Open Future: Matera, 2019 European Capital of Culture

Matera, 2019 European Capital of Culture, might be the metaphor of the resurgence of southern Italy

I tried to describe Matera’s Sassi (which literally translates into “rocks” in English) several times, but I have never been able to define them better than does this passage of Carlo Levi’s book, where the story of his exile during the Fascist period is told. He had to go in the deep south of Italy — in the province of Potenza, Basilicata — and he titled his work “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, a small town 150 kilometers away from Matera, to tell how that area had been forgotten even by God. Indeed, the economic and social situation of southern Italy around the ‘40s was desperate to say the least, and Matera — one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world— faced terrible living conditions:

“These inverted cones, these funnels, are called Sassi, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. Their shape is the one I was daydreaming while studying Dante’s hell at school. […] The streets are, at the same time floors for those who live in the houses above and roofs for those below. The doors were open for the heat, I was watching them passing by: and I saw the inside of the caves, that was taking light and air only from the door. Some do not even have that: you enter from above, through hatches and ladders.”

If in 1949, in Italy, there were 112 child deaths every one thousand, in Matera these were 463. The words by Carlo Levi brought politicians to visit Matera and the country to do an analysis of the socio-economic disaster there. In 1954, Alcide De Gasperi signed the first special law for the displacement of the Sassi. It was the first time in the world that something like this was happening: the greatest sociologists, anthropologists, architects and urban planners were asked to design new quarters of the city that should have welcomed 15 thousand displaced people. However, these latter didn’t know they would have to live outside the heart of the city for at least three decades.

Redemption, loaf and cinema

A decade after, the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini decided to set his movie “Il Vangelo secondo Matteo” mostly in Matera, giving great visibility to the city. However, we have to wait until the mid-‘80s to see again social life into the ancient heart of Matera. The daily activities restarted in the Sassi thanks to another special law passed in 1986, which enabled citizens to come back to the old districts in tufa in order to revive them. It was a reversal of what, in 1954, had been the forced flow to the suburbs, the beginning of a new era for the Sassi and for the city itself, both economically and culturally.

What had once been defined as a “national disgrace” could quickly become a record of the southern spirit of adaptation and survival. As a matter of fact, in 1993, Matera was the first southern Italian city to become UNESCO heritage site: the Sassi were thus considered the evidence and the metaphor of human activity. An activity that is still thriving in 2019, having its best possible representation with the several local foodstuffs, such as the loaf. With its classic croissant shape, anciently prepared only in the Sassi and brought to cook in public ovens, the loaf perfectly encompasses the excellence of the Lucan territory. Due to its historical and organoleptic qualities, indeed, it has become an IGP (protected geographical indication) product: taste it, and I’m quite certain you won’t be disappointed!

More recently, in 2004, Matera became also the set of another movie about the life of Jesus: “The passion of the Christ”, by Mel Gibson. The structure of the city and the pathos it expresses represents the leitmotif of two important movie directors in two different eras, whose aim was to tell the same and, probably, the most influential story regarding western culture and civilization.

2019 European Capital of Culture: “Open future”

Nowadays, Matera came to be the 2019 European Capital of Culture, being chosen among five other Italian cities (Ravenna, Cagliari, Lecce, Perugia and Siena), each of which presented less convincing projects. The opening ceremony was held on January 19, and took the shape of an “extraordinary village fete of previously unseen scale”, as expected. Marching bands from everywhere in Basilicata were the main feature of the event, bringing back the old musical traditions of southern Italy. For the rest of the year, the programme is divided into six main themes that share a common watchword: “Open future”.

The first subject is “Remote future”: a reflection on the age-old relationship between mankind and the universe. The second one will be “Continuity and Divergences”: an opportunity to tackle the many forms of shame at the European level, from social inequalities to the resurgence of racism: let’s not forget that Matera was the first southern Italian city to riot against fascism.

“Reflexions and connections” represents the third theme, trying to underline the value of slowness. Let’s hope that the wonderful Italian Slow Food project led by Carlo Petrini will take part to the events throughout the year.

“Utopias and dystopias” will be the ground on which imagining possible alternatives to the classic patterns of preconception will be allowed. One example of these, is the refrain that South of Italy can born again only through tourism: instead, Naples and Palermo are already two big centers of innovation, boasting good results and several successful start-ups.

“Roots and paths”, the last theme, will remark how mobility is the lifeblood of the region. From Magna Graecia to the Romans, from the tradition of transhumance to the era of the Byzantines and the Arabs, Basilicata has always been a meeting and convergence space, between migratory diasporas and returns. The movie “Basilicata coast to coast” by Rocco Papaleo shows us — in a modern setting — the traveling spirit and the musical traditions of Basilicata, an area that has always been able to question itself with a great dose of self-irony.

This will be Matera 2019, the tale of a rebirth that has already occurred and that might become the metaphor of a great past and — hopefully — of the bright future that the South needs to start dreaming again.