Its main economic sources were agriculture, shepherding, and forestry, and small forms of industrial development were also starting to appear. In spite of its relative poverty, the territory touched by the disaster was thus animated and vibrant. The historic centers of many towns and villages were orderly and well kept, full of activities and people, and interpreted by the residents as part of a spatial code filled with essential signs: Irpinia had indeed a profoundly rooted place-identity. As the main shock hit, Irpinia was alive. There was a time when [these] places emitted a substance that the inhabitants unknowingly breathed.
A sort of psychological aerosol. It was as if every place were a thermal site, and an invisible gas would filter up from beneath, helping people to stay or inviting them to leave, yet giving everyone a lymph. And so, when you talked to your fellow villagers, you had this lymph in common; and then there was the rest, from which everybody obviously drew, who knows how and where.
And so, after , the face of this land—and, almost by contagion, the face of much of southern Italy—became finally derelict. The mind of this place, its lymph and aerosol, was suffocating under concrete and bribery. As it clearly appears, what is at stake here is not merely the mythical imagination of the disaster, but the way natural disasters are used to establish anti-democratic mechanisms of social control and of financial speculation facilitated by political orders.
The human—a certain human—dimension invades the scene, and dominates it entirely. This composition involves landscape, as a congealing of natural-cultural agencies, as well as nonhuman beings and more extensive eco-systemic balances, often completely fragmented and disrupted by the unsettling urbanization and overbuilding ensuing from the seismic shock.
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What really happens, however, is that this kind of regime adopts on the one hand an exceptionally permissive stance toward individual building initiatives, and on the other hand transforms the State property areas into free 92 zones for otherwise fraudulent urban development. Suffice it to say that, from the original figure of , the earthquake-affected municipalities became more than for reasons that complied less with geology than with political patronage.
Certainly, unsavory business practices and political corruption were already notorious in the general phenomenology of Italian public life.
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But the levels of territorial disfigurement, ecological damage, and political alienation reached after November 23, were unprecedented. Coupled with infiltrating networks of corruption and organized crime systems, the emergency regime legally permitted a chronic mutilation of territories and lands, inexorably smothered by an avalanche of concrete.
As Erbani comments: The land is defaced. Roads and industrial sites destroy river courses and crush mountains […]. Highways are quite pointless here; they gouge into valleys and mountain ridges, marring woodland or former cultivations.
They have been absurdly expensive, and when I happen to drive along them […] I hardly encounter a dozen cars. The results of that inquiry remained, nevertheless, a dead letter. More recently, the interlaced system of political corruption and criminal entrepreneurship has been acknowledged as one of the historic roots of ecomafia. Today, even though the emergency has ceased, the landscape is still suffering from this building frenzy, and the scars are visible.
The wounds in the landscape are the narrative of a sharp change of direction, from a decorous backwardness, bearing the incipient signs of development, to a regime suspended between destruction and patronage. Though all the diverse scars in the post-disaster landscape, from abandoned infrastructures to legalized town-planning abuses, are the material narrative of thwarted citizenship rights, sometimes sadly perpetrated with the complicity of the citizens themselves.
As Arminio has written:. These places are not born out of history, but the ballot box. These are the districts designed by provincial councilors, […] by deputies, majors, in short, by all those mediocre executors of a makeshift democracy.
Every vote is a barn turned into a house. Every election is a chance to promise asphalt and cement, so to ensure an on-site escape to those who have not fled elsewhere. Along with the landscape, the territorial destruction has here patently affected the civil imagination of the inhabitants. Over the course of time, societies have fashioned their spaces as necessary embodiments of their various structures and hierarchies, of their economies and production forms, systems of knowledge and religious practices.
As a theater and as a collective, such a space is part of a natural-cultural composition, of a system of actants, which are human and nonhuman, personal and impersonal. As Settis concludes:. The destruction of the codes according to which space is organized, of their historical, memorial, and symbolic significance in favor of an indiscriminate overbuilding […] involves a dramatic loss of meanings.
I was born in Gibellina, aged The others remained underground. We are refugees, earthquake victims, with our bags, sacks, blankets. They will help us, sure, but the offense will stay. Just twelve years before the Irpinia disaster, another catastrophic seism had affected the Italian South. It happened in the night between January 14 and 15, in the Belice Valley, an area in western Sicily comprised within the provinces of Trapani, Palermo, and Agrigento.
With a magnitude of 5. In these scattered ancient villages, most houses were peasant dwellings, constructed with traditional techniques and brittle materials such as tufa and stone.
That snowy, freezing night—the winter of was recorded as one of the coldest in the Mediterranean— people died and over 1, were injured. Compared to the figure of those left homeless over 70, , the relatively small number of victims primarily depended on the fact that a seismic swarm had preceded the main shock. Of the fourteen towns struck by the earthquake, all located in an area that ranked among the most backwards of Italy, four were completely annihilated: Montevago, Salaparuta, Poggioreale, and Gibellina.
The violence of the quake on these places was so formidable that the epicenter resembled a theater of war. Overlooking the area during the relief operations, a pilot reported that these sites seemed to have been hit by an atomic bomb. Discovering this place for the first time, the national newspapers represented it as a pre-modern world, even more archaic than Irpinia would appear to their eyes in At that time, the local economy relied chiefly on traditional peasant agriculture, by and large dominated by the latifundium.
Another source of income was a dawning and still highly fragmented industrial sector, which included both manufacturing and construction. The national census, however, pictured western Sicily as an area that considerable emigration flows were pushing toward an inexorable decline.
As in Irpinia, however, the reality behind the picture was more complex, and it would be a mistake to imagine this peasant world as one shrouded in ignorance and entirely abandoned to its gloomy fate of extinction. Indeed, the quake had affected not only surviving ancient structures, but also a slowly evolving productive system, which the common efforts of laborers and socially engaged intellectuals had been for several years laboriously trying to change.
Less than a year before the seism, in March , a huge protest march had taken place in western Sicily. Such was their vision in the words of a participant to the march:. Lorenzo spoke of dams, roads, forests, schools; he spoke of social cellars, farms and cooperatives; he spoke of water in the houses and of work for everyone, and he said that emigration had to be stopped. And he spoke of figures, of the jobs that could and should be created in every town and village. A key result of these exertions was the possibility for farmers to pay back emphyteusis lands, thus providing a tangible and durable response to the old labor-exploitative latifundium system.
This was particularly important as, a few weeks after the main shock, popular committees started to appear within the tent cities, mainly with the purpose of re-establishing town councils and returning the traumatized communities to their normal activities. In those early days, the work of the committees was also crucial to ensure a more equitable distribution of subsidies and relief supplies, which had soon fallen prey to the local political elites and their patronage networks.
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Over the years, these popular communities gave rise to an extraordinary mass protest movement against the regional and central governments that would last until , and whose traces are still alive today in Sicilian grassroots organizations. But let us return to those days of mid-January The homeless victims were housed in prefabricated barracks, small units 25—35 square meters made of corrugated sheet metal.
The slow pace of reconstruction—not a single house was built until —makes these barracks a characteristic element of the Belice catastrophe-architecture. Intended to serve for one, maximum two, years, these shelters were used instead throughout nearly two decades. This happened in spite of their evident structural and functional limits: Constantly subject to humidity and mold, the barracks were cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and provided with running water only intermittently.
Eight years after the seismic disaster, in , they still housed 47, people; as they were finally decommissioned, in , 5, people still lived in the barracks. Even today, the disposal of the asbestos here employed as a construction material is an additional side effect of this long mismanagement. As for Irpinia, the Belice reconstruction is an example of bad governance.
The intentions at first displayed by the central government were apparently good.
The claims for social growth and territorial integration coming from the grassroots movements were also heeded: Accordingly, the rebirth of the Valley had to be a sort of laboratory for modern land reform and social organization, an experiment conducted under the lead of the major exponents of contemporary architecture and urban planning. But things did not go exactly this way, and this very participatory aspect was lost in the process.
Instead of coupling the physical recovery of ruined towns with the formation of modern urban structures, providing investments in order to encourage social and economic development, the reconstruction consisted in a dissemination of often-uncoordinated interventions. Moreover, necessary facilities such as the serviceable local railways destroyed by the quake were not reinstated, whereas here, too, like in Irpinia, huge and disproportionately expensive highways were put up in the middle of nowhere, and often even left unfinished.
Here, too, as in Irpinia, a parliamentary inquiry commission evinced a thick web of criminal complicities and a whole series of dysfunctions on both the political and planning levels. In the majority of cases, historic centers, even when not irremediably damaged, were demolished or abandoned to their fate of ruins.
Baroque churches and Renaissance abbeys, monumental complexes and noble residences were bulldozed. In the long run, this has created an identity breach in the populations, which failed to integrate in the new landscape. Suddenly, in fact, the landscape was speaking another language. To the inhabitants, the codes embedded in this space had lost their semiotic efficacy. In the re-founded towns, almost nothing reminded of the original structures, shaped by tufa houses or imperviously castled on steep hills. Nothing except for their names, which instead of signaling continuity seemed to express a schizophrenic geography of disconnected identities, as in Maurilia:.
The choral dimension of that shared cosmos had created inter-subjective bonds across generations. Missing the horizon of familiarity— Heimlichkeit —of their world, these displaced populations experienced the unfamiliar— unheimlich —sensation of being historically and spatially alienated, dispersed, alone. A place of a radical urban and architectural modernization in search of a novel cultural self-representation, the New Gibellina is the symbol of the material-discursive watershed introduced by the earthquake.
As Vincenzo Consolo writes, continuing his imaginary conversation with Nicola, the after-quake emigrant:.
In the nude, raw terrain, in the desolated vagueness, in the dissolved memory […], rises […] the door to the […] metaphysical city.