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The crumbling, picture-perfect Italian town that’s making a comeback

October 27, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
There are just seven year-round residents -- and who knows how many cats -- in the Medieval Italian town of Civita di Bagnoregio, also known as the dying city. The picturesque hilltop town, visited by droves of tourists, is built upon layers of rock and shifting clay, susceptible to weather and natural disaster. Jeffrey Brown reports on efforts to revive and reinforce the city.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: an Italian hilltop town hovering between life and death, and the efforts being made to save it.

Jeffrey Brown traveled there as part of our ongoing series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Each morning, as the sun rises on this medieval town seemingly plucked from a fairy tale, the narrow lanes of Civita di Bagnoregio are quiet. By the latest count, there are just seven year-round residents, and who knows how many cats.

By mid-morning, though, the scene on this beautiful fall day has changed, as thousands of tourists make the difficult hike up a long, steep footbridge. There’s no cars allowed here, drawn by the beauty and peculiarity of this place, where staircases lead off cliffs and windows lead into the clouds.

In Italian, it’s called la Citta Che Muore, the Dying City, dying because it’s literally crumbling before our eyes. But now a mix a geological engineering and tourism is giving this ancient city new life.

CLAUDIO MARGOTTINI, Italy Geological Survey: After we have a collapse, it takes about two, three, 10 years to have the next collapse in the same part of the cliff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Claudio Margottini, with Italy’s Geological Survey, has worked in Civita for several decades.

So, here’s part of the problem, right, buildings falling down?

CLAUDIO MARGOTTINI: Yes, exactly. This is exactly an example of what the problem is in this town. So, we are just close to the cliff. And the cliff is falling down piece by piece, maybe five, six meters at a time.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a problem that goes back centuries. The Etruscans chose this site to build on in the sixth century B.C., prizing its hilltop location. But this is a tuff town — that’s T-U-F-F — common in this region, such as in the much better-known city of Orvieto, built upon layers of volcanic rock known as tuff that sit over a bedrock of soft clay.

Daniele Baffo is a local engineer.

DANIELE BAFFO, Engineer: It’s like if you have a masonry stone on the top and the cream at the bottom. When the cream is dry, you have not any kind of problem, because the dry cream is pretty, pretty hard. But when it’s rainy, and when there is water into the cream, the cream start to become like plastic.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been going on for 2,500 years, helped by wind, rain, periodic earthquakes, including a massive one in 1695, and all-too-frequent landslides.

CLAUDIO MARGOTTINI: And every time you are coming here, you can see a different feature, different results, different phenomena that you didn’t see before. So, it’s — this is a movie. This is not a picture, this landscape. That’s why I consider it as leaving the landscape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Walls, gardens and homes have simply fallen off, including that of Civita’s most famous son, the 13th century Saint Bonaventure, who was born here.

American architect Tony Heywood came to Civita in the 1960s with his wife, Astra Zarina, also an architect and a professor at the University of Washington.

TONY HEYWOOD, Retired Architect: The area was greatly depressed, and families were leaving. And the ones that stayed are like me, I guess. They liked it here and they didn’t want to leave.

JEFFREY BROWN: Zarina, who died in 2008, is credited with raising Civita’s international profile through her writings and teaching, including bring U.S. students here to study. That spurred renovations for many of its medieval-era buildings.

TONY HEYWOOD: Gradually, things got better at the end of the ’70s and ’80s. And they finally got a tractor that would bring the materials up.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the structural problems remained. And, in 1997, the government began reinforcing the foundation with concrete shafts, essentially anchoring the unstable sections to the town’s solid base.

CLAUDIO MARGOTTINI: Creating a skeleton, a stainless steel skeleton.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re hoping that this will hold this side of the town together.

CLAUDIO MARGOTTINI: Yes, this side of the town, exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re smiling as you say it. You’re not sure.

(LAUGHTER)

TONY HEYWOOD: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re hoping.

TONY HEYWOOD: No. In the earth science, you can never say I’m sure about this, but we know we are confident that the result was quite good.

JEFFREY BROWN: The immediate threat is at the bottom of the town, where a landslide occurred earlier this year. It forced the closure of this restaurant, and endangered the footbridge that serves as the lifeline to the outside world.

Is there enough money to do the kind of engineering work you need?

DANIELE BAFFO: Not in this year, actually. We need 10 million of euro, which is not a small amount.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet there’s a lot cooking in this dying town, including here in the kitchen of the Alma Civita Restaurant, opened in 2011 by Maurizio Rocchi, who traces his family history here back 400 years.

MAURIZIO ROCCHI, Alma Civita Restaurant: It’s beautiful to cook for people and let people know and discover my family by the food.

JEFFREY BROWN: A 40-year-old native who left home, with few opportunities then for a young person, Maurizio has come back as a leader of its revival.

MAURIZIO ROCCHI: There’s more work for the people to — local people can come back and work again, like years ago, you know? So, for the time, it’s like to have a new life.

JEFFREY BROWN: New life that is almost overwhelming at times. In the last five years, the influx has risen from 40,000 a year to 500,000. Over a glass of wine at his son’s restaurant, Sandro Rocchi told me he has mixed feelings.

SANDRO ROCCHI, Former Resident, Civita di Bagnoregio (through interpreter): For me, it’s too much. It was much nicer when it was more peaceful. You could talk to each other, be in the streets. Now that’s impossible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, father and son are counting on the new attention to save the town.

MAURIZIO ROCCHI: I want to believe that the town would survive forever. And I’m happy to invest all my life in this business and on this project, because it’s something so special to preserve to show to our next generation.

JEFFREY BROWN: For outsiders, of course, part of the thrill is to see Civita before it’s gone. For geologist Claudio Margottini, though, there’s a very practical reason to care.

CLAUDIO MARGOTTINI: This should be sort of a geotechnical laboratory for the entire scientific community to make tests, to make experiments, to monitor and to consolidate the place.

JEFFREY BROWN: A field laboratory for studying the geological turmoil below, but as the bell tolled at 7:00 and the streets emptied again, Civita di Bagnoregio returned to the tranquility its remaining residents cherish.

From Central Italy, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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