The tiny village of Civita di Bagnoregio, in Lazio, sits precariously on a rocky mound in the Calanchi Valley, marooned except for a narrow bridge. It is celebrated as one of the most beautiful ‘borghi’ (villages) in Italy, and it really does have no equal. Unfortunately, however, this fairytale image is crumbling beneath the surface. It is now known here as the dying city, dubbed so by Bonaventura Tecchi, an Italian author who was born in the fabled town. Currently officials and interested parties are absorbed in a world-wide plea to ‘save’ the village, but there’s a potential to cause more harm than good.
I arrived in Bagnoregio, the neighbouring town, at about six in the evening, as the sun was beginning to set. Leaving the car in town, I walked to the beginning of the Calanchi Valley, from where you can admire a panoramic vista of Civita rising out of the white surrounding canyons. The valley was in murky shadow, but the disappearing sun bathed the rising rock of Civita and the delicately perched village in a golden wash. To reach the footbridge I descended a little way into the valley below, obscuring Civita for a moment until I reached the beginning of the bridge, where the rock rose majestically before me.
The bridge is the first sign that all is not perfect in paradise. The cement structure was constructed in 1965, after geological damage by earthquakes. Luckily, however, rather than marring the view before you, the rising bridge simply adds to the drama. This bridge allows access to predestrians, cyclists and motobikes, and as I began up the rather steep slope a local (one of the very few as I would discover) roared past on a motorbike beeping hello to the ticket collectors. Slightly out of breath, I reached the village some ten minutes later. More ascending cobbled streets greeted me, and a ginger cat was curled up on the wall soaking up the evening sun. I passed beneath the shadow of skewed archways and quaint low stone buildings decorated with flowers. It was the perfect hour to enjoy an aperitivo in the warm still air and I found a tiny bar beneath an arch where I sat outside with a glass of chilled wine. I dislike broadcasting that I’m a tourist by having my head stuck in a guidebook, so I also used this as an opportunity to learn about Civita from the bar owner.
It was a sad tale. The first thing he pointed out to me was the surprising number of cats lurking around corners and stretched out on the cobbles. Apparently there are twelve resident cats, but only eight human residents. An amusing fact, but also demonstrative of the problems of the village. There are certainly more than eight houses here, but the majority are used as holiday properties and therefore stand empty for large periods of the year. Not particularly conducive to a good community.
And the reason behind the lack of population is not just sad, its chilling. Civita may have survived Etruscans, Romans, Lombards and Nazis, but nature itself has been betraying it since the 16th century. Earthquakes and landslides have been having a devastating effect on the foundational rock of the village. Being made from clay, it is particularly prone to erosion. These sismic movements have caused severe damage, for example sheering off a large section on one side leaving a restaurant terrace suspended over a precipice. And the problem isn’t in the past. Should another earthquake occur, it is likely the village will collapse altogether into the valley below. It is not surprising, then, that it is sparsely inhabited.
Civita might be geologically teetering on the edge of death, but its social life is intensely alive. I spent the evening having a meal outside in the main square. The restaurant was packed, the waiters were jolly, the diners were getting drunk. In the square a band with loud speakers struck up some rousing music and couples began to dance spinning faster and faster in the cool evening air. The cats, too, came out to play, and have perfected the art of begging for scraps of food. They didn’t like the piece of pepper, but the prosciutto went down well. The merriment didn’t stop there. The next morning the square was jostling with activity as they prepared for the annual donkey race (like the Siena Palio but in miniature).
Furthermore, Civita boasts a 16th century church retaining traces of its Romanesque past, which is host to two Etruscan sarcofaguses, a fresco from the School of Perugino and a 15th centrury wooden Crucifix by the School of Donatello. It is likely that this church rests on the remains of a pagan temple. Civita is also the birthplace of Saint Bonaventure who was cured of illness by Saint Francis of Assisi. The remains of his house are just visible today. The single remaining door to the city, the Porta Santa Maria, dates from the Middle Ages. Carved into the walls is ancient graffiti of crosses on triangles, symbolic of Golgotha hill, which have been attributed to pilgrims returning from the Holy Land. (For more information see http://www.museogeologicoedellefrane.it/en/st.-maria-doorway.html)
There are continual debates in the heritage sphere about commericalisation, how much access should be given to the public, and the potential death of local culture due to tourism. Civita needs funding from tourism, and in doing so it risks cultural suicide, but without money it is likely to experience physical destruction. In May 2014, a petition was created to add Civita to the extensive list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy. Nicola Zingaretti, President of the Lazio region, appealed, “A territory rich in history, art, culture and traditions, almost frozen in time. One of a kind, Civita di Bagnoregio is in danger.” The designation was supported by cultural greats such as composer Ennio Morricone, a recent Oscar winner, and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. But even if it suceeds, millions of euros are required for the kind of comprehensive structural engineering needed to support the erroding cliff.
Furthermore, as a UNESCO site, the future of Civita seems depressingly inevitable. Tourist numbers will grow each year while residents dwindle. With more publicity comes more money, but also a steady theme park-‘isation’ of the historical town. Will such publicity and funds really save the town, or merely preserve a stone shell as a lifeless museum.
And there is an even worse fate lurking in the background. Recently there has been much amusement caused by several uninhabited Italian hamlets going on sale on Ebay for a pittance. If the UNESCO petition fails, Civita could even become the private domain of a celebrity, a fate perhaps worse than death.