A3 Research: An Anthropological Place

A Valley Near Montefino, Abruzzo - Steve Middlehurst

A Valley Near Montefino, Abruzzo – Steve Middlehurst

Marc Augé

Some time ago I looked at Marc Augé’s concept of supermodernity (here); a force driven by population growth and globalisation, delivered  by architecture, town planning and commercial interests. Super modernity led to a proliferation of non-places,  “spaces of circulation, consumption and communication” (1: p.xi)  in which we spend an increasingly high percentage of our time but with which we never form true associations, we never feel at home.

Non-places range from shopping centres, supermarkets, airports, railway stations, chain hotels and restaurants, motorways, theme parks and car-parks, to the non-functional green or paved spaces designed into commercial developments. They are what Peter Merriman (2), describes as “ubiquitous spaces of temporary dwelling” that individuals pass through and inhabit without forming any connection. We remain detached as we transit these non-places and even when we linger we remain emotionally disconnected from the environment and its other occupants.

The anthropological place is antonymous to the non-place. If the non-place is typified by structures the anthropological place is psychological, the idea that the inhabitants of a place have of their relations with a geographical space and its other inhabitants. It would be easy to say that such a place has history, an unique identity with recognisable and distinct characteristics that differentiate it from superficially similar places but it is more complex than this; people feel at home and belong in an anthropological place because intellectually they think it has all those things as well as individual, family and group relations and histories real or imagined.

Augé sees the anthropological place as being a tapestry of geography, history, religion and the spirit of its inhabitant’s ancestors :

“The [place] occupied by the indigenous inhabitants who live in it, cultivate it, defend it, mark its strong points and keep its frontiers under surveillance, but who also detect in it the traces of chthonian (i) or celestial powers, ancestors or spirits, which populate and animate its private geography.” (1: p 35)

Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo - Steve Middlehurst

Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo – Steve Middlehurst


Assignment three is based on a small village in the foothills of the Apennines in central Italy. Montefino is an ancient place, a once fortified village wrapped around the summit of a sharply pointed hill that guards the entrance to a long valley leading to the precipitous slopes of the Gran Sasso range, the highest peaks in central and southern Italy. Atri, just a few hills to the north, was founded by the Greek settlers who colonised the shores of the Adriatic sometime after the Trojan wars. The Greeks traded from the coast and over time became assimilated into the Italic tribes that built hill-top towns in the Greek style across the region before they were subjugated by Rome and the old salt traders’ routes across the Apennines were upgraded and paved to connect the west and east coasts of the Empire.

Abruzzo, the forgotten region of Italy, in which Montefino lies, has always been poor. There are no rich alluvial plains here, just hills and mountains. There are plenty of castles that date from the chaotic centuries after the Roman Empire declined and when Italy was broken into feuding little kingdoms claimed and counter-claimed by French and German war-lords; but the castles rarely protect swathes of rich land as they might in France or Northern Italy, here they brood over narrow passes that twist up over rugged mountains or cast their shadow across patches of fertile land made precious only by its scarcity.

Abruzzo was the most northerly province of the Kingdom of Naples, in simple terms everything to the east and south of Rome, a territory carved off the collapsed Holy Roman Empire by a few ambitious and ruthless Norman knights who probably set off to join the crusades but became distracted by the easy pickings of Southern Italy. From 1130 until the unification of Italy in 1860 the Kingdom remained reasonably intact although the various powerful houses of Spain, France, Germany and Austrian all took a turn at controlling and extracting taxes from the indigenous population.

One suspects that the lot of the Abruzzesi peasant or cafoni hardly changed from prehistory until the 1950s. Edward Lear, the landscape painter and humorous poet, travelled through the region twice in the 1840s commenting on its beauty, atrocious food and wine, primitive and ignorant people and the challenges of sharing rooms with a wide range of domestic and farm animals. He describes ramshackle towns and dusty villages with little or no culture nor any trappings of nineteenth century modernity. (2)

Twenty years later the Kingdoms of both Naples and Sicily were in terminal economic, political and social decline offering little resistance to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s invasion. In the plebiscite held in 1860 they voted overwhelmingly for unification.

Ignazio Silone (ii), who is arguably Abruzzo’s most famous son, (iii) talks of

“the everlasting poverty handed down by fathers who inherited it from grandfathers, in the face of which honest toil had never been any use.”

Appignano, Abruzzo - Steve Middlehurst

Appignano, Abruzzo – Steve Middlehurst

We purchased a house in Abruzzo in 2004, living there on a full-time basis from 2006 to 2010, and still visiting regularly to this day. The coast is developed now, ugly concrete Mediterranean-modern, tall hotels and apartment blocks, offices, shopping centres and  traces of light industry line the coast road and its twin, the railway line. Non-places have risen here as southern Italy attempts to catch up for lost time; a soulless small airport that momentarily boomed with Ryan Air’s arrival has since slumped back into long hours of flightless slumber; a modern railway station in the German style dominates Pescara and vast out-of-town shopping malls with their piped music car parks boom and bust as the local economy waxes and wanes. But, leave the coast and head inland and the traveller finds an older, slower Italy; a place the cafoni might recognise. Small plots of tomatoes and beans are squeezed between crumbling houses, olive groves and vineyards cover the hills where small tractors hauling grapes or olives and the ubiquitous Ape (iv) reduce the traffic to jogging pace.

Wherever I go in Abruzzo Stilone’s haunting descriptions of his imaginary Fontamara come back to me. Tiny villages hug the hill tops or appear glued to the sides of black mountain crags, the church and an occasional medieval tower point through the red tiled roofs of the cottages, the tiles held down by lines of rocks gathered from the stoney fields. The centre of these villages matches Augé’s description of a classic European anthropological place; in front of the church there will be an open piazza, large enough for the annual festa and saint’s day celebrations, a town hall or comune will be close by, a school, village bar, one or two shops and a memorial to the dead of WWI complete the comemercial, political and spiritual hub of the community. Outside the village there will be the occasional large old house, a relic from the days of the rich landowners who with near-feudal power ruled the lives of the cafoni until land reform in the 1950’s and perhaps a few small factories, an olive press and a restaurant or two.

Olive Sacks, Montefino - Steve Middlehurst

Olive Sacks, Montefino – Steve Middlehurst

The economy is no longer agricultural, the million sheep that once grazed Campo Imperatore, the great plateau beneath the highest peaks, are long gone; a few hardy shepherds still take their flocks up the drove roads but the ancient roads, often hundreds of metres wide, will never again be filled by the shaggy, unkempt sheep and their pure white canine guardians, the modern flocks are but a trickle running along the bed of a dried up river. But  still, in every village the old men tend their tomatoes, grow their beans, perhaps keep a pig or two, fatten a few sheep for home made arrositicini (v) and tend enough vines to make their wine each year. The family will have an olive grove somewhere near the village and when once three generations of the family came together in October and November to pick the plump green and black fruit now it is the only the oldest who are willing to undertake the back breaking task of scaling ladders, moving nets and cramming the fruit into sacks ready for the press.

In Montefino the young have mostly gone; to the coast, to the northern industrial cities or to America, Australia and Argentina; the population has dwindled from its peak of 2,399 in 1951 to less than 1,000 today. The school closes for ever this summer, there are only a handful of children left in the village and they can be bused to the nearest town; the doctor is old now and one wonders who will replace him. There is a priest again after many years of borrowing one from Atri but the church is only full at Easter. Many houses are empty but the foreign holiday home buyers don’t fit easily into village life preferring to buy deserted farm houses or villas near the sea. The future holds little promise despite the beauty of the surroundings and the resilience of the population, the only factory has shut and there’s less EU money available for the white elephant projects that, for a short while, sustained the local economy and lined the pockets of a few local businessmen.

They are no longer cafoni but the older villagers were born as peasants and retain the memories of poverty, oppression and the fantasy that the communists or fascists would change their world; they had long before given up hope that the church would offer them salvation here on earth. Silone describes the life of the cafoni, a lifestyle that although just a memory remains the backdrop to the way the southern Italian still sees their world:

“First came the sowing, then the spraying, then the reaping, then the gathering of grapes. And then? The same thing over again, Sowing, hoeing, pruning, spraying, reaping, the gathering of grapes. It was always the same song, always the same refrain. Always. Years passed, years added up, the young grew old, the old died, and sowing, hoeing, spraying, reaping, and gathering the grapes went on. And then? Back again to the beginning. Each year was like the previous year, each season like the one before, each generation like its predecessor. It never occurred to anyone at Fontamara that this ancient way of life might change.” (2: p7)

Montefino, Abruzzo - Steve Middlehurst

Montefino, Abruzzo – Steve Middlehurst

This, then is my anthropological place, a village steeped in history and infused with the sprit of its inhabitants’ ancestors, a small place, off the beaten track with an ageing and dwindling population hanging on to the idea of their ancestral home that supermodernity is making increasingly irrelevant. A place where an ancient way of life did change.

Notes on Text

(i) Of or relating to the deities, spirits, and other beings dwelling under the earth.

(ii) Ignazio Silone, born Secondo Tranquilli,  is a figure shrouded in some mystery. He was born in rural Abruzzo and was thrown into poverty when, as a teenager, most of his family including his mother were killed in an earthquake. He became politically active as a socialist and helped found the Italian Communist Party in 1922 but was expelled in 1931. He exiled himself to Switzerland and wrote the first of the three anti-fascist novels that together comprise The Abruzzo Trilogy. He returned to Italy after the war and became the leader of the Democratic Socialist Party for a short time before leaving politics to devote himself to writing. After his death in 1978 Italian Government papers were published that showed he had been a police informant throughout the 1920’s which suggest that his relations with both the communists and fascists were highly ambiguous. 

(iii)  If we exclude Dean Martin who was born there but emigrated as a child.

(iv) The Piaggio Ape is a three wheeled miniature pick up truck based on an two stroke scooter power system. A tiny cab hangs over the single front wheel where the driver and and one passenger can squeeze in behind the handle bars. The word ape is the Italian for bee and describes the sound these strange little machines make as they crawl up mountain roads or bounce across fields.

(v) Arrosticini are classic Abruzzese cuisine, small chunks of mutton, or less traditionally, lamb spiked on thin wooden skewers and roasted over a barbecue. No festa or feast day is complete without the village eating huge quantities of these tiny kebab-like delicacies accompanied by rough bread soaked in local olive oil and washed down with home-made red wine.



(1) Augé, Mark (1995) Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London:Verso.

(3) Montgomery, Michael (2005) Lear’s Italy: In the footsteps of Edward Lear. London: Cadogan

(4) Stilone, Ignazio (2000) The Abruzzo Trilogy. Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press


(2) Merriman, Peter (2009) Exploring Supermodernity: Marc Augé in Context(s) (accessed at Academia 16.2.16) – https://www.academia.edu/1206011/Marc_Auge_on_Space_Place_and_Non-Places

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