Friday, December 12, 2008

Christ stopped in Matera - The Passion of the Christ. And Francesco Rosi's cinematic interpretation of Carlo Levi's politically charged 1945 novel,


View of Matera.
With its topographic similarity to Jerusalem, Matera has steadily attracted directors of biblical epics to its craggy landscape carved out of rocks. Located in Italy's southern Basilicata region, it was the setting for Bruce Beresford's King David (with Richard Gere in the title role) and Pier Paolo Pasolini's controversial The Gospel According to St. Matthew. More recently, Mel Gibson selected the jagged limestone plateau for The Passion of the Christ. And Francesco Rosi's cinematic interpretation of Carlo Levi's politically charged 1945 novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli (though not a religious-themed movie), was filmed in the book's once-poverty-stricken locale.





Sassi of Matera.

Matera, however, pre-dates Jesus Christ and even His Old Testament predecessors. The area is believed to be among the first human settlements in Italy going back to Paleolithic times when its earliest civilizations forged dwellings out of volcanic ash-based rock. These caves are called Sassi, where Matera's heart and soul continue to be sealed. They are stacked scenically one on top of the other like honeycombs. Yet there's a bleak side. These hovels, up until the first half of the 20th century, were places of unspeakable squalor. Large families lived with their livestock in cramped quarters minus plumbing and electricity. Today, many of these caves have been converted into stylish shops and restaurants - the result of a government effort begun in the 1950s and continuing through today, thanks to UNESCO designating the Sassi a World Heritage Site and film directors, such as Gibson, who have drawn attention to Matera. 


Matera's Castello Tramontano.

My husband Joe and I arrived in Matera on a sunny but chilly winter day. Our drive took us directly into the modern portion of the city - a district where Sassi inhabitants were relocated during government redevelopment in the 1950s. Of course, the Sassi harbor a lot more charm than the nondescript condo blocks of the new Matera. But those aesthetically bereft modern buildings also saved many lives.


After checking into the comfortable, family-run Piccolo Albergo on a flower-lined side street, we headed for the Art Deco Piazza Prefettura, with its gushing vertical fountain, palm trees and smooth black-marble monuments. It's not far from a synagogue and the Church of St. John the Baptist. In fact, Matera's history is one of varied faiths and cultures. It represents Italy's classic stratification of occupiers: Romans, Lombards, Normans and Aragonese, as well as the Benedictine and Greek-Orthodox orders.

We stepped into a crumbling arched structure to view the Sassi, an unsettling image of architectural ingenuity chiseled into a supernatural-looking terrain. Punctuated by the distant Cathedral of Matera, this heap of stones molded into living quarters reminded me of an inverted Positano. But instead of the Amalfi Coast's pastel-colored town facing the sea, Matera is a sepia-toned mass folded inland to cast an immovable, insular shadow across the scorched earth.


Turin-born writer-activist Carlo Levi is responsible for letting the world know about Matera's destitution. A staunch anti-Fascist, Levi was exiled to the Matera area (at the time, the region of Baslicata was called Lucania) in the 1930s. He chose for his novel the title Christ Stopped at Eboli in the sense that compassion, humanity and morality had stopped short of Matera. It was essentially the land time forgot. His book recounted the lack of food, healthcare and sanitation in this neglected southern region, which became a larger symbol for Italy's complex North-South frictions.


As I mentioned earlier, the efforts of the Italian government, UNESCO and humanitarian groups helped Matera survive. It's now a bustling contemporary city that has imaginatively reinvented itself. There are also a fair number of non-Sassi-related sights to visit. Joe and I stopped for a spinach-ricotta calzone and a glazed-raspberry tart in a bar off Piazza Prefettura. It was filled with schoolchildren (and their ubiquitous cartoon-emblazoned backpacks) and an unusually high number of German Shepherds (the dog of choice here). The testy gray-haired male barista, who wore a bright-red jacket, rapidly dealt plates, cups and saucers to the patrons - china flying all over the place as if the bar was possessed by the spirit of Lewis Carroll.


Our next stop would be the National Museum di Ridola. But at the center of a deadly intersection with several blind spots, we came face to face with a rotting skull. It and others decorated the doors of the medieval Chiesa del Purgatorio. Beneath an etching of skeletons dancing around weeping infants engulfed in flames, an inscription reassuringly read: "We are the miserable ones. Help us my friends."


Once inside, Joe and I were surprised to encounter a huge crown - like the one in the old Imperial Margarine commercials - suspended above the altar. More broken-toothed skulls jutted out above each holy-water font and Stations of the Cross. We didn't care to linger. Just after exiting, we found our spirits lifted by the sight of a hot-pink, Persian-style villa along a quiet cobblestone street. We arrived at the National Museum, founded in the late 19th century by doctor-senator-archaeologist Domenico Ridola.


Our elation soon turned to confusion when we found the entrance door chained shut on a day the museum was scheduled to be open. All of a sudden, the door flung open as if by a poltergeist. We didn't see anyone right away and cautiously ventured inside a pottery-strewn courtyard. Out of the shadows emerged a workman, who resembled Jack Nicholson around the time of The Shining. He was even grinning diabolically.


Was this some sort of trap? Actually, it turned out to be a delightful adventure. The man told us the museum was closed for restoration, but he was happy to show us around. He escorted us to artifacts excavated, beginning in the 1920s, from Basilicata and the surrounding Murgia plains. Then he vanished.


Joe and I had the entire museum to ourselves. The Neolithic rooms displayed stone tools and ceramics dating back 700,00 years. Other rooms exhibited Hellenic busts, jewelry and vases from the Magna-Grecia period. Our guide reappeared around the area of several dismembered Greek-deity statues, dog-shaped oil lamps and corroded bronze knives. He then showed us a new archaeological dig taking place in back of the museum - a strange merging of new artifacts being unearthed beneath the city's major repository for them.


We continued our wanderings past several churches built into rocks and secret passageways leading to nowhere. We passed children lugging tubas and cellos to a music conservatory in the car-cluttered Piazza Stidile, where the tuning of instruments followed us to an archway that opened onto what looked like part of Rome's Colosseum.


Matera is a living picture frame. Peek through a de-bricked wall for stacked mountainous vistas; an elevated arch crowns a medieval castle. More treacherous descents led us to the 13th century Cathedral of Matera, dedicated to patron saint Madonna della Bruna. Dusk was falling. So the Cathedral was awash in buttery-golden light. Side entrances guarded by gilded griffins evoked an opulent Middle Eastern allure. The rose-windowed façade was topped with elongated stones that had the color and texture of femur bones up close.


From here, we noticed a bloated gray castle in the distance.  Intrigued, we decided to backtrack in the direction of the bulging citadel - no matter that night was nearly upon us. We took a short cut around the corner of Chiesa del Purgatorio, where the skeletons looked more foreboding in the approaching darkness.


In a flash, we landed in a modern strip mall that fed into another rocky slope. The two of us trudged on, wondering how to access the deserted Castello Tramontano's entrance. We found ourselves waist-high in weeds. Could this be the same thorny foliage Prince Florimund hacked through to arrive at Sleeping Beauty's castle? Off to the side, a swing careened in a desolate playground. Ghosts seemed to push us along as the winds increased and snow began to fall.


We stepped on a dirty sign that advertised the fortress as a restaurant-banquet hall. But no one was celebrating tonight. We extricated ourselves from the gnarled shrubbery and realized this was not the most attractive castle. Its history is quite dour, too. Construction was begun under the orders of Giovanni Carlo Tramontano, Count of Matera. Only three of a few dozen towers were completed because of the Count's untimely death. Appointed to govern the city by King Ferdinand II of Aragon (the King of Naples), he was viewed by the citizens as an extravagant tyrant who imposed heavy taxes. The townspeople beat him to death as he and his wife left mass one cold December night in 1514.


On our way back, Joe decided to stop in an immaculate barber shop to get a haircut. We befriended the barber (a dapper man with shoe polish-black hair), who insisted on walking us to one of his favorite restaurants in the Sassi. The barber introduced us to the cook (there's a joke here somewhere), who seated us next to a roaring fire - literally inside a cave. Nearby, a lively children's birthday party was taking place. Our barber-friend wished us "a romantic evening" and scurried out into the increasing snow showers.


Against a catacomb backdrop, we sampled some of Matera's rustic and refined specialties: orrecchiette with rapini, barley and ceci soup, fried goat cheese, a medley of roasted vegetables, and the crowning glory: an enormous bubbling pignata - a type of pot pie filled with veal shank, root vegetables and potatoes all topped with a volcanic puff pastry. It reminded me of the Imperial Margarine crown in Chiesa del Purgatorio.


It was close to midnight when we left the cavern-restaurant. Around the Sassi, we felt like we zig-zagged our way into Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. An ominous fog hung over the Cathedral's bony bell tower.


Then snow began to fall again as we made our way to the busy Piazza Prefettura. The locals were stringing "Buone Feste" lights and others in the shapes of angels and Santa Claus across the streets. We joined a group of shoppers around the main fountain, where men hoisted a Christmas tree. We conversed and sipped hot chocolate. More people were setting up a life-size Nativity Scene. As Joe and I looked out at the Sassi (an image of Bethlehem seen on countless holiday cards), we felt like we had arrived in the Holy Land to celebrate the first Christmas. END

by Lucia Mauro, Italy Culture & Travel Examiner


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