Civita di Bagnoregio, the dying town between depopulation and overtourism

In a gripping essay dedicated to the small Italian town called Civita di Bagnoregio, Giovanni Attili observes an exceptional place, characterised by a unique geomorphological landscape.

Italy is an extraordinary and complex ecosystem where flatlands, large urban areas, valleys and mountains, cities, towns and villages alternate. In this unique dimension, there are extraordinary and fragile places that require special care. The most urgent and complex issues to address are depopulation and the effects of climate change. One of the most emblematic situations is represented by Civita di Bagnoregio, in the province of Viterbo.

It is one of the most extraordinary towns in the Tuscia region of Lazio, and it is known all over the world as the ‘dying town’ because of its particularly fragile environment. Perched on a plateau of volcanic tufa rock and connected to the rest of the world by a bridge, Civita di Bagnoregio is a tiny settlement of few inhabitants that was originally founded by the Etruscans. Two thousand years of history marked by many collapses over the centuries are slowly and inexorably causing this small urban settlement to sink.

Giovanni Attili, "Civita. Senza aggettivi e senza altre specificazioni", Ed. Quodlibet Studio, 2021
Giovanni Attili, "Civita. Senza aggettivi e senza altre specificazioni", Ed. Quodlibet Studio, 2021

It is precisely this sense of precariousness and fragility that makes this place unique and has aroused the interest of the architect and urban planner Giovanni Attili, leading him to write Civita. Senza aggettivi e altre specificazioni, published by Quodlibet and wonderfully prefaced by Giorgio Agamben. This in-depth research project unfolds in three parts, all around the town.

The author focuses his gaze and sensitivity on a unique place, “a tufo hillock overlooking the void”. Over time, Civita’s fragile landscape has given rise to a pact between the inhabitants and the land on which the town stands. A profound alliance based on the awareness and care for a particular urban ecosystem. Attili immediately warns his readers of the importance of this relationship aimed at the wellbeing of the town, which stands proudly on top of its cliff, and which today would be nothing more than a pile of debris if it weren’t for a hard-working community capable of building and preserving its own living space.

The book starts with this premise, a voyage of discovery and denunciation, almost an investigation made up of interviews, images and archive research alternating with pages that take the form of a novel-slash-essay that often crosses the line between fiction and non-fiction.

The author uses this archaeological strategy, as Giorgio Agamben points out in the introduction, for a more accurate definition of reality and its perception, leading the reader beyond academic schematics and literary genres. The tables illustrated by Francesco Rita and designed by Attili himself seem to be a further element in the investigation of the complexity of the small and fragile town in the province of Viterbo explored by the author.

Giovanni Attili is a Professor of Urban Planning at La Sapienza University of Rome, where he teaches Sustainable Development and Analysis of Urban and Regional Systems. He is therefore used to carefully analysing complex phenomena in his research and educational activities, as the modern role of the urban planner requires. Like the few, fierce inhabitants of Civita, the author is always looking for new ways to re-invent himself and to represent not reality itself, but rather the expression of an experience of reality.

Giovanni Attili, "Civita. Senza aggettivi e senza altre specificazioni", Ed. Quodlibet Studio, 2021
Giovanni Attili, "Civita. Senza aggettivi e senza altre specificazioni", Ed. Quodlibet Studio, 2021

The peculiar urban experience of Civita, almost an archetype of rapid contemporary urban transformations, becomes a case study of complex phenomena such as the relationship with environmental elements that the author defines as “mother and stepmother land”, “adopted land” and “land of spectacle”. These are the three sections of the book that outline three macro areas of investigation: the resilience of the inhabitants, the role of study and design with the seminal research of Astra Zarina and the recent disasters caused by overtourism.

Civita thus becomes the prototype of an evident decaying of contemporary living, increasingly devoted to the exploitation of immediate value without caring for environmental and community particular needs. Yet Civita’s density, stratification of experiences and resilience seem to show us how the whole of Italy is a mosaic of a polycentric geography made up of many peculiar human and urban pieces that require new attitudes and sensibilities to build maps and trajectories of new sustainable alliances that the tourist industry consumes as much as it consumes cement.

In 2019, for every ten resident inhabitants, Civita has seen a million tourists who, fascinated by its decadence, paid an entrance fee to experience its slow and inexorable death. The author seems, however, to draw a path of concrete planning that looks precisely at the resilience of those who live there as the protagonists of a new way of inhabiting the town.

“The history of Civita di Bagnoregio pulsates in the inexorable movement of becoming and metamorphosis”. It is in sensing the end of this clayey and unstable land that the town can take a breath of fresh air, becoming capable of inhabiting its extraordinary nature again. Overtourism is like a disease that erased the life and capability of its inhabitants to regenerate and inhabit the out-of-the-ordinary.

Giovanni Attili, "Civita. Senza aggettivi e senza altre specificazioni", Ed. Quodlibet Studio, 2021
Giovanni Attili, "Civita. Senza aggettivi e senza altre specificazioni", Ed. Quodlibet Studio, 2021

The millennial history of this town teaches us that a life firmly anchored to the earth, paying close attention to environmental and geographical factors, can help design its future. Local (and non-local) authorities need to be aware that this Latium town is one of the many that need new policies that connect local areas while fighting depopulation and the effects of increasingly evident climate change.

Giovanni Attili’s book teaches us how urgent and necessary it is to have a radical change of vision and create new alliances between inhabitants and local areas based on the valorisation of interdependencies and the recognition of the differences that overtourism tends to flatten with its deadly embrace.

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