As we traveled to many of Umbria’s hilltop towns last year, we were struck, of course, by the beauty of the architecture and character of these towns of stone. We were also awestruck by the gorgeous vistas over the green heart of Italy. But as we walked around, there was also an ominous feeling–we rarely saw a soul, and we saw many Vendesi “for sale” signs on the houses and other buildings.
For all the ancient hill towns like Tuscany’s San Gimignano and Montepulciano that attract tourists and are thriving, they are not the typical small town in Italy today. Italy is home to more than 5,600 towns of less than 5,000 inhabitants. About half of them are facing a population crisis. Some are semi-abandoned and others are virtual ghost towns. Over the next 25 years as the youth continue to emigrate and as the elderly begin to pass away, many towns will be left almost completely deserted.
The exodus began in the late nineteenth century as poverty drove many, particularly in the south, to emigrate to other countries. After World War II, the economic decline of rural Italian communities led inhabitants to emigrate to major cities where jobs were more plentiful. A confluence of factors—poverty, urbanization, emigration, and natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods — devastated many towns that had thrived for centuries.
These rural places are inextricably linked to the countryside around them, as their inhabitants worked as farmers and merchants, craftsmen and shepherds. When these towns die, so too do the unique traditions and skills associated with each place. This phenomenon is not unique to Italy. Small towns throughout the developed world, including in the United States, are left behind as technologies and economies change, rendering industries and artigianale know-how obsolete. What is unique to Italy is the exquisite architectural character of its hill towns, as well as the quality of the craftmanship and traditions that were born and perfected there.
Statistics paint a bleak picture. While 30% of the world’s population resided in urban areas in 1950, the percentage grew to 54% in 2014. It is expected to increase to 66% by 2050. In Italy what will happen to the medieval fortresses, frescoed churches, and charming piazzas of the hilltop towns, not to mention the making of original musical instruments, ancient bells, wool blankets and scarves, and the best pasta of every region?
Next time, I will tell you what some creative people are doing to try to save these towns.