The province of Basilicata is generally considered to the be the poorest of all Italy’s provinces and until recently there has been little reason for visitors to go there. It is also known by it’s ancient name of Lucania, derived from the name of a tribe of people (the Lucanians) – a Samnite tribe – who inhabited Southern Central Italy at more or less the same time as the Greeks were colonising the coastline. Anyone who has been to Paestum will remember from the museum some splendid Lucanian tombs.
It is a mainly a hilly and remote region with a couple of deep and wide river valleys flowing into the gulf of Taranto. It has a tiny coast on the Tyrrhenian sea at Maratea (not to be confused with Matera) – an exclusive resort town, very different from the rest of Basilicata – and another coast on the Northern shore of the Gulf of Taranto.
Anyone who has ever driven down the motorway to Reggio Calabria will remember the spectacular scenery around Lagonegro, Lauria and Laino Borgo as the motorway skirts the Western edge of the Pollino mountains. That is Basilicata. And it’s a stretch of the motorway which is quite often closed because of snow in the winter.
Now very much on the tourist route, Matera is Basilcata’s second city after the “capital” Potenza. Many of its visitors sadly only stay for the day and see it mainly as an opportunity to capture the Instagram shot which they hope will ramp up their number of followers. But apart from being simply a pretty place to photograph, Matera offers much for the visitor.
It is located on the southern edge of an area known as the Murge – a high plateau of karst limestone scored through with deep gorges which extends into the eastern part of Puglia. For millennia (and especially in Roman times) this area was known for it transhumance lifestyle – a term referring to semi-nomadic pastoralism and deriving from the Latin terms: trans (across) and humus (ground) – across the ground.
In this spectacular setting then, the town of Matera is carved into the Western escarpment of the Gravina river valley as it flows in a roughly North-South direction towards the Gulf of Taranto. And the reason for its location is evident as soon as you visit: as the sun rises in the morning, the easternmost bank of the river is still in shade, whilst the westernmost side is warmed by the rays of the sun. The earliest habitations at Matera therefore, were caves dug into the dawn-facing cliff, where the early morning sun would have flooded in through the doorway of the cave bringing light and warmth.
To judge from the artefacts that have been found by archaeologists and now on display in the archaeological museum in the town, the area around Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era – or, in other words, the 10th millennia BC.
Astonishingly, these troglodyte dwellings, were continually inhabited until the 1950s. This would mean that people have lived in the region for 12 thousand years. It is precisely this evidence which supports Matera claim to being one of the three oldest continually inhabited cities in the whole world. (The other two are Jericho and Damascus).
The town of Matera was officially founded in Roman Times. Then, in the 8th and 9th centuries, many of the caves were inhabited by Basilian institutions – perhaps by monks fleeing the Islamic incursion into the Cappadocia area of Turkey. It is from this time that we have several, what are known as Rupestrian churches. (Rupestrian is the word that comes from the Italian “rupestre”, meaning “of rock”). And in fact, this similarity with Cappadocia is one of the first observations we hear from visitors who have also been to the underground cities of central Anatolia. This monastic tradition is something that carried on through the centuries and Matera became an important centre for the church during the era of the counter-Reformation.
In due course, this soft limestone, which was easily quarry-able in nearby areas provided a rich source of building stone and the town was built up vertically.
So in Matera, we have two types of building – above ground and below ground. And these two architectures are conjoined seamlessly, so that it is impossible to tell the divisions between the two. And it is exactly, this unique architectural landscape which is the first source of wonder for the visitor.
The geography of the town itself is organised around two areas or Sassi. (Sassi is simply the word in Italian that means “stones”). And so we have the Sasso Caveoso (the cave Sassi) and the Sasso Barisano. Essentially these are two small valleys within the town itself and separated by a ridge – the highest point of the town – on which the Duomo is situated.
Within these Sassi, whole families, along with their animals would have lived in what was a single cave – even though the cave was often divided into several rooms. But nevertheless, there was enormous poverty among the inhabitants of the Sassi and in the 1950s the government forcefully evicted many of them. They were rehoused in anonymous housing blocks in an area to the West of the city and nowadays it is this rather ugly 1950s development which is the visitor’s rather unsightly first impression of Matera. But nevertheless, a handful of families continued to live on in the caves. And then twenty years ago, the very first entrepreneurs began to open some of them up as hotels. In the last ten years this process has accelerated almost exponentially.
One of the most interesting features of the Sassi is their water management and, indeed, one of the most impressive visits in Matera is to the Palombaro Lungo – a huge underwater cistern carved out in a shape of a huge Basilica. Anyone who has been to Istanbul and has visited the underground cistern will be able to imagine it.
In fact however, this was merely an extension of a system of water management that goes back through Greek times back to Ancient Iran. In Iran there is a system of what are known as qanats – underwater tunnels carrying water from the mountains to the the towns. This same system was adopted by the Greeks and subsequently by the Romans. Furthermore, under the Romans these aqueducts ofter fed huge underground water cisterns which were reservoirs of drinking water for towns.
Nowadays the Palombaro is no longer used. There is only a metre of water in the bottom, and they have built a metal walkway to allow people to visit. It is one of the memorable aspects of any visit to Matera.
It is exactly this extraordinary urban architecture, lending itself as a perfect natural film-set, that has been sought out by film directors over the last hundred years. The list of films shot in the town is perhaps longer than for any other town of similar size on the planet, but just to mention a few of the most famous: the first was The Gospel according to Saint Matthew made in 1964 by Pier Paolo Pasolini who identified Matera as a location naturally lending itself to religious themes. Another was the 2006 film of Ben-Hur. And not to forget the latest James Bond film “No Time to Die” which was being filmed in the town when we visited this April.
Carlo Levi – A writer from Turin
However, the other film which I personally believe has contributed vastly to the renaissance of Matera was the 1979 film by Francesco Rosi: Christ Stopped at Eboli. It is the film of a book by the same name published in 1945 by a writer named Carlo Levi and which, to my mind, more effectively than any other, portrays the “Mezzogiorno” to the world.
Mezzogiorno, of course, just means “mid-day” – and in such that it is the sun’s position in the sky at mid-day, in Italian it simply means “South”. And at the time Levi’s book was published, the “South” was simply conceived as as a problem to Northern Italians. The subject of the“Mezzogiorno” is one that has continued to afflict Italian politics, fascinated foreign observers and occupied Italian artists. But Carlo Levi was one of the first to write about it and publicise it to the world. He also brings a humanity to the story unlike any other.
Levi was a doctor, writer and painter from Turin. He was born in 1902 and had studied medicine at the University of Turin, but as a young man he turned to painting and spent several years in Paris. In 1929 he returned to Turin and founded an anti-fascist movement. In 1935 he was arrested for his political activities and sentences to internal exile to Lucania – to a small village by the name of Aliano (which he calls Gagliano in his book), about 20km distant from Matera. The book is essentially an account of the two years he spent in Aliano. It is not therefore, not really a novel, so much as a memoir, but its publication pricked the conscience of Northern Italians.
Aliano, in those days, was extremely poor. The villagers’ diet was usually just bread, oil, tomatoes and peppers. Their homes contained few possessions. There was a school, but the teacher – the mayor of the town, spent most of his time smoking on the balcony. Malaria was rife and there were frequent deaths resulting from it. There were only two doctors in the town and priest had been banished to Aliano from elsewhere for having sexual relations with members of his congregation. He was frequently drunk and had little regard for the people of Aliano – his comment on them was: “The people here are donkeys, not Christians”.
Although he had not practised medicine for many years, Levi found himself sought out by the inhabitants of Aliano who came to him for diagnoses of their ills. And as such he became trusted by them and in turn he was impressed by their kindness.
The title of Levi’s book comes from a phrase coined by the people of Aliano themselves: Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. Eboli is a town just South of Salerno. It’s a nondescript and not particularly interesting town, but it is the place where the the train-line diverges from the coast and follows the Basento valley East. “Christ stopped at Eboli” conjures the notion that the message of Christianity, on its journey down the Italian peninsula never got further than than Eboli, and that anyone living South of here had never been touched by its message.
Religion in Aliano therefore, was as much superstition as Christianity. It wasn’t as if the people lacked morals and kindness, but it was certainly not shaped by any belief in God.
In Aliano, Carlo Levi was made to stay in a small house almost opposite the Carabinieri. He was allowed only limited freedom to walk around the village, but he was not “imprisoned” in this house. The house has recently been restored and in theory can be visited. It is on the edge of a precipice – such that you might think it would topple off the edge
But towards the end of his exile in Basilicata, Levi returned to the North of Italy to attend a funeral. Talking to his friends in Turin about the Mezzogiorno, he realised their misconceptions, ignorance and prejudices surrounding it and discovered an awkwardness he had not noticed before. Frequently, he was hearing the argument, that “something had to be done about it” by the State – as if the South of Italy was somehow a problem for the North.
Christ Stopped at Eboli was written in reaction to the sentiments expressed by his friends and in the book he exposes the underlying kindness and humanity of the population, notwithstanding – and perhaps sometimes in spite of – religion. Levi’s book was therefore one of the first, written by a Northern Italian to defend the lifestyle, expose the problems and express the humanity of the Mezzogiorno.
When Francesco Rosi came to make the film of the book, he chose Matera as the natural setting, and it was through this film that many people – myself included – came to learn about Matera.
I remember the first time I saw the film, before I knew anything about the location, I marvelled at the landscapes and wondered where on earth this place could be. It was another twenty years before I actually set eyes on Matera and it’s true that how ever many pictures you see of it, they never quite prepare your for the first time you see it.
Unsurprisingly, Carlo Levi has been somewhat adopted by the town of Matera. As I mentioned, Carlo Levi, as well as being a doctor and a writer, was foremost a painter. It was painting that had inspired him to lead the life he did and which had taken him to Paris in the 1920s. Today, even though Levi never stayed in Matera, there is an exposition of his paintings in a rather lovely museum in Matera.
The favourite subject of his paintings were the peasants and contadini that surrounded him. Almost always, there are numerous children and the women are often in the foreground, and often have long dolorous faces.
Look for example at this picture here. The woman’s eyes are filled with anxiety, whereas the boys are carefree and almost jovial. Invariably, of course there is another child tugging at the woman’s skirts. If you look at the background of the painting too, you can see the typical landscape of Aliano and the precipice I was talking about earlier.
In this second picture, again, there is a woman in the foreground of the picture and it is not surprising she is leading the trail of peasants. Notice the colour of the clothes they are wearing – the woman at the back is dressed in black – the colour of mourning. And the man too is dressed in sombre-suited dark clothes.
The other thing you can see in this second picture is the extraordinary landscape in which Aliano is plated – and they are known as calanchi: in effect this where the clay top-soil has been eroded by rain and the effect of water running down them. They are quite common throughout much of Italy, but those around Aliano are known as some of the most extraordinary.
Many of the characters in his paintings also feature in Christ Stopped at Eboli. And an interesting occurrence happened when we were last in Aliano. We were at the trattoria “La Contadina Sisina” (not surprisingly perhaps, the only restaurant in the village) and were talking to the owner. Her own father had been the subject of one of Levi’s paintings and they had written a book about what had happened to many of the characters who had once featured in Christ Stopped at Eboli. Many of them had emigrated to South America.
Carlo Levi died in Rome in 1975 but his wish was to be buried in Aliano with the “contadini” who had framed so much of his life. His last resting place is in the cemetery of Aliano; where he is interred right on the very edge, overlooking the pines and cypresses in the valley below. His grave is strewn with pebbles – as in the jewish tradition of commemorating a grave by leaving a stone – and also with pens and visiting cards.
It seems ironic to me therefore that today, perhaps the greatest ambassador to Matera was a writer exiled to the region and imprisoned for his political beliefs.
But I think it is also a thought we should bear in our minds as we visit Matera: the city is today being transformed into a Disney-World of boutique hotels, fancy restaurants and other attractions. It is a city that an inhabitant of scarcely less than a century ago would fail to recognise today if they returned.
To my mind, as we wander round Matera, enjoying the Southern Italian atmosphere, snapping our Instagram photos and buying our fridge magnets, we need to thank Carlo Levi for bringing it to the World’s attention.
Esplora Travel run small group tours to Southern Italy.