I met other children with their little faces wrinkled like old people, and their bones showing through from hunger; their hair was crawling with fleas and covered in scabs. But most of them had big, enormous, swollen bellies, and their faces were yellow and drawn from malaria." (Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi - 1945)
It was the Dante's Inferno-esque paintings and writings of Carlo Levi that ultimately propelled the Italian government to acknowledge Matera's living conditions. How easy it must have been to ignore the nightmare, to keep the plight of these peasants a dirty little secret. Basilicata was a remote, under-populated province. Who cared? No one apparently, for it was not until 1952 that a solution was brought forth introducing proper nutrition, medical care, education and the ultimate forceful relocation of sixteen thousand people to newly built residences on the Matera plain.
The lower cave levels of Matera were left an empty shell, a virtual ghost town. Until UNESCO declared Matera a World Heritage site, the caves remained damp, derelict and abandoned. The UNESCO designation brought about a complete reversal of Matera's fortunes. And her dramatic rebirth has created a national treasure, one of the glories of Italia.
There is so much more to Matera's story than poverty and caves. Matera is the third oldest city in the world, having been continually inhabited since the Paleolithic era. She is a timeless city, cavemen, Romans, Greeks, Saracens, Normans having all been her citizens. The jumble of stone homes and structures climbing up the hills represent construction on top of the caves, construction layers dating back to the 14thC, then the 17thC and finally modern construction.
Walking through Matera's atmospheric streets and neighbourhoods, especially at night, is to step back in time. Her immense history is enchantingly palpable. There were moments during our explorations that I felt I had stepped back to biblical times. Benvenuti nella storia - welcome to history.
Matera has moved me in ways I cannot even begin to express, but I do know this for sure. If you haven't been here, you really should come.