by Marisa Iacobucci
It was once one of Europe’s poorest cities, but this year Matera has been crowned one of the Cultural Capitals of Europe for 2019. “Matera is the first southern Italian city to be given this recognition. Lucani all over the world are proud. It is a celebration of our roots, our history, our cultural heritage and how far we’ve come,” says Maddalena Stoduto Scittarelli, president of Quebec’s Federazione delle Associazioni dei Lucani del Canada.
The city of Matera, located in a far-removed corner of the small, southern region of Basilicata (also known by its ancient name Lucania), was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993. It’s famous for its Sassi, cave dwellings carved out of limestone that date back to the village’s prehistoric era. Today, a growing number of tourists visit Matera to see those hard-to-reach caves that have been transformed into hotels, restaurants and historical attractions. Yet in the shadow of those caves lurks a history of abandonment and national shame. “After the Second World War, people were living in dire conditions in those caves. There was poverty and disease,” explains Mike Lombardi, President of Associazione Basilicata di Vancouver. “The shepherds were living with their animals. They had no running water, no electricity, no proper sewage.”
The rest of the nation was forced to take notice of the desperate conditions in 1945 when Italian-Jewish artist, writer and activist Dr. Carlo Levi wrote about it in his book—Christ Stopped at Eboli. In 1952, Italy’s prime minister at the time, Alcide De Gasperi, declared a state of emergency. “People were moved out of the Sassi and relocated to more modern areas of the region. The rock dwellings remained deserted for decades until Matera became a World Heritage Site,” says Lombardi.
Not long after, Matera became a film location for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ in 2004, putting the region on the international map. Frank Miele, Toronto-based economics professor and cultural partnership chair VP-marketing of the Basilicata Cultural Society of Canada sees Matera’s nomination as an economic development story. “I read it as a wonderful story of how the people of that community identified an economic asset, from a film location and tourism perspective, and used it as a means to get themselves out of their poor status,” he says. “2019 is a turning point for Matera to become a world-class community.”
Matera officially took on its Cultural Capital title on January 19, 2019 with inauguration celebrations being held on both sides of the pond. But, as Scittarelli says, “We’ve been celebrating ever since the European Union gave Matera this designation in 2014.”
Miele (who was the commissioner of economic development for the city of Vaughan for 17 years) along with other council members, were asked to get involved in creating a cultural partnership between the City of Toronto and Matera. “Signed in June of 2017 in Matera, the partnership agreement focuses on key issues that centre around economic, cultural, educational and sports developments,” he explains.
One of the major projects initiated as a result of this partnership involves working towards the creation of a digital smart city of Matera. “We’re looking at creating an augmented version of our history, art and culture so that when tourists come into the community and use the technology, they can fully enjoy the Matera experience. This involves getting 5G connectivity into the area and evolving Matera from a stone community.”
Other initiatives have included job creation opportunities in Basilicata regions, cultural art exhibits, artistic collaborations between Matera singer-songwriters, student bursaries, sport tournaments, a high school exchange program and the creation of a traditional
Lucani recipe book. “These cultural partnerships are long-term opportunities that we need to cultivate in order to see developments and improvements for all involved,” explains Miele.