The Italian town of Matera, with its arresting ancient beauty, has been elected as one of 2019’s two European Capitals of Culture. Located within the province of Basilicata, formerly known as Lucania, it is a city nestled within a small canyon carved out by the Gravina, characterised by its numerous cave dwellings or sassi, dug out from the Calcarenite rocks, huddled one over the other.
During a visit for the 1948 election Palmiro Togliatti, leader for the Italian Communist Party, declared the Sassi di Matera “a national shame” due to the poor health and hygiene conditions present. This led to the sassi evictions of the ’50s and ’60s, only to be declared a few decades later a world heritage site, after the government set up a scheme in the eighties to refurbish the troglodyte dwellings.
In his memoir Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) artist Carlo Levi had chronicled the problems faced by the mezzogiorno region but also spoke of its immense beauty. His painting Lucania ’61, housed in Palazzo Lanfranchi, describes three scenes of everyday life in all its hardship and purity. It was commissioned to represent Basilicata at the Italia 61 exhibition in Turin to commemorate the centenary of the unification of Italy. He decided to dedicate this piece to the poet Rocco Scotellaro, a man whom he described as “dear to me above all men.”
We see him appear as a leitmotif throughout the scenes. The leeway for political freedom afforded after the Second World War was accompanied by an urgent drive for social justices. This was reflected is the world of film and prose which shifted its focus to portray the problems of the ordinary people. As a pioneer in neorealist poetry Scotellaro channelled the political issues of the day into his art, lending a voice to voiceless. A native of Tricarico, he would later become its first Socialist mayor at the tender age of 23. In this sparsely populated and mountainous area several thousand men had during the first half of the 20th century chosen to emigrate, mainly to the United States, one example being Scotellaro’s father who as a young man had gone to Paterson in New Jersey but like many others was forced by circumstance to return. He set up shop as a shoemaker and struggled to raise a family of four in the difficult economic clime of the South where “the sun will bake us like a crust of bread.”
Scottellaro’s poetry speaks of the difficulties experienced by people to sustain themselves and their relatives on a land which historically had been neglected; estates ordered by the government to grow wheat crops while the ground was far more suitable to grow almond and olive trees or to keep as pastures, while deforestation and polluted water supplies contributed to an epidemic of malaria. These hardships are in part vocalised in his poem “The Garden of the Poor”/“Il giardino dei poveri” (1948):
The basil has grown È cresciuto il basilico
in the garden of the poor: nel giardino dei poveri:
they have robbed the windows of air, hanno rubata l’aria alle finestre
sowed the seeds on two boards. Su due tavole hanno seminato.
The sparrows will come, Veranno I passeri,
the flies will come, veranno le mosche,
in the garden of the poor. Nel giardino dei poveri.
Now when you don’t know what to do Ora quando non sai che fare
pick up the pitcher in your hand, prendi la brocca in mano,
then I will see you grown among the roses io ti vedrò cresciuta tra le rose
in the garden of the poor. Del giardino dei poveri.
Five years after this poem was composed, Scotellaro died of an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 30. A year after his death, Levi edited the first published collection of his friend’s poetry under the title È Fatto Giorno (“It’s light now”) taken from a final poem of the same name written in 1952.
Another poet whose father had set off for America to afterwards return to cultivate grapes and other crops is Leonardo Sinisgalli. Born in the town of Montemurro, he would go on to study mathematics in Rome and later graduated as an engineer, leading to being nicknamed as the “engineer-poet.” Moving further up north to Milan, he would later become the art director for Olivetti, responsible for creating the evocative image of the rose in the inkwell. Of poetry he wrote, “The poet is the author of a single book that starts with the first poem and ends with the last. There is no break between one book and the next.” His work embodies feelings and thoughts in concrete images, using sensuous language free from pretense while drawing inspiration from the nature around him as can be seen in his poem “To enjoy the View”/“A bel vedere sull’aia” (from a collection between 1931 and 1937):
To enjoy the view many nights A bel vedere sull’aia
we slept on the threshing ground tante notti abbiamo dormito,
hands deep in the wheat Le mani affondate nel grano,
sleep-watched by the dogs Il sonno guardato dai cani.
Your feet were meeker Più mansueti erano I tuoi piedi
Than the pigeons made for fun Dei colombi fatti per burla
with the white cloth of handkerchiefs. Col panno bianco dei fazzoletti.
Straw in your hair Avevi fili di paglia nei capelli:
you set off a timorous alarm alle spalle muovevi il prato
behind you in the meadow. A una trepida suoneria.
In his poetry he tries to reconcile science with sentimentality, marrying mathematics with poetry; both questioning the mysteries of life. Sinisgalli, having been uprooted from his town as a boy, has always had a retrospective approach, a search-of-lost-time attitude in his poetry. Some of his best poems therefore focus on the reminiscence of his memories, his childhood of summers spent on “mashed poppy stalks,” on “the bed staring at the rafters out of boredom and delight.” He portrays the bucolic beauty of Basilicata, with its haunting quality lending to a certain sense of timelessness or rather possessing an ability to transform the way time is perceived. Carlo Levi noted the following in Christ Stopped at Eboli:
In this timeless land the dialect was richer in words with which to measure time than any other language; beyond the motionless and everlasting crai every day in the future had a name of its own. Crai meant tomorrow and forever; the day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescrille; then came pescruflo, marufto, maruflone; the seventh day was marujiicchio. But these precise terms had an undertone of irony. They were used less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after the other; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai.
The “cloudiness” of the word crai is something which Albino Pierro illustrates in his “Always, Always”/“Sempe sempe”:
To weep Chiange,
and walk with a rope around my neck: e caminè cc’ ‘a zuca nganne:
that is all chiste è tutte.
Then, when I go to sleep, Pó, quanne mi cucche,
I say to myself softly in the dark, mi dich educe duce nd’u scure
beneath the covers: sutt’I cuperte:
“Tomorrow maybe, who knows…” “Chie le sàpete si crèi…”;
Always, always, Sempe sempe
night and day, note e ghiurne,
stones hiss by all around me. Mi fischene pétre nturne.
Through writing in the archaic Lucan dialect, he created one of the most important bodies of dialect poetry of the twentieth century. His work has been translated in numerous languages and he was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize of Literature. Born in Tursi, Pierro mainly gained his education in regions outside of Matera and finally settled down in Rome where he taught history and philosophy in secondary schools. In fact it was on the evening of a return journey to the Eternal city from his hometown that he wrote his first poem in the Tursi dialect, “Before Leaving,” sparked by an early departure and its ensuing exasperation mixed with a sense of longing for the soil he had reluctantly left behind. This was followed by an enormous output of dialectal poetry which in his own words issued from his soul, in a natural stream, as oil gushes from the depths of the earth.
The vicissitudes of the south are still present today. Basilicata is a region of a rich and complex history, but these poets have managed to channel the oscillations between hope and despair, pain and joy, and transform them revealing the ancient wonder of its land and people.
Image: Wikimedia Commons