provisional offer on his Facebook page: $2,100 to anyone who moved there in order to keep it populated. (There was so much interest that he had to delete the post.)

And then there are towns like Civita di Bagnoregio. Like so many of the others, it has been preserved by the very forces that doomed it: poverty and abandonment. Unlike the others, however, Civita was saved by having been ‘‘discovered’’ by fashionable Romans (including Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele) and expats over the last 20 or so years, who have made summer houses or weekend places of its exceptionally fine, deserted buildings, drawn by the romance of Civita’s remarkable situation — and its proximity to Rome. The restoration of the entire town is eerily pristine; there’s nary a yellowing leaf on the potted geraniums and colorful hydrangeas that grace the exterior of every perfectly renovated house.

These days, Civita has become a tourist destination for day trippers, who arrive by the busload and pay a small fee to enter. Sometimes up to 5,000 people a day wander the town, which at its seasonal height sleeps only about 100. The effect of all these people — selfie sticks moving through the air like antennae — gives the place the unfortunate air of a Disney set: a hyper-clean, historically accurate medieval town as realized on a Universal Studios back lot. There is nothing to mar the scene — no pizzerias or Starbucks or even cars. And just as one starts to wonder what kind of town is one in which there are no children or families, no banks or offices, dusk starts to fall, and the tourists and the white heat of the day retreat. Things go quiet, the light glows pink and the ‘‘locals,’’ many from Rome and the U.S., start to appear — there are drinks on terraces and quiet dinners in the side streets, conversations in private gardens among neighbors and friends who know one another, and who all love and care for this enchanted, imperiled piece of history.

Some of Italy’s virtually abandoned villages are right outside of major cities.

T magazine

BUT THE FARTHER ONE gets from major cities like Florence or Rome, the more difficult it is to attract weekend tourists. Deep in Sicily, off a terrible road whose signs resignedly warn of potholes, lies the isolated town of Sutera, built around the base of a steep mountain. In 2013, at the behest of its mayor, the town opened its doors — and its empty houses — to survivors of the catastrophic Lampedusa shipwreck, which killed more than 360 refugees. Sutera’s population had dwindled from 5,000 in 1970 to just 1,500, and the mayor recognized the humanitarian and economic opportunity the migrants could provide for his moribund town. To help the refugees, most of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa, integrate into the community, they are paired with local families, and required to take Italian lessons, given to them by the town’s citizens. (The European Union provides funding for food, clothing and housing, which can spur the creation of jobs for both migrants and locals.) Initially, there was some resistance, but that has disappeared with the energy these newcomers have brought to the area. Today, one can find young Nigerians taking their morning espresso alongside the old men, and local children kicking soccer balls in the street with their new playmates. And each summer the town hosts a daylong festival featuring the traditional food, music and dance of the immigrants.

One of the first towns to invite migrants into its walls was Riace, in Calabria, whose mayor, Domenico Lucano, was named one of Fortune’s ‘‘World’s 50 Greatest Leaders’’ last year. By 1998, when it took in a group of Kurdish refugees, Riace’s population had fallen to around 800 from 2,500 after World War II. Today, its population is 1,500, with migrants from over 20 countries. Some of these are apprenticing artisans, learning old skills like embroidery, glass mosaic and pottery that were themselves dying out, and so helping keep Italian culture alive. Lucano told the BBC, ‘‘The multiculturalism, the variety of skills and personal stories which people have brought to Riace, have revolutionized what was becoming a ghost town.’’ Other towns have taken Riace’s lead, too: an act of humanity that has become an act of self-preservation as well.

UNLIKE URBAN CENTERS, hill towns were built to be connected to the countryside, which provided each its particular raison d’être, from its subsistence to its commerce. Even physically, the towns appear like natural outcroppings, terraced along the sides of hills, as if sprouting from the earth beneath them.

In the region of Abruzzo, surrounded by the high peaks of the Apennines, the stunning fortified medieval hilltop village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio sits atop a ridge overlooking a dramatic and lush plateau. Once a bustling center of agriculture and wool production, it began to shrink when the Italian wool industry went into decline, crippled by competition from abroad. By the 1990s, the town had only about 100 full-time residents. Santo Stefano is just two hours from Rome and is surrounded by countryside that resembles the Austrian hills of ‘‘The Sound of Music’’: expansive fields of wildflowers backed by majestic snowcapped mountains. It is a sublime place for hiking or bicycling in summer and skiing or snowshoeing in winter. And yet, Abruzzo, long considered poor and backward, has never been particularly beloved by Italians, and consequently, not much considered or well known.

The ancient hill town came as a shock, a revelation really, to Daniele Kihlgren, the renegade scion of an Italian concrete fortune, when he came upon it while on a motorcycle ride in the late 1990s. Although semi-abandoned, its medieval character and architecture were completely intact — unruined, ironically, by concrete, the material Kihlgren is the first to acknowledge has disgraced so much of Italy. How, he wondered, might places of such distinct and exquisite beauty be revitalized without wrecking their historic identity? And how might their local traditions, from food to domestic handicrafts, be organically preserved? ‘‘We can’t compete with China in mass production, and we can’t compete in technology,’’ Kihlgren says, ‘‘but we have what no one else in the world has,’’ which is the beauty of these villages and the cultural history of its people, the stuff he calls Italy’s minor patrimony. ‘‘And if we don’t ruin it, it can be what saves southern Italy.’’

Kihlgren began buying up many of the empty buildings, perhaps a quarter of the town, and proceeded to create one of the most novel forms of hospitality anywhere, an albergo diffuso (scattered hotel) called Sextantio. The ‘‘rooms’’ of the hotel are in ancient buildings all over town, and are served by one central reception area, allowing guests to be immersed in the community. Just as important, it is invisible, respecting the historic shape of the town and its architectural integrity. Kihlgren also recognized Santo Stefano as part of a delicate ecosystem, in which the town, the people, its cultural production and the countryside are inextricable from one another; as one falters or languishes, so too do the others. He realized that if he wanted traditional Abruzzo loom-woven wool blankets for his 60 beds, that meant he needed artisans to weave them, which required yarn to be spun, which implied sheep, who need shepherds, and farmland, and farmers. So it proceeds from the building materials used, to the construction techniques employed, to the ingredients and recipes served in the hotel’s restaurant down to the ceramic dishes they’re served on. This cycle, which connects land to people, is what keeps Santo Stefano from becoming a chic version of Colonial Williamsburg.

It is also what has helped revive it. Thanks largely to Sextantio, there are now new jobs, thousands of tourists annually, nearly two dozen new bed-and-breakfasts and several restaurants, galleries and shops. But Kihlgren has sunk his fortune into this project — as well as into other villages that he has bought, either outright or partially, with the intention of resurrecting them using the same model. While his is primarily a cultural project, he is keenly aware that unless it can make money and be replicated, it is just a folly in his grand quest to resuscitate southern Italy. And indeed, there have been many difficulties and setbacks — from his own high standards to the devastating earthquake that rocked the region in 2009. This past July marked the first month since the project’s inception in which he made a profit.

Still, Kihlgren remains optimistic — and how can anyone who loves Italy not root for his success? ‘‘If I, someone with no business skills at all, can make this work,’’ he says, ‘‘then there is hope — hope that the values contained in these small historical places can be the engine to revitalize them.’’

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