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Story Publication logo August 25, 2021

“It’s Strange”: A Desolate Medieval Italian Village and the People Who Remain


woman herds her goats

The Italian village of Pizzone's population dropped from 2,000 to just 300 as young people left to...

for sale sign on ancient door
A 'for sale' sign hangs on a door in an ancient archway of an empty house in the town of Pizzone, in Molise. Image by Emily Hayes. Italy, 2021.

In the summer in Pizzone there is no one. There is no one in the winter either, when snow collects in forgotten corners and nooks, and a damp gray dulls the vibrant yellow and pink houses most often photographed in their summer golden hours.

For over one hundred years Pizzonesi flowed from the fortified mountain town in trickles and bursts to Naples and Rome; to America.

Now fewer than 300 people live in the town year-round.

Even from a distance, Pizzone looks empty and overgrown. The town fades into the mountain more than the mountain fades into the town.

Rounding up the steep, narrow staircases made of stone that serve as streets in the upper layers of Pizzone, well-kept houses overflowing with radiant pink and red flowers gradually give way to boarded up windows and cobwebs over mail slots. Further still up the mountain are crumbling heaps of previous homes unchanged and untouched for decades.

At one time in the previous century, between 1,500 and 2,000 voices echoed through the alleys, and families lived piled atop one another. Now there is only the whisper of a summer breeze through a silent eeriness at the top of Pizzone. An odd sensation of knowing what once was.

Lower down, dogs bark and warn that una ragazza è passata. A lone man or woman passes between the bar or the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain and their home on the only main street through the village, nodding and politely greeting the American they do not know but who they can see is American, or at least “not from here.”

“They say you are a journalist,” one older woman says to me without warning as I flip through photos on my camera in the piazza. She just exited the only shop, bar and café in town with her daughter and granddaughter, holding a bag of items from the market section in the back.

“Why are you here?”

On a late afternoon in July, five or so children always gather in the only piazza to kick a soccer ball or, in recent years, watch videos, and play games on a smartphone.

Piazza Principe Umberto fans out like a clam shell from the bar, walled off by multi-level houses that wrap up the curve of the main road, Via Roma. Women swing open their windows and curtains to water the pink flowers and leafy green plants spilling over their balconies and decorating the plain white and gray stone walls.

Buona sera,” they call out to me as they open their windows one by one, like an old comedy show. “What did you do today? Do you like Pizzone?”

After they disappear, there is only a faded sign marking the lower level as “for sale” looking back at me, mounted on a washed-out blue wooden door in an archway built hundreds of years ago.

When the last light disappears behind Pizzone’s walls, the barkeeper’s sons will prop a Bluetooth radio on a white plastic chair in the piazza for music. Old pop songs from the U.S. and Italian hits influenced by the force of the American corporate music world echo through Via Roma into the night.

In the early morning, Pizzone’s dead silence will be a welcome release from the cacophony of traffic, car horns, and shouts of the city.

“It is strange,” Elena Novielo, a shoemaker in her 40s, says as she gazes around at the illuminated piazza, empty save for the handful of people in front of her. “So many here had to emigrate to the U.S., to cities, to Brazil, and made so many sacrifices.”

Novielo moved from Naples to Pizzone with her husband 17 years ago to raise bees, make honey, and build a house. They have two children who like to travel back to the city.

Bringing refugees and immigrants here could be a solution, Novielo says, as she crosses her legs on the plastic bench and takes a sip of a shared bottle of Peroni from a plastic cup. But the Pizzonesi are not yet willing to accept it.

“They need people, but they don’t want people to come here—è strano,” she repeats. “But how can immigrants come here if there are no jobs? It is very difficult.”

The European Union has funding to help borghi like Pizzone strengthen their populations, and it should go to fixing the bumpy, overgrown dirt roads, Novielo says. “But the money doesn’t end up here.”


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