We made a brief stop at Grassano, one of the two small southern villages where Mussolini exiled Carlo Levi to silence him during the fascist’s ruinous reign. But the real story of both Scotellaro and Levi is found in Matera. In Christ Stopped in Eboli Levi, a doctor and painter as well, also wrote briefly about the horrible conditions of Matera’s sassi-dwelling contadini. Life in the warren of caves during the first half of the twentieth century was as miserable as it was in Cornelisen’s and Scotellaro’s Tricarico. Living in their unhealthful sassi, peasants lived on the brink of starvation in a malaria infested environment. Levi wrote that when he visited Matera in the 1940s, upon learning that he was a doctor, children would chase him through the streets, not asking for food or money, but for quinine to help alleviate the symptoms of the malaria that ravaged their frail bodies.
Matera now serves as the real site of Levi’s contribution to the South. The Museo Nationale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna della Basilicata contains more than two dozen of Levi’s unique and unconventional portraits of private and public figures. Levi resisted fascist conformity in his art with highly individualized portraits. His subjects’ faces are painted in a rainbow of clashing colors. Even more dramatic, in an adjacent room is a more than thirty foot long mural, with Levi’s full-size portrait at one end and Scotellaro’s at the other. Both men are surrounded by peasants. In between are images of village life. This is Levi’s tribute to his friend’s commitment to the poor, as well as a statement about the exploitation of the southern peasant at the hands of an indifferent northern government. His mural was exactly what Mussolini hoped to suppress in Levi’s work.
Though Scotellaro died young, both his and Levi’s writing had their intended consequences. They brought sufficient attention to the plight of the peasants in Basilicata. By the early 1950s the Northern government built new housing for the sassi-dwelling masses and moved more than fifteen-thousand out of their ill-ventilated and unsanitary caves. The new policy did not improve the economy of the region, but at least it relieved some of the suffering that Levi, Scotellaro, and Cornelisen had documented.
Today Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its history and poverty contrast markedly with the sassi district’s new role as one Italy’s most remarkable tourist destinations. Those original unlivable sassi, ironically, now serve as upscale inns and restaurants. The restored face of the village is dazzling in the afternoon sun and stunning under the lights flooding the hilltop village at night.
But not all of the South’s medieval quarters have been lucky enough to be restored and share in the South’s tourist economy. The contrast with Matera’s restored splendor could not be any greater than in Taranto, where we made an overnight stop. Taranto’s medieval quarter is not so much historical as it is, unfortunately, living history. Unlike Matera, the façade of its medieval quarter does not hide its calamitous past. It is a ruin of abandoned buildings and still impoverished residents. As Pino Aprile explains in Terroni, the dilapidated quarter is a disgraceful symbol of the North’s exploitation of the South. In the 1960s, under the guise of improving the southern economy, the government gave oil contracts to large corporations, who polluted the zone, including the beautiful bay, took the money, and ran. They left behind a still impoverished working class and blighted environment.
The pleasure boats in the harbor and the surrounding modern apartment buildings stand in stark contrast to the ruined medieval center. In spite of its poverty, apparently, Taranto has an established middle class. Likewise, the ornate richness of the baroque Cattedrale di San Cataldo in the center of the quarter clashes with the surrounding display of abandoned buildings. Taranto’s working class remains lodged in its place at the bottom of the wage scale. In my early morning walk to the dock to observe the state of the fishing industry, a young man attempted to sell me “erba.” The only sign of hope for the zone’s youth is the university in the middle of it.
During a late-night walk through the quarter, I came upon a book store in which a panel discussion was underway on immigration and refugees. In spite of the deep-rooted economic problems that plague Taranto, the town’s young people are engaged in the political questions that impact the region. There is an active fishing and shell-fish industry in the bay, which provides some jobs for young people. Otherwise, this inglorious, unrestored medieval quarter stands as a testimony to the failure of the government to address adequately the South’s economic woes, which remain in Taranto an open, festering wound.
Taranto is a reminder that, according to a recent report published in L’Italo-Americano, more than 30% of southern Italians still live below the poverty line.
We also spent three days in Bari, where a large modern quarter of commercial and apartment buildings flank a restored, restaurant-filled and bustling medieval quarter. In the evenings, the working class that still inhabits much of the quarter mingles with locals, including legions of young people and adults, from the upscale neighborhoods. Owing to guide books’ mistaken warning about the crime in the city, unfortunately few foreigners visit the city.
Of course, in spite of the problems that still plague parts of the South today, it is a dynamic region with a productive countryside and countless historic sites. I would run out of superlatives and space if I tried to describe the final leg of our itinerary in Puglia, from Otranto, Lecce, Martina Franca, Ostuni, Polignano a Mare, to Trani, Gallatina, Alberobello, and Locorotondo. These towns all require a separate essay. The peasants’ Trulli have, like Matera’s sassi, been turned into elegant resort hotels.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “traveling is a fool’s paradise.” But his wise comment is true if tourists seek only paradise in their travels.