In September 2022 I had the privilege of spending a month in residence at The Museum of Loss and Renewal in the village of Collemacchia, Italy. The Museum of Loss and Renewal is a cultural project run by Edwin Janssen and Tracy MacKenna, artists and curators who have established a residency program to enable artists and writers to take the time to “generate thoughts, feelings and ideas” in Collemacchia. The village is in Molise in southern Italy, and is part of a mountainous region of great natural beauty which is not much known and visited, including by Italians.
What attracted me to the residency initially was its name: my own recent work, especially Melbourne Circle and my other ventures into psychogeography, has engaged with loss and renewal as key themes. Also, there was the appeal of returning to Italy, where I had lived as a young man more than 30 years ago. When I arrived at the place and began to explore, I discovered that it was an ideal place for investigating these themes in slightly different ways.
The village is very small in terms of population: only a few dozen people, and a large number of feral cats, populate it for much of the year, although more people return during the summer.
It all looks undeniably romantic and picturesque to the outsider, but this is an agricultural area which has lost much of its population over the past hundred years or so. Around the village you often come across empty houses with ‘for sale’ signs, some of which look abandoned, with crumbling walls and holes in the roofs. The hills around here used to be extensively cultivated, as you can tell from the dry stone walls which divide the hills into terraces on which people grew grapes and figs, walnuts and apples, and kept a few livestock. But now most of those small farms have gone – though a few survive – the walls are overgrown and crumbling, and you can freely pluck ripe figs from the trees, and apples and grapes, because no one is harvesting them. The area is rewilding, as part of a process known as ‘old field succession’. Nature reclaims the land, as people abandon the farms and flock to the cities – a trend happening in many parts of the world. I’ve always been an urban guy, but I found it intriguing and moving to be in this formerly agricultural area, and observe its transition back to wildness.
There are other traces of the past around these hills. Not far up the hill from the village is an old well, said to be Roman. Twenty minutes walk away, along a winding path that leads you on a circuitous route through trees and rocks and brambles, you find a medieval ossuary where the bodies of victims of the Naples Plague were disposed of, then walled up: peering down through a hole in the roof, I saw bones below. Less macabre are the little stone huts, known as ‘capanne’ which you come across here and there as you wander, built over past centuries as shelters for people out on the hills in foul weather. And everywhere you come across shrines, with plaster saints or Jesus himself gazing out from holes in the walls among the trees or beside the road.
On one occasion Edwin took me and fellow residents on a walk though the hills to an empty house which is an absolute gift to anyone with a taste for hauntology. Abandoned some time in the late 20th century, we think, it is engulfed with foliage, trees are growing through its walls, while birds and bats flit through the holes. Inside walls are painted powder blue, but the ceiling is a pale ocean with continents of dark green mould, and much of the plaster has crashed to the floor around the wreck of a washing machine. Light falls through a curtain of leaves around an empty doorway. And in the bedroom is the putrid corpse of a bed in a state of advanced decomposition. Wandering though the abandoned house – abandoned by its owners, anyway, though still very much occupied by other lifeforms – encouraged reflections on the transience of human activities: one day all our cities will be like this, but nature will continue. It that sense, the house is an embodiment both of loss and of renewal. A little bat on the ceiling glared at us, perhaps aware that his species has been around for millions of years longer than ours and expects to be here long after we’ve wiped ourselves out.
Being in such a layered and complex setting – and in four weeks I hardly had time to scratch the surface of it – was stimulating for my writing, and I did get some work done, supported by the always encouraging presence of Edwin Janssen. Hopefully some of the essays and fiction I worked on will see the light of day at some stage. I’m sure I will retain Collemacchia as part of my mental landscape and I am glad and grateful that I had the opportunity to visit. Any artist or writer with an interest in the kind of themes I’ve referred to would benefit from a residency at The Museum of Loss and Renewal, and I hope to return myself one day before too long.
Giving a reading in the library at The Museum of Loss and Renewal.