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A Cave with a View (2/2)

Visitors armed with new guidebooks that praise the Sassi’s artisanal traditions sometimes know more about the town’s history than locals whose families were transferred to the modern quarter. I walked by a handsome Renaissance structure with a precipitous view over a low stone wall, and asked a local policeman the building’s name. “Convento di Santa Lucia,” he said, adding that he’d learned it only recently, from Japanese tourists.

At the end of my walk, I looked across the valley, past a stream that had carved out the mountain on which the Sassi clustered, toward terraces of olive and fig trees. They were once cultivated, but now grew wild and unpruned. Across the gorge were weathered limestone caves that had sheltered shepherds since Neolithic times. Not so different from the refurbished grotte behind me, they seemed to mock the idea of human progress.

And yet Matera has an affable commitment to the young and the new. The town increasingly has the feel of a small Bologna. It has a branch of the University of Basilicata and a classical conservatory, whose students’ music pours out as you walk under its windows. This winter, there was an exhibit on Pasolini. Each September, a women’s-fiction festival takes place. A jazz festival, Gezziamoci, runs nearly the whole year, with performances in and around the Sassi, and a national archeological museum, in a former convent, displays the riches of local digs. You can play mini-golf in an underground cistern, and the new restaurants of Matera produce extraordinarily good food, turning what was once shameful into a source of pride. Matera’s cucinapovera contains a lot of chickpeas, fava beans, and crushed peppers. Anespecially delicious dish is called ciallèdd, which, in Matera,traditionally combines eggs, the springy town bread, and flowers that grow in the nearby Murgia. (Yellow asphodels are considered the sweetest.) Restaurants proudly announce their local sourcing, and waiters are happy to tell you the story of your dish, as if a parcel of Northern California had dropped into Basilicata.

This past October, UNESCO named Matera one of its two capitals of European culture for 2019. (The other is Plovdiv, Bulgaria, a city that also traces its history to the Bronze Age.) Previous cultural capitals have included Istanbul and Marseilles, so the recognition is noteworthy for a small town in a region without an airport. The European Union has offered Matera fifty million euros for investment, and tourism will surely rise further.

The organizers of Matera 2019 have designed an official logo, a horn-shaped tube with six extrusions. Depending on which resident you ask, the image is meant to symbolize either the old communal courtyards of the town or its intricate water system. The town’s pride in the coming celebration was evident: as I walked around the Sassi, the symbol showed up with Pynchonianfrequency.

The UNESCO designation is seen, in part, as an acknowledgment of Matera’s fraught history. No official apology has ever been given for the forced exodus. Half a century after the depopulation campaign, few cultural historians support the decision. It is now a shameful memory of a more desperate time in Italian history, after the trauma of the Second World War, when the country was intent on erasing its past. The transfer of Materans is seen as one of many patronizing attempts by élites to save indigenous people from themselves.

The town’s mayor, Salvatore Adduce, told me that the depopulation of the Sassi was “a laceration.” Despite the best efforts of Italy’s modernists, Materan culture did not flourish outside the caves. Some former Sassi residents abandoned farming and became construction workers, building homes for other émigrés. When that work ran out, they moved north, to work in factories. Many Materans eventually lost their dialect, their customs, their trades, and—most of all—their sense of community. A number of those who stayed behind joined the Italian bureaucracy and contributed to the demise of their town’s way of life. As Toxey, the author of “Materan Contradictions,” has written:

In the space of twenty-five years, the government transformed the populace from a dialect-speaking, land-working, troglodyte peasant culture that largely existed outside the Italian nation into wage-earning, tax-paying, Italian-speaking state employees and blue-collar consumers . . . dependent upon the government for work, wages, housing (rented from the government).

Locals were excited when Matera was named a capital of European culture—the mayor cried on national TV—but the accolade raised difficult questions. How do you commemorate a disastrous social experiment? What should Matera become? What should the town do with all those empty grotte? And how should Basilicata handle the influx of tourists?

Materans agreed that they did not want the Sassi to become just another afternoon tourist stop. “We don’t want busloads of barbarians setting up tents,” Mayor Adduce told me. “We want people who,all, can know what Matera is.”

The artistic director of Matera 2019 is Joseph Grima, a former editor of Domus, the European design magazine. Grima’s approach might be called anti-Olympic City: he wants to avoid monumental gestures. The only thing that he plans to add to the Materan landscape is a portable concert hall, by the architect Renzo Piano, that Grima found in a warehouse in Milan several years ago. The structure, made of interlocking curved wooden ribs, can be brought to Matera, used for a year, and then taken down again. It fits with the town’s sustainable aesthetic, and is properly modest. Grima told me that he had thought hard about the UNESCO award. “It certainly brings wealth, but it has also killed so many cities,” he said, as tourists and destinations catering to them hollow out the real life of a place. He said of Matera that it would be particularly cruel to kill a city that has just come back from the dead.

Italy is constantly being confronted with challenges from its past: the palazzo too big to heat, the metro dig upended by a Roman ruin. At the same time, Italians like to say “Si fa”—“It works out.” Lately, though, things have not been working out in the Basilicata region. It is one of the poorest regions in Italy, and the unemployment rate is 14.7 per cent. Its manufacturing jobs are being lost at a rapid pace, and between 2008 and 2013 the economy contracted by 13.6 per cent.

One of Basilicata’s few bright spots is the Sassi. Not only does it draw tourist dollars; the Italians who now fill the caves are better educated and better paid than the people who left them. They are part of the generation that is succeeding the failed industrial one. Alberto Cottica, a Web entrepreneur who was a consultant to the Matera 2019 committee, told me, “The people who moved in were hipster central.” The Sassi has a lot of digital businesses—broadband is available—and it can seem as if every ounce of Matera’s patrimony were being presented on local Web sites. Last year, part of a prominent ancient building was loaned to a millennial-led organization called unMonastery—a group of self-described “civic hackers” who run a “social clinic” that embeds “skilled individuals within communities that could benefit from their presence.” (The group, now thriving, recently decamped for Athens.) Everything produced by Matera 2019 will be digitally accessible and copyright-free.

Grima champions Matera’s new digital ethic, and notes proudly that there is no plan to build a conventional new museum or exhibit space. To collect the artistic riches from the region and put them on display in the Sassi would deracinate them, he argues. Instead, curators in Matera will construct an online database that can guide visitors to various local collections. “The region has an extraordinary abundance—much of it in private hands,” Grima said. Matera plans to open a reading room to help visitors appreciate the region’s cultural treasures, but the objects will remain where they are. Matera’s vibrant virtual community, it is hoped, can replace the tradition alone that the government destroyed.

One day, I took a tour of the Sassi with a man named Vito Festa, who grew up in the district in the nineteen-fifties. He is unusually open about his past: many older Materans still refuse to visit the Sassi or even talk about it. Some of those who built new homes overlooking the caves made sure that there were no windows facing their old dwellings. They found it humiliating to confront the way they had lived before the government rescued them. They had been told they were filthy so many times that they had internalized the sentiment.

Festa had spent several years in the north of Italy, working as a technician in a chemical lab, but he was not embarrassed about his southern past. Now sixty-seven, he looked like many older Materans, with an orangey skin tone that resulted from spending so much time outdoors when he was young. Marching with him up the hill, I could see that he enjoyed revisiting scenes of his boyhood: the steep path where he had carried water jugs home to his family, the place where he and some friends had accidentally kicked a soccer ball off a cliff. He showed me the outlines of old cisterns and called up the names of farmers who had cultivated the olive and fig trees that now grew wild. Many of his memories were about struggling to get enough to eat: he pointed to a parapet where he had put down bird traps (“I never caught any”), and to the roofs where his family had left almonds to dry. “No one worried about us back then,” he said. “Those were different times.” It had been a community, he remembered, where everyone helped everyone else. As we walked, he bumped into old friends and joked with them in the traditional Materan dialect, which isspoken slowly, with open vowels.

Festa had a comfortable pension; the Italian system had done right by him in the end. We walked past the Duomo—where he and his ten siblings and half-siblings had been baptized—and past the town’s one outdoor postcard vender, then followed the narrow path to the Sasso Caveoso, the poorest part of the town, where he had grown up. He had no trouble finding his grotta, now abandoned and exposed to the weather. Mold grew on the walls, and some of the stone facing had flaked off. Archeologists had dug into the floor, then covered their holes with straw. He remembered that the cave had two functioning lights, installed by the Fascists. Wires still dangled from the cave roof. His parents and his grandparents slept in the front, and he and his siblings slept in the back. Smiling, he said, “Una pazzia totale!” —what madness! He remembered that he and a brother had walked the family pig every evening before putting it in a stall behind their bed.

Festa’s family left the Sassi in 1959, when he was eleven, for Spine Bianche, one of the nearby developments built by the modernists. “We were so happy we jumped on the bed!” he recalled. He now owns his own house, in the north of town. As we drove to see it, I got my first good look at modern Matera. Given the economic difficulties of Basilicata, I was surprised by how vital the place seemed. It was a midsized city, with busy trattorias, a vianazionale that backed up at rush hour, and a dog-shit problem. We drovepast a ten-foot-high statue of de Gasperi, the man who had emptied out the Sassi; his hand pointed upward, as if in benediction.

Festa’s house is about two miles from the Sassi, on a street of flat-roofed two-story buildings that seem to pay homage to the old grotte. The interiors, though, could not be more different. Festa proudly went through his garage to unlock the main door. He showed me pear and grapefruit trees that he was cultivating in a tiny enclosed garden in back, the shiny marble floors, and the two kitchens—one in the basement for days when it was too hot to cook near the living room. Everything sparkled. The Sassi caves are celebrated for their lack of right angles; Festa’s home was a series of perfect squares. Nothing had any history to it, except for one red rotary-dial phone, which was meant to be decorative. “I like pretty things,” Festa explained.

Around every corner in Matera, it seemed, I came across clusters of new residents—the prime engines of revitalization in the Sassi. Many of the men had two-day stubble and wore jackets that kept them warm inside the caves. Bit by bit, these locals were reviving the city, with Web services, excavations, renovations, or small artisanal stores.

Some of them were members of Circolo la Scaletta, a volunteer organization co-founded by Raffaello De Ruggieri, the lawyer who helped lead the charge back into the Sassi. During Matera’s dark time, La Scaletta had functioned like the Guardian Angels, watching over the town’s patrimony; its members had saved rare frescoes and uncovered various cavern churches in the Murgia. “We had to choose between being the children of misery or the children of a proud history,” De Ruggieri recalls. “We chose the proud history.” Over time, La Scaletta expanded to include an organization called Fondazione Zètema. One evening, the Zètema group took me to a museum it had just opened, showcasing the work of José Ortega, a Spanish artist who died in 1990 and spent years working in the Sassi. The museum contained several papier-mâché works inspired by local artisans. The house had been beautifully restored, but it felt clammy; to warm up, I opened some wooden doors and went out onto a balcony. Matera is labyrinthine in the manner of Venice: you never know which direction you’re facing. I was stunned to be met by the panoramic expanse of the Murgia, all empty blackness. Standing there felt almost like falling.

The members of Zètema suggested that I visit some of the rural cave churches in the area. In Matera, they pointed out, there was a confluence of Eastern and Western Christianity. Some of the town’s Renaissance churches were deliberately built on top of the more Eastern cave churches of an earlier age. In Matera, the new has always covered up the old.

I decided to seek out a local “rock church” that is nicknamed the Crypt of Original Sin. It can be visited only by appointment, and is situated just outside Matera, along the Appian Way. Above the church is an enormous railroad bridge that connects to nothing—it was part of a failed attempt to link Matera to the main national railway lines. Approaching the cave in a car, I didn’t see anything special. This was no accident: the monks who lived here, twelve hundred years ago, did not want to be noticed.

A small group of Italians were also visiting the church, and so we all descended into a low underground chapel. When the group’s guide turned the lights up, we found ourselves in the presence of half a dozen surprising frescoes. They were in the stilted Byzantine style, but they seemed imbued with an extraordinary modern sensibility: the flat figures looked at you with rounded, lively eyes, as if they might say hello to you on the street. The images, which depicted scenes from the Bible, were the least didactic series of church frescoes I’d ever seen. Mary was a warm, brown-eyed mother holding a baby in her arms. St. Peter had a beard and mustache, like a Levantinepatriarch. The joy of being alive seemed more potent than worries about the Fall. Eve held out to Adam a wonderfully suggestive fig, instead of the usual apple. In an adjoining fresco, Adam raised his arms toward God as Eve emergedrobustly from his rib. God was invisible except for his hand; long and delicate, it was the hand of an artist, not that of the muscular world-maker depicted on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Amazingly, the rock church had been entirely forgotten during the war and the years of the Sassi’s depopulation. Now, like so much of Matera, it was found. ♦