Italy Ghost Towns
Bella Italia, beautiful Italy has paralleled France through the millennia in terms of how the movement or destruction of populations has left ghost towns in its wake.
Italy was home to the fabulous Roman Empire but this brought its problems. Many Romans were needed to fight in the army to conquer the lands of the empire and with men away for long periods the birth rate slowed and Rome struggled to maintain a healthy population. The earliest ghost towns were created as populations left villages and towns that were susceptible to Barbarian raids. They were attacked and fled, returning once the invaders had been fought off only to find them returning time and time again. Eventually the population concentrated around Rome, the area they knew would be most stable. When the Roman Empire was finally no more the Lombards, a Middle European tribe moved into Italy and set up city states.
The concentration of economic activity around these left pre Lombard villages deserted and some remain as ruins today.
Italy suffered greatly with plagues in the later middle ages with the Black Death in 1348 killing one third of the population and leaving towns and villages empty as people escaped to the healthier countryside. Many were never returned to as people feared the return of the plague in later years. Their fears were justified when in 1575 50,000 people died in Venice alone then, nearly a hundred years later half of Naples’
population of 300,000 was wiped out. Later that century one and three quarter million died from Black Death.
This mass reduction of the population led to transformations in societies. Cities had become beautiful and popular places to live. Fine architecture from the likes of Brunelleschi, Alberti, Palladio and Bramante made Italian cities the height of fashion and the accompanying culture of the renaissance drew people from all over Europe to live there. However close living quarters and basic sanitation left them open to waves of deadly diseases and eventually people moved to rural locations and Italian villages grew again.
As the 19th century progressed industrialisation and modernisation came to Ital bringing with it a north/south divide. The geographical position and shape of Italy meant that the south was more isolated from the markets of central Europe and the north became industrialised bringing with it modernisation whilst the south remained underdeveloped with a stagnant economy. This led to mass migration from the south, further destabilising its economy either to the northern cities of Milan, Turin or Venice or to the millions that left Italy to go to the New World settling in America, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. Whole villages and towns emptied as extended families or the young set off to make their fortunes elsewhere.
In World War II Italy suffered further through its weakness and alliance with the Axis powers. Towards the end of the war Italy became a battlefield as the Allies landing in the south made their way north to meet the German armies. It was a time of great hardship for the villagers who suffered terrible retribution from both sides and again villages and towns were cleared, the populations massacred or simply they left to find safety as the two opposing powers drew closer, trapping them in between.
The effect of this was to completely destroy the economy and Italy emerged from World War II bankrupt and demoralised.
Today Italy has the fourth largest population in Europe at 60.4 million and the fifth highest density of population but as in the past the density is concentrated in the north where half of the population live in a third of the country. There is still a rural exodus to the cities for better paid prospects leaving yet more towns and villages on the edge of a population disaster where the remaining inhabitants are insufficient to keep the town viable.
Over the centuries Italy’s position between the European and African geological plates has brought devastating earthquakes and volcanoes. Pompeii and Herculaneum were famously destroyed by Vesuvius, Europe’s only active volcano and tremors from earthquakes have made some villages such as Craco realise the futility of living in a dangerous seismic area.
It’s a wonder that Italy has any inhabited towns and villages with all that has gone against it but many are now being renovated and repopulated to appeal to tourism and those who want an escape from city life. The rest give us a chance to sit and linger on the past, imagining life there centuries ago where our only company will be the ghosts from days gone by.