How one man’s love of isolation put an Italian ghost town on the map

Giuseppe Spagnuolo wakes up at about 6am each day, eats the leftovers of the previous night’s dinner for breakfast, greets the stray cats he calls his “security guards” and clambers down the steps of his crumbling home to splash his face with water from the fountain in the square. Occasionally, he walks up to the next village, if his “aches and pains” allow, for coffee in the bar.

For 25 years, Spagnuolo has been the only inhabitant in Roscigno Vecchia, a long-abandoned hamlet 400m up a mountain in the Cilento area of Italy’s southern Campania region. “If you’ve experienced the school of life like I have, then you can easily live this way,” the 74-year-old said, sitting in front of the fire in his kitchen, which is cluttered with pots, pans, bottles of wine, tinned tomatoes, cheese and hanging salamis.

Roscigno Vecchia is among hundreds of ghost towns across Italy, some of which authorities are now trying to bring back to life with money from the EU’s post-Covid recovery fund.

The hamlet was founded in 1515, when a monk established a retreat before shepherds settled in with their flocks. Houses, shops, stables, a church and the fountain, which was the centrepiece of the large square, were built; donkey tracks wound through the narrow streets, leading to the fields beyond. By the early 20th century, Roscigno Vecchia was home to about 1,200 people, who lived a simple life sustained by farm work before an order was issued for them to evacuate their homes due to landslide risks. A new town, Roscigno Nuovo, was built 1km away, although the majority of inhabitants didn’t move there until the mid-1960s, when malaria struck.

Spagnuolo was born in the new town and left home at 14, moving to Lombardy to work as an apprentice carpenter. He met his Italian wife in Switzerland, where he worked as a construction labourer. The couple had four children and eventually the family moved back to Roscigno Nuovo.

But Spagnuolo struggled to find work, and his marriage hit difficulties that were compounded when his father-in-law moved in. He said the home “wasn’t big enough for two grown men”, and so in 1997 he moved into a deserted house, with no electricity or running water, in Roscigno Vecchia. He said the fire, which he uses to cook, is enough to warm the place, and candles make do for light. His wife still lives nearby, and their relationship is amicable.

Spagnuolo, who is rarely seen without his trademark pipe, is often labelled “the last inhabitant” of Roscigno Vecchia, although this is not strictly true. The last official resident was Teodora Lorenzo, who had resisted leaving her home before her death in 2000, aged 85. A picture of her has pride of place in the town hall in Roscigno Nuovo.

Still, the fact that Spagnuolo is the only resident has made him a star around the world, helping put Roscigno Vecchia quite literally back on the map (until a few years ago there were no road signs marking the way to the hamlet), and turning him into a de facto tour guide, supporting Pro Loco, the association behind a museum that recounts Roscigno’s history.

Curious tourists often bring food, drink and other gifts. “This hat I’m wearing is from Belize,” he said. “As is the tie.”

Spagnuolo may be living there unlawfully, but he’s an asset for the authorities, and a free one at that. “Giuseppe had the intelligence to occupy a space that was empty, and create a personality … so people come and find him, and he tells them the story of Roscigno,” said mayor Pino Palmieri. “So he provides a service, which I don’t have to pay for.”

Just as well. Palmieri was recently left seething after Roscigno Vecchia failed to qualify as a candidate for a slice of a €1bn Covid recovery fund, that Italy is spending on reviving either abandoned or semi-abandoned towns. Palmieri acknowledges that, by law, it’s not safe to repopulate the old hamlet owing to its unstable conditions, but he would still like it to be recognised as a cultural resource.

He is now seeking money to restore the church, repair the winding road leading up to Roscigno and open up the little-known Monte Pruno archaeological site, located a further 500m up the mountain, to tourism, while potentially turning the area into a centre for archaeological and geological studies.

“Giuseppe is like a point of reference for tourists,” said Palmieri. “And combined with that, we would like to encourage people to stay for a few days by investing in our other resources.”

Spagnuolo hardly reads newspapers, and gets snippets of what’s going on in the world from his visitors and from conversations during his trips to the bar in Roscigno Nuovo, although he said the clientele mostly talk about football. Covid has passed him by, while the lockdowns made no difference to the rhythm of his day. He said he never feels lonely, “as the world comes to me”. A self-described vagabond, Spagnuolo doesn’t know if he’ll stay in Roscigno Vecchia for the rest of his life. “I have everything I need here, and I take things one day at a time,” he said.

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