A look into the region that does not exist
There is a running joke in Italy that the region of Molise simply does not exist. One of Italy’s smallest, poorest, and arguably least known regions, Molise has always lived on the fringes of Italian consciousness. It is merely a blip in international circles. While travel writers obsess over the rest of Italy, this land of livestock and valleys, the proverbial Wild West of Italy, rarely even comes up in travel magazines. For the past few years, the idea of a nonexistent Molise has been immortalized through the banal of things – a hashtag. The hashtag, #ilmolisenonesiste (Molise doesn’t exist), has been used more than 14,000 times on Instagram alone.
This joke has become the subject of a number of books, songs, and videos and has even been referenced by high-profile members of Italian society, including former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. A Facebook group called Molisn’t - Io non credo nell’esistenza del Molise, (Molisn’t –I don’t believe in Molise’s existence), has over 64,ooo followers. The page frequently posts admittedly entertaining memes touching upon this phenomenon and even sells T-shirts.
However, what started off as a wisecrack has ironically launched the small region into the realm of Italian pop culture.
An equally catchy hashtag has arisen, “Il Molise Resiste,” (Molise Resists,) a defiant rallying cry against those who poke fun at the region’s small size and a steady stream of depopulating towns. For those who call the unassuming region home, the fact that it is untouched, lacking the fanfare and chaos of other Italian areas such as Rome and Venice, is exactly why it is so special.
Marilena Felice is a 32-year-old social media blogger from Cercemaggiore, a small town in the province of Campobasso, Molise's largest province. She runs a popular Instagram account called Molisedavivere that has over 10,000 followers. It began two years ago with the intention to show off the region’s natural beauty and to also promote local B&Bs, companies, and restaurants as a way to make a forgotten region known to both Italians and tourists.
“Molise is unique because its weakness is also its strength. Its beauty is hidden in simplicity, in tradition. Molise is made up of little towns with centers that hide the stories of humble people who are tied to the earth, who love nature and food,” explains Felice. “Molise is not a high-speed train, it's not a highway, it's not an airport with 1000 departures. But it's the place that enters your heart and remains there forever.”
Molise is Italy's second smallest region after the Aosta Valley. It lies in the center of the country and borders the regions of Puglia, Campania, Abruzzo, and Lazio. It is a roughly three-hour drive west to Rome and a three-hour drive southwest to Naples. It is unique for having both a coastline, rolling green hills, and imperious snowy mountains – which means you can have lunch in the forest and spend the afternoon at the beach, all on the same day. It is a wild land, one of the country’s most rural, home to livestock, wolves, and wild dogs. Ghost towns hold centuries of Italian history within their stone walls.
In ancient times, the region was home to the Samnites, a rustic and aggressive warrior tribe that posed a unique threat to the Romans’ budding influence. Originally allies with Rome against the Gauls, they later became enemies and were only subdued after a series of bloody wars in the 3rd century BC. In the town of Pietrabbondante (which in English roughly translates to “abundant stone”) lie the remains of an ancient Samnite theater and two temples that date back to the 4th century BC. The archaeological complex overlooks an expansive valley and can be accessed for as little as €4.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the area was invaded by the Goths and then by the Lombards in the 6th century AD. They were later subjected to Norman rule between the 11th and 13th centuries AD. Centuries of disputes, invasions, and conquests followed until the region became an autonomous province in 1806. It became part of unified Italy in 1861 and in 1963, it formed the combined region of Abruzzo e Molise before it officially split off in 1970 to become the country’s newest region.
I grew up in Rome, but my father is from the region. According to a DNA test my father took, my paternal family roots in Molise go back to at least the 17th century. The test was so accurate that it managed to extract from my father’s small sample of spit the exact province (Isernia) in which generations of my family have been born, have lived, and have died.
I spent many years visiting my paternal Nonni in their house on a farm at the foot of Poggio Sannita – a small, stone town perched on a hill. Poggio Sannita is a quiet town, home to less than 600 inhabitants, where the only sounds are the chirping of birds and the occasional gong of the centuries-old clock tower. The town was originally known as Caccavone, from the ancient copper containers farmers used for milk coagulation, before it was officially changed in 1922 to the current name, derivative of the ancient Samnite civilization that once inhabited the area.
My Nonni's house was set in a valley hugged by sloping green hills that resembled the curves of gentle, slumbering giants. They had a modest farm, containing a few sheep, chickens, horses, pigs, and rabbits. My Nonno Mario, a small man with a fine bone structure and eyes the color of freshly picked olives, made his own red wine and olive oil. My nonna Pasqualina, a stout woman with skin so fair it shone like a pearl, spent hours in her kitchen cooking hearty meals beneath great slabs of prosciutto and salame and bundles of garlic and dried peperoncini. Whenever I reflect on my childhood, she and that wild land are inextricably woven together.
My nonna always wore plain dresses with the sleeves rolled up past her elbows and a stained, floral apron wrapped around her plushy waist. She often wore a worn navy blue headscarf that brought out the gray flecks in her deep-set eyes. My nonna had a soft smile, one could call it a wisp of a smile for it barely curved, but held warmth nonetheless. And her hair. My god, her hair. It was like woven snow, so thick and long and soft and as brilliantly white as the fur of the wild dogs that roamed the valleys nearby.
Ever since I was old enough to have memories, I remember eating her homemade cavatelli pasta. The room at the end of the hallway in her house was often filled with tables where she laid out wooden boards peppered with hundreds of small pasta shells. Cavatelli, native to southern Italian regions such as Molise and Puglia, are made from semolina or other flour dough and, according to American Google, resemble miniature hot dog buns. It’s true, they’re not the most shapely of pastas. They lack the zaniness of farfalle, the structural integrity of rigatoni, and the elegance of fusilli. They’re simple, emblematic of the poor regions from which they hail and of the sturdy, hard-working people who eat them.
My nonna spent hours rolling out the dough and shaping the pasta shells with her index and middle fingers. Once cooked, they’re sort of gummy, with the same consistency as gnocchi. Her cavatelli were always served in a simple tomato sauce, sprinkled with local pecorino cheese, and garnished with her freshly grown pepperoncini. The pasta would be followed by lamb or some other kind of meat from some other kind of animal on the farm and fresh green lettuce she had picked from the garden. It was the kind of meal that recalled a different era – one where food was poor but hearty, fresh, not processed, and local, not imported. That’s what the cuisine, what life really, in Molise is like – seemingly frozen in time, like a prehistoric creature in amber.
She taught my father how to make pasta, and he taught me. I’ve spent many nights carefully measuring out the flour, amalgamating it with water, sectioning off pieces of dough, and rolling them out with my fingers to the point of cramping. It is a laborious process, but it is a way for me to stay connected to her, to my roots in Molise.
My nonna passed away in 2016 at the age of 86 from dementia. It was a savage battle that spanned the better part of five years. She forgot herself, and lost her sense of being, in a region that has been forgotten and disregarded by the majority of the country. It is difficult not to draw parallels between a lost grandmother and a lost region. In many ways, the #ilmolisenonesiste phenomenon is a blessing. Although the attention was born from a place of jest, it is bringing light to Molise’s natural beauty and rich history. It may also be what saves the region from becoming a mere footnote in Italian history.
Enzo Luongo, a journalist and author of the book “Il Molise non Esiste,” (Molise Doesn’t Exist) first came across this phenomenon on social media in 2015. Luongo, who is originally from Trivento, a small town 20 minutes south of Poggio Sannita, currently lives in the city of Campobasso and is the Molise correspondent for ANSA, Italy’s leading wire service. He began saving the various memes he came across on Twitter and Facebook in 2015, which eventually accumulated into a collection of up to 5,000. Many of the ones he saved ended up in his book. Jokes such as “Masterchef5 begins with a Molisano contestant; This year’s theme is fantasy” or “I took a train to Campobasso. I left yesterday” are just some examples.
He believes the region should make “Il Molise non Esiste” its official slogan. “I am convinced that this online phenomenon is the reason that Molise is better known. Tourism is growing in the region,” he told me by phone.
The attention, if it is small, is coming none too soon. Luongo notes that Molise is experiencing severe depopulation. In 2001, the region had over 320,000 residents, while in 2020 it had less than 295,000, roughly the same size as the American city of Gettysburg, PA. That’s 25,000 people lost, to death or to relocation, over a 19-year period.
“Molise is one of the fastest depopulating areas of Italy,” notes Luongo. “Our largest town, Campobasso, has less than 50,000 residents. We have very few towns that have more than 1,000 residents. There are some towns that haven’t had a birth in 10 years. Of course, Molise exists, but if it follows this trend, soon it won’t.”
All that remains of my nonna are my memories. Her life, and yes, even her death, represent Molise to me. I have a personal stake in new life for the region. Molise does not simply exist, it resists. It is a region that has a quiet, unyielding strength – just like my nonna did.
Whenever I look in the mirror, I see her. We have the same nose – small, with a slight bump in the middle. I like to imagine it follows the curves of Molise’s hills. I feel her presence when I make her pasta, and see her calloused hands in mine as I roll the dough back and forth, like waves breaking against the shore. She is knit into that wild, ancient land of valleys, is of the earth from which its wildflowers grow – in that way, she remains part of this world.
She will always live on in my memories as the quiet woman who picked wild asparagus with measured care and who grilled sausages over a makeshift fire outside in the dust, surrounded by wild dogs and feral cats. I remember her as the woman who endured extreme poverty in the mountainous hills of Southern Italy with fortitude; as the mother who reared her two children with affectionate sternness; and as the grandmother who could not speak proper Italian, but who communicated love in gentle touches and small smiles.
Asia London Palomba
Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy, currently pursuing her master's in journalism at New York University (NYU). In the past, her work on culture, travel, and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura, and The Christian Science Monitor. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.