Bleached stone, Rupestrian churches, violet dusk, inventive civility, tourist revisionism, intricate passages, Dante’s Inferno, macchia mediterranea & the soul of the Sassi.
“To this shadowy land, that knows neither sin nor redemption from sin, where evil is not moral but is only the pain residing forever in earthly things, Christ did not come.
Christ stopped at Eboli.” —Carlo Levi
So begins Carlo Levi’s recounting of his one year in political exile in Basilicata in 1935, under the Fascists, who exiled their opponents to southern Italy as if it were a kind of Siberia. Levi’s memoir, published in 1945, aimed a spotlight at the desperate poverty of the region and its people, who had been largely forgotten and ignored by the Italian government, and who, it appeared, had been forsaken by Christ himself. I had read Levi’s vivid memoir some years before and was intrigued by his interpretation of a lawless, pagan land, suffused with superstitions and steeped in decay. It reminded me of stories I’d heard in the small town where I lived as a child, in nearby Puglia, a region I’ve returned to year after year. On this occasion, having visited my aunt, who no longer recognizes me, and feeling nostalgic for that distant world of Levi’s, for a place where lineage extended beyond human settlements, a place where I could trace myself back to a source, I decide to drive the two hours to nearby Basilicata and visit Levi’s Matera—a small subterranean city carved into the flanks of a canyon whose historical Sassi districts date to prehistoric times and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On a deserted secondary road, a tropical storm blackens the sky, and a sudden deluge blurs the windshield. Driving feels both dangerous and metaphorical, as if nature were trying to blur my vision, to alter my perception. Black asphalt glistens through a dense scrubland of holm oaks, sage, juniper, buckthorn and myrtle. It’s easy to imagine gangsters, desperados, hiding among the brush of this macchia mediterranea. This is the south of Italy, the Italy depicted in a multitude of gangster films, where mafiosi flee into the terrain and are never found. In Italian, “darsi alla macchia” means “to become a fugitive.”
The Materani are an excellent example of a people who can trace themselves beyond the parameters of any ancestry website, to a prehistoric five-hundred-thousand-year-old troglodyte settlement on the grey pyramid-shaped plateau facing us, above a yellow burnt slope of stones and stubble.
Soon, I reach the Murgia Materana—a large plateau of brush and stones, pocked with the black maws of prehistoric caves. Beyond it, across the canyon, Matera is burrowed out of the sides of two ravines that plunge into a gully, where a quaggy stream meanders across stones. “I could see a white church, Santa Maria de Idris, which looked half-sunk in the ground,” writes Levi. “The two funnels…were like a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno.”
Dante’s Inferno. Even hell we imagine as a cave in the earth. I circle down into the town on a narrow cobblestone lane to the edge of the ravine, where, in one spot, the lane widens to a small parking lot. The hotels are a series of renovated caves with new facades, of spacious rooms with curved ceilings and sand-coloured walls—all inaccessible except by climbing steep stairways. I drag my suitcase up the hill to the Caveoso Hotel, to my room, which has a balcony overlooking the half-sunk church. By the time I unpack, it’s four-thirty in a stifling twenty-nine degrees, sun blazing on stone.
At five I’m waiting in the lobby, looking at a map of the Sassi—literally “the Stones,” as the districts of caves hollowed out of the ravine are called—when my guide, Liborio Nicoletti, arrives. He’s of an undecipherable age, somewhere between fifty and seventy, a spry, small man with intense eyes. He is a native of Matera, and lived in the Sassi until he was five years old.
I ask him to show me on the map where we’ll be going.
“I will show you the soul of the Sassi!” he says dramatically, dismissing my map.
On a deserted secondary road, a tropical storm blackens the sky, and a sudden deluge blurs the windshield. Driving feels both dangerous and metaphorical, as if nature were trying to blur my vision, to alter my perception.
I fold it, delighted. The soul of the Sassi. And so our journey begins in Sasso Caveoso—with its eerie, abandoned caves of bleached stone, where the poorest inhabitants once lived.
Matera is an example of one of the oldest living cities, and one in which nature and culture are harmonious. People have lived here continuously since prehistoric times, and they have adapted to the landscape. Nicoletti waves his arm to encompass the ravine and valley, the plateau across from us honeycombed by the black mouths of caves. “Where else would you find people living in the houses their ancestors built eight thousand years ago?”
Eight thousand years. Here in Italy, my parents never had a house; we never lived together as a family until we left for Canada. And even there we moved indiscriminately through houses, neighbourhoods, cities, provinces, every three or four years, a habit I inherited, this longing for renewal, completely unattached to physical structures. How would an anthropologist follow our tracks? They’re hardly deep enough to make impressions. All the places I’ve moved into and out of have become fixed periods in time—the eras of my life, stratifications defined by events, relationships, marriages, divorces, deaths, all abandoned. Perhaps this is why I am compelled to search out peoples whose history is palpable, who can claim heritage thousands of years old. And the Materani are an excellent example of a people who can trace themselves beyond the parameters of any ancestry website, to a prehistoric five-hundred-thousand-year-old troglodyte settlement on the grey pyramid-shaped plateau facing us, above a yellow burnt slope of stones and stubble. Then, eight thousand years ago, humans moved into those caves, and remained until 3000 BC, when they abandoned the plateau in favour of this ravine whose limestone composition made it easy to carve, acted as a natural fortress and facilitated the flow of water into cisterns inside the caves. Matera is believed to be among the first human settlements in Italy.
Nicoletti waves his arm to encompass the ravine and valley, the plateau across from us honeycombed by the black mouths of caves. “Where else would you find people living in the houses their ancestors built eight thousand years ago?”
I turn to the carved city, golden in the setting sun. It’s difficult to distinguish chiseled openings from natural ones—man and earth sculpting in harmony. From this vantage, I can imagine Levi’s “closed world, shrouded in black veils, bloody and earthy, that other world where the peasants live and which no one can enter without a magic key,” though Nicoletti is determined to unlock some of the past, which he knows intimately.
In a large cave that has several rooms, he points out the system of water collection into cisterns, the kitchen counter and stove near the entrance, a chimney cut into the ceiling, the washtubs for laundry and the food trough for the animals that lived at the back of the cave. “It sounds primitive,” he says, “and, to our modern standards, it is.” He pauses. “But actually the peasants were advanced in their methods. Notice, for example, that no matter where you stand, there is natural light. The peasants knew the angles needed to refract light into the furthest reaches of the cave.” And he is right. It is now twilight, yet we can stand at the back of the cave and still see the scratches on the walls.
For the next hour, we scramble up a small path, and in and out of caverns, the size of which surprises me. Nicoletti points to the high, vaulted ceilings, the pillar supports between the houses, the multitude of steps necessary to climb in and out of the Sassi. And, ever playful, he says we could apply this architecture to the future. “If we were to go to Mars, for example,” he says, “all we would need to take is an axe. With it, we could carve stone, and both dig out a house and build onto it. Inside our house, we could hide from the extreme heat of the sun.”
I wonder how well we’d do with only an axe, we who are used to power tools and YouTube instruction videos. Could we cut out roads, dig and expand caverns, build facades onto the caves, terrace gardens into the bleached stone? Could we, like the early Materani, carve out a town with rudimentary tools, level by level, in a haphazard Cubist terracing, the cave roofs of one level becoming the road of the caves above, until, in places, nine levels are visible—a city built from the bottom up?
Perhaps cave dwelling is present in our genes, a return to the womb.
Back out in the violet dusk, Matera blends into the landscape. In the distance, the modern city perches at the edge of the craggy mount between the two Sassi districts. Like the earth’s stratification scarred into the face of the ravine, clearly evident is the social stratification: highest is the church, the aristocracy, the wealthy, then more-modest homes below, continuing, level after level, descending to the poorest caves, outside the city walls, where, as late as the 1950s, fifteen thousand Materani lived in caverns, in primitive conditions, sharing their one-room homes with dogs, sheep, goats and pigs, as their ancestors had done for millennia.
What will be left of us in North America? We tear down everything and rebuild constantly, as if the past were a Kurt Wenner 3D installation, fleeting and ephemeral, easily washed away in the rain. Only our photos and written records attest to prior peoples—paper and ink. Here, in Matera, an archeological dig near the town centre revealed a historical strata of Christian coffins from 800 AD, Byzantine columns circa 400 AD, Greek and Roman coins, shards of ceramics three thousand years old and, in nearby caves, tools dating back to 6000 BC.
Perhaps cave dwelling is present in our genes, a return to the womb. We may not search out cliffs and caves, but we build them today—high-rises, with penthouses at the top, gardens and balconies terraced into the walls; condo caves whose one large opening at the front does not refract the light into the inner rooms.
“Imagine fifty years ago,” Nicolletti says as we continue along the dirt paths in front of abandoned caves. “Women would have been sitting here in front of their doorways, rosaries in hand, small children playing in the dirt, grandmothers knitting or stirring pots.” He paints a romantic portrait, in stark contrast to Levi’s documentation of his sister’s visit to Matera in 1935, where the infant mortality rate was fifty percent, and children lay under torn blankets “in the dark, smelly caves…their teeth chattering from fever. Others, reduced to skin and bones by dysentery…thin women, with dirty, undernourished babies hanging at their flaccid breasts…I felt, under the blinding sun, as if I were in a city stricken by the plague.”
I turn to the carved city, golden in the setting sun. It’s difficult to distinguish chiseled openings from natural ones—man and earth sculpting in harmony.
Indeed, after the publication of Levi’s memoir in 1945, the Sassi were pronounced “a national shame” and Matera became the subject of a study by Italian and foreign intellectuals, led by German sociologist Frederic Friedmann, a professor at the University of Arkansas, who had read Levi’s book and had come to Matera. In 1952, in a well-intentioned but ill-conceived government program, the Sassi were emptied and their fifteen thousand inhabitants relocated to new housing in the plateau above, leaving an eerie ghost town behind. While this ameliorated the people’s living conditions, it did not take into account their culture and social structures. Suddenly removed from a crowded, close-knit society, the Materani found themselves alone, in claustrophobic boxes, without the support and friendship of neighbours. Suddenly, too, they were viewed by those above as an embarrassment and a disgrace, and many sought to hide the fact that they had come from the ravine below, while the disgrace should have been aimed at those very citizens who lived above, who could have helped, but didn’t. Some of the displaced inhabitants never returned to even look at their old cave homes.
Yet Nicoletti, who was five when his family was relocated, speaks of the Materani with fierce pride, accentuating their civility. “Let’s say there were two neighbours, and one had food and the other didn’t.” He points to two caves, separated by a pillar. “When the woman with food cooked, she was aware that her next-door neighbour could surely smell it. So, she would prepare an extra dish of food for the poor woman, then send her son to give it to her, saying, ‘My mother is wondering if you could taste this, and tell her whether she has put enough salt in it.’ This way the woman was not humiliated.” He smiles. “Another example of civility,” he says, “is how I ask you, ‘Am I making myself understood?’ instead of ‘Do you understand?’ The latter implies that you can’t understand, while the former puts the blame on me.”
Is it sentimental to long for this type of civility? Back home, our rages are posted online, guns and tasers and keyboards drawn—a prolonged ego-fest of public humiliation in our civilized society. However, even here in Matera, all civility disappeared when the Sassi became a ghost town.
Even though the Sassi were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, for the next ten years they remained dark and abandoned—a haven for the poorest and the homeless, for bandits, drug dealers and prostitutes. “Criminals of all kinds would come and hide here,” Nicoletti says. “If you needed a place to hide, Matera would be it. No one could be found if they didn’t want to be.” Indeed, the visible caves now form only thirty percent of the existing caves—an estimated 3,500—in a labyrinth landscape of subterranean caverns, intricate passages, connecting tunnels and escape routes.
From this vantage, I look back at the town, which suddenly appears prehistoric, bathed in a disquieting cinereal light, the limestone ravine riddled with black holes, as if it were uninhabited, caves etched only by the dripping of water.
Nowadays, the habitable Sassi—any that had doors and windows—have been reclaimed and renovated, and have metamorphosed into cave hotels, cave bars and cave restaurants. The state owns about seventy percent of the properties, some of which it leases to restaurants and hotels like mine. Nicoletti laments the fact that the historic Sassi is turning into a tourist revisionism of hotels and spas, rather than a living town with butchers and bakers, with bread makers, with the amenities around which a village revolves. He laments the government’s disinterest in putting money into the restoration of the Sassi, pointing out many caves now little more than black holes filled with garbage.
Yet there is money pouring in from the film industry. It’s not difficult to imagine why eleven major films have been shot here; I feel as if I’ve time travelled to a distant past, to the Lucania of pre-war Italy in the BAFTA winner Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Francesco Rosi (1979), the Jerusalem of the thrice-Oscar-nominated Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964), Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) and the recent remake of Ben-Hur by Timur Bekmambetov (2016).
By now, the sun has set. We are at the edge of the town, and, as we proceed, the abandoned caves become more decrepit, as if a jealous earth has reclaimed them. From this vantage, I look back at the town, which suddenly appears prehistoric, bathed in a disquieting cinereal light, the limestone ravine riddled with black holes, as if it were uninhabited, caves etched only by the dripping of water.
Nicoletti pulls out his flashlight and we continue in the semi-dark, climbing now to the higher levels to visit two of the 150 Rupestrian churches scattered across the 65 kilometers of ravine.
Suddenly, too, they were viewed by those above as an embarrassment and a disgrace, and many sought to hide the fact that they had come from the ravine below, while the disgrace should have been aimed at those very citizens who lived above, who could have helped, but didn’t.
“To survive this harsh existence,” he says, “people needed systems of self-defence, which they achieved through religion, neighbourhood and magic. Religion is a system of self-defence.” He leads us past a sixth-century necropolis, the graves visible as stone mummies, heads facing the sunrise, then up a multitude of steps and alleyways. It’s dark now, and the Sassi appear like an inverted sky, lights twinkling below. We enter the churches and view the carved altars and monk-painted frescos through Nicoletti’s flashlight, the images resembling peasants rather than deities.
As we walk back to the Sassi, I imagine the sound of goats and donkeys, the shrieks of children playing on tin-can stilts, the chants of women casting love potions with philters of menstrual blood, while above us, lesser kestrels circle and sing their own stories. I bid Nicoletti goodbye and continue down a stairway in the eerie, dim streetlight, the same stairway where, in films, Christ climbs to Calvary. I feel out of place, my eyes deceiving me here in this shadowy land where “Christ did not come,” seduced by the idea of an idyllic past, my roots extending to the beginning of time, my tracks evident in the white stones scattered across the Murgia.
Genni Gunn is an author, translator and musician. She has published three novels (Solitaria [Signature Editions], nominated for the Giller Prize 2011; Tracing Iris, made into a film titled The Riverbank; and Thrice Upon a Time, finalist for the Commonwealth Prize); two story collections (On the Road and Hungers); two poetry collections (Mating in Captivity, finalist for the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award, and Faceless); two collections of poetry in translation of Dacia Maraini’s Devour Me Too, finalist for the John Glassco Prize, and Travelling in the Gait of a Fox, finalist for the Premio Internazionale Diego Valeri); and one poetry collection of Corrado Calabrò’s Text Me. She has also written the libretto for the opera Alternate Visions, produced in Montreal, Quebec, in 2007 and showcased at the Opera America Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, in May 2013. Two of her books have been translated into various languages, including Italian. She is an inveterate traveler, and her experiences are reflected in her most recent book of travel essays, Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place (Signature Editions, 2013). This story was a finalist in Nowhere’s Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead image: Marc Schiele