How to Keep a Medieval Ghost Town Ghostly

PERCHED Atop a Hill The abandoned hamlet of San Severino di Centola in the Mingardo Valley, Italy, 40 miles from Salerno, appears just as a traditional mediaeval settlement should. There is a church, a photogenically destroyed castle, cobblestone streets, and a cluster of overgrown dwellings that seem to have been carved out of the rocky cliff over a thousand years ago. This settlement has been empty since at least 1974. It is a ghost town, much like dozens of other towns around the area and Italy, but it is less haunted by ghosts than by a shifting cultural and socioeconomic environment that has left it with two options: growth or neglect. For the town as it is now and in the recollections of the families who moved to the foot of the hill, any option spells oblivion. A handful of residents, however, are attempting to preserve the current situation.

The Longobards (or Lombards) constructed a fortress on top of a hill in the eleventh century, which is when San Severino di Centola first appeared. It was at a good spot, looking out across the valley. The Mingardo River shaped the valley that bears its name, which is noted for its unusually stunning geology and includes a deep section known as “Devil’s Gorge.” For many years, it was the sole route to the untamed interiors of Cilento, a region in Campania, Italy, that links the Policastro Gulf and Palinuro’s shore.

Most tourists to this region of Italy go to the sandy beaches and clear waters at Palinuro or Marina di Camerota, two coastal villages. A journey inland, in the direction of Cilento National Park, results in a dramatic shift in landscape. This less well-known region of Campania was lauded by British poet and painter Arthur John Strutt in 1842 for having “sun-drenched mountain roads, rugged trails, and steep cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.”

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The settlement has a commanding vantage point over the Mingardo Valley.
The settlement has a commanding vantage point over the Mingardo Valley. CAMPANIA BELLEZZA DEL CREATO/GIUSEPPE OTTAIANO
The abandoned mediaeval village, which almost seems to have crumbled out of the hilltop like a natural rock structure, is in a spectacular location. It seems to have been frozen in time when seen from the bottom of the valley, according to Giuseppe Ottaiano, an art director who manages an online database of Campania’s hidden beauties. And from above, you can see how geography and history have affected the events in this section of the region.

It is believed that Bulgarian mercenaries who built a military observation post on the rim of Devil’s Gorge in the seventh century were the first people to live in the valley. The Longobard castle was the next to be built, but because to its strategic location, it was afterwards taken by the Normans (1077–1189), the Swabians (1189–1266), and the Kingdom of Aragon (1444). The hamlet developed into a significant location for gypsum mining for building and agriculture.

In this region of Cilento, people have never had it easy. Landslides are frequent and farming is challenging. Geppino Amorelli, a former inhabitant who left the town in 1962 at the age of four, explains in a video that the majority of the population subsisted on the little fig and walnut harvests that could be grown on a parched hilltop.

The continuing restoration efforts in the town’s ruins depend heavily on cultural activities.
The continuing restoration efforts in the town’s ruins depend heavily on cultural activities. WIKIMEDIA/CASAFACILEFELICE/CC BY-SA 3.0
The national government supported the building of a mountain tunnel nearby to feed the increasing railway network in the mid-1960s, during the height of Italy’s postwar industrialisation. The majority of the inhabitants relocated to new dwellings at the base of the cliff after leaving the hilltop community to work on the tunnel project. Others migrated north in search of manufacturing work. Nobody remained by the middle of the 1970s.

San Severino di Centola remained deserted for a long time. Small bushes steadily engulfed walls, bigger plants appeared in courtyards and rooms, and finally they burst through roofs as the vegetation slowly took over. Grotesque roots dug up some of the cobblestone streets from the mediaeval era. The vacant entrances and windows began to resemble picture frames for the dramatic surroundings.

In an area where there are already at least 15 other ghost towns, including the well-known Roscigno Vecchia, sometimes known as the “Pompeii of Cilento,” since it was soon abandoned after an earthquake, San Severino di Centola turned into a ghost town. Vegetation-covered ancient villages have evolved into a distinctive element of Campania’s hinterland throughout the years.

Preservation requires maintaining both history and environment.
Preservation requires maintaining both history and environment. SEVERINO DI CENTOLA PRESEPE VIVENTE
As much as the rock formations that dot Campania’s rough valleys, ghost villages like San Severino di Centola have come to characterise the rural environment during the last 50 years. In order to band together and protect these distinctive landscapes, the municipal authority of Centola, which has jurisdiction over San Severino, spearheaded the establishment of “Campania’s Regional Network of Abandoned Towns” in 2015. The group wants to draw funding and innovative ideas to preserve the special ambiance of moss-covered mediaeval structures and their natural surrounds.

The difficulty is in maintaining these communities’ current state of ghostliness rather than attempting to repopulate them. Recent events have garnered international attention, including the selling of rural Italian properties for the symbolic sum of one euro. These initiatives are often made by municipalities that are close to being abandoned in an attempt to thwart that outcome. The preservation of San Severino di Centola and other abandoned villages is more crucial than their continued existence. According to Ottaiano, who has designed walking tours of the region’s abandoned castles, “these are areas in which abandoned towns have become an integral part of the scenery.” “They stand for the cultural and historical identity of our region.”

Then, in the early 1980s, word spread that a Rome-based real estate firm had bought nearly 50% of San Severino di Centola. Locals started to worry.

According to retired banker and former councilman Silverio D’Angelo, “We did not want someone coming in and destroying mediaeval houses to maybe build a new hotel.” In 2008, D’Angelo and approximately ten other people banded together to take control of SIAC Srl, the real estate firm that had made the acquisition. According to him, “We wanted San Severino to stay in the hands of people who had a connection to the village.” The municipality of Centola, SIAC, and the heirs of deceased people now possess the abandoned settlement.

“We wanted San Severino to stay in the hands of locals,” the author said.
Apart from small modifications to make San Severino securely accessible, such clearing weeds and brambles from the substantial stone stairs that lead up to the town, D’Angelo and the other owners aim to retain the spooky atmosphere.

Ten years ago, D’Angelo and other residents of San Severino di Centola’s newer neighbourhood, which is 15 minutes’ downhill walk from the ghost town, founded a nonprofit organisation called Il Borgo (The Hamlet) to plan cultural activities in the deserted settlement.

Tiziana Coletta, a state architect and author of a dissertation on the management of abandoned villages, says that sustaining the atmosphere of a place while halting the disintegration that gives it that atmosphere is necessary for the preservation of ghost towns. She advocates a case-by-case strategy, but putting on cultural events may help strike the right balance. Cultural activities, according to the restrictions of the centuries-old infrastructure, must be limited, she adds, adding that they may help resuscitate and maintain abandoned communities.

According to Angelo Guida, president of Il Borgo, “the concept came about ten years ago during a live nativity scene that we hosted in the ghost town.” We came to the conclusion that planning cultural events against such a striking backdrop had a lot of promise. The group has organised everything from tiny concerts, poetry readings, and open-air painting workshops to live nativity scenes during Christmas. Members also engage in inexpensive upkeep tasks like weeding.

The town’s infrastructure is maintained by local organisations.
The town’s infrastructure is maintained by local organisations. SEVERINO DI CENTOLA PRESEPE VIVENTE
The experience of a concert or a poetry reading in a deserted town with a breathtaking canyon as a backdrop, according to D’Angelo, provides for a memorable encounter. “We act like guardians of this place,” he adds.

Il Borgo currently runs on a meagre budget and is mostly supported by volunteers. Although the pandemic put a halt to all activities there, they host a small neighbourhood food market in the summer to earn money for upkeep. Guida said, “We hope to host a local market again this summer,” and in late July 2023, a Genoa theatre group will stage a play on the premises that was written by a local author.

Long-term plans include for repurposing some of the abandoned houses into studios for artists and craftspeople and turning San Severino into a type of arts and cultural hub. We don’t now have the funds to achieve it, but D’Angelo states that it is our intention. We would like it if artists from all around the nation came to work here.

San Severino di Centola is intended to remain as eerie as it has been for years even as it integrates into the community’s cultural life, even if it does attract new people. “When people talk about preserving a place, it’s really about preserving people’s ties to that place,” Amorelli asserts. Listening to people performing music in the streets at night is one of his favourite early recollections of the town. The town’s identity will remain intact if that connection is preserved.

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