Rural Sardinia: myth and history in the murals of Orgosolo

by Andrea Gambaro  |  Published August 28, 2017

Hidden among the Sardinian mountains, the small town of Orgosolo has always lived by its own rules. Its history recounts stories of villainy and pastoral life, where myth and reality blur into each other. Today the spirit of this rural community is enclosed in the murals that decorate its streets.

A close-up of a wall of Orgosolo (Photo: AnnaKika via Flickr)

A close-up of a wall of Orgosolo (Photo: AnnaKika via Flickr)

The bus drops us out of the town centre, where we are surrounded by the slopes of Barbagia, this mountain area of central Sardinia. We barely have time to enjoy the view, as a police car pulls over and two officers approach us. While thoroughly checking our identity cards, they want to know where we come from and what our business here is. Rather than routine, their zeal makes it feel more like a border control. I’d say they’re just trying to keep busy on this boring summer morning, but the innkeeper that will be hosting us later will have a different opinion: these officers are making sure we haven’t been sent here to settle an old score. In other words, they think we might be a pair of hitmen.

We aren’t. More innocently, I came to Sardinia to accompany my friend, Salvatore, during his research on open-air museums. The place we visited yesterday looked desolately abandoned. At the tourist office, Salvatore tried to find out why those art installations mentioned in his university textbooks weren’t being taken care of. He was told the director of the museum died a few years back. I wasn’t there in that very moment, but I can picture him elaborating an obvious objection while briefly pondering the frailty of life, transience of art, replaceability of museum curators. “Never mind,” he must have said.

The roofs of Orgosolo below the Supramonte Plateau (Photo: Aldo Ardetti via Wikipedia)

The roofs of Orgosolo below the Supramonte Plateau (Photo: Aldo Ardetti via Wikipedia)

The murals of Orgosolo however never had a curator. What is nowadays considered the collection of a town-museum began spontaneously in 1969, when an anarchic group from Milan painted a symbolic map of Italy denouncing the government’s subservience to the United States and its disinterest towards Sardinia, depicted as a question mark. A few years later, this first mural inspired Francesco Del Casino, a Tuscan teacher and artist, who brought his students out into the streets to commemorate the liberation from Nazi-Fascism. Since then the muralist activity has never stopped and today the walls of Orgosolo display around 150 paintings.

Now, assuming we don’t look that dodgy, there must be another reason why the innkeeper’s guess is at least plausible, perhaps to be sought in the history of this bunch of houses perched on the mountain. In fact, banditry and blood feuds made this area famous long before the murals we came to see.

Up in the mountains

Once the police control is over, a few alleys lead us uphill to a bigger road. From here I appreciate why street art has become, in a few decades, inseparable from the identity of this place: Either large or small, covering a wide wall or framed within the architectural elements of a house, I can spot murals everywhere. Modern buildings interrupt rows of stone houses, some of whose facades are scratched by bullet holes. Gunshots still make headlines every now and then in the local papers, but certainly not as frequently as they used to.

British writer Norman Lewis was sent here by The Telegraph in 1962 to investigate the mysterious death of an English couple. Instead, he ended up uncovering the horrors of a blood feud that had been going on for 20 years: 500 killings in a town of 4,500 people. Behind those killings was the Codice Barbaricino (Code of Barbagia), an unwritten set of norms that establishes the right and the duty to preserve honour. This code has served as a parallel justice since ancient times, reflecting the reluctance of Orgosolo to accept the laws of an external authority.

Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Spanish have occupied this area throughout history, but their control over Orgosolo has always been more nominal than effective, partly due to its isolated location up in the mountains. Then, with the unification of Italy in 1861, the shift towards a modern liberal state came to Sardinia in the form of poverty, deforestation and foreign exploitation of the land. Once again, the new judicial system was perceived as abusive; extraneous to the familial and community bonds that have always regulated the social life.

At that time the name of Orgosolo was already sullied in Europe because of its outlaws. Nevertheless, as is often the case, villainy and charm are not mutually exclusive, particularly if accompanied by old myths and legends. In fact, many writers and foreign visitors have described the exceptional qualities of the people of Orgosolo: their dignity, the ancient values of the pastoral life and the unmatched hospitality.

In the 1960s Sardinian banditry was dubbed by the press ‘Anonymous Kidnappings’. Within a period of 30 years, the bandits kept over a hundred people in the rocky plateau above Orgosolo, which became the scene of hidings and violent clashes with law enforcement. If the kidnappings belong to the past, the Codice Barbaricino is still a cultural background, although the town has undergone a process of modernisation.

Images from above

“We are all illegal immigrants,” reads the mural (Photo: Heather Cowper via Flickr)

“We are all illegal immigrants,” reads the mural (Photo: Heather Cowper via Flickr)

We walk down the main road that crosses the town centre. The marked anti-authoritarian streak of the murals is evident at first sight. Next to the entrance of the town hall, a wall recounts the Uprising of Pratobello. Here, in 1969, people were ordered to vacate the pastures, earmarked to become a military training field. The crowd stands on the bottom-left corner with the lands above it, threatened by soldiers. On the other side a bigger character, the writer and politician Emilio Lussu, urges Orgosolo to stand up against the “imperialistic provocation”, as he wrote in a letter quoted on the wall. Men and women then peacefully occupied the fields, making the army retreat a few days later.

The stories these walls tell, however, are not limited to the local history. As we keep walking, some murals portray the harsh conditions of the Italian prison system, the political struggle of students and workers in the 1960s and the terror attacks that burdened the country in the 1970s, a period known in Italy as the Years of Lead.

Scenes of rural life (Photo: Heather Cowper via Flickr)

Scenes of rural life (Photo: Heather Cowper via Flickr)

Further down, two paintings depict Tiananmen Square and the Chilean coup. A reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica encloses the entrance of a shop, visible in full only when the shutter is down. Another mural remembers the death of 129 women trapped in a burning factory in New York in 1908. I can easily spot the latest paintings, referring to recent events such as the fall of Saddam Hussein and the migrant crisis: a boat approaching Ellis Island recalls the migrations from Europe to America at the turn of the 20th century, the message above reading “we’re all illegal immigrants”.

The typical structure of the murals combines text and image. Their sections and lines often hark back to cubism, but there are also references to other styles, such as expressionism, realism or simply naïve art. When describing scenes of rural life, the shapes become rounded and tapered, as an attempt to quote both Modigliani and Botero at once.

We’ve almost reached the end of the road, and the landscape is already opening up between the houses. On the one side of the road a Charlie Chaplin in uniform says: “One more war? No thanks”; on the other side, a shepherd awaits two wounded soldiers returning from the front, above the heads of whom a quote by Bertold Brecht comments: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”. The view is now wide open and the last painting I see is the poster of an old film, ‘Bandits of Orgosolo’ by Vittorio De Seta, interpreted by local shepherds.

Local shepherds in 1962 (Photo: Ur Cameras via Flickr)

Local shepherds in 1962 (Photo: Ur Cameras via Flickr)

Wild boars and foxes

The landscape looks verdant downstream, whereas on the plateau above arid and rocky stretches prevail. Among them, fugitives have taken shelter for centuries. In recent times, many went into hiding to avoid pre-trial detention after a criminal charge. Those who shared their experience say they would live like wild boars, eat like foxes, sleep with heads leaning on a sharp stone to be constantly half-awake. They could stay at large for years, and some point out that the life of a shepherd is not much different. Once in hiding, however, the path to banditry can be just a step away.

Around here somewhere took place the most ferocious episode in the history of Sardinian banditry. In 1985, a three-hour fire-fight killed four bandits and a police officer, turning the pasture of Osposidda into an actual battlefield. Sardinian hunters use to celebrate the killing of a boar by loading it onto the car and honking all over town, so that everybody knew. That’s also how police celebrated after the battle of Osposidda. “Big game hunting in Orgosolo”, read a mural I walked past earlier on.

“Big game hunting in Orgosolo” (Photo: Antonello Falconi via Flickr)

“Big game hunting in Orgosolo” (Photo: Antonello Falconi via Flickr)

Unfortunately we don’t have time to take a walk in the fields, as our bus will be arriving soon. On the way back, I notice a mural I overlooked before: a guitar and a windblown lock of hair which few Italians wouldn’t recognise. He’s Fabrizio De André, a prominent singer-songwriter, whose lyrics feature doomed and marginalised characters, exploring social contexts that are likely to be left out of the mainstream.

Born on “the continent”, as Sardinian people use to refer to peninsular Italy, De André moved to a village in the North of the island in the mid-1970s with his future wife. A few years later the couple was kidnapped by the bandits, who kept them prisoners for four months. The night they were released, upon the payment of a ransom, De André said: “we got away with it, they never will.” The episode strengthened even further his bond with the Sardinian rural culture and people, as imprinted in many of his songs. One of them is Disamistade – “blood feud” in Sardinian – which depicts atmospheres that might as well have been inspired by Orgosolo. As I walk by the church, I can’t help but recall the first (clumsily translated) words of the lyrics:

What are they doing, these souls

in front of the church,

this divided people,

this history on hold?

Right here, in front of the church, six bullets killed Peppino Marotto – an elderly poet, shepherd and trade unionist – on the morning of the 29th of December 2007, on the eve of a feast day. As usual many heard the shots, but nobody saw the shooter. Even though locals are reluctant to link the homicide to the ancient code of honour, after a long time the shadows of the blood feud loomed again over Orgosolo. Two brothers, neighbours of Marotto, were found dead in the fields a week later. Some say those who killed them took advantage of the turmoil in town to settle another matter. Others saw it as revenge for Marotto. In any case, Disamistade comes to my mind once again:

unarmed by blood, two families

line up to surrender,

and for everyone the others’ pain

is pain only by half.


This house, along with its mural, was demolished in April 2016 (Photo: Antonello Falconi via Flickr)

This house, along with its mural, was demolished in April 2016 (Photo: Antonello Falconi via Flickr)

As we leave the church behind, we walk past a few parties of tourists who don’t seem to be rushing as we are. When we finally reach the square we’re looking for, a tour bus is approaching, while another one has just left. Some of these tourists might be headed to the Supramonte Plateau, to have a walk among holm oaks, junipers, white limestone rocks and, of course, the shelters of bandits and fugitives. Graziano Mesina himself, the most famous outlaw born in Orgosolo, used to work as a tour guide not too long ago. After all, a man who served 40 years in prison, attempted to escape 22 times, succeeded 10 and spent five years in hiding, must have stories to tell. In 2013, however, Mesina was imprisoned once again, this time for drug trafficking.

Mesina is not alone in having pursued the tourism business. Following the crisis of pastoralism, Orgosolo lives nowadays off the thousands of visitors that come every year from Italy and abroad. Nonetheless, the future of the main attraction, the murals, is uncertain. Since they weren’t meant to last in the first place, they were made with simple techniques and perishable materials. But as they became the symbol of the town, a conservation plan still has not been created. A mural was even destroyed recently, due to the demolition of a precarious building. It is to be hoped that the discussions that followed within the community will raise awareness of the need to preserve these artworks. In fact a two-hour walk here gives evidence of the attempt of this rural community to survive the modern times without losing its ancestral spirit, each mural representing a unique point of view on the affairs of the near and faraway world.

Now, after waiting for 15 minutes, we’d better acknowledge we missed the bus. The next one won’t arrive for at least an hour, so we enter the closest bar and order a Mirto, a Sardinian spirit obtained from myrtle berries. As we have time and the drinks come remarkably cheap, we might have one more. It’s lunch time when we go back to the bus stop. Nobody is around except for an old man with a cane who sits on the other side of the square. His dark clothes, too heavy for this sunny day, don’t seem to bother him. Rather, he’s intent on keeping us within his range of vision at all times, although he carefully avoids making eye contact.

The bus arrives, finally, and the man is still there. Then, as I take my seat next to the window, I see him slowly disappear through the houses, leaving the square deserted. I guess I’ll never find out whether the police officers checked our documents because they feared we had bad intentions. All I know is they wanted to verify what brought us to Orgosolo. If the old man saw us off to make sure we had actually decided to leave, he certainly used more discretion.

A still from 'Bandits in Orgosolo', awarded at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 (Photo: Wikipedia)

A still from ‘Bandits in Orgosolo’, awarded at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 (Photo: Wikipedia)