A Night in Sassi di Matera circa 1950

A burnt-back day in the field,
we’re all aching and tired,
huddled on this rank straw,
too close, too hot for sleep;
the animals press and heave;
coughs, heat, sweat, rise,
drip from the clammy roof,
pierce our ragged sheet;
the make-shift door, mil-
dewed tarpaulin off the hay,
has blown open, I re-tie it,
lose my place on the straw;
the sick child whimpers in
the dark, a third burial will
be hard, another one less 
to help scythe and sow;
soon, we’re being moved
from centuries of dwelling
in these caves, the only life
we’ve known, how will we
cope with water on tap,
windows, heat, lighting,
a place to piss and shit,
a fancy door we can close;
what will become of us,
where will our animals go,
will startled tourists witness
the fetid misery we’ve endured?

Sassi di Matera, a Unesco World Heritage Site is one of the first human settlements in Italy. It was almost abandoned in the 50’s when the government forcefully relocated many inhabitants to the developing modern city. The town’s prehistoric cave dwellings had by then become “dark holes” riddled with filth and disease, where barnyard animals were kept in dank corners, chickens ran across the dining room tables, and infant mortality rates were horrendous, thanks to rampant malaria, trachoma and dysentery. Matera’s obscurity ended in 1945, when the Italian artist and author Carlo Levi published his memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his year of political exile in Basilicata under the Fascists. Levi painted a vivid portrait of a forgotten rural world that had, since the unification of Italy in 1870, sunk into a desperate poverty.

© Nemo 2023
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It was disgraceful of the government of the time to forcefully relocate the inhabitants to the modern city thus allowing the place to fall into decay. Fortunately the regeneration of the area that has occurred enabled the establishment of many thriving business, pubs and hotels and encouraged tourism.


It is always difficult to read a book in its original language and I take my hat off to you, Gerald, for having achieved that feat. Il Nome della Rosa is even a bit indigestible to an Italian, being an intellectual murder mystery with a mixture of medieval history, biblical analysis and literary theory.
In my youth I was able to read books in French, nothing serious, only the Maigret stories.

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