The silence is interminable. Its echo, heavy and primordial, resounds throughout the valley. There is an absence of time and space here, in this “anthill” city, in this forgotten tombstone of another society. I stand mesmerized, on the parapet above the canyon where the old city lies. The view, or perhaps the idea that I’ve finally come back, leaves me heaving and breathless.
I am in search of my past, that part of me which I do not know. My quest takes me through Southern Italy, and into the region known as Basilicata. It is here that my mother was born: in Ferrandina, a small town that sits nestled on a hillside surrounded by mostly mountainous terrain. Here, lunar landscapes are interwoven with rivulets and torrid rivers. The areas of flat land are dry and arid.
It is, in fact, a region of marked contrasts, both physical and cultural: to the south, at Metaponto, one of only two areas that touch water, the remains of Doric temples resound the remembrance of a once great Magna Graecia; in the north and throughout the central core of Basilicata the vestiges of invading Byzantines and Goths, Longobards and Normans are seen in the architecture, and are still present in the customs and traditions.
I am assaulted by the force of the contrasts. It is a land at once docile in nature, and at the same time, savage and unbridled, and refusing to be tamed. I travel along winding roads that hang perilously along the mountain’s ridge and catch quick glimpses of uncommon towns. These lie brooding and dark, splendid in their mediaeval garb, against a backdrop of light. They seem weightless and airy, as they sit perched on the rock’s edge.
In the distance, the land dilates into vast horizons and is swallowed by a profound silence.
I soon arrive at the Sassi of Matera. From the parapet where I stand, I look at the view before me, and am surprised by what I did not expect: an entire city of cave-houses dug out from the rock face, rising out of an ancient river channel. Of course, I remember the stories my mother would tell me about this place. Even more, I remember the reminiscences of my aunt who actually lived here as a young bride in the first years following the Second World War. But, I did not expect this.
I remember now the carelessly picked up community paper, and how I read with curiosity the article about an area in Italy that Mel Gibson had chosen as his backdrop for his film The Passion of the Christ. Before him, Pier Paolo Pasolini had used this same setting for the making of The Gospel According to Matthew. Of course, this was of great interest to me. It was, after all, where my mother was from.
And so, I came. I am excited at this discovery, but wondering with regret, why I took so long to get here, for I am completely captivated by the melancholic and ungentle beauty of the panorama before me. I realize, with a start and a somewhat subtle discomfort, that perhaps I was afraid to face what I understood to be a place of harsh realities, grey landscapes, abject poverty. It’s never easy to confront something ugly about yourself. But now, the view, or perhaps the idea that I’ve finally “come back” leaves me heaving and breathless.
Below where I stand, are I Sassi (the Stones), an area within the city of Matera, created out of a rocky ravine. I descend down a series of rock-ribbed steps to the core of the ancient city. Caves are carved out, one above the other, and arranged in what may seem a tumultuous heap, until I realize that the caves are really, a labyrinth of houses. Walking through the tangle of narrow alleys, craggy churches, “cantine” (cellars) that sink into the bowels of the earth, dwellings in part dug out of the rock face, in part built of tufa, I find myself on the roofs of other houses. It is the chimneys sprouting out of the road that give this away. Like Dante, I too begin to go down from circle to circle, by a sort of mule path leading to the bottom…
(part 2 continues in next post)