I was 16 years old when I moved to my current house on the hill in Marsicovetere, Italy. I remember that the first thing I did, after throwing my stuff on the bed, was to put on a pair of comfortable shoes to reach the tiny, abandoned stone house I could see from my terrace. I ran along a footpath by the wooded coast directly to the entrance of what I later learnt was, in the late 1960s, the humble house of a family of farmers. I imagined some children looking out from the turquoise window, spying on their parents working the land, checking if they had enough time to plan a bit of mischief. That ordinary abandoned house became a powerful spark that made my imagination and curiosity wonder and flourish.
When I was a kid, one of my favourite days of the year was Good Friday, when the entire village would walk the Way of The Cross. Through the narrow streets of the old town, we would march to reach the abandoned monastery at the base of the mountain which, once a year, became the designated spot for the representation of the last stations of the Passion of Christ. For me, the folklore of this unique day was better represented by the image of the abandoned monastery; a ruined place, inaccessible for 364 days of the year, that for just one day could be reborn as an agora (meeting place) for all the peasants.
I have always been fascinated by abandoned places and by the special mystery of worlds that could have been but, for adverse reasons, stopped accomplishing the purpose for which they were built – I bet that each one of you reading this piece has at least one memory that took place in an abandoned site. Maybe it is because we like the idea of finding ourselves in a situation of danger (perhaps we even dare to imagine being witnesses of nefarious night-time crimes). Maybe it is because everyone has felt abandoned at least once in their lives; so it’s like we can claim to be the temporary owners of places that have seen a multitude of lonely explorers stepping inside and thinking they are the first to have discovered such a mysterious spot all for themselves.
While working on the classification of the photographic collection of The Courtauld’s Conway Library on Zooniverse, a series of pictures of St. Hilarion Castle in Cyprus caught my attention. Before I could even realise, I started to imagine what it must have been like when the castle was at the height of its use as a defensive fortification during the Byzantine Era.
The first picture below shows the ruins of the cistern of the castle. What was once one of the most vital places of the site – since a high storage of drinkable water can play a significant role for an island with drought problems like Cyprus – is now a cistern of abandoned memories that cannot be re-discovered anymore. I thought about the splendour of Byzantine chapels, with their iconic coloured cupolas, and I felt a sense of nostalgia and melancholia when I saw the second picture, which shows the remains of a once-glorious chapel. St. Hilarion Castle appears to be perched up high, and its rock walls defend a past made of secular traditions that cannot be replicated. It is as if the stone walls of the third picture were hiding a mythological creature who is asleep and waiting to live again.
Of course, this is only my perception but what I really want to stress is that heritage sites like St. Hilarion Castle are fundamental for our cultural consciousness. They stimulate our curiosity towards the past, but they stimulate also new visions of the future pushing us to think about how we can avoid the same mistakes that led these beautiful sites to perish, and how can we start again.
What intrigued me the most about the images of St. Hilarion Castle was their resemblance to the memories I had of a once abandoned Italian village called Craco, nowadays a popular touristic destination.
In 1963 a landslide forced the inhabitants of this little stone village of the Basilicata region, situated at the top of a hill surrounded by gullies, to move to a newer town named Craco Peschiera. They had to leave their homes abruptly, abandoning Craco and turning it into a “ghost town”. As the years went by, nature gradually took over, creating an evocative environment where time seems to have stopped. This atypical setting re-entered the centre of the conversation when it was chosen as the location of important international film productions such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion (2004). Suddenly, institutions started to realize the unlimited potential of abandoned heritage sites like Craco. They represent a past that for many years we tried to forget, because they could not fit in the narrative of the fast world, of industrialized and smart cities. Places like Craco, or even the nearby Matera that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been “shameful” for many Governments who saw in them the failure of their vision of progress. They were cut off from the public conversation, existing only in the bitter memories of the people who once lived there.
However, in 2020 we witness how quickly cities stopped being the safest and most desirable place to be. The high density of social contacts in urban areas meant a higher density of Covid-19 cases, and, as a result, large numbers of people decided to move, permanently or temporarily, to the countryside, putting the spotlight on those places that never had the chance to “shine”, and for which conservation and preservation are now of primary importance for the social and cultural wellbeing of the rural inhabitants.
Maybe, my fascination with abandoned sites lies in the idea of rebirth and second chances. A place with no present can have many possible futures. Craco has had its rebirth in 2011; from that year onwards it has been possible to visit the main street of the village with a guided tour that touches on the ancient palaces and convent as well as the ruins of the once inhabited houses. Wearing a protective helmet, you can take a trip through time, travelling back to the 1960s and experiencing a different side of the Italian dolce vita.
I visited the beautiful yet mysterious Craco last summer. I am used to the slow life of the Italian southern villages, however, I was not expecting to feel such a realistic impression of being stuck in an ancient medieval village, where the only signs of modernity were the “explorers” taking pictures (as you can see from the pictures below, taken during my visit to the heritage site in 2020). I was even more surprised to see many international tourists, which is (unfortunately) quite uncommon for heritage sites in my region.
Craco can represent a succesful model, exportable everywhere, of sustainable fruition of an heritage site where human intervention is resepctful of the place’s history and natural environement, while representing an invaluable asset for the local cultural and economic development. It’s abandonment, and its resulting mysterious atmosphere, may therefore save it.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer