We are tourists here, so you must forgive any errors of historical fact.
I am a lover of cities.
Our visit to Matera in the Bassilicata region of Italy was of immense interest.
Some estimate that Matera is over 9,000 years old, making it the third oldest city on the planet, after Aleppo and Jericho. That may be western historical bias, but we can say that Matera has been a city for a very, very long time.
It was established some time between the paleolithic era and the neolithic era.
Those who lived in Matera made their homes by digging out caves.
If this sparks an interest for you I will let you do your own research.
It is fascinating.
I want to jump ahead about 2,000 years to the rise of Italian fascism and the rule Mussolini.
Mussolini found little base of support in Matera where people, like those in the rest of the Italian south, were often poor and still lived in the caves that were dug out by hand millennia earlier.
In the neighboring region of Apulia, where we have spent most of our travels, even now the unemployment rate is 20%, more than twice the rate of the wealthier north.
The economics of the European Union have done no favors for those in the Italian south.
As an enemy of fascism, it was to Bassilicata that Carlo Levi, the anti-fascist painter, writer, activist and doctor was exiled.
After the war, he wrote his famed book about the extreme poverty of the region in Christ Stopped at Eboli.
Levi wrote, “The title of the book comes from an expression by the people of ‘Gagliano’ who say of themselves, ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli’ which means, in effect, that they feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself—that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience.”
With the world-wide popularity of the Levi book, the press began to refer to Matera as “the shame of Italy.”
With money from the Marshall Plan, the 18,000 residents of Matera were forcibly removed from their homes in The Sassi (the caves). They were moved into block housing outside of town that for me resembles Chicago’s Stateway Gardens or St. Louis’ Pruit-Igoe.
Many who were forced to leave have never been accounted for.
Some of the original Sassi residents resisted and remained until the mid-Sixties.
The government took ownership of the caves.
For the poor of The Sassi of Matera the social experiment of forced emigration was a disaster.
But for others?
Tell me if this doesn’t sound familiar.
Tourists like us now stroll the narrow streets of old Matera. Many of the caves have been transformed into fancy hotels, expensive restaurants and housing for the rich.
In 2019, the European Union has declared Matera the European Cultural Capital and thousands are expected to crowd the city.
With more massive gentrification to come.