Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: A Poor Italian Village Boasts a Rich Cultural History

Ancient cave dwellings in Matera, Italy are being converted into performance and living spaces or luxury hotels. Photo by Gary Singh

Just off Via Ridola in Matera, Italy, a dramatic view presents itself from a balcony in Piazzetta Giovanni Pascoli, a little plaza named after a local poet. From the landing, I can see the Sassi, the ancient cave dwellings of Matera. Many locals as well as tourists regularly gather at this vista point for the view.

The Sassi date back to pre-Christian times, but one can make comparisons to ancient Jerusalem, which is why both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson filmed parts of their respective Christ movies here.

It is the poet Pascoli, however, that informs my entire presence in Matera from the first moment. On my first night I stay at a humble bed and breakfast named Myricae, after Pascoli's first book of poetry, although I did not know his work beforehand. Then by sheer chance, I stumble across the vista point in a plaza named after him. The synchronicity is poetic enough to inspire me for the rest of the trip.

Pascoli began his career in Matera, where he taught Latin and Greek at a local high school back at the turn of the century. He published Myricae in 1903. After living here, Pascoli said, "Of the cities where I've been, Matera is the one that smiles at me the most, the one I see even better through a veil of poetry and melancholy." I feel like the ghost of Pascoli is the one showing me around.

Modern-day Matera, a sparkling little Italian village, surrounds the original swaths of cave dwellings, many of which are still intact. The history is far from pretty. Generations of peasants inhabited these cave complexes, living in abject poverty, ridden with malaria and often with no water or sanitation. Then came the anti-fascist writer and painter Carlo Levi, who was exiled to this area in the '30s for opposing Mussolini. Levi documented the miserable conditions of the peasants in his famous 1945 memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli, elevating the peasants' predicament to the level of national consciousness, embarrassing the entire country in the process. As a result, beginning in the '50s, the peasants were eventually relocated to newer housing projects, although the process was a botched disaster from the beginning.

Nowadays, Matera is a testament to how an ignored wasteland can transform itself into a reputable world-renowned place. In 1993, the cave dwellings became an official UNESCO World Heritage site, the designation of which triggered more influx into the surrounding town, with new artisan shops, retail shopping and all the dynamics of a modern-day Italian village. And next year Matera will be one of the European Capitals of Culture, so an entire matrix of projects are scheduled to unfold throughout 2019. Artists from all over the world will descend upon Matera to create works involving the locals, and a few of the caves are already converted into performance spaces, living arrangements or luxury hotels. Carlo Levi's own paintings of peasant life are also on display at the National Museum of Mediaeval and Modern Art, just near the aforementioned vista point.

The philosophy of the 2019 European Capital of Culture, as the director explained for us, is not to attract tourism. Instead, visitors will be encouraged to operate as participants in a year-long enterprise, including various networking and collaborative art projects, acts of lifestyle engagement and other endeavors connecting them with the everyday experience of what it means to be a citizen of Matera.

Thankfully, the peasant heritage still resonates and many of the locals remain proud of the history. Again, I discovered this without even trying. At a restaurant named Kappador in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, I paid seven euros for a fantastic bowl of Crapiata, a type of rural peasant stew made of various legumes. It was perfect against the cold weather, which was just above freezing.

According to some materials I found at Myricae, Pascoli highlighted how beauty could be found in the simplest and poorest of things. This was a metaphor for Matera, he wrote, a town the humility of which takes your breath away. There are no fancy Baroque decorations or ornate outlines, he wrote, just a place rich with humble history.