In some regions in the South of Italy, in particular Abruzzo, Basilicata and many parts of Lazio (in particular south of Rome which were areas of the Mussolini bonifico) there are still ancient property rights (“usi civici“) which affect the ownership of land parcels, which in some cases go back to pre-Roman times. These are considered a limitation or restriction on real property rights, in the same category as “diritti di superficie” or “l’enfiteusi” (now almost extinct).
After the Roman empire collapsed, Roman law property rights in these areas (which in fact were the rule of thumb all over Europe wherever the Romans had settled) were never formally amended into any new property legislation. Over the centuries land which was formally part of the Roman Empire was taken over by landed families, who then subsequently declared the land to be theirs. Gradually the new “owners” would give the local people the collective right to cultivate the land, to hunt or graze cattle for example, but those people although working on or actually using the land over many centuries could never claim to own the land outright.
With the arrival of Napoleon the foundation of the current civil law system was introduced to the continent (now enshrined in the Italian civil code). This now includes the principles of outright ownership or legal enjoyment of property, the right of residence or the possession of a life interest, for example.
Gradually from the 1930’s onwards and throughout the last century all land in Italy which was affected by what are now known as “usi civici” property rights began to be passed to private ownership. In order to cancel the medieval feudal rights of the land owner (who could in theory claim a “rent” or even reclaim the land for themselves), there would need to be a formal request made, and the process of “affrancazione” would take place, in order for the actual individual occupying the land to claim to have full and rightful ownership without restriction.
However, over so many centuries of use there was often no longer one recognised owner but it was considered land owned collectively or by the state, a “bene demaniale”, and in some cases by the local authority (the “Comune”). So by the process of affrancazione the person applying to be recognised as the rightful individual owner would be required to pay the collective land owner a price (“liquidazione”). From the 1970’s onwards the procedure began to be supervised by the Regione.
Purchasers of land in these affected areas need to be aware and carry out extra due diligence. The existence of usi civici may not be contained in any document and cannot be ascertained from the deed of purchase, but may simply be deemed to exist for particular historic and geographic reasons and should be disclosed by the Comune where the land is situated. Any conveyance which purports to transfer land which is in effect the subject of usi civici is null and void.