The waiting city

Cagnano Varano (IT)
Photographer: Alessandro Guida
Text: Viviana Rubbo

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Hovering between the sea, the lake and the mountain, Cagnano Varano is one of the many little towns in Italy that has suffered in the last decades a strong decline in population (population growth was registered until 1991 when it reached 9,158 residents and then dropped down to the 7,000 of today) combined with a shrinkage of the economic opportunities. 

The town has a historical nucleus of ancient origins whose consolidated urban structure dates to the Middle Age and later to the XVI-XVIII century. The contemporary city then grew throughout the 20th century. The portion of the town which is the focus of this research corresponds to the urban growth of the decades 1970s and 1990s and characterizes the most recent transformation of the city along the new northern limits (both east and west).The location is an asset and has allowed its inhabitants to make a living with the local resources mainly based on fishing, mussels farming (the lake used to be rich in mussels and clams but also eels) and sheep’s milk. This balance went broken in the 1950s when many people left for Germany, Belgium and Switzerland in search for a better prospect.

Around the years 1970s and 80s many have returned. Homesickness and the attachment to their roots has brought those who have once migrated, back to Cagnano Varano. After the many years of work abroad, all their earnings have been invested in their home town. The construction of the new districts began: 3-4 storey-buildings were erected not to respond to an actual housing need but rather to create the foundations for a solid future, made of bricks, for themselves and their own family.

The new buildings were self-built by the locals themselves (many had worked as masonry, painters and carpenters in the countries which had greeted them) with the idea of finally bringing the entire family (including the generations to come) under the same roof, from the grandparents to the grandchildren. Distributed on various floors, these are one-family dwellings. Unfortunately, the fathers’ desire does not always reflect the will of the children, and many of them, born abroad, did not return and these buildings are now mostly empty nests.

A massive urbanization, lack of planning, and the several amnesties on the building sanctions that have followed over the years have resulted in an urban form that now looks more like an open building site than a town. Many buildings still today remain embryonic forms, unfinished, temporary, transient, something that can still (and has to) be transformed. Concrete skeletons, partially inhabited, partially finished, however without topcoats. In the neighbourhood built over the change of the millennium, the streets are missing and the buildings spring up from the barren ground. Homes seem on hold, in a state of never-ending pause, waiting for someone to come and give a sense to those bricks and those breathless shaded shells from where you see the sea across. 

This research project was born from the desire to describe a contemporary urban form and foster a reflection on the dynamics that produced this context. The theme of depopulation and abandonment of the small rural centers is central in the Italian discussion and concerns the 60% of the national territory.

We hope photography can give a contribution in rethinking the local dimension of these centers starting from the critical observation of the existing urban systems.

The issue does impose an integrated socio-economic strategy of renewal and a forward-looking approach which can bring a spark of future in this town in agony.   ─