Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Which one would you choose?
Travel through Italy, and it can feel like every second village is home to an architectural masterwork or intriguing hangover from antiquity. It’s exactly this heritage that has exerted a magnetic pull on visitors for centuries. But maintaining it all is expensive.
When almost everything is a historic landmark, not everything can be properly sustained, and deciding what will thrive and what will fade can be a painful choice. That’s why this month, the Italian government is handing the choice over directly to the public.
Or at least a portion of that choice. Italy’s plan, which hopes to publicize lesser-known monuments and stir up public enthusiasm, works like this: From now until May 31, the government has set up a website and email address—firstname.lastname@example.org, which translates roughly to email@example.com—where the public can nominate sites they think are especially worthy of greater preservation. The most popular of these sites will then be restored from a fund of €150 million ($169 million), ideally allotting moderate sums to a large number of projects rather than splurging on a few. The idea is not to focus on Italy’s big hitters—the Roman arenas, the great cathedrals—but to highlight and celebrate lesser-known marvels that still deserve to be preserved in exquisite condition. As the campaign’s Facebook page (quoted here) puts it:
“Pompeii and the Uffizi Gallery help Italy to be proud of itself — [which is] great! But we also need the forgotten village, the abandoned museum and the little church in need of restoration.”
Across Italy’s regional media there’s already a good deal of buzz as to which sites could be eligible, many of which are so beautiful that they’re worth illustrating at length. Several newspapers, for example, are advocating for full restoration of Tuscany’s Castello Sammezzano, whose Moorish-style interior sits slightly outside the classic story of Italian architecture.
Another prime candidate is the Castello della Colombaia, a fortress that guards the harbor mouth at Trapani, Sicily.
One more site gaining a lot of support on Facebook is Isola Santa, a ghost village in Northern Tuscany’s under-visited Garfagnana region.
In a country that still boasts a good few roman bridges and aqueducts, it’s less surprising that later infrastructure such as Lucca’s 19th century Nottolini Aqueduct are sometimes second in line for funding. The aqueduct is now one of the applicants for funding.
Anything that gains protection or exposure for sites like these deserves praise, but there have been some rumblings of complaint that the funding the project offers is a little scanty. An archaeologist writing in newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano had this reality check to offer:
Objectively, it is difficult to think it possible to revive a "small abandoned village." Unless it’s to dust off some handcrafted window frames, to replace a few roof tiles, or to plant geraniums in window boxes on the village balconies. In short, those 150 million euro have all the air, in spite of proclamations about "places of the soul for the community", to be a sort of genteel gratuity.
He’s right, of course, that there’s only so far the limited funds for the project can stretch. Still, if the government is able to use the campaign to highlight and drum up national enthusiasm for out of the way beauties, some light dusting and a few geraniums might go a long way.