(October 11, 2015) Visits to Pall and Birgit in Riomaggiore are not often, but I usually find time to go there once and they come to see me in Spello, too. I am relatively familiar with the town, although all of the steep stairs and walkways have hidden alleys that I have never explored. I’m always surprised with new discoveries, but then I also see some things over and over.
One of my favorite features in Riomaggiore are the massive murals, some on walls of plywood sheets facing the ocean near the National Park office, and one of the first sights that tourists see when they arrive at the train station. Others are painted on plaster walls near the City Hall. All are painted by the same man, an Italian-Argentinian named Silvio Benedetto, who depicts life as it once was in Riomaggiore. Women and men can be seen making the stone terraces that run around the steep mountains, where the grapes to make a particular sweet white dessert wine (Sciaccetra’) are grown. Men are chopping out stones with picks, and the women are carrying the debris away in cloth sacks, taking it down the mountain.
There are other murals about the grape cultivation and harvest, with men cutting bunches of grapes with their curved knives, and both women and men carting the grapes away in baskets on their heads. The murals are colorful, and very well done, but time and severe weather is taking a toll, and some of these scenes will be disappearing in the near future. The huge mural on plywood in the piazza near the train station is on splitting surfaces, where the salt splash and rain and hail remove more of the original paintings each year. Soon, the mural will have to come down, for the sake of safety, and these wonderful stories will not be told in such an artful way.
It is my understanding that the artist is still living, but was one of the townspeople, including the mayor at the time, included in a scandal and mass arrest of those involved in a huge corruption scheme, where the town, the national park system and the national train service lost cash that was collected for tickets and services, which was then taken and used for personal purposes. In one day, more than 15 were arrested—and most never returned to Riomaggiore, including the artist.
My only hope is that these murals were well documented earlier in photographs when they were in better condition, so that this history can live on. The people of Riomaggiore took impossibly steep mountains and turned them into thousands of stone-walled terraces, holding back soil to nourish the grapevines, and providing work and income and pride to those who created this place under the most strenuous and treacherous conditions.
The two sides of Riomaggiore are split by a mountainside between them, with a tunnel running through the mountain to connect the rail station side of town, where Pall lives, with the marina side. The marina side is home to most of the restaurants, shops, and housing for residents, as well as most of the hotels and bed and breakfast operations. In recent years, fried fish shops have opened, and now Riomaggiore has a spoken reputation as “the place with the fried fish,” but the residents are not impressed with this new change of scenery, and the constant smell of what they consider “fast food” for passing tourists.
Winding steeply up, the main roadway conceals a small river running under the street, flowing out to the sea nearby. The small grocers and other small businesses are mainly here, on the marina side, as well as another series of murals near the city hall, depicting life and death on the sea—the principal industry of Riomaggiore. The fishermen still go out daily to catch anchovies and other fish, bringing their boats back at about the time most of the rest of Riomaggiore is awakening.
The murals about the fishing trade are very thought provoking, depicting drowned men under the water, or their friends trying desperately to find and rescue them. The faces are haunting, but the lives of the fishermen on this fickle sea are always on the line. These murals, too, are crumbling off of the plaster over time—being attacked by the sea air and weather, just as the other murals on wood near the train station are being destroyed.
The art in Riomaggiore is an easy equal to the other beauty there, in the unique blue of the sea below, the rugged steepness of the terraced mountains, the bright buildings of town and the colorful boats stacked near the marina.