Coming to the Rescue of Italy's Ghost Towns

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The abandoned penitentiary of Santo Stefano Island, Italy. Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis

Italy’s Santo Stefano is a jet-black volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, in an atoll near Rome. From the days of the Bourbons up to 1965, it was considered Italy’s Alcatraz—a centuries-old prison packed with anarchists, revolutionaries, criminals, bandits and political dissidents. Today, it’s deserted.

Visitors still come to Santo Stefano, but they must first walk along a steep, rocky pathway flanked by prickly shrubs and hungry mosquitoes. The prison is now a crumbling horseshoe-shaped fortress at the top of the rocks. Nearby, its village’s colonial villa is also still largely intact but certainly decaying, along with the jail’s offices, bars, shops and a field where inmates once played soccer with guards. Any surrounding gardens and fields are long dead, consumed by the encroaching wilderness that threatens to swallow the village in slow motion.

Santo Stefano is one of over 6,000 ghost villages in varying states of disrepair that dot Italy’s coasts and countryside. And even that staggering number may soon increase, as another 15,000 towns are currently on the verge of total abandonment due to financial instability, emigration and natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. Though Italy boasts 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites, the most of any country in the world, keeping up its artistic heritage—especially during an economic downturn—has proven a nearly impossible task for the Italian government.

Help could be on the way, in the unlikely form of rich businessmen with a preservationist bent. Though Santo Stefano’s prison is owned by the Italian state (which has been shopping for an investor to build a resort on the land), the surrounding village belongs to Orazio Ciardo , a Neapolitan businessman who has launched an ambitious (and somewhat bizarre) project to resuscitate the island. His plan involves creating a nude-friendly resort that will take advantage of the town’s natural surroundings and require only minor additions—like a platform carved out of volcanic rock for sunbathing and an area for sleeping tents. The primary goal is to maintain and recast, not replace, the island’s wild natural beauty.

Ciardo is one of about 10 visionary businessmen who have spent the last decade-plus snatching up crumbling historic villages and trying to give them a second life. Though they all have different approaches, their common goal is to help refashion Italy’s historic past to fit into its present.

Hotelier Paolo Galante purchased the ancient Roman village Foro Appio in the 1990s. Though most recently a way station for travelers on the Grand Tour, it had long been a stop for officials and citizens traversing the Appian Way, the Roman Empire’s only highway connecting Rome to Capua. It had a short life as a medieval cheese-making hub, but by the 1900s it had been abandoned. "When I first got here, all I found was a heap of broken stones and dusty pillars covered by a thick forest,” Galante tells Newsweek. “But despite the mass of ruins, I sensed this place was packed with history and that there was something precious and sacred buried underneath.”

According to Scripture, Foro Appio was where Saint Paul gathered his earliest Christian followers. The legendary Roman lyric poet Horace also stayed here on a trip that stuck with him enough that he wrote about it in one of his Satires. Galante says the area’s history was instantly recognizable: “There were old stone pavings and bits of Roman vases sticking out of the ground. I've always loved history and archaeology, and I knew it was a valuable site.”

Along with his brother Maurizio, a fashion and interior designer, Galante spent nearly two decades building a luxury four-star hotel called Foro Appio Mansio, which now boasts 35 elegant rooms that coexist with the town’s preserved historical layout. The construction unearthed parts of the original Roman highway, which now runs through the village on which the resort sits and is used as a walkway for guests. Vases, amphoras, statuettes and majolicas jut out of the plastered walls, and what was once an old marketplace where travelers tied up their horses has been repurposed as an open-air cocktail lounge. In all, almost 80 percent of the main building’s original architecture, last refurbished in the 1700s by famed Italian architect Giuseppe Valadier, has been preserved.

"Recovering this Roman hamlet means exploiting its tourist potential but also revamping the local economy, mainly based on agriculture and cattle-breeding, by creating new jobs,” says Galante. “People used to live in the village, and now something from that life is coming back. It’s no longer a ghost town. I have employed dozens of people, and the hotel is constantly overbooked.”

Hotels and resorts aren’t the only option for revitalizing Italian ghost towns. Borgo Castelluccio, a small village in the rugged Abruzzi hills, saw its population dwindle to nothing in the early 1900s, after a series of earthquakes terrified the locals, who abandoned it. Enter Italian-German entrepreneur Michael Filtzinger, who determined that the town—full of crumbly medieval buildings—could have a fruitful new purpose as a getaway for German families who could purchase the refurbished structures as vacation homes in the sunny region. And, like his peers who also work to bring ghost towns back to life, Filtzinger has been primarily concerned with preserving the area’s history. “In 1986, my father purchased these ruins formerly inhabited by wolves, bandits, prostitutes and partisans fighting fascism,” says Filtzinger. “I worked 10 years rebuilding this village, spending over 4 million euros on materials. So it wasn’t profit that moved me, but the allure of history and art, and my deep passion for both.”

Two other businessmen in the Abruzzo region have done almost the same thing by these rescuing disaster-hit towns. Simone Mariani is restyling the village of Borgo Rocchetta—where, until the 1950s, shepherds used to live in cliffside, vertical houses without roads or electricity—into modern homes that nod to the town’s history without blighting its environment. On an even grander scale, Swedish-Italian real estate heir Daniele Kihlgren began purchasing ghost towns in Abruzzo a decade ago and has so far amassed over 10 of them. One of these, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, has been turned into a luxury resort that, like Galante’s Foro Appio, is spread out over the town’s excavated historical center.

Though it’s unlikely Italy’s government will be able to afford preserving most of these historic towns anytime soon, perhaps it’s better that they’re finding new life—and new ways to interact with modernity—in the hands of their unlikely heroes.