by Peter Byrne
"Perhaps Lucania, Matera, or the South of Italy in general should be considered forever as a place of confinement, of the marginalized and the exiled?"
—Natalia Ginzburg, Winter in the Abruzzi, 1944"When these workers rise to their feet, when they ask for land, when they ask for a house to live in like human beings, then the people running the world say it will crash down. Well, let it crash."
—Palmiro Togliatti, electoral campaign of 1948
"How many have nothing but hope!/ heart, don't stop beating./ The graves the houses,/ it's the 10th of August/ that we were evicted./ What are they doing where we lived?/ Are the keys turning in hotels?/ The miserable, the good/ are they damned to removal?/ The Jewish women wail on the stones/ of the ruined temple./ How many have nothing but prayer!/ heart, don't stop beating."
—Rocco Scotellaro, from The Graves the Houses, translated by Paul Vangelisti
(Swans - June 6, 2011) The ground under me had been lived in for twelve thousand years. Then in the 1950s the lights went out. It was a conundrum to prick the curiosity of even a footsore tourist with lunch on his mind. I was in the city of Matera in Basilicata (formerly Lucania), the province that sits like a pear on the instep of the Italian boot.
Matera appears to be the compendium of a small Italian city, somewhat spruced up in the last two decades and proud in its provincialism. You can start from a twentieth century parking lot and stroll back through every epoch of the Western world. There's nervous nineteenth century nation building, eighteenth century decorum, the Baroque exuberance of the sixteen hundreds, assorted Renaissance glories -- it's all there as if set out in samples. The mediaeval city stood on Roman foundations that rose from a Greek settlement. Underneath it all and long before, prehistoric men and women left the implements of their sketchy domesticity.
But Matera isn't a typical small Italian city. Its sober civic treasures rest on a limestone crust that has been hollowed out by man and nature. In the course of the city's history more people have lived underground in darkness than on top in the southern sunshine. The Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley visited the local cemetery in 1717 and quipped that the dead of Matera were housed above the living. His diary note reads, "Houses one above another like seats in a theatre built down the sides of an oval hole. More men cannot stand on a mountain than on ye under plain."
The ground where I stood was really a stone shelf on the side of a cliff. It was a balcony-like splinter where sparse grass grew and a couple of fig trees had taken root in the rock. The view looked over a deep ravine in which a torrent flowed. A bank of gray stone like a sponge mountain filled the horizon beyond. The perforations showed black in the daylight. They were the entrances to former homes of men and their domestic animals.
I was in fact standing on the roof of the ninth century AD rupestral church of St. Nicola. It stood on another church that had two centuries later also been hewed from the rock. The locals dug from the top down. Both churches were "negative architecture," i.e., they had all the usual architectural features but sculpted from one mass of stone, not built or added. Their frescoed spaces had been used for worship, dwelling, a garbage dump, wine storage, and burial space. Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson filmed there. Archeologists found the remains of cooking and eating nearby that they dated from the tenth century BC.
The death knell of this continual stream of life came with the visit of Prime Minister De Gasperi in 1952. He had been ignoring the city's plight until he faced a difficult election. He then announced, as if he had never before heard of Matera's cave homes, that something would have to be done. What followed looms large in the history of the city as it certainly must have for the fifteen thousand souls that it would bring above ground.
But that's merely the end of the story. Matera's millennial reality ought to be seen from a broader perspective than post-WWII Italian politics. The ridge on which the city is spread, 400 meters above sea level, is worth approaching from more than one direction. Each route reveals a different aspect of Matera, bulking out its history.
One way to begin the journey is from 32 miles away with a walk through the raucous city of Bari. The sea at your back, you aim for the train station that connects Italy top to bottom. Up some stairs, high to the right, another station perches. It's tiny and sends two-carriage convoys toward the high country at the peninsula's center. As much of a relief as it is to leave a big city, it's apparently also refreshing to enter one from the country in the morning. The tiny station's tinier bar is full of the first arrivals happily drinking coffee. There's no room around the espresso machine for long faces.
It takes the little train some straining to get out of Bari's orbit. The outskirts are a gimcrack denial of the city's fine Romanesque core and its re-ordering by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. Soon we are in the green countryside with an olive grove always in sight. We relax along with the train that makes stops at villages as if patting them on the back. When it gathers speed we can watch the red of the wild poppies along the track. They follow like panting dogs wishing the two carriages a good day in the hills.
We rise with effort into thinner air, the Adriatic now as far away as a memory of childhood. The vistas are sweeping, the land rounded, swelling, covered with shaved grass. An occasional tree stands scarred and solitary in the way southern trees do, mourning over Roman deforestation. But the overbearing new presence is stone. It covered this landscape like sprinkled confetti, and still lies as it always has in patches that haven't been cleared. In others, arms and hands labored to fashion it into dry stonewalls. These, notched by time, which has taken big bites, put in a good word for generations that have no other monument.
The same stone went into the conical shelters, often crumbled, that look prehistoric but still sheltered seasonal field workers right into the twentieth century. Just after WWII arid land like this was fought over by day laborers who demanded fields of their own from the big estates. Workers died in the fighting. There's irony, peasant irony, in the fact that much is now uncultivated. Land that's all rock under a thin skin of earth is like a man with too much good sense to work. It's best left to the thistles, which notoriously don't give a damn. Or to the yellow flowers: "They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon" and all his foremen could squeeze profit here. As late as 1954-5, the great American folklorist Alan Lomax photographed field workers breaking stone in these parts. They were singing like the chain gangs he recorded in the American south. He was in Europe, waiting out his blacklisting.
The 30-mile way from Metaponte is another rewarding approach to Matera from another coast, this time from the south and the Ionian Sea, instead of from the east and the Adriatic. The drive inland leaves white sand beaches and what was one of the great Greek colonies of the sixth century BC. The columns of the imposing Doric temple known as the Palatine Tables puts Basilicata into a Greco-Roman picture frame. The country here is rich green with any rough stone cushioned by luxuriant growth. But the land does rise. Ten miles from Matera the smaller town of Montescaglioso balances on a hilltop.
For lovers of indirect and shy arrivals it makes an enlightening stop on the way. Matera, just as Metaponte, is a World Heritage site with all that implies in human traffic and efforts at efficiency. Nobody goes to Montescaglioso. If you arrive in the afternoon there's not a soul abroad and nothing open. Everyone is still sleeping off his lunch. But in the evening, or in the morning, males stand in the town square talking just as they always have. They stare at strangers, but it's a stare of amazement and good will.
The eleventh century monastery of St. Michael Archangelo looms above the town. Its drum-like tower commands a splendid view over the fertile valley of the Bradano River as far as the Gulf of Taranto. The Benedictine monks with their encouragement of various crafts have left their mark on local life. Montescaglioso still lives from agriculture and the trades that go with it.
With the unification of Italy in the 1860s, brigandage thrived in the south and Montescaglioso became the lair of the notorious bandit couple, Rocco Chirichigno and his spouse Arcangela. Their activity was such as to swell emigration to America. One town church has a plaque on the front listing the descendents of the town's emigrants who contributed to shoring it up. Their money must have built the pretentious villas on the outskirts. The houses on the narrow lanes high up in the ancient nucleus haven't been prettied up. But within, sometimes covered over, you find the vaulted stone ceilings that artisans built for centuries in these regions as if the subtle balancing of the segments was as simple as hammering a nail.
No better way to grasp the social dynamism of small town Italy than to lounge about Piazza Roma with your ears open. Anyone with claims to civic belonging has to turn up there for a natter. If you are used to seeing only old women in big city churches, religious processions here will surprise you. Young men in tuxedos direct the proceedings like masters of ceremonies at a command performance. Relics of old fashioned living are revealed. On the fifth of January, a kind of Halloween, children don't torment adults with tricks. Adults (Cucciboca) dress up in scary outfits and wielding huge needles threaten to sew up the lips of noisy children.
Montescaglioso did not escape the turmoil after WWII that accompanied the land reform and dismembering of the huge estates. The town's present well being results from the creation of smaller farms that followed. But the strife hasn't been forgotten and Giuseppe Novello, a day laborer whose militancy cost him his life, is still revered as a hero.
The region's social movement of those years is reflected in the life and work of the painter and writer, Carlo Levi. As we continue on over the last miles from Montescaglioso to Matera, we actually pass through some of the disputed fields. The Centro Carlo Levi in Matera is devoted to the study of southern Italy and displays some of Levi's artwork.
Levi (1902-1975) must be one of the few painters in history to have actually hastened social change. He was born in the northern city of Turin and completed his medical studies there. In 1927 he decided to give himself entirely to painting. But coming from a socialist family of some prominence, he could hardly not take a stand against Fascism. In 1931 he joined the anti-Fascist Giustizia e Libertà movement. This led to his arrest and exile by the regime to a remote village in Basilicata. It was a decision that influenced Italian history.
During 1935-36 Levi immersed himself in local life, painted and gave medical assistance to the peasants. Released, he fled to France, eventually returning to Italy where he ended in prison until Mussolini's arrest in 1943. The war over, he immediately applied himself to writing about his southern exile. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, was published in 1945 (Christ Stopped at Eboli in the U.S. in 1947).
The book, a memoir shaped as a novel, reads at times like investigative reporting. It was hailed from the first as a masterpiece. Post-war Italians, the Fascist charade over, were keen to see what their country was really like. Levi managed to communicate his own astonishment and distress to discover fellow Italians living no better than the farm animals they attended. The peasants he came to know had never entered the modern world. They subsisted on bread, tomatoes, peppers, and olive oil. The state had ignored them. Medical care and education existed only as limp gestures.
"Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason, nor history." Page 3
Levi's cruelest perception concerned the contempt for and exploitation of the malaria-ridden populace by the local wielders of power -- pharmacists, priests, lawyers, petty officials, and, of course, landowners. It was not surprising that the only hope among the peasants was of emigration to America. (The two minds of Italians in regard to immigration today surely comes from an awareness that less than a century ago some of them also had lives as desperate as the present arrivals from Africa.)
The resonance of Levi's report on the inhuman conditions of life in a southern Italian village could not but effect politics in the southern city of Matera. An official investigation of 1948 found that 2,636 families still lived in dwellings that could be termed part cave, crypt, or grotto. Forty-three percent of their infants failed to survive. National opinion and intense pressure from the Communist Party resulted in action. A plan was drawn up to build public housing for the troglodytes in outlying areas. But the implementation of the plan would be long and troubled. It wasn't fully completed until 1985, when Rome set aside funds to restore for future memory the now empty neighborhoods cut in stone.
Levi went on writing but never again reached the searing eloquence of Christ Stopped at Eboli. One of his subsequent books did bear the pregnant title of Words Are Stones. The troglodyte quarters of Matera had always been known as I Sassi, literally, the rocks. Levi's writing about a forlorn village he got to know in detention had something of the unassuming dignity and blunt reality of the stone scattered over southern Italy. His words were a monument to the forgotten who had hewed and carried that stone.
So it was fitting that the Centro Carlo Levi found a home in Matera. Levi came to the city in 1974 and presented lithographs inspired by Aliano, the village of his 1935-36 exile. A month later he died and was buried far from his native Turin, in that same southern village.
In 1976 Levi's huge painting of 18 by 3 meters, Lucania '61, was installed in the Centro. It's an epic fantasy of peasant life threaded through by the career of Rocco Scotellaro. This shoemaker's son became the socialist mayor of his hometown, Tricarico, at twenty-three. The landowners had backed him thinking he could be manipulated. When he militated for land reform, they had him thrown in jail on a spurious charge. Scotellaro, who died at thirty in 1953 from a heart attack, was also a poet. He's now seen as a precursor of Italian Neo-realism. Eugenio Montale called his lyric poetry the most significant of its time.
It's a typical Italian surprise to find the Centro devoted to Carlo Levi, a witness to the south's destitution, housed in the lacey fronted Baroque masterpiece, all delicate arches, of Matera's Palazzo Lanfranchi. But inside along with Levi's paintings of Basilicata life is a further surprise. Windows permit a striking view of the incredible tangle of rock and masonry where the population lived into the mid twentieth century.
Levi himself wrote of the scene: "These upturned cones like funnels are called Rocks (Sassi): one facing Montescaglioso and the other Bari. They are like the picture children at school imagine of Dante's Hell."
Variety and wealth of detail mark this unique mass of spontaneous architecture. In places it would have to be termed "found architecture." Nature began the work of excavating rock. Men moved in with their families and domestic animals and continued it. Substantial churches were created underground. Elsewhere grottos have had complete buildings large or small built on their fronts. Part of the mystery of the scene comes from our not knowing what is back in the depths. If this is a picture of Hell then that place would be worth a visit.
The view offers no more symmetry than a pile of dissimilar objects, say of unsorted potatoes or mixed nuts in their shells. From the summit downward houses stand on top of one another. They are of various shapes and sizes. Some show their facade, others their flank or merely their flat or sloping roof. Lean-tos nudge up against palatial structures. It's like a crowd where no one wants to look his neighbor in the eye. With patience, you can make out the narrowest of lanes that could be steep run offs for rain. Among the doors, windows and chimney pots you can pick out little towers, gazebos, and daring balconies. There is not only no visible order, but hardly a straight line. Throbbing through the whole spectacle, however, is the powerful drive of human beings to take shelter.
It's advisable not to stare too long. You begin to fear, unreasonably, that some omnipotent hand might decide to put lids on these two "upturned cones." For the "funnels," I Sassi, the two Rocks, though emptied now, seem determined to live and breathe still as if so much human woe and so many heartbeats could never be stifled.
"Writhing olive trunks/ on Matera's limestone./ How many bitter poems/ of buried seasons gone!" Rocco Scotellaro. ("Afflitti ulivi/ sui tufi di Matera./ O gli amari poemi/ delle morte stagioni!")
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