Church buildings have been a mainstay feature throughout Europe for centuries. From quaint country chapels to luxurious and majestic cathedrals, the “Old World” is home or has been home to hundreds of churches. Some of them are maintained in pristine shape, highly regarded as national treasures, while others meet a rather different ending, being left in the hands of time and its relentless way of decaying things.
From Urban Areas to the Countryside
From the far north of the country, down to the most remote areas of the southern Italian islands, there are remnants of ancient churches, some of which are only known to smaller local communities. In some cases, abandoned churches and religious buildings might not even be known outside of the lore of a specific neighborhood, and as time goes by, knowledge of these places and their past history gets simply lost through time.
Even large cities like Naples in the Campania region are actually home to many unsuspecting former churches. The historical center features many residential buildings that simply morphed into homes from their origins as former chapels, as urban expansion swallowed what was there before.
Take the historical building at Via Nilo 22, Palazzo di Ludovico Di Bux. Even the current residents might not realize the premises were once a church, with some of its decaying features still visible to this day. This building belongs to a long list of former churches, sections of which are currently still decaying in plain sight, without even any proper documentation due to loss of records through the centuries.
The Rise of the Church in Italy
Whether in a busy city’s forgotten corner or swallowed by vegetation somewhere in the countryside, there are many abandoned or simply forgotten churches, chapels, and other religious buildings, slowly getting lost to time and fading from collective memories.
The notion of Italy being home to many abandoned or decaying churches is a rather peculiar one for so many people. After all, Italy has a really tight bond with the Catholic Church in particular, with the roots of modern Christianity as an organization essentially dating back to the Roman Empire.
Just for a quick refresher, Christianity was originally considered a sect, a minority religion belonging to Jewish immigrants who moved to the area. Progressively, Christianity gained more traction, up until a massive turning point, when Roman Emperor Constantine The Great (AD 306–337) kickstarted the transition of Christianity into the mainstream religion of the Roman Empire, replacing the previous polytheistic pantheon.
Constantine decriminalized Christianity in 313, and he was instrumental in ceasing the persecution of Christians in the Roman empire, in the event that is still remembered today as “The Triumph of the Church.” To this day, historians and scholars are still speculating about the actual reasons leading to the Emperor’s support of Christianity. Was it simply a matter of faith, or was it more of a political strategy? Regardless, this event marked the start of a whole new era for the Church, which would go on to become an almost omnipresent entity throughout Italy, and Europe.
This presence manifested itself in many forms, especially in the churches built through the years. Most churches were meant to represent the power of the Church through majestic artwork, tall ceilings, marvelous artifacts, and other stylistic appointments, presenting a huge variety of architectural styles throughout the ages. From gothic to byzantine, and even baroque, anything goes.
Consider this: The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s most important churches, happens to be one of the oldest catholic churches ever, dating back to 340, only a few decades away from Constantine’s decree. The proliferation of Churches continued to expand for many hundreds of years, with almost a millennium of influence and power over Italian (and European) politics and society.
We could write endless chapters about how the Church continued to acquire power and influence over the following centuries, with many churches being built as a result. Every little town in Italy has at least a chapel.
The small town of Chianche, in the Benevento province of Italy, is not even on most maps, and it is barely home to 50 people, yet it has two churches, one of which is in disuse. This town perfectly exemplifies the current state of churches in most of rural Italy. As secularism becomes more prominent and older, more chaotic generations are dying out, many churches are falling behind. There is simply a lack of resources or personnel to keep them running, leading to more and more of these local churches becoming abandoned.
Lack of Interest in Religion, or Socioeconomic Shifts?
The rise of secularism, as mentioned earlier, is often linked with a decline in church attendance throughout Italy. Ever since the age of illuminism, progressive thinking and more open-ended views on religion became tolerable as public views. All of a sudden, it was no longer dangerous to express doubt and even question the values of Christianity as a religion or an institution.
At the same time, the idea that a slow but steady progressive decrease in religious fervor might have contributed to a lack of interest in some local churches is probably not the most likely cause for the majority of abandoned churches that are currently scarred throughout Italy.
It is much more likely that other social and economic factors fell into place.
As mentioned earlier, it’s quite common to find abandoned churches in smaller rural towns and countryside areas. However, the churches aren’t the only things being left behind. Entire towns are slowly but surely fading out. Smaller communities consolidate into bigger ones, as people are leaving small farming communities like Chianche, mentioned earlier, to seek better opportunities in larger cities or abroad.
As communities wane, job opportunities wane, administrative resources decrease, budgets plummet, and many buildings fall into disuse, and eventually, decay. This has affected schools, former public facilities, and, more importantly, churches, which simply have no reason to stay open without any community to cater to.
A recent study, led by Luigi Bartolomei of the University of Bologna, focused specifically on the phenomenon of abandoned churches in Italy. The essay features data from the Church Census, comparing statistics in the Bologna area and on a national basis with various historical contexts and social landscapes.
According to the study, a lack of interest in the Church isn’t the main cause of abandoned church infrastructure. The study pinpoints the exodus from smaller urban areas into big cities and the lack of plans from the Catholic Church to invest in or promote Churches in larger urban areas. In other words, while Churches in rural areas are simply getting abandoned due to people leaving, those who are left to their own devices in larger areas are victims of budget cuts or lack of proper management or interest in revitalizing a specific church as a place of aggregation for the community.
Why It Can Be So Hard to Track Abandoned Churches
The study also touches on the concept of a national church infrastructure being very difficult to manage, given the natural connection between specific churches and their territory. Historically, many churches have been quite independent in their management, even from a budgeting standpoint. Donations from the community or from wealthy local patrons have always been a vital component of the survival of a church – such donations have often been misreported or not reported at all to the greater body of the Church as an institution, essentially making it difficult to track the financial status of a given church.
To put this in perspective, Bologna, which is considered a mid-sized city in the center of Italy, is home to 700 churches. Naples is home to over 1.000 churches, while Rome, the Italian capital, has 900 churches. We are talking of over 2600 churches, and this is only in 3 cities across Italy. Ranging from tiny historic chapels to monumental buildings.
It’s estimated that there are over 20.000 churches across Italy, although the actual number might be closer to 65.000. There are at least 1.000 confirmed abandoned churches throughout Italy, although there are probably countless more, without even a name to go by, due to records that have been lost a long time ago. Dropping numbers is a good way to get a broad idea, but it might be a fool’s errand in the long run since there isn’t a consensus or any reliable data concerning the current state of abandoned church buildings or former churches that are now privately owned, yet might still be in a decayed state.
As mentioned earlier, a church is often deeply tied to its territory. Things change, and as we discussed throughout this article, people tend to move to “greener pastures” (or actually far from pastures, since many relocate to urban areas!).
Many current abandoned churches, which were once established in pre-industrial Italy, are now located in areas that have simply fallen behind with the times. Economic shifts through history have often been a driving force for people to relocate, leaving old communities behind and forging new ones. At times, this leads to abandonment and decay of the previous infrastructure, where there is simply no interest or demand for them anymore.
While it might be easier to consider the conservation of a church in a larger urban area due to its historic value, it’s increasingly difficult to approach conservation the same way in areas that are now remote and empty.
In simpler terms, what is the use of allocating budgets and going the extra mile for the conservation of a church if there is no community to enjoy it? No tourism to attract and generally no other relevant activity in the surrounding area? The sad aftereffect of urbanization and the big mass move to large cities is that many smaller communities are simply ceasing to exist, including what was once their true beating hearts: their churches.
It’s Not Just Ghost Churches, but Entire Ghost Towns
In many other European countries, such as Germany, Sweden, or Austria, the phenomenon of abandoned churches is often offset by a growing trend of conversion. This means that many former churches are converted into something else: residences, concert halls, even restaurants, theaters, or museums.
However, this is generally speaking more difficult to do. Not only because of a lack of financial backing for such projects, but also because the majority of abandoned churches in the countries are located in areas where there is simply no demand for new facilities, and investing big money in salvaging and converting a church that will simply not make any sense for an investor or a landowner.
Many “ghost towns” in Italy, such as Balestrino, in Liguria, are a testament to this phenomenon. The town has been abandoned since the 60s, including the local Church, whose decaying figure perches from a steep hill, overlooking the decaying town. It’s so eerie that it almost looks like a movie set.
Fossa in L’Aquila is another example. This town, located in the Aquila area of Abruzzo, was badly damaged by a 2009 earthquake that shook the region, so much so that the village was almost entirely abandoned. This town is an example of how the “ghost town” phenomenon is very real, and also very recent in Italy: Fossa was abandoned less than 20 years ago!
These are only some of the many forgotten phantom villages and broken towns in the country. To add to that, many regions of Italy (especially in the south) are fairly prone to cataclysmic events such as earthquakes, happening every few decades. For instance, a couple of violent earthquakes in the 60s and 80s have led to the abandonment of many towns and churches.
In addition, many churches and communities have been abandoned in a hurry as a consequence of other specific historical events, such as bombings in the second world war or pillage from Nazi troops, who did as much damage as they could when they were retreating from Italy at the end of the war.
This doesn’t mean that the majority of abandoned churches happen to be small local chapels. On the contrary, there are many examples of abandoned churches in Italy dating back to several eras. Recently, for instance, a neo-gothic church in the Marche region, which had laid abandoned for centuries, was rediscovered. Not even the original name of this Church is known!
Chiesa Madre di San Nicola, in the Lamezia area, is another prime example of a stunning church, sitting abandoned in spite of the many efforts from the community in trying to secure funds for renovations and restoration efforts.
Chiesa Faraone Antico is another victim of Italy’s relatively frequent seismic activity, and it is the heart of an entire borgo, which was completely laid to waste and abandoned by the community.
Another notable example is a stunning baroque church in the Abruzzo region, completely abandoned, including a crypt and an ossuary with human remains still in it! According to reports from those who have been there, there is a literal mountain of human remains, some of which even have scattered remains of the clothing items they were supposedly buried with. Some mummified bodies are also visible among the piles of bones and skeletons.
Admittedly, it might seem incredible that such stunning, artful churches are in this state of decay, but it all connects to the same issues we mentioned earlier: the lack of community and the economic desolation of an area that has long past its prime.
Today, abandoned churches in Italy and elsewhere offer a unique glimpse into the past. A source of reflection, perhaps, as they prompt us to think about the future. If a church, once the most important haven in the community, can become a pile of ruins, what does that say about what we hold certain today? These are the traces of the past of many communities, and if we follow them, we can see where we all came from and perhaps where we’re going.
P.S. If you’ve made it to the end of this article, thanks so much for reading it and looking at the photos. 25 images of my CHIESA collection are available on OpenSea as NFTs.
About the author: Roman Robroek is a Netherlands-based urban exploration photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can see more of his work on his website, or by following him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.