Calabria & Basilicata

Folco Quilici & Giuseppe Berto

Although we find medieval and Renaissance drawings of Calabrian cities, such as Capo Vaticano and Rossano Calabro, Calabria is one of the least known regions in Italy.

There are no big ports along its coast and few landing-places for ships. Most of the early inhabitants of this region settled inland in isolated hill top towns which afforded them protection against invaders from the sea and malaria from the swamp lands in the plains.

The prehistoric caves at Papasidero are 10,000 years old and testify to existence of an organized, autochthonous community. The ancient Greeks (Mycenaeans, Achaeans, and Dorians) settled in Calabria in the 8th century B.C. All their cities were along the coast: they did not venture inland, and rarely mingled with the autochthones living in the mountains. The mountains separated the Italics from the Greeks; whatever contact may have taken place between these two races occurred on the rivers Basento and Agri in eastern Basilicata.

What remains of the Greek cities can be seen in the remains of two Doric temples dedicated to the goddess Hera one at Siris and the other at Metaponto on the Ionian Sea (both in Basilicata). For centuries the local peasants called these remains "mense" or "tavole," believing that Charlemagne and his paladins ate on them. The standard of living of the ancient Greeks in this part of Magna Grecia was higher than that of Greece itself. Greek culture also flourished in Calabria: the mathematician Phythagoras was from Rhegium (present Reggio Calabria) and had his famous school in Crotone, Metaponto, and Cosenza; the philosopher Parmenides was from Elea (present Velia); and the poet Ibico, whom Cicero called the most passionate of the Greek love poets, came from Reggio.

When the Romans conquered the region during the second Punic war it became part of Augustus' third region. They not only conquered the Greek cities, but also the fertile Agri valley in Basilicata. The remains of this Roman theater are from the Roman town of Brumentum. These lands became battlefields for the wars between Greeks & Romans, Romans & Carthaginians, and Romans fighting Romans during the civil war which brought down the Roman Republic and gave birth to the Roman empire.

For centuries these two regions were plundered by invaders who rarely gave anything back. In the Middle Ages the regions were conquered by various invaders, and, as a result, people stopped cultivating the land. The land was transformed into grazing fields which were eventually taken over by robber barons who converted them into large "latifondi." The presence of malaria in the plains (brought by the Greeks after Alexander the Great's campaigns in the Orient) further added to the depopulation of the fertile plains. In the 10th century the Saracen pirates attacked the cities along the sea, further contributing to the construction of castles and fortified towns in the mountains. The castles protected and dominated the towns below them. Today both the castles and the towns are crumbling.

As the peasants moved to the hills, the agriculture shifted to the less fertile mountains. The weather in the mountains is very cold in winter, and very hot in summer (since it does benefit from the mild ocean breeze). This harsh climate, coupled with the difficult conditions under which the peasants have to work the mountain land, have further contributed to the impoverishment of these regions. The agrarian based economy and the isolation of these hill top towns from the rest of the world have made it difficult for the industrial revolution to take hold in these regions. Today we find some industry in close contact with an agrarian way of life which refuses to change; but there is still no organized industrial and agricultural development on a large scale. The lack of adequate jobs has forced people to emigrate, adding to the depopulation of these regions. Some of the small towns are abandoned; others are inhabited only by the elderly.

The younger people, however, do return to their hometowns during religious holidays. In some case they continue to participate in local rituals such as this wedding procession where older married couples accompany the young bride and groom to the church on an important saint's day. The young often marry someone from their local town before emigrating.

Quilici then shows us the chestnut forests of La Sila in central Calabria, and the Ghiaioni (big gravel riverbeds which are dry most of the year). At one time these rivers carved grottos in the mountains which prehistoric man used as caves, and which shepherds and peasants later build their simple dwellings on. Matera, one of the best known cities in Basilicata, was built on these caves: it is one of the few cities in the world which has an uninterrupted continuity with its prehistoric past. The streets of Matera (known as sassi, and divided into the sasso caveoso and the sasso palesano), the Romanesque cathedral (built in 1270) at the top of the hill, and the centro storico (the oldest part of town--Cabernicola Matera) are one big national monument; but they have no real protection: they are in great need of restoration.

Medieval Basilicata is best represented by the famous town of Melfi: today it looks very much the way it did when Norman princes built it almost 1000 years ago. In this castle, Pope Nicholas II crowned Robert Guiscard king in 1059.

Frederick II of Swebia built this castle at Lagopesole shortly before his death (1250).

The Normans also built castles along the coast. This one near Capo Rizzuto is called le Castella; it is the only one which still stands.

Calabria and Basilicata reached their cultural and artistic apex during the Norman and Swebian occupation. It was at around this time the famous Franciscan friar, Gioachim of Fiore, began writing and preaching (Dante was influenced by his works). Although Calabria was famous in the Renaissance for two other famous philosophers, Telesio and Campanella, it lost its regional important when the Spanish and French conquered it.

In Basilicata the castle of Venosa, built in 1400, was modified several times, reflecting the different architectural styles of its conquers. The Abbazia della Trinità (Trinity Abbey) at Venosa was begun in the 6th century; construction continued in the 11th and 13th centuries, but the abbey was never completed.

Religious art in Basilicata can also be seen in the ancient abbey at Montescaglioso. It was built by Benedictine monks in 1079 when they came to Basilicata (after the Norman conquest of this region) in order to Latinize the Greek Byzantine south. The Benedictine's most famous abbey in this part of Italy is San Michele, at the foot of Monte Vulture, between the two Monticchio lakes, and hidden in the forests of Vulture.

Besides the oak forests of Vulture and Sila, Basilicata and Calabria are famous for their ancient olive groves along the coast. The olive groves at Gioia Tauro are considered among the oldest in the Mediterranean. It was along this coast that Ulysses sailed on his long journey home.

This famous 10th century church at Stilo is called La Cattolica. Not too far from here is the famous Greek city of Sibari on the river Crati. It was regarded as the most prosperous of the Greek cities in Magna Grecia. When the irrigation channels built by the Greeks and Romans broke down, the swamps returned and so did malaria. Only in the past two hundred years has this land been reclaimed. It is one of the most fertile valleys in southern Italy.

Many of the towns in Basilicata (Grassano, Bistici, Tricarico, et al.) were all born around the "latifondi" (large farms owned by barons). The peasants who worked the "latifondi" lived in these towns. Smaller barons who lived in the country built a "masseria" (huge farm house where everyone lived), like this one in Policoro in Basilicata. During the past two hundred years there has been a change in the "latifondo." The growth of the middle class in these regions brought about the division of bigger farms into smaller ones. These changes, however, have done little for the peasants, whose way of life has changed little over the centuries.

Some of the peasants' rituals and folk festivals go back to pagan, if not prehistoric times. This one, filmed in San Giorgio Lucano, occurs when the wheat is harvested. A man dressed as a goat is symbolically killed by the men who are harvesting the wheat in order to placate the goddess Ceres (goddess of cereals) for having taken her grain. At one time the goat-man (symbol of the destructive powers of the harvest) was actually killed.

The poor means of transportation which characterized this region, and which further isolated the towns from each other and the rest of the world, have recently been replaced with modern highways and railways. According to Carlo Levi, Christ never went beyond Eboli (symbolic of the "God forsaken" towns in mountains of Lucania). Today that town is on a major highway which connects Salerno to Reggio Calabria.

Other cities which are changing with the times are: Catanzaro (once a Byzantine city, now an industrial center), Crotone, Cosenza, Potenza, and Reggio Calabria.

Some things, however, do not change with time: the fisherman still harpoon swordfish on their "passarelle" (fishing boats with long "run ways" which allow the harpooner to come close to his prey. In these very same waters, a deep sea diver found these two Greek statues in 1973. The Bronzi di Riace (named after the nearby town) are regarded as one of the finest examples of classical Greek sculpture anywhere in the world.

Quilici shows us the straits of Messina which separate Sicily from Calabria. According to ancient Greek mythology, two monsters (Scylla & Charybdis) lived there, devouring the sailors who tried to cross the straits. An important chapter in Homer's Odyssey takes place here. Today the towns along this coast are peaceful fishing villages.

Quilici concludes by showing us the wedding preparations in an Albanian community in Sila (the central part of Calabria). Albanians are the second largest minority in Italy (after the Germans in Trent). They have lived in Calabria for several centuries and still speak Albanian.