Orgosolo has a reputation. An enticing, historical, questionable reputation as the epicenter of Sardinian banditry, and as the town where art and emotion conquered diffidence. These stories intersect and intertwine and become the story we want to tell ourselves. A story with just enough contrast to make it interesting (rough and tough Sardinian cowboys, youthful artistic expression). A story close enough in time to feel that we can be a part of it, but far enough away to mean that we can go there without worrying about our cameras being stolen.
The fact that the legends are true doesn’t change where we are today. Orgosolo has been touted for the last 70 years as the heart of banditismo, which is a particularly Sardinian brand of criminality. It involved mainly shepherds and their internal disputes - though, lest that seem tame, most of the town was made up of shepherds for centuries. Today banditismo in Sardinia has diminished to the point that the shot-up street signs can be entertaining, not scary. It has become folklore that is just real enough to fascinate. Today we come to Orgosolo and find a town with its memory painted on its walls, with its main characters still alive, with streets that offer just enough privacy to avoid the constant trickle of other visitors who might remind us that we are not participating in a historical moment, but just snapping pictures of it.
Today’s story, then, begins with a stranger (otherwise what kind of Western would this be), who came to Orgosolo in the 1960’s. Francesco Del Casino was from Siena, arguably one of the most precious of Tuscan hilltop cities, long a seat of economic and historic power. But in the ’60’s, Del Casino was looking to teach and the one place there were openings was in the province of Nuoro on the mysterious island of Sardinia. At that time, Orgosolo’s fifteen minutes of fame was Vittorio De Seta’s movie from 1961, Bandits of Orgosolo, that glorified the story of small mountain towns in this particular area of the island. It tells of life for the shepherds and residents and bases its plot around something that is always more glamorous in film than in real life - the rivalries between families that had long made the town a place where unsolved murder was commonplace. Del Casino was young and presumably foolhardy and, thanks to this film, he signed up to teach high school art in Orgosolo.
Del Casino tells the story of arriving on the bus, not understanding a word of what is being said around him, surrounded by silence, women dressed head to toe in black and fog. But the town was not abandoned or terrorized by banditry and, in fact, it had attracted more than just this one young misfit. There was a barber that hosted different international artists in an informal hostel above his shop. It was home to well-known poets and singers. In short, it seems that something about the town encouraged or produced eccentricity - more proof that every small town in Sardinia has its own richness.
Banditismo is based mostly on robbery and kidnapping - it can include shepherds stealing each others flocks, or groups working together to trap bank trucks, or even a network of bandits working together to kidnap people and extort hefty ransoms. Barbagia, where Orgosolo is located, is the region where banditry is most common. In fact the region’s name comes from the Romans who felt that the mountainous area was too wild, too barbaric, to be tamed. This is a place that has seen more than its fair share of kidnappings, hijackings, murders and robbery. But it isn’t quite as unruly as it may sound. Historically, there is a fierce and complicated honor code in place that must be respected - the Barbaricino Code - that sets limitations on what is acceptable and what punishments may be exacted and by whom.
And there is an equally fierce sense of community. The Italian police have tried numerous times to make inroads, however they find it ridiculously hard to get information out of anyone. Part of this is the honor code - snitching is tantamount to a sin - but part of it is rumored to be because no one person steals only for personal greed. Apparently the whole community must benefit. In this way, banditry differs greatly from Italian mafia; there is no boss, no official hierarchy, no mansions and no terrorizing the local population. People don’t stay quiet because they’re afraid of a horse’s head in their bed; they stay quiet because even the criminals are part of this community, and the community takes care of its own. So in comes a Tuscan art teacher with long hair and funny jeans. But Del Casino was able to become a part of the community himself. And when that community was threatened from the outside, he showed that he was committed to saving it.
In the summer of 1969, flyers appeared pasted up on the walls throughout town. It was the Italian Army, informing the shepherds and townspeople to abandon a certain part of the valley, called Pratobello, for the next couple of weeks. They were putting up a temporary shooting range & training camp. The town was outraged - this was their land and their livelihood and they didn’t trust the Italian government to do anything temporary. Their wariness proved farsighted - at least 60% of Italy’s military bases are on Sardinian land, land which was generally usurped with little or no payment years ago for what were originally temporary outposts. Quickly the town began organizing, and Del Casino was deeply involved. A few weeks later, most of the town’s population moved down to the farmland where the Italian Forces were already beginning to set up. Shepherds and wives and grandmothers and children all camped out on the spot for days, interacting with the soldiers, explaining themselves, refusing to leave.
The Pratobello Revolt, as it is known, is remarkable in many ways. Sardinians are not big on organized civil actions. They are also not rash or hurried or generally convinced that social action can hold much weight. One of the most commonly repeated phrases on the island is “Bisogna avere pazienza,” or “One must have patience.” The citizens of Orgosolo, however, uncharacteristically put their faith in a group of young activists. They were able to organize and to convince the army to leave without even one episode of violence and today Pratobello remains a lovely and unassuming pasture.
A few years later, undoubtedly riding the emotional wave that had swept through the town after the success of the revolt, Del Casino began painting a mural with his students in order to “break down the wall between school and society.” The first mural was politically minded, but not at all questionable, recalling and celebrating the liberation of Italy from the Fascists. It was well received. Through the years he then painted more and more murals, covering much of the center of town with paintings. His murals became ever more brazen, decrying injustice and violence and celebrating leftist heroes such as Emilio Lussu and Antonio Gramsci. Soon enough, the murals began to take on larger themes - from heartfelt representations of strong local issues, they began to tackle global problems. One of the more recent murals foresees the bewildering and deplorable situation we find ourselves in today with hundreds of migrants alone and desperate on the sea: an illustration shows a group of tattered Italian immigrants reaching New York on a self-made raft. The caption reads, “Siamo tutti clandestini” - “we are all stowaways.”
Del Casino has not painted all of the murals in the town, however he can be considered directly responsible for every last one. Today Orgosolo is covered in murals - over 300 decorate the walls of the small center. They help to tell the story of Sardinia itself, with references to all of its special sons and daughters. There is a mural that gives voice to the shepherds’ fight for a fair price for milk, a mural that decries the damages to the forests from frequent arson, a mural for Grazia Deledda, Sardinian author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. But it seems that the town is a work in progress. In early October of 2016, Del Casino visited Orgosolo both to restore some damaged murals and to paint a few new ones, including one dedicated to the recently deceased Sardinian artist Pinuccio Sciola.
Who has the right to decide authenticity? And yet, it is something we recognize, and that we recognize as necessary. So is Orgosolo authentic, and how has it made it into all of the guidebooks? Is the town an overblown exaggeration of a myth we want to believe in, or is it a last outpost of an era that was? When one visits, what is stronger, what prevails? We tend to judge authenticity by some inner mark, some feeling that convinces us or doesn’t - were we convinced by the traditional dishes at the trattoria, or did the multitude of foreign languages at the other tables make us feel like we were spectators?