28. Jul 2017

SOMMER+SOMMER and Google bring millions of virtual visitors to the ruined Italian village of Bussana Vecchia

Bussana Vecchia has a unique history. The small village in northwest Italy was devastated by a major earthquake at the end of the 19th century; the buildings were so badly damaged that the inhabitants abandoned it. It remained deserted until the mid-1960s, when a group of artists from across Europe colonized it – to them, it was an oasis where they could dedicate themselves to their creative work (8mm film from the hippie era in Bussana Vecchia).

Although this small community of artists has now called Vecchia home for over 50 years, they’re still fighting for the right to own the houses they rebuilt from the ruins with their bare hands. The Italian government still sees the residents as illegal squatters and is again discussing evicting them for safety reasons.

What does this all have to do with Sommer+Sommer? Agency owners Leonard and Gordon spent most of their childhood summers in the Bussana Vecchia artists’ colony, and their family is still part of it today. So in spring 2016, we asked ourselves how we could help the village attract more media attention, bringing more tourists and putting more pressure on the local authorities, who would prefer to evict the residents and cordon the village off.

“We were looking for an opportunity to bring as many people as possible to the village so they could experience its unique spirit and the incredible creative riches of its residents, even if they couldn’t visit it in person,” explains Leonard Sommer, the agency’s ‘right hemisphere’. The aim was to showcase the village’s history and its residents’ resourcefulness – it’s they who made it the unique place it is today.

One day we accidentally stumbled across an article about the Google Trekker program, a Google-funded project that allows individuals and organizations to borrow a rucksack-mounted 360° camera so they can independently photograph cultural sites on foot for official publication on Google Street View. Perfect for Vecchia’s narrow, steep alleys, inaccessible to cars. Perfect for sharing the village’s uniqueness with the world without significant costs.

Just a few weeks after we submitted the application, the big day came. On August 22, 2016, the Google team clambered up into the village with us to capture every street and all public areas with the 360° Google Trekker camera. Helped by the residents, the two Sommer brothers singlehandedly photographed the interiors of over 50 artists’ workshops, studios, galleries and restaurants. The result after 16 hours of work: the foundations for a fantastic, interactive documentation of Bussana Vecchia – available to everyone online worldwide.

“I have to say, the support from Google was enormous,” says Leonard Sommer. Milan-based PR agency PR & GO UP Communication Partners also ensured the project received ample media coverage. All of the partner companies worked on the project pro bono.

The 360° Google Street View tour of Vecchia went online in March 2017. Google supported the launch with announcements in the Street View app as well as an exclusive gallery of highlights.

Forbes.com published a blog post by us about the project.

The success was overwhelming: in just 10 days, Bussana Vecchia became the most visited location on Google Street View – ahead of internationally renowned sights and national parks. Within 2 weeks, over 4 million people from all over the world had paid a virtual visit to the remote ruined village in northwest Italy. Even several months after launch, it remained one of the most popular locations on Google Street View.

Anyone who wants to look at the beautiful artists’ studios and the breathtaking St. Egidio church right now can do so in the special gallery created by Google.

To take a virtual stroll through the village, start here at the entrance gate.

For us, the project is still far from complete. In the next step, we’re going to work on completing the Google Maps data – we plan on making all the art workshops visible as places on the map. We also want to correct the streets, which are imprecise in many places due to the poor GPS reception.

Why are we doing all this? To make Bussana Vecchia accessible to all – it’s a place everyone should have the chance to visit at least once. And to show that the artists’ village must never be closed down; it’s a unique creative place that needs to be preserved.