I see it every week. The beautiful house with its wooden shutters tightly shut and with its walls loosing their original pink colour by the force of Veneto’s spring showers and glaring summer sun. On its arched door there is a big rusty lock and the plot of land in the middle of which the faded pink house is perched has not been touched by human hand for quite some time.
And even though I have never been one for DIY TV shows and quiet home remodeling weekends, each time that I see the house again, I can’t help it but imagine buying it and dedicating five years of my life and huge amounts of money, which I otherwise don’t have, to bring it back to life.
A futile dream and not just for the lack of resources, I am afraid. But mostly, as the house seems to have stood there on its own for so long that it would be quite the miracle if structurally it has remained safe and sound inside.
I see them all the time. Once beautiful houses falling into disrepair on the sides of the Italian roads or even in the midst of small Italian towns and villages. Some of them were once proud farmers’ abodes, but now are taken over by creeping plants and creepy-crawlies. Some have been splendid villas with walls frescoed with vivid Classical scenes. And others seem to have been comfortable family homes, but now are simply sheltering a growing number of wildlife.
And once, as we were walking through a very picturesque medieval town just a short way from Vicenza, we came across this stunning mansion, a veritable palazzo which had been abandoned for what seemed like decades. It was right in the town’s centre and people would pass by it on the way to their daily chores, yet it stood there completely solitary, like existing in its own parallel dimension.
We walked around the huge building, peeked through the wooden shutters on the ground floor windows. The wooden boards had been distorted by many seasons of moisture. Inside we could glimpse a room full of cardboard boxes. Just left lying there, unneeded by no-one.
It struck me then how a house – a firm physical construction – is actually so fragile. It completely depends on a loving human hand to live and preserve its structure and in the absence of care and time dedicated to it, its layers slowly peel off, get broken and distorted, then the whole house crumbles and it dies the death of total destruction.
The mansion had a big garden, overgrown with shrubs and long grasses. The type which fill me with terror, as you never know what might be lurking on the ground between them. The difference being that this was not in some deep forest, but in the heart of a thriving town.
The windows of the top floors looked dim and empty in the bright midday sunlight. We spent a long time just looking at them, half anticipating to jump back in terror as and when a ghostly apparition sailed by the thorn and dusty open curtains when we least expected. Yet, nothing happened.
Feeling strangely attracted to the house, I stopped a passing couple and asked them if they knew why it had been abandoned. The young man curtly told me that he was local and as far back as he could remember, the palatial house had always been locked and no-one had ever lived in it.
Probing further I asked him if there were any local stories about tragic happenings or even ghosts there. He looked at me like I was beyond the scope of rationality, said ‘No!’ firmly and walked off with his companion.
Later on that day we popped into the local tourist office and after asking about a couple of local sights, I enquired about the story of the abandoned house. The lady working there told me that the house was privately owned by a person who had been quite successful politically in his heyday and one day he locked the house and stopped going there. She didn’t know why. ‘It’s private property!’, she said and for her the topic was exhausted.
And yet for me it wasn’t. What makes a person lock a house and walk away from it never to take care of it again? From the most dramatic and tragic to the most mundane, I have been through a long list of potential reasons in my head.
Since then I seem to spot these abandoned houses more often than before. Like the crumbling house with trees growing where its roof had once been and which I glimpsed on the outskirts of Verona. Or, even like the half-destroyed house in Vicenza’s Parco Querini which now accommodates the park’s hens’ and roosters’ families.
Apparently, due to large waves of immigration to the New World over hundred years ago followed by natural disasters, crumbling economies and a demographic problem, there are thousands of abandoned houses and even whole deserted villages and towns all over Italy. It is simply mind-staggering to think about the precious frescoes and architectural details of some of the historical buildings which due to lack of resources are being slowly reclaimed by nature.
I remember, last summer we visited a gorgeous medieval castle just outside of Bolzano in the North of Italy. Perched atop a rock the Runkelstein Castle had originally been built in 1237. Cue a long story of sieges, destruction, abandonment and rebuilding. Nowadays the splendid frescoes adorning the rooms of the castle have been lovingly restored and seeing them in their colourful glory is still one of the highlights of my life here in Italy.
Hopefully, a few generations down the line at least a few of the abandoned palazzi and villas of Italy would get a second chance to reveal their stories and their beautiful interiors to the enchanted visitor.
Have you been to one of Italy’s abandoned towns? What was your experience? Would you recommend a visit? Let me know!