Silvia Camporesi, Viganella – Photo of a bare mountain in winter on a sunny day with a big, light reflecting mirror on top of it.
SILVIA CAMPORESI, THE SUN REFLECTS OFF THE MIRROR OF VIGANELLA, 2020. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALLERIA Z20, ROME.
Science

The Italian Town That Built Its Own Sun

Surrounded by mountains and left in the dark for three months a year, a town in northern Italy has found a creative solution to its sunlight problem.
June 18, 2021, 8:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

A town where the sun doesn’t rise for three months a year.

This image probably conjures up desolate landscapes in Scandinavia, Russia or Alaska in the depths of winter, when the lights have to be on all day and people resort to light therapy to tackle their falling serotonin levels. 

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But at a much lower latitude, at the border between Switzerland and Italy, the town of Viganella experiences similar conditions. Clinging to the side of a steep valley and surrounded by mountains that block the sun’s rays, Viganella is deprived of sunlight every year from November until February.

According to historical archives, the area has been settled as far back as the 13th century, meaning generations of locals have spent more than 800 winters in the dark. Every year, the community sees its last sunset on the 11th of November and waits for the rays to reappear on the 2nd of February. On that day, residents wear traditional garments and celebrate the return of light with rituals derived from the pagan tradition. 

Today, after experiencing depopulation throughout the 20th century, just like many other Alpine villages, Viganella counts a mere 163 inhabitants. Of course, the town’s uncharacteristically long and dark winters haven’t exactly helped to bulk out the population.

In 1999, local architect Giacomo Bonzani proposed installing a sundial on the church façade, but then-mayor Franco Midali dismissed the idea. Instead, he asked Bonzani the impossible: to bring the sun to Viganella in the 83 days when it’s blocked by the mountains. How? By installing a huge mirror on one of the peaks above the town, reflecting light into its main square.

Illustration of how the mirror works. Viganella is located in a valley sandwiched between a 1000m mountain on the right and a smaller mountain on the left. The sun comes from the right and projects the 1000m mountain's shadow on the town. The mirror is located on the left side, 500m above sea level. It reflects the light down into the town. 

The shadown projected by the mountain at the time of the winter solstice. Illustration: Angela Larcher

The ingenious idea was put into action, and on the 17th of December, 2006, the project finally saw the light of day. The mirror was designed by Bozani with the help of engineer Gianni Ferrari, and cost about €100,000. Eight metres wide and five tall, it reflects the sunlight for six hours a day, following the sun’s path in the sky thanks to a software programme that makes it rotate.

The reflected light is, of course, not as powerful as direct sunlight, but it’s enough to warm up the main square and give the town’s homes some natural sunlight. The mirror is only put to use in winter and stays covered for the rest of the year.

Silvia Camporesi, Viganella – large mirror made of 14 panels, propped up on a pillar on a steep cliff.

THE MIRROR. IMAGE: SILVIA CAMPORESI, THE SUN REFLECTS ON VIGANELLA, 2020. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALLERY Z20, ROME

Silvia Camporesi, a multimedia artist who’s interested in curious stories and remote corners of Italy, decided to visit Viganella in 2020 as part of her project, Forzare il paesaggio (Prying open the landscape).

“When I visited Viganella”, Camporesi wrote in an email, “I went to the mountains looking for the mirror with some friends. It was complicated because there are no directions, and it’s easy to get lost. Luckily, former mayor Midali helped us over the phone – every time we weren’t sure, we called him until we knew we were on the right path.” 

After two hours of walking, the group found the mirror. “It stood out on the side of the mountain overlooking the town, majestic and solitary,” she said. “We filmed it with a drone, so we could get a closer look. It’s not actually possible to get right up to it – it’s on a slope, and the reflection would be blinding.”

Although created to solve a very practical problem, the project has an almost poetic side to it too. “The idea behind the project doesn’t have a scientific basis, but a human one,” former mayor Midali said in a 2008 interview. “It comes from a desire to let people socialise in winter when the town shuts down due to the cold and the dark.”

Silvia Camporesi, Viganella – Left: sunlight reflected on the church. Centre top: light reflected on a statue of jesus on the cross. Centre bottom: light reflected on the ground. Right: light reflected on the dark wooden church door.

SOME OF CAMPORESI’S PICTURES SHOWING THE REFLECTION OF THE SUN ON DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE TOWN. SILVIA CAMPORESI, THE SUN REFLECTS ON VIGANELLA, 2020. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALLERY Z20, ROME

Viganella’s success inspired other towns around the world. In 2013, a similar mirror was installed in Rjukan, located in a valley in south-central Norway, after a group of engineers came to Viganella to study the mirror on site.

The invention could also prove useful to the Icelandic village of Seydisfjördur, which – due to its location in a very narrow fjord – has always struggled to get sunlight, even in summer. In 2008, local residents tried asking the Icelandic government to move the national clocks forward by two hours in the summer so that they could enjoy a bit of sun after work, but so far their pleading has been unsuccessful.

While history is full of examples of solar mirrors – from Archimedes’ mirror, said to have burned a fleet of Roman ships in Syracuse, to their application in modern space telescopes – Viganella’s project still feels unique and sort of sweet. It’s appreciated hugely by its residents, who will bask in the light of their artificial sun for generations to come.