Matera, Italy: Guided by the Ghost of Giovanni Pascoli
At first, I could not pronounce the word Myricae, the name of my Bed & Breakfast in Matera, Italy. The accommodation was located on a tiny residential side street, the gorgeously uneven footpath just a couple inches higher than the narrow road. Small Fiats were parked in haphazard fashion, in certain spots, but only on one side of the street. Oil spots littered the empty spaces. The building was a light army-green color, clean, with white shutters adorning the windows. The door said Myricae and nothing else. I had no idea what it meant.
Inside I did not have enough time to learn any more details. My party was waiting for me elsewhere in the town of Matera. So I dropped my bag in the room, ignoring the lobby brochures, and headed on my way.
Moments later, just off Via Ridola in central Matera, a dramatic view presented itself from a balcony in Piazzetta Giovanni Pascoli. Locals regularly gathered at this vista point for views of the “Sassi,” the ancient cave dwellings of Matera. Dating back to pre-Christian times, the tumbling cascade-like complex of peasant housing had seemingly carved its way into the hillsides over millennia. At the moment of my arrival, sporadic clouds drifted their way under a solid blue expanse of sky, issuing forth a clear cinematic view of the Sassi and the near-barren hillsides far off in the distance. One could make comparisons to ancient Jerusalem, which is why both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson filmed parts of their respective Christ movies near this assemblage of dwellings.
By any definition of “nowhere,” Matera was in the middle of nowhere. One flew into Bari and then drove for a few hours, alongside various hillside hamlets of a few hundred people. But now that Matera was slotted to become the 2019 European Capital of Culture, tourists were already showing up to explore the surrounding town. On this day, I saw more than locals in Piazzetta Giovanni Pascoli. One couple had been married nearby, years earlier, and were returning for their anniversary. They posed for a photograph overlooking the Sassi.
Modern-day Matera, now a sparkling little Italian village, surrounded the original swaths of cave dwellings, many of which were still intact. The town in its current version had matured alongside the caves, primarily after UNESCO designated the caves an official World Heritage site in 1993.
The history was far from pretty. Generations of peasants inhabited these cave complexes for centuries, living in abject poverty, ridden with malaria and often with no water or sanitation. Then came the anti-fascist writer and painter Carlo Levi, who was exiled to this area in the ’30s for opposing Mussolini. Levi documented the miserable conditions of the peasants in his famous 1945 memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli, elevating the peasants’ predicament to the level of national consciousness, embarrassing the entire country in the process. As a result, beginning in the ’50s, the peasants were eventually relocated into newer housing projects, although the process was a botched disaster from the beginning.
After the UNESCO designation triggered more influx into the surrounding town, new artisan shops, retail shopping and all the dynamics of a modern-day Italian village came into being. And since Matera was now a testament to how an ignored wasteland could transform itself into a reputable place, it was awarded European Capital of Culture status for 2019. Artists from all over the world were about to descend upon Matera to create works involving the locals. Some of the caves were already converted into performance spaces, living arrangements or luxury hotels. Carlo Levi’s own paintings of peasant life were also on display at the National Museum of Mediaeval and Modern Art, just steps away from Piazzetta Giovanni Pascoli, where I stood on the landing to view the ancient cave complex.
It was not until later in the evening that a subtle dose of serendipity showed me the way to Pascoli himself. In the lobby of Myricae, I picked up some materials that explained the inspiration behind the B&B. Giovanni Pascoli (1855 - 1912) was a celebrated poet and scholar. Myricae was the title of his first collection of poetry, published in 1891. Pascoli began his career in Matera, where he taught Latin and Greek at a local high school. His early poetry often depicted the simple aspects of life, emphasizing beauty in the everyday and denouncing the pompous grandiose language of previous eras. After living here, Pascoli wrote: “Of the cities where I’ve been, Matera is the one that smiles at me the most, the one I see even better, through a veil of poetry and melancholy.”
Poetry and melancholy. I was in the right place.
The materials included more words from Pascoli, articulating the peasant life and how beauty could be found in the simplest and poorest of things. Myricae was the Latin name of Tamerici — Tamerisk in English — everyday invasive shrubs, but ones that produced gorgeous flowers. Inspired by Virgil, Pascoli subtitled the collection with this: Non omnes arbusta iuvant humilesque myricae — dedicated to the ordinary orchards and humble tamarisks that “no one likes,” but nevertheless deserved their glory. All of which was a metaphor for Matera.
I hadn’t known any of this ahead of time, but by poetic coincidence — or maybe it was coincidental poetry — here I was skulking around at a B&B inspired by his work, and then in a plaza named after him. I should have already been familiar with Pascoli. He was widely considered the best Italian poet at the beginning of the 20th century. But apparently I wasn’t meant to discover him until I came to Matera. His ghost anticipated my arrival. He knew I was coming and he cleared a path for me. Yet again, the poetic muses of synchronicity seemed to validate my travels.
Even better — although Matera was now modernizing, the peasant heritage still resonated. Many of the locals remained proud of the history. I discovered this without even trying. At a restaurant named Kappador in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, for example, I paid seven Euros for a righteous bowl of Crapiata, a type of rural peasant stew made from various legumes. It was perfect against the freezing weather outside.
Pascoli’s ghost became one of the friendliest tour guides I’d met in quite awhile. He was right about everything. Despite the presence of museums, tourism and upmarket restaurants, Matera still commanded a flavor of humility that took one’s breath away. There were no fancy Baroque decorations, ornate outlines or elaborate pretenses. Instead it was a place rich with humble history. That was all. And it was enough.