When Americans think of ghost towns, we think tumbleweeds and crumbling Old West saloons. These abandoned settlements are mere babies compared to Italy’s ancient necropolises. We know, of course, the famous dead cities and towns of antiquity – Pompeii, the ruins of Rome, etcetera. Such famous sites are only the most obvious haunted ruins on any itinerary through the venerable boot-shaped country. Can they be considered ghost towns? The first fell prey to a natural disaster that encased its residents in ash before they had the time to leave; the second thrives as the eighth-most populous city in Europe. It may be full of ghosts, but it’s hard to catch them in the throngs, traffic, and noise.
That said, there are no shortage of towns that fit the bill. Italy contains “more than 6,000 abandoned villages,” the video above explains, and “according to conservative estimates, another 15,000 have lost more than 95 percent of their residents.” That’s an awful lot of abandonment. In the video tour above, we get to explore the “Capital of all Ghost Towns,” Craco, a towering village on the high cliffs of a region known as Basilicata in Southern Italy, nestled in the instep of the boot. Founded in the 8th century AD by Greek settlers, the village survived Black Plague, “bands of marauding thieves,” writes Atlas Obscura, and the usual political instability and internecine conflict of Italian towns, duchies, city states, etc. before the country’s 19th century unification. In the end, “a landslide finally forced residents from Craco in 1991.”
The very location that kept the town safe for centuries from those who would sack it also exposed it to the elements. “Once a monastic center, a feudal town and center of education with a university, castle, church, and plazas,” Ancient Origins writes, Craco has now become a destination for adventurers and a set for several films, “including Saving Grace, James Bond’s Quantum of Solace and the hanging of Judas scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.” Charming, no? While such towns are hardly found in the usual history text or guidebook, ancient Italian ghost towns and abandoned castles have inspired actual ghost stories for hundreds of years and are the very origin of the gothic as a literary genre, via Horace Walpole’s haunted castle novel, The Castle of Otranto.
Walpole might just as well have written about the castle of Craco, which you can explore above with Marco, Till, Tobi, and Sam, hosts and producers of Abandoned Italy, a web series devoted to exactly that. In several seasons online, they travel to other ghostly towns, villages, and islands, asking questions like, “what if humans go extinct?” Answering that one is a bit like pondering the tree-falling-in-the-forest question. If no one’s there to see it…. ?
A Data Visualization of Every Italian City & Town Founded in the BC Era
High-Resolution Walking Tours of Italy’s Most Historic Places: The Colosseum, Pompeii, St. Peter’s Basilica & More
The Changing Landscape of Ancient Rome: A Free Online Course from Sapienza University of Rome
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness