After the lushness of Puglia, the fierce landscapes of Basilicata came as a firm reminder that southern Italy is not all peaches and almonds. In Puglia we had enjoyed orecchiette with broccoli and been seduced by vincotto di fichi. We had heard the chirring of crickets, picked fresh lemons, paddled in the Adriatic and tasted grilled lamb. Then last Saturday morning we moved on to Basilicata.
"So you are going to Grassano," observed the ticket inspector on the slow train. We were uncertain whether this was a question or a veiled warning. We hesitated. He hesitated, and then he moved along the carriage, talking to passengers who had chosen more sensible destinations: Naples, Salerno, Eboli.
Now there's a name to play with. Eboli. Christ stopped at Eboli. Didn't he? Was it that Eboli?
Well, actually it was. When the Italian writer and painter Carlo Levi arrived in handcuffs in remote Basilicata in 1935, the locals were quick to remind him that theirs was a region beyond the edge of civilisation, abandoned by God and the authorities. The Romans had settled Lazio and Campania. The Greeks had left their mark around the Gulf of Taranto. No-one, but no-one, ventured onto the minor railway that cut east from Eboli, skirting the northern edge of the Alburni Mountains to reach the Basento Valley.
Levi's memoir of exile in Basilicata caught the tenor of life in the nineteen-thirties in one of Italy's most impoverished regions. Of course things have changed since Carlo Levi explored Basilicata (or Lucania, as the region was called when Levi lived there). For the writer-in-exile, this was another world, one "hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from history and the State, eternally patient."
When Levi first arrived in Grassano on a hot August afternoon, he judged the place to be "a sort of miniature imaginary Jerusalem in the solitude of the desert." The locals had a less romantic view of their home village, a white streak of tumbledown houses on a hill above the Basento Valley. It was beyond redemption. "Christ stopped short of here," said villagers in Grassano. "At Eboli."
New roads have been cut through Basilicata, rescuing the region from the extreme poverty that prevailed well into the second half of the last century. But roads and economic development initiatives do not mitigate the scorching winds from Africa. They do not make the bare eroded slopes any more fertile. Much of the terrain around the Basento Valley is still fearful and barren. Yet there is a cruel beauty in these wastelands, very evident from the slow train to Grassano on a sunny Saturday morning.
Carlo Levi unwittingly gave an economic boost to Grassano and to the second Basilicata community where he lived in exile: Aliano (which he renamed Gagliano in his memoir). He gave new meaning to both places and developed a real affection for the harsh lands of Basilicata. Levi is buried in Aliano.
Today both villages receive a few visitors who want to follow the milestones of Levi in Lucania. Christ may have stopped at Eboli, but Carlo Levi helped put Grassano and Aliano on the map. Happily his book, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, is still very much in print. It is available in English under the title Christ Stopped at Eboli. It is a vivid account of the harsh lands of the south, places that lie beyond time or reason. The Basento Valley may have been tamed by modernity, but it is still desolate, forbidding terrain. A sharp contrast to Puglia to the north and Campania to the west. And the slow train to Grassano was a chance to drift back in time to the landscapes mapped so evocatively in words and paintings by Carlo Levi.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)