• An Excellent View of Oblivion: On Italy’s Vanishing Towns

    Dominic Smith Considers Desertion, Both Physical and Emotional

    In Lazio, two hours north of Rome, I followed signs to “the town that is dying.” I walked across the footbridge to Civita di Bagnoregio, a striking medieval hill town that sits atop a volcanic pedestal in the middle of a valley, much of the town cleaved away over time from successive earthquakes and landslides. The Etruscans built their settlement on this mesa to get away from malaria down in the riverine valley, but they chose a doomed column of porous, volcanic tufa.

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    Ever since a devastating earthquake in 1695, Civita has been in decline, shrinking from about 3,000 inhabitants to a recent full-time population that has drifted between six and ten, depending on the year and the season. As research for a novel set in a dwindling Italian town, I was visiting half a dozen settlements in varying states of abandonment from Abruzzo to the Alps. I’d come to Civita to interview some of its residents and to stay in a medieval house that overlooked the valley.

    As soon as I walked through the Etruscan archway and into the piazza, I knew Civita would become the model for my fictional town of Valetto. There was a centuries-old church with an imposing campanile, a row of ivy-covered stone houses with potted geraniums on their windowsills and stairs, and an impressive colony of meandering or sleeping stray cats.

    There was also a three-story building facade at the edge of the mesa, its rooms erased by some distant seismic event and its window openings looking out onto dead air, the canyons and badlands of the valley hundreds of feet below. On a clean page of my notebook, I wrote “Civita offers an excellent view of oblivion.”

    *

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    For a country of 60 million people that would easily fit within the state of California, Italy punches well above her weight when it comes to vanishing places. There are more than 2,500 towns and villages—about a third of all small settlements—that are considered “perilously depopulated.” The Guardian estimates that more than two million houses are sitting empty across Italy.

    Like the ghost towns of the American West, many of these dwindling places are on the wrong side of history. The promise of jobs and a more prosperous life has been luring Italians away from their ancestral villages to urban areas—both within Italy and abroad—for at least a century. But many of these places are also on the wrong side of geology. Much of the Italian peninsula is seismically active and major earthquakes have caused the abandonment of dozens of towns and villages. Almost two hundred years after the earthquake that devastated Civita di Bagnoregio, another big one hit in Liguria, causing the residents of two vibrant towns—Balestrino and Bussana Vecchia—to eventually abandon their homes.

    *

    I traveled to Italy not only to understand abandonment as a social and historical force but also to understand the people who stay behind in places that have been “cast aside.” The day before I arrived in Civita di Bagnoregio, one of the locals had fallen off the side of the unstable mesa while pruning his garden and had to be airlifted to a nearby hospital.

    What makes a person so loyal to the ground beneath his feet that leaving ceases to be an option? For 25 years, Giuseppe Spagnuolo has been the sole inhabitant of Roscigno Vecchia, a hamlet located 1,300 feet up a mountain in Campania. There were just five people living in the alpine town of Ostana, in Piedmont, until 2016, when a miracle happened: the town’s first birth in 28 years. Today, there are about 80 people who’ve returned to the town or newly settled there.

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    *

    The word abandon carries with it a sense of weight and history. It can mean to leave without intending to return, to give up control or influence, to withdraw in the face of danger (abandon ship), to withdraw protection, support or help, or to give oneself over unrestrainedly. It can also mean to cease maintaining a practice, like abandoning a native language. The word came into English usage some time in the fourteenth century from the Old French abandoner, which originally implied “to bring under control,” and later “to surrender to.” The sense of abandon as desertion—to forsake someone or something—entered English in the early 1800s. And it’s this newer usage that is now the most prevalent. It puts the emphasis on who or what was left behind and the cruel indifference of the leaving.

    I’d also traveled to Italy, it seems to me now, to understand the idea of being forsaken and the weight of emotional abandonment. The narrator of my novel, a social historian on a similar mission, has returned to the vanishing town in Umbria where he spent his childhood summers and where his elderly grandmother and aunts still live. As I tried to understand my narrator’s motivations and emotions, I found myself reflecting on my own life, both as one who’s been left behind and as one who’s done the leaving. Emotional desertion, like its physical counterpart, often divides people’s lives into two—there is the beforetime and the aftermath. And every once in a while, as with the alpine town of Ostana, there is also a return.

    *

    Our abandonment began in 1980, the year I turned nine. I say “our” because it happened as much to my mother, who technically did the leaving, as it did to her children. Although she’d left my father and their unhappy marriage in 1978, that was not her real vanishing act. After she moved to Sydney from the Blue Mountains, she got a job as a secretary and rented the top-story of a converted house in Manly, big enough for all four of her children.

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    In those early days of our new life together, I remember her as exuberant and hopeful. She got a perm with blonde highlights, lit candles at night, and played the vinyl anthems of her newfound freedom—Neil Diamond, ELO, Carol King, and Barbara Streisand. Some nights, after she came home exhausted from work, we helped her make pizzas with Lebanese flatbread, spaghetti sauce, and grated cheese, and we spread a blanket on the living room floor to have a picnic. She was 37 that year and dating for the first time since the early 1960s. There was Jack, who wore tank tops and drove a sports car, Michael who entered rooms on a cloud of Aramis aftershave, and Byron, who sported a Van Dyke beard and nautical, cable-knit sweaters.

    The upswing of this new life flattened out one August morning. My mother complained of a migraine but nonetheless took the ferry into the city for work, where she collapsed some hours later in a corporate high-rise bathroom. A female colleague found her unconscious on the bathroom floor and my mother was rushed to the hospital for emergency brain surgery. She’d had a stroke, the result of a kinked blood vessel in her brain that had been waiting to breach its banks for decades. After weeks in intensive care, and another month in the hospital, she was moved to a residential rehab center, where she spent months trying to recover her short-term memory and pull on the thread of her previous life.

    As a novelist, I have a heightened fear of sentimentality and melodrama. I would never, for example, write about a mother of four, not yet settled into middle age, who suffers a stroke only to discover that her rental house has burned to the ground while she’s in recovery. What little remains of her material claim on the world is destroyed, including most of the family photos and all of her clothing, jewelry, furniture, and kitchenware.

    In fiction, a narrative choice like “fire-after-stroke” makes the reader suspicious that their sympathies are being overburdened. Even in real life, where all this unfolded, I’ve routinely withheld the fire when I tell someone about the stroke for fear that it tips the conversation into maudlin territory. And I certainly don’t tell them that the fire started in the apartment directly below my bedroom, in a room where paint was being stored by the downstairs tenant, and that if I hadn’t been troubled by a bad dream and gotten into bed with my father, who had come to live with us, even though he frowned upon such things, that I might not have been alive to tell the story in the first place. In art, we edit the narrative details to maintain credibility. In life, the universe never doubts its own veracity.

    By the time my mother returned to live in the new house that my father had rented for us after the fire—less than six months after her stroke—there was no sign of the original Frances Smith. Not only because she’d gained a lot of weight and now took lithium for depression, but also because she couldn’t remember how to navigate the simplest of tasks. Most days, she sat in the living room with the blinds drawn watching television from morning until night. If she ventured out at all in those early months, she had to write her name, address, and phone number on a piece of paper and pin it to her clothes.

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    We all lived on the tide of her inertia and the house quickly fell to ruin, the dishes piling in the sink and the garage full of garbage bags of smoke-laced items rescued from the fire. My three sisters and I all shared a silent pact that no one could be invited into the house on Brighton Street, a perfectly ordinary red brick house in a middle-class Sydney suburb. If we’d been abandoned, then it was surely in the fourteenth-century sense of the word—we’d been brought under the control of something infinitely more powerful than we were. But as a ten-year-old in 1981, despite all reason, I couldn’t help feeling that my mother had just walked out on us and left us in the custody of a vacant-eyed, feckless stranger.

    *

    We think abandonment is about walking away and never looking back, but in Italy there are many places that are abandoned in plain sight. Instead of remote valleys or mountains, these towns and villages are often visible through the windows of the people who’ve left. When Tocco Caudio, a village in the province of Benevento, was abandoned after a series of earthquakes in the 1980s, the townspeople resettled at a slightly higher elevation, just a few hundred meters away, in a town called Friuni.

    And the now-empty town of Balestrino, about 40 miles from Genoa, sits behind a chain-link fence, effectively condemned, presiding over the newer settlement of Balestrino further down the mountain. After the big earthquake of 1887, a run of landslides made the original town untenable and eventually, in 1953, the 400 people who remained were evacuated to the new town to start over. On the day I visited both Balestrinos, an elderly woman from the new town was walking her fox terrier up by the old town, doing a sort of perimeter check on what had been left behind.

    From my online travels, I knew that trespassing tourists had photographed the empty buildings, where newspapers from the 1950s and the occasional piece of furniture still lingered. When I asked her in my faltering Italian if she was from the original town, she looked through the chain link fence and said, “Certo, sono nato lì dentro. È da dove vengo.” Of course, I was born in there. It’s where I’m from.

    *

    Although Italians are historically prodigious at settling new places, they are also excellent at honoring where and who they’re descended from. On il giorno dei Morti, Italy’s All Souls Day, you can see throngs of families in cemeteries in every corner of the isthmus holding white and gold chrysanthemums and paying their respects to their ancestors. They speak reverently to framed pictures of the departed and many families set an empty place at the table. They buy roasted chestnuts from street vendors and stroll in remembrance of former times.

    Some people return to abandoned towns and villages to commune with their family history. Italians, it seems to me, rarely leave things fully behind. There are places in Rome where it’s possible to see the ruins and relics of three successive eras—Etruscan, Roman, Fascist—from a single street corner. Nothing could be less Italian than the suggestion to “walk away and don’t look back.” In fact, looking back seems to be more than half the point of leaving in the first place.

    *

    We are all, of course, surrounded by people who feel abandoned in plain sight. In the same way we mythologize that abandoned places are sitting in the shadows of some impenetrable valley, we tend to think of the lonely and the deserted as sitting perpetually in darkened rooms or nursing homes, when, in fact, some of them are our neighbors or colleagues.

    When I think of the house on Brighton Street, where we all lived in the aura of my mother’s debilitating stroke, I wonder how it’s possible that we didn’t have any meaningful social support. No one dropped in to see how we were doing. Surely there should have been social workers, old friends and acquaintances of my mother’s, follow-ups from the rehab center, or even my father sounding the alarm to the wider world. But somehow we kept the vigil of our secret life.

    When my father finally entered the house after a year of picking us up at the front door for weekend outings, he was horrified by what he saw. There was a blitzkrieg of cleaning under his stern direction and the memory of carrying out trash bags full of rotting food and dishware beyond redemption still fills me with shame. Not because I blame us for the squalor, but because it was the moment that our humiliation had finally been brought under the world’s scrutiny.

    *

    If you ask my adult sisters, they wouldn’t say that I abandoned them when I went to live with my father and stepmother in 1982, the year I turned 11. But abandonment is often more of a feeling than a brute condition and I’ve always felt, quite viscerally, that I walked out on them. After the revelation of how we’d been living with my mother, my father and stepmother decided that they could take one of us in, but not all four.

    As the youngest, I was offered the spare bedroom in their small house near Bondi Beach. Why they chose to only put one of us into the lifeboat is a subject for speculation, therapy, or a different essay, but that decision—their offer and my acceptance—changed all of our lives. If my mother’s stroke was the earthquake that triggered the initial abandonment, then my leaving was the landslide that finished the job.

    While my sisters were largely left to navigate their teenage years on their own, I began a new life in a suburb of Sydney where I knew no one. I joined the local surf lifesaving club, took up karate, joined the debate club, and became a straight-A student. That first year, I was horribly lonely and took multiple buses, trains, and a ferry to spend weekends with my mother, perhaps paying the penance of the one who walks away.

    We watched television together but there was no music in the house anymore. Somehow, Barbara Streisand and Carol King belonged to a vanished era when my mother had a perm and a working short-term memory. The default for our conversations was always her saying, “Stop me if I’ve told you this already…” But I seldom stopped her. That seemed like a very small price to pay.

    After my sisters left home and the child support from my father ran out, my mother became increasingly erratic. While her finances dwindled and she struggled to pay the rent, she reserved airline tickets for a trip to Hawaii, or talked about leasing a commercial photocopier to run a desktop publishing business out of the apartment. When she was finally and inevitably served an eviction notice, I took a day off from high school to take her to the hearing.

    In the taxi on the way to the courthouse, she told me that she thought she was having a heart attack. So we directed the taxi driver to the ER, where my mother emptied out the contents of her handbag on the seat next to her—yarn, a toilet paper roll, paper sugar packets, chewing gum, a wad of tattered envelopes with official-looking letterheads inside—before putting it all back carefully, announcing that she felt fine, and standing up to leave. I remember that as I followed her outside, I had that sense that nothing in the world could be relied upon. Within a few months, she would find herself homeless, occasionally sleeping on couches of people we didn’t know, while my sisters and I scrambled to find a way to help.

    *

    I want to say that every abandoned place and person dreams of a comeback. But that’s the sort of aphorism that blurs the edges of the actual thing in the world. The reality, of course, is more nuanced. Some places and people are so accustomed to having been left behind that they can’t summon the will to imagine anything else. In Italy, though, I’ve been struck not only by the sheer variety of comeback schemes for vanishing places, but also by the handful who’ve managed to reverse their bleak trajectory.

    Up near the border between Switzerland and Italy, tucked into a steep valley, the town of Viganella has seen a steady decline of residents over the decades, in part because it doesn’t see the sun between November 11 and February 2 each year. To combat the seasonal exodus, the mayor commissioned a local architect to build and install an enormous mirror on one of the peaks above the town. For more than fifteen years, the mirror has reflected six hours of available winter sunlight down into the town square, guided by a software program that helps it follow the sun’s path, giving the residents a welcome reprieve from the darkness.

    In Laviano, high in the Apennine hills southeast of Naples, the population thinned so much that the mayor began offering couples 10,000 Euros to have a child and stay in the town. During the pandemic, the medieval village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in Abruzzo, began offering people grants to move there and work—up to 8,000 Euros a year for three years, and more if they started a business.

    The Swedish-Italian millionaire Daniele Kihlgren, who stumbled upon the town on a solo motorcycle tour and then proceeded to buy up its houses, brought the town back from the brink of abandonment. He opened an albergo diffuso, an upscale hotel where you stay in a restored medieval house instead of a traditional hotel room. On the October night I stayed at the hotel, there were just a small handful of other guests. I slept in a medieval house and ate in a cellar restaurant that served locally sourced food on earthenware dishes. If “medieval luxe” is a design aesthetic, then Santo Stefano has it in spades.

    But perhaps my favorite comeback story is Bussana Vecchia in Liguria. In the early 1960s, more than half a century after it was abandoned in the aftermath of the 1887 earthquake, Bussana was reclaimed by an international community of artists and hippies. Initially, the newly arrived residents were viewed as squatters by the local municipality and they had no access to electricity, running water, or sanitation. But over time, they’ve managed to achieve official recognition from the local government. Today, you can walk through a thriving artistic oasis among the ruins of the original town. There’s a café run by a Dutch sculptor, a bookshop, art galleries, a leatherwork studio and, improbably, a jazz and blues club dug into an ancient stone cellar.

    *

    When I think of our own comeback, it reminds me a lot of Tocco Caudio or Balestrino, where the people fled to settle on more stable ground, but within plain sight of the old ruins. My sisters and I all went on to build lives and families of our own. Collectively, if you include our children, there is a novelist, a member of parliament, a Rhodes Scholar, two lawyers, six university graduates, and a Doctor of Philosophy. There is also a history of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and long-standing hurts and silences.

    The only time the four of us siblings have been together in the same room in the last few decades was in the hospital where my father was dying of cancer in 2017. As for my mother, she is somehow still alive, though in a steady decline in a nursing home. In truth, she never really came back from the stroke. It’s one of the great losses of my life. We managed to keep her housed and get her on public assistance, but she only became more erratic over time and often fell in with schemers looking for easy prey.

    Over the years, my sisters and I have talked about the houses and apartments where our lives took a turn or where we felt abandoned by the wider world. One day, about five years ago, my oldest sister and I decided to take a driving tour of the old rentals, to see what sort of power they still held over us. We drove across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, into the suburb of Manly, and onto Kangaroo Street, the last known address of the real Frances Smith, the apartment consumed by fire while she was in hospital.

    We drove into the suburb of Balgowlah, along Brighton Street, looking for number 5, where we’d lived after my mother’s stroke and where neither of us had been in close to 40 years. There was no trace of either house. In their place were chic, multi-story, modern apartments. We were incredulous but also relieved. We’d spent so many years looking back at these ghost houses that it had somehow never occurred to us that they might have already vanished.

    ____________________________

    Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith is available now via Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    Dominic Smith
    Dominic Smith
    Dominic Smith is the author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a New York Times bestseller and a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice. His new novel, Return to Valetto, is out now. More details at www.dominicsmith.net.





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