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LA STAMPA

The Twilight Of Italy's Lighthouse Keepers

Italy will still need lighthouses. But with new technology, lighthouse keepers are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Already just 62 of the country's 161 "faros" have actual human operators.

Lighthouse in Vieste, Italy (Roby Ferrari)
Lighthouse in Vieste, Italy (Roby Ferrari)
Fabio Pozzo

There is never a shortage of people writing to the Italian Defense Ministry applying for a position as a lighthouse keeper. For some, this is a dream job with the benefits of freedom, life far from the daily routine and a chance to live surrounded by the ebbs and flows of the natural world. Truth is, though, that within 10 or 15 years this profession will be extinct.

Along the 8,000-kilometer Italian coastline, there are just 161 lighthouses in the strict sense of the word, meaning facilities that emit a ray of light visible for at least 15,000 nautical miles. Of these, only 62 have an actual human keeper. There are also 668 navigation lights and 1,370 light that keep watch from the Italian coast. Indeed, by night, the Italian coast looks like a Christmas tree enlightened with thousands of bright spots to show the safest routes for the sailors.

Originally, instead of lighthouses, there were simple bonfires, which slowly evolved into towers. Around 300 BC the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria were among the wonders of the world. The current connotation of today's lighthouses -- including the Statue of Liberty in New York – was first developed in the 18th century. In the following century, the French engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel was the first to construct a special type of lens -- now called a Fresnel lens -- as a substitute for mirrors in lighthouses.

The oldest Italian lighthouse is the so called Lanterna (lantern) in Genoa. It was built in 1326 and rebuilt in 1543. Previously, the oldest Italian lighthouse was in Livorno, which dated back to 1304. But in 1944, it was destroyed by the German army.

Lighthouses have always been an inspiration for writers, painters, and photographers. They are going to switch off soon, though. In the UK, the General Lighthouse Authority (GLA) is planning to shut down many of the coastal lamps, which have been largely made obsolete by GPS and electronic and satellite systems.

Still, some say traditional lighthouses must be preserved – and not only for poetic reasons. "Lighthouses must be kept working," says Adm. Alberto Gauzolino, who is in charge of the Lighthouse Authority of the Italian Navy. "GPS works for high-sea navigation. But along the coast, the commander needs to have everything under control, and a lighthouse is irreplaceable."

The first Italian Lighthouse Authority was created in 1868 by the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. Still, in 1910 a British document read that "lighthouses and light signals along the Italian coast are not reliable at all." Things improved when the Navy obtained administrative control over the lighthouses.

Inevitably, perhaps, technology has largely replaced the lighthouses keepers. "Now all the lighthouses are automatic and remote-controlled. The current lighthouse keepers are technicians who intervene only when an internal junction box signals a break down," Adm. Gauzolino explains. "They are in charge of the lighthouses across an entire area. Often the lighthouses are in urban centers. There are no more lighthouse keepers in remote places."

The last of the lighthouse keepers are not likely to be replaced. The Defense Ministry hasn't held a new national civil service exam for the job since 1994. The current 332 civil lighthouse keepers and 58 military lighthouse keepers have their positions guaranteed thanks to internal retraining courses. But there is virtually no hope for others who still see it as the ultimate dream job of seaside isolation. "We receive dozens of letters every year, often from professionals who dream of a new career without the stress," says Gauzolino.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - Roby Ferrari

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