How new murals on old walls are energizing an Italian town

Asia Palomba
A mural of a young boy and his shadow, by Brazilian street artist Alex Senna, helps color the historical part of Civitacampomarano, Italy. Mr. Senna and other artists were invited to make their respective marks on the town to help lure tourism.

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The all-time low birthrate in Italy is made all the more stark in a place like Civitacampomarano, where the fewer than 400 residents occupy a medieval mountaintop village in the hard-to-traverse Molise region, northwest of the spur on the Italian boot. In an attempt to breathe life back into the aging community, the town has taken up paintbrushes and spray cans as its weapons in the fight against depopulation. They created the CVTà Street Fest, inviting artists from all over the world – from Italy to Argentina to Poland – to paint on its walls. Alex Senna, a Brazilian who painted three murals in the town in 2016, was inspired by what he sees as the three defining characters of Civita: elderly women, cats, and children. “The people were always very helpful and ... warm, and every day we had lunch and dinner [together]. One day I was painting and a procession of a saint was passing by. It was cool because all the people I had met [the day before] ... were in the procession.”

Why We Wrote This

“Overtourism” may vex venerated art cities like Rome and Venice. But for a village where population decline is the more common Italian challenge, new works by visiting artists are drawing welcome visitors.

Perched on a mountain is a medieval village made of stone. Its small streets are winding and empty, framed by old crumbling buildings sporting multiple “For Sale” signs. Welcome to Civitacampomarano, a town in Italy’s underpopulated region of Molise. The village, which has fewer than 400 residents, is only one of Italy’s towns that is experiencing a decline in residents. However, Civitacampomarano, referred to simply as Civita by locals, has taken up paintbrushes and spray cans as its weapons in the fight against depopulation. 

In an attempt to breathe life back into the aging community, the town created an annual street art festival called CVTà Street Fest, inviting artists from all over the world, from Italy to Brazil to Argentina to Poland, to paint on its walls. 

In 2014, local citizen and festival organizer Ylenia Carelli sent an email to Italian street artist Alice Pasquini, asking her to come paint in Civita and bring some color to the town. Not only was Ms. Pasquini willing to do so, but it so happened that her grandfather hailed from the village and was its beloved doctor. Today, Pasquini is the festival’s artistic director. This summer’s festival was the third and brought in more than 7,000 visitors, more than twice as many as the previous festival. The festival, which lasts for four days, has live music, street food, and workshops meant to preserve local history, including one on how to make cavatelli, the region’s famed pasta. 

Why We Wrote This

“Overtourism” may vex venerated art cities like Rome and Venice. But for a village where population decline is the more common Italian challenge, new works by visiting artists are drawing welcome visitors.

As the festival continues to give increasing visibility and recognition to the town, it is also providing locals with a fresh sense of hope. 

“The town has come back to life in the sense that many people are [visiting] not only during the festivals, but throughout the whole year,” says festival organizer Barbara Manuele. “There is still much to be done.... The changes aren’t immediate, they’re gradual. But you can see change.” She stood in front of a mural by Argentine artist Francisco Bosoletti. The mural, painted in reverse negative and titled “La Resistenza” (“The Resistance”), features a number of women reaching toward the sky, a testament to the region and the town’s population, which continues to resist and fight against depopulation.

Many of the works of art painted on the maze of walls and buildings commemorate and immortalize the local people and the town’s history, says Ms. Manuele. In return for the artists’ work, the town has embraced them with open arms. 

“It was pretty surreal,” recalls Brazilian artist Alex Senna. “The people were always very helpful and ... warm, and every day we had lunch and dinner [together]. One day I was painting and a procession of a saint was passing by. It was cool because all the people I had met in the bar [the day before] were in the procession.” 

Mr. Senna, who painted three murals in the town in 2016, was inspired by what he sees as the three defining characters of Civita: elderly women, cats, and children.

While the town continues to feel the sting of depopulation, there are signs of change in the air. A new ice cream shop has opened (the first and only one in Civita); there’s an Airbnb unit for rent in the town center; and more and more tourists are seen walking through Civita’s stone streets.  

“[This] is fantastic,” says Lidia Ciafardini, who co-owns the ice cream shop with her husband. “No one knows about us, and the street festival gave us a way to let ourselves be known.” Ms. Ciafardini makes the ice cream herself using nuts and berries she collects from the forest.

The goal is to keep the festival going for as long as possible with the hope of drawing visitors, young and old, to view Civita’s vibrant walls, Manuele says. 

For now, though, townspeople are content with what they’ve accomplished and are buoyed by a sense of hope and gratitude. “We are [facing] extinction,” Ciafardini says. “This is clear, but the locals and I will never stop thanking Ms. Carelli for contacting Pasquini, and Pasquini for what she is doing, because if not, we would be finished. This is hope, and I don’t know where this will take us or how much we’ll be able to do ... but you cannot imagine what this means for us.”

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