Pierfrancesco Cenni flicks a switch on a portable fluorescent lantern, turns a knob to increase its intensity, and heads into the dark. “Use your phones’ flashlights, and put your feet where I put mine,” he calls out as he descends into the cool, damp underground air. At the bottom of a narrow flight of concrete stairs, with another flick, he turns on a massive fluorescent lamp, revealing a vast, two-story chamber, where thick cement pillars shoot up from bare earth into the darkness and girders hold up the ceiling.
We’re in what remains of the Underground Cinema-Theater, a venue designed to bring new life to the center of Imola, northern Italy, in 1935, at the height of the country’s fascist regime. But it was left unfinished when the outbreak of World War II turned locals to more pressing concerns. “My grandfather bought it in an auction in 1954,” Cenni says, as water drops, tick-tock, in the dark distance. He had hoped to bring it back to life, but Cenni’s grandfather died of a stroke during Sunday mass a few years later. As time went, modern fire and safety regulations made it harder and harder to use the space, while the bill to complete it ballooned to tens of millions of euros. It was more than Cenni, a civil lawyer, has the capacity to front. Local authorities have only shown vague interest in taking over the property, so it has been left behind, unable to serve a purpose but certainly holding a story.
In the last year and a half, the theater has joined forgotten fascist monuments, derelict mountain cemeteries, and empty, disused nightclubs to become a centerpiece of a new outdoor museum: the In Loco Widespread Museum of Abandonment. “These places hand down not just themselves, but also memories and stories,” says Francesco Tortori, who works part-time as a fundraiser for an international NGO and doubles as the president of Spazi Indecisi (“Undecided Spaces”), the association behind the museum. “They show how man interacted with the landscape, with little attention, and left behind remnants. We think that these ruins of modernity can tell the story of a land.”