Medieval Towns Pray for a Renaissance
Facing Extinction Because of Migration, Italian Villages Seek Salvation Through Preservation
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 12, 2004; Page A10
SANTO STEFANO DI SESSANIO, Italy -- At his office in what was once a schoolhouse in a town that 60 years ago sheltered 1,700 residents but now is down to 124, Mayor Antonio D'Aloisio offered a visitor a brown cookie he said was made the way it was a thousand years ago, in an old oven from unrefined, local flour.
In the mayor's view, the tough cookie of the past symbolizes the future for Santo Stefano di Sessanio. "We want to revive our village by renewing our history. Santo Stefano's wealth lies in its medieval history and we are going to preserve it," he said.
Santo Stefano, a two-hour drive northeast from Rome in the rugged Appennine Mountains, is one of about 2,800 ancient Italian hamlets, from the far north all the way south to Sicily, at risk of extinction. Marginal farmland, distance from cities, lack of jobs and the difficulties of maintaining cramped antique housing have driven off tens of thousands of inhabitants over the past century.
The remaining population is mainly old and retired. Santo Stefano's school has been closed for a decade. The five students living in the hamlet commute down a winding road to a school in another town. There is no post office or health clinic, and the streets are almost empty. The flocks of sheep whose wool was highly valued by Florentine manufacturers have disappeared from the grassy mountainsides.
Over the past decade, preservation groups have sounded the alarm, contending that such places must be saved as an irreplaceable link to Italy's rural and artistic past. Last spring, a civic organization representing hamlets across Italy proposed a law that would offer tax incentives to people who move to endangered villages and that would provide financing for local governments to restore decaying buildings, streets and waterworks.
But whether rich Italy can revive the hamlets that poor Italy fled is open to question. Small, out-of-the-way towns are not the only ones clamoring for restoration and development funds. So are many large Italian cities.
Venice has embarked on a multibillion-dollar program to build a system of mechanical dikes to regulate the flow of water in and out of its lagoon and reduce winter flooding. Rome is working to renew the facades of palaces and scrub soot from the walls of ancient ruins. Naples is building a subway system to alleviate traffic on its notoriously jammed streets, yet funds are lacking to build incinerators for the garbage that piles up in makeshift dumps all around the city.
"We have a problem that we have to compete with places that have more political clout than we do. On the other hand, the danger that we might disappear is greater, so we hope this is taken into account," said D'Aloisio, a retired industrial mechanic.
Private enterprise has invested in some beauty spots, although such development often means turning a remote hamlet into summer condominiums or a tourist destination for foreigners, providing only seasonal life.
A handful of European buyers have purchased vacation property in Santo Stefano, and D'Aloisio is hoping that the town also will attract permanent residents.
But what can Santo Stefano provide that is different from what scores of other ancient towns are already offering? That's where the medieval cookies come in. They were baked by a former resident who lives on Italy's west coast. Town officials are scouring central Italy for people like her who practice rustic tasks: baking, carpentry, wool spinning and dying, and the cultivation of lentils, once a mainstay of Santo Stefano. They want to persuade them to return for good. (The cookie baker has not).
Town hall also wants the village to remain true to Italy's past. It is prohibiting new construction around Santo Stefano. Electric lines are to be put underground. "When visitors come to Santo Stefano, they will see an authentic example of the past -- without, of course, the inconveniences of the past," D'Aloisio said.
The village's history follows a pattern common to many rural areas in Italy. It was a feudal redoubt with land owned by aristocrats and populated by ragged tenant peasants. The wealthy Medici family took over Santo Stefano in the mid-1500s to provide wool for its Florentine mills. "The Medicis were a kind of Italian multinational," D'Aloisio remarked.
Nineteenth-century warfare upended feudalism. The beginnings of industrialization attracted peasants to cities. Others moved abroad. Two world wars triggered new exoduses, and the so-called economic miracle of the 1960s and '70s did not reach here.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company