Why you should care
Because more of this could help heal Italy’s ailing economy.
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For hundreds of years — for twice as long as Manhattan has even existed — this place flourished as a bustling center for fabric-dying and wool-making artisans. But, oh, the earthquakes. Hilly and picturesque, the Italian village of Castello di Postignano shook and shook, leaving buildings crumbling and locals fleeing. By 1967, it was a ghost town.
But you wouldn’t know it now. These days, if you lumbered in with your fanny pack and brand-new Frommer’s — no doubt looking for a) a nice cathedral, and b) the nearest McDonald’s — you’d find a fully renovated town complete with lookout tower, surrounded by a cluster of pastel-colored houses. Just like the ninth century, before all the seismic party-pooping. “What better life project could there be for any architect than to be given the chance to reshape an entire hamlet how he pleases?” says Gennaro Matacena, half of an architectural duo from Naples who, bewitched by this ghost town’s beauty, spent nearly a decade obtaining permits and doing construction.
In Italy, resurrection is a real thing. But it’s not happening at the Vatican: This is a new boom in real estate. Italy has nearly 20,000 of these ghost towns, or so-called “sleeping beauties,” just waiting for their prince or princess. They stand — some, not so much — as a potential touristic resource that could help boost employment and revamp this country’s ailing economy. Indeed, a recent report found that culture and art could bring in an additional 214 billion euros, or nearly $234 billion, a year if better exploited in Italy. “Culture … must be the fuel of our economy,” says Ermete Realacci, president of Symbola Foundation, a group that advocates economic development.
Village homes once used for pressing grapes or harvesting truffles are now fully furnished and include Wi-Fi and satellite TV.
Trouble is, in these austere times there’s a lack of public funds aimed at keeping up artistic gems like deserted sites, so private investors are often the only ones safeguarding collapsing monuments. Not that those folks are exactly a dime a dozen. Daniele Kihlgren, one of the pioneers of the movement to keep alive lost worlds, is an Italian-Swedish businessman who’s made it a mission to rescue forgotten hamlets set in Italy’s deep south. For centuries these towns have represented “a minor, secondary heritage that has been neglected and fallen into oblivion,” he says. “They’re not part of the grandeur of cities such as Rome and Florence, but of a peripheral world made of farmers and shepherds that has slowly gone extinct.”
So far, Kihlgren’s turned two villages into luxury resorts — one is Matera in Basilicata, which acted as a set for Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ; the other is Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the rugged hills of Abruzzi. The transformation has led to jobs for locals, who’ve so far opened two restaurants and an artisan’s boutique, and the value of the restyled buildings has roughly tripled, Kihlgren says.
But while it’s rare enough for hamlets to receive a face-lift here or there, they hardly ever get made over on the scale of Postignano. When Matacena and his colleague and business partner, Matteo Scaramella, got here in 1994, all they found was a mass of grassy ruins, rusty unhinged doors and dusty walls. The pair of Neapolitans went knocking at the doors of 200 former owners — who had moved to other thriving villages nearby, where life was easier — and ultimately put together 59 apartments. “It was a massive job,” says Matacena, noting it took roughly 19 years to work through all the bureaucracy while restyling and historically preserving the area. Indeed, Postignano has kept much of its original shape, faithfully respecting the structures of buildings, including their walls, columns and arches. Some buildings within these fortified walls still bear the traces of enemy attacks.
At the same time, there’s also plenty that’s changing around here, as former owners who have returned to visit what’s become a resort destination have noticed. In fact, some village homes and buildings once used for pressing grapes, harvesting truffles or housing students or prisoners are now fully furnished and include modern comforts such as Wi-Fi and satellite TV. There’s also an elevator carved into the rock that goes down and up two layers of the village. Meanwhile, parties, concerts and conferences are being organized inside the frescoed Church of SS Annunziata. And there are outdoor panoramic swimming pools, a gourmet restaurant and a wine bar, not to mention a museum, small art galleries and artisan boutiques with ceramics and textiles. Forthcoming? A spa and sports center.
To be sure, there are certain incentives for seemingly do-good investors who turn up to restore beloved hamlets like this one. Some stand to make a healthy return if buyers ultimately show interest in their rehabilitated works; the local real estate office in Postignano is now putting all of the town’s refurbished peasant dwellings on sale, furniture included. What’s more, Italy’s government recently launched the so-called Art Bonus program with U.S.-style tax incentives for businessmen and philanthropists who invest in culture and art.
While a couple of Matacena’s refurbished homes have sold to foreign families, he and other investors say they’re not looking for a quick buck. (Matacena, for one, claims to have spent 40 times the purchase cost for these buildings to fix them up.) Instead, they’re hoping to revive local economies, in part by employing youth who now live in or around these areas. And ultimately, these strategies — if well-implemented — could prevent other hamlets from falling into oblivion. In fact, Samuele Briatore, a researcher with Rome’s Università Europea, says valorizing these areas before they’re completely empty “stands as a precious economic opportunity that can revive towns fated to depopulation, avoiding that they might turn one day into ghost villages.”