Photo: Morandi’s home on the island of Budelli, where he has been the sole inhabitant for 30 years. PHOTO COURTESY MAURO MORANDI
Mauro Morandi had been the sole resident of Budelli, Italy, for decades. ‘I became so used to the silence. Now it’s continuous noise.’
03 August 2021 | Angela Giuffrida | The Guardian
Every morning, Mauro Morandi woke up to the uninterrupted sea view that only he was privy to. Immersed in nature, he was intimately in tune with the dawn sounds and habits of the wildlife that surrounded his home, a former second world war shelter on Budelli, the Mediterranean island where he had lived alone for more than 30 years.
Now the 82-year-old is adjusting to life in a one-bedroom apartment next to a shop with a Sky TV sign outside, surrounded by neighbours and with only a glimpse of the ocean in between the gaps separating the buildings opposite on nearby La Maddalena, the largest of an archipelago of seven islands off the north coast of Sardinia, Italy.
Speaking from his new home, Morandi said: “I became so used to the silence. Now it’s continuous noise … music, motor scooters, people … it distracts you so much you don’t have time to think.”
More than three months have passed since Morandi, a former PE teacher from the northern Italian city of Modena, was forced to leave Budelli, where he had come to know every rock, tree and animal species on the rugged islet.
He had expected the public’s fascination in his life to wane after his departure; instead, it has grown more fervent. Fans from around the world continue to send him messages. A recent one read: “Mauro, the master of solitude.” Journalists still call him for quotes, or in anticipation of writing a book or making a film.
“I thought that after leaving Budelli, nobody would talk about me any more,” he said. “Instead, you journalists keep pestering.”
Asked why he thinks the intrigue in him is so intense, Morandi replied: “It’s as if people delegated me to do something they would never have the courage to do.”
Morandi had always dreamed of living on an island.
Exasperated by consumerism, politics and other aspects of society, in 1989 he decided to set sail for Polynesia in search of his idyll. But his journey to the South Pacific was scuppered soon after leaving mainland Italy due to a technical hitch on his catamaran, forcing him to anchor in La Maddalena.
He decided to work for some time on the island to pay off the cost of the boat and fund the rest of the trip. But then, after clapping eyes on the nearby uninhabited Budelli, Morandi realised his paradise was much closer to home.
In a twist of fate, the island’s caretaker was about to retire, and so Morandi abandoned the trip to Polynesia, sold the boat and took over the role.
For the next two decades he guarded Budelli without trouble, clearing its paths, keeping its beaches pristine and teaching summer day-trippers about its ecosystem.
Tourists have been banned from walking on the island’s pink beach, from where sand was often pilfered, and swimming in the sea since the 1990s, but can visit during the day via boat and are permitted to walk along a path behind the beach. They were often surprised to come across the sole inhabitant, although word soon got around, earning Morandi the nickname Robinson Crusoe after the castaway in Daniel Defoe’s novel.
Among the intrigued visitors over the years were the former Formula One boss Flavio Briatore and his then girlfriend, Naomi Campbell. The pair came in search of a meal with Morandi. The most he could offer was a coffee. They declined and left.
Food was delivered to him by boat from La Maddalena, and a homemade solar system powered his lights, fridge and internet connection. During winter, when there are no visitors, he spent his days collecting firewood, reading and sleeping.
Morandi’s life continued in much the same rhythm until the private company that owned the island went bankrupt. Plans to sell it in 2013 to Michael Harte, a businessman from New Zealand who pledged to keep Morandi on as caretaker, were thwarted amid protests and an intervention by the Italian government. In 2016, a Sardinian judge ruled the island be put back into public hands.
Until his departure in late April, Morandi was entwined in a lengthy tussle with La Maddalena national park authorities, which now manage Budelli, as he fought eviction. The authorities, which plan to turn Budelli into a hub for environmental education, accused him of making adjustments to his home on the island without the required permits and said he had to go.
The two sides appeared to have reached a compromise earlier this year, with Morandi told he might be able to return as custodian once works on the island were completed. “The director of the park suggested leaving before the works started, in return for him trying to get me a contract to return as custodian,” said Morandi. “The works were supposed to begin a week after I left, but they still haven’t started.”
Budelli is now guarded by CCTV cameras. Morandi recently went back there to collect some belongings. “It was a disaster,” he said. “The beaches were trampled on. I knew this would happen. There is nobody there any more to educate the tourists.”
Still, as he reflects over his life, Morandi accepts that maybe it was time to leave Budelli. “Last winter was very harsh. It rained a lot, there was hardly any sun to power the electricity … for three months I ate out of tins. I’m 82 and life there became more of a challenge. I have a bad leg and it was a struggle to walk – if I had a fallen on one of the rocks, there would have been nobody there to help me.”
The last few months have given him time to nurture a new hobby – he takes photos of the architecture on La Maddalena – as well as to repair relations with his three daughters, who live in Modena. “I’ll never regret the choice I made but it wasn’t an easy one,” he said. “My daughters were adults when I went to live on Budelli and I thought they accepted it … it was only later that I realised they hadn’t. One daughter didn’t speak to me for four years, we only recently started talking again.”
The day after our meeting, Morandi left for Modena to visit his family. “The experience of Budelli is over,” he said.
In 1989, Mauro Morandi set sail from Gallipoli, in Apulia, southern Italy, with the goal of reaching Polynesia. “I had enough of society,” the now 79-year-old Morandi says. “I was dreaming of a desert island in the Pacific where to start life anew.”
A few days after leaving, he landed on Budelli, less than a square mile in Italy’s Maddalena archipelago, in the Strait of Bonifacio between Sardinia and Corsica.“There were a lot of tourists, so I thought I could make some money taking them around the islands,” he says. “I owed some money to the bank.”
At the time, Budelli was owned by a property firm that employed a caretaker and his wife to watch over it. Morandi met the couple and started to wonder if he could take over for them. “He told me his wife did not like the lifestyle,” Morandi says. “Some find it too crowded in the summer and too lonely during winter, but I do not mind.”
A few weeks later, he had the job. He has been living and working on Budelli as its sole official guardian ever since. But now his cherished autonomy may be coming to an end. “It’s been two years that I don’t leave Budelli, as I am not sure they would let me go back,” he says, concern in his voice.
Before the dispute started, Morandi used to break his isolation twice a year to visit his daughters in central Italy. Because he was legally employed by the owner, he was assured of his return to his solar-fueled hut. In 2011, however, the island was put up for sale. That’s when his trouble started. Two years later it was purchased, only to be later taken over by the government and made part of a national park. “I now live in a state of uncertainty,” he says. “The island is owned by La Maddalena National Park and they could kick me out anytime.” Morandi has returned to the fold of Italy’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy—part of the reason he left on his sailboat in the first place.
He had none of these concerns in his first, idyllic winter on the island, in 1989. “At the time I hated people,” he says. “During winter I could finally enjoy the beauty of this island by myself.” Sometimes, during the cold season, sunlight shines in a way the reminds him of some his favorite paintings by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.
But winters can also be cruel, with punishing winds wreaking havoc on the few short shrubs that grow among the rocks. To Morandi, this harsh side of nature is part of its beauty. “My best memory here is a storm in 1991,” he recalls. On that occasion winds reached a speed of 104 knots—an intensity that hadn’t been seen in 200 years.
“The wind was so strong and made a howling sound that I have never heard before,” he says. Waves reached 18 feet and were breaking far beyond the beach. “I realized that humans are nothing against nature,” he says, with a taut voice. “Even with all of our technology, we are nothing but small ants.”
But technology did penetrate Morandi’s isolation over the years. Three years ago, a private company installed a wireless router nearby to provide a internet access to tourists visiting the park. “I did not even know what an iPad was,” he says, “but now I have accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.”
Morandi’s primary creative outlet used to be crafting design objects out of juniper logs that washed on the beach. It has since been replaced by photography to fuel his social feeds. “I used to be more egoistic,” he admits. “But now I want to share this beauty with everyone around the world.” His social media output now reaches hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.
On a typical winter day, Morandi wakes up around 7:30 in the morning, makes some coffee, and begins the workday in and around his hut, from cutting up logs for heating to cleaning and cooking. After lunch, he wanders his personal paradise, taking photos of sandy beaches, rocky inlets, and the ever-changing Mediterranean sky. “I used to read a lot, mainly Mitteleuropean thinkers like Kant and Schopenhauer,” he says. “But now I mostly take photos and then go back to edit them.”
Friends on a nearby island come by every ten days to bring him groceries and supplies, but less frequently in the winter. “Friends come all the time during summer,” he says, at that moment 25 days from his last supply drop. “In winter, not so much. So tonight I am going to eat wild nettles sauteed with some butter.”
During fall, winter, and spring, he can forage for the wild herbs typical of the macchia, or the shrubland biome characteristic of the Mediterranean: wild beets, asparagus, garlic, rosemary, leeks. “Spring is when everything blossoms,” he says. “Starting from the end of February you get a strong scent of wild rosemary.” During the summer, the strong sunshine and stiff wind dries out everything apart from few evergreen shrubs such as rock roses and the occasional wild white lily. “Lillies have such as strong smell,” he says. “In the summer the evening breeze takes the scent right into my hut.”
Myrtle, from which local herbal digestive Mirto is made, are another sight. “Myrtle berries are usually harvested in fall, but this year it did not rain for 10 months straight, so there were very few berries.”
Morandi has seen, year on year, changes in his corner of the world. Last summer was an abnormally hot one, he says. “Temperatures reached 116 degrees in inland Sardinia and around 109 here in Budelli.” He has noticed fewer fish in the shallow waters around the island. “I spoke to some fishermen and they told me it’s because coastal water gets too hot so fish go deeper to look for cooler temperatures.”
Winds are changing, too. Usually, his part of the archipelago is swept by westerly winds, but now the breeze is coming from the other direction. “Easterly winds erode the beach,” he says. “You can already see the impact.” The storms have grown longer and stronger, too.
So during high season, when tourists visit the island by boat, Budelli’s caretaker spends his days talking to visitors about conservation. “In the summer my life changes completely,” he says. “I am busy lecturing and giving tours of the island from dawn to sunset.” Lectures take place in a separate small hut equipped with wooden benches and samples of rocks and corals. Sometimes, a friend translates his words into English. “Children are more receptive than adults,” he notes. “They like to hear this sort of Robinson Crusoe guy talking about nature.”
“I teach kids that nature is not something to be used,” Morandi says. “It’s something we need to to protect.” He is mainly referring to one of Budelli’s most famous and infamous features, its pink beach, one reason that some consider it one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Famously featured in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1976 film Red Desert, the pink beach, or spiaggia rosa, owes its color to a distinctive blend of crystals, fossils, and corals such as Miriapora truncata and Miniacina miniacea.
When Sardinia and its surrounding archipelagos became an emerging tourist destination during the 1980s, masses of tourists flowed to Budelli to see its famous spiaggia rosa, and many took handfuls of the sand home with them. By 1994, this practice was taking a toll. The beach turned whitish, and soon tourists were no longer allowed to set foot on it. Part of Morandi’s job became to enforce the ban. “In the past three or four years the pink started to come back,” he says. But now he is worried that he won’t be there to see the beach return completely to its former glory.
After Budelli was put up for auction in 2011 following the bankruptcy of the property firm that owned it, it was eventually sold to Michael Harte, a banker from New Zealand, who allegedly wanted to convert it into biological preserve with an eco-resort. The plan did not go over well with local authorities. The dispute went on for years, during which time Morandi did not hide his support for Harte. “I know perfectly well that things run by the government do not work,” he explains, “while this guy, Michael Harte, had already done eco-reserves in New Zealand.”
In 2016, Harte withdrew his proposal and the island officially became Italian property. Morandi thinks that his open support for Harte put him in a bad light with authorities. “I was sure they would have tried to kick me out,” he says. Indeed, about a year ago, he received a notice of eviction due to some irregularities with the way his hut was built prior to his arrival on the island. “But I know how long these kind of legal matters take,” he says. “I am not going anywhere.”
Currently, the national park has nominated a new president, who may change his view over the caretaker’s right to stay. In the meantime, the man who has spent most of his adult life living there, and some of his followers, have started petitions to support his right to live there. One was titled, “I would like that Mauro Morandi, former caretaker of Budelli, could stop living in terror.”
He doesn’t really find “terror” an apt description of his current situation. “I am not afraid,” he says. “I am used to living in uncertainty.” The first owner of the island apparently had stopped paying him after five years, so he has faced the prospect of leaving—for financial reasons, in that case—before. But this time is different, in part because the freedom he had once so coveted there is now twisted in on itself. “I could always leave and come back before,” he says. “Now, I depend on people to come here.”