The history of Italy, home to the Vatican, is historically tied to the Catholic church. So it comes as no surprise that there are an estimated 65,000 churches—or chiese—in Italy. But what may surprise you are the vast quantities of churches that have been abandoned and left to decay. Across the country, it's an all-too-common phenomenon and it's something that Dutch photographer Roman Robroek wanted to learn more about.
To do so, Robroek explored Italy from north to south and photographed 100 examples of church architecture that have fallen into decay. According to Robroek, there are at least 1,000 abandoned churches reported across the country, and the actual number may be even higher.
What we see in his photographs are stunning pieces of craftsmanship slowly crumbling. There is water damage eating away at frescoes, delicate stuccowork crushed under the weight of collapsed roofs, and nature beginning to take back these manmade structures. From small local chapels to large church complexes, Robroek's visuals are a fascinating look at this changing culture in Italy.
As the Dutch photographer explains in his essay, this abandonment isn't necessarily due to a decreased enthusiasm for the Catholic church. In many cases, it's a byproduct of a phenomenon happening across Italy—ghost towns. As young people leave smaller towns for urban centers where employment opportunities are more plentiful, villages are slowly fading into oblivion. Over time, the villages become ghost towns with a near-zero or zero population.
These abandoned churches may also be due to a lack of investment on the part of the Church. Without funds to repair or upkeep the architecture, many parishes simply cannot maintain or renovate their churches. Over time, even with the best of intentions, they may slowly fall to the wayside.
“It might seem incredible that such stunning, artful churches are in this state of decay, but it all connects to the same issues,” Robroek writes. “the lack of community and the economic desolation of an area that has long past its prime.”
Still, Robroek sees the value in exploring these decaying churches and he hopes that others will follow his lead in using them as a teaching lesson.
“Today, abandoned churches in Italy and elsewhere offer a unique glimpse into the past,” he says. “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.”
Twenty-five images from Robroek's Chiesa series are currently available as NFTs on OpenSea.