Squatter artists fight for right to stay in ruined Italian village

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Throughout Italy, there must be hundreds of hilltop towns and villages, some of them quaint and charming, most of them crowned with a church or castle, but none quite like Bussania Vecchia.

Throughout Italy, there must be hundreds of hilltop towns and villages, some of them quaint and charming, most of them crowned with a church or castle, but none quite like Bussania Vecchia.

Perched on its hill, a few miles inland from the resort of San Remo, Bussania Vecchia is a charming ruin where a community of international artists is fighting for its survival.

The village was abandoned after a severe earthquake hit the region in 1887. Many of the inhabitants were killed and the survivors moved away. In 1926, an English visitor described the desolation of the place: goats wandering in deserted streets, gaping doors and windows, and the heady smell of wild thyme that grew everywhere among the rubble.

In the Fifties, San Remo town council judged the houses too dangerous to be occupied, and damaged them even more in an attempt to make them terminally uninhabitable.

In that, they did not succeed. In 1960, some artists discovered the long-abandoned village and moved in. They cleared the streets and restored the interiors of the buildings as homes, studios, art galleries and shops; the exteriors they left in a state of decorative decay.

As reports of the new community spread, Bussania Vecchia attracted artists and craftsmen from other countries, including the US and Britain. These cosmopolitan squatters enjoyed a free-wheeling lifestyle in their increasingly beautiful and romantic ruin. They even wrote a constitution which laid down strict rules about how the buildings should be restored.

The village has great charm and has even become a tourist attraction. It has a resident population of about 60, which rises to several hundred during the summer months, plus thousands of day trippers.

Seen from a distance, Bussania Vecchia still looks like a ruin but as you climb the narrow cobbled streets, you find yourself wandering past quaint little boutiques, balconies and urns brimming with flowers, and even some cafés with tables set out in leafy gardens. As you reach the top of the path - far too narrow for cars - you're greeted by the most magnificent of the ruins, the church, its roof open to the sky, the baroque decor faded and crumbling where it emerges from a mantle of climbing roses and bougainvillea.

Sitting down to rest, there's only the sound of birdsong and the distant strumming of a guitar. No motor vehicles, no rush. But behind the weathered doors of the houses, among the community of artists, things are far from tranquil.

Colin Wilmott, at the age of 27, escaped an unsatisfying life as a London estate agent to settle in Bussania Vecchia to paint, sculpt and write. That was nearly 40 years ago. The house he occupied and lovingly restored affords splendid views over the rooftops and valley.

Last week, sipping a glass of wine among the tubs of flowers, he explained how relations with the Italian authorities have deteriorated.

In the beginning the artists were regarded as a group of harmless, long-haired misfits who, he said, squatted with the tacit consent of the local government in San Remo. In the Seventies, the village was even connected to mains electricity and water; and there was collaboration over advertising art exhibitions, concerts and street theatre.

"From 1960 to 1968, our work was actively encouraged by the San Remo council. They even went as far as to finance a couple of classical-music festivals in the village," said Mr Wilmott. "The hill villages all around here are dying. There are empty villages all over Italy. We've shown what can be done."

Things started to go wrong when the artists tried to establish legal rights to their homes under the Italian law of usacapione, 20 years of unchallenged occupation. While these legal battles over squatters' rights were under way, the Italian state intervened with the shock announcement that Bussania Vecchia is now a national monument, that it therefore belongs to the state and that squatters' rights are invalid. As a result, the entire community is in danger of eviction. Not only that, but the judge in the lower court has ruled that the village must be restored to the original state of ruin that it was in before the squatters arrived.

The artists are outraged: "Morally, the village is our property after so much time," said Daniella Mercante, a potter. "The state should look after us and not torment us."

"After 40 years, it's time to legalise Bussania," insists Joe Baruccio, a German carpenter. "The state should accept a symbolic price for the houses - a few thousand lire. We've rebuilt the houses, spending a lot of money. We pay local taxes for rubbish-removal, electricity, water. Without us, the village wouldn't exist."

At present, the case is under appeal, with a judgment expected in September. In the meantime, Bussania Vecchia is not a happy place. Mr Wilmott says that the house he shares with his son is his only asset. Everything he has earned - about £80,000 - has gone into its improvement. By letting rooms, he makes a little money. Without it he will be destitute.

He is deeply suspicious about the train of events. He thinks that the efforts to evict him may be motivated not by regard for the historic value of the village but by its vastly enhanced monetary value: "It's become a valuable piece of real estate because of the enormous amount of work that has been done and the money we've spent on it. It was a worthless ruin. It is now a viable community, with children and a school bus that comes up... a village with very nice houses a mile from the sea."

He is prepared to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights - or else he will buy a gun, an idea he did not offer to explain.

Julian Pettifer presents 'Crossing Continents', BBC Radio 4, tomorrow at 8pm