57. Matera Immaginata

Is it better to live in an apartment with light, heat and a toilet? Or to live in a cave with your extended family, your chickens and a donkey?

This was the question that the government of Italy asked itself in the 1950s when faced with the “shame of Italy”: people living in these primitive conditions, exactly as residents had done for thousands of years before. Matera, thought to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, was best known as the setting of Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped in Eboli, so named because the region was so poor that even Jesus wouldn’t go there.

Mural of village life, painted by Carlo Levi

The answer seems obvious, so apartment complexes were built, and the inhabitants of the caves, or sassi as they are known, were required to move into this new public housing. Sixty years later, their former homes have been transformed into chic shops, hotels and restaurants; Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been named the 2019 European Capital of Culture. Already a tourist destination, the city is bracing for an onslaught of visitors.

So isn’t that a win-win? Not necessarily. There are cultural preservationists who say that the housing developments of Matera did not adequately reproduce some of the social features most appreciated by these very community-oriented people, used to living in the open among their neighbors. Instead, with the best of intentions, they consigned them to isolating apartments, putting an abrupt end to centuries of practices and customs. They argue that the government money that was ultimately used to renovate the caves for high-end commercial use could have been allocated instead to modernizing and upgrading the structures and in the process, preserving the culture of the inhabitants.

One of 600 cave churches in Matera and surrounding area.

Last week, I went up to New York to the Italian Cultural Institute of New York to see the photography exhibit Matera Immaginata, or Matera Imagined, consisting mostly of post-War images, showing both the poverty and the lived experience there.

One thought on “57. Matera Immaginata

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s