Artists revive ghost town Bussana Vecchia

MARIELLA RADAELLI

Early one morning in 1959 a ceramic artist from Turin known simply as Clizia arrived in Bussana Vecchia, a medieval hilltop village about five miles northeast of Sanremo that had been an absolute ghost town for 72 years.
Former ghost town Bussana Vecchia
No public lighting even today: Artists continue to revitalize Bussana Vecchia, but they say the anomalous village itself is what stirs the creativity (photo: Maurizio Falcone).

On Feb. 23, 1887 a devastating earthquake had flattened the hamlet, knocking off the roofs of its two churches and reducing all stone buildings to rubble. The survivors headed for safer ground in the valley below where they founded Bussana Nuova.

Bussana Vecchia, 80 miles northwest of Genoa, was an absolute ruin.

That morning in 1959 Clizia was nonetheless determined to settle in the shattered village, turning a derelict house into his nest. And soon he began holding art camps in summer.

The craggy ruins of the abandoned town spilled out around the art students. They were seated with 360-degree views of the rolling foothills, the scent of the sea filling the air. This spectacular setting between the Ligurian Sea and the Alps remains intact today.

At the time there was no electricity in the village, no tap water or sanitation, but the light was perfect for artists. They came by the dozens that year and the years ahead in the ’60s: Painters and sculptors, ceramists, musicians and poets, all part of an unusual experiment – an artists’ colony.

Soon Clizia and a handful of others were sketching plans for what in 1964 was named Il Villaggio Internazionale degli Artisti with its own constitution nourished by the counterculture spirit.

It was their way of letting the outside world know the artists had arrived. The hippie community stimulated both the creativity of individual artists and the economy of this sleepy corner of Liguria. Artists continued to revitalize Bussana Vecchia in the ensuing years while the anomalous village itself stirred the artists, many of them from cities all over the world.

Even though times have changed and problems escalated, for some artists in the colony life is still truly intellectually exciting. “Yes, certainly it is,” says painter and sculptor Colin Wilmot, one of the pioneers and founders of the Villaggio Internazionale degli Artisti.

“The richness of the village is that there are both people who live here all the year and others who have to be in New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam and various other European countries in order to do what they do,” says Wilmot. He refers especially to British visual artist Daniel Harvey and composer Francis Shaw best known for his work on the 1986 film “A Room with a View”.

“So there is a continual exchange of ideas from outside the village,” Colin says.

Born in England in 1940, Colin spent his childhood in Singapore. He moved to Bussana Vecchia in 1966.

“I was a painter and the light here was and is perfect for painting,” he says. “The village offered an opportunity to make a space for me to both live and work. The idea of bringing an abandoned, ruined village to life again and exclusively for creative people was very exciting, and very much in line with the thinking and ideals of the 1960s.”

“With both mountain and sea air, legend has it that Bussana Vecchia is so called because it is built on the site of a Roman villa that was called ‘Bissana’ (Twice healthy),” says Colin.

Today the distinctive, almost magical village means a lot to him. “It is my home, my place of work and the source of my income,” he says.

But there have been periodic confrontations with the authorities over the decades (the latest eviction order was issued in 1997). Last December the Bussanesi panicked when they received tax notices for tens of thousands of euros from the Demanio, the Italian Department of State Property, calling them illegal occupants. Each artist’s house or studio was carved out of wreckage.

“Our houses are safe, safer than the ones in Sanremo,” says ceramist Daniela Mercante, resident of Bussana since the ’80s. “Household accidents never happened here. We secured and restored our homes, taking care only to preserve the pockmarked exteriors that lent the village its ruined charm,” she says. Many houses, still rough on the outside, have cozy and smoothly finished interiors.

Colin doesn’t know if Bussana’s inhabitants will be protected in the end. “I really do not know. The present situation is very worrying and costly as lawyers have to be paid to defend us,” he says.

But he believes that the international community can do something for them.
Quake-shattered Bussana Vecchia
The roofs remain off the town’s two churches and last December residents received tax notices for tens of thousands of euros from the Italian Department of State Property, which called them illegal occupants (photo: Maurizio Falcone).

“The international community can bring pressure to bear on the various authorities and point out the injustice of our situation,” Colin says. “We have cleared rubble and restored the village at our own expense, generated a lot of publicity, and been of both cultural and material benefit to the region — not criminal usurpers of an abandoned ruin damaged by the authorities themselves,” he points out. “In the 1950s arches and staircases of the houses were destroyed with explosives by the local authorities. We should be applauded and what we have done should be accepted and aided by the Italian state. The experience acquired over half a century should be used to restore other similarly abandoned villages, of which there are some 1,600 in Italy,” he says.

You arrive on foot in Bussana Vecchia. There are no parking lots and the streets have no lights. “In wintertime it is harsh: there’s no central heating system. This place of around 100 residents is not suitable for all,” says Daniela. Artists and craftsmen are part of a close-knit community that embodies that feeling of togetherness. “But we are not free from tensions. This is not paradise on earth,” she says.

The two local churches are still gutted, creating a strangely appealing setting. The postman from Sanremo does not enter the village. He puts mail in the residential mailboxes that hang on a giant wall at the hamlet’s entrance.

“This place is unique, charming and welcoming,” says painter and musician Silvano Manco, another resident.

“It is an island of quiet. To me it is like Macondo, the imaginary utopian town invented by Garcia Marquez in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’,” says Silvano. “Over here you find your personal rhythm to your day, away from the global rhythm. We are so close and yet so far from the surrounding reality. The village always mesmerized me since I was a boy when I came to play. I ended up living here for 40 years instead and I hope to stay the next 40 years. You feel you are travelling without moving,” he says.