Discovering the South of Italy


December 3, 2015

Academic Excursion to the Southern Italian town of Matera

By Professors Marta Perrotta and Ben Scribner

Matera was one of the first human settlements in Italy, and among the most active filming locations in the country, chosen by Pier Paolo Pasolini for his “Il Vangelo secondo Matteo” and by Mel Gibson for the movie “The Passion of the Christ”. While the modern part of the town has grown up during the fifties and the sixties, the ancient city, with its canyons, its famous old buildings and churches (the “Sassi of Matera”, declared World Heritage by the UNESCO) dug into limestone rock and decorated with frescoes, its alleys and staircases, its unmistakable architectural shape and its decadent ancient charm still enchants artists, poets, writers and film directors, as it did throughout the last century.

Moreover, this city will represent European culture in 2019, selected among many other Italian towns for its being a place for cultural experimentation and social innovation, in the spirit of successful collaboration between locals and foreigners. These are the reasons that led us to choose Matera as a destination for an Academic Excursion. So we travelled to the deep South of Italy, a long bus ride (6 and a half hours) with the students and professors of the Communications and Social Transformation course, to discover why Matera is becoming more and more popular as an off-the-beaten-track tourist destination, but also because we were attracted by the signals of a place and a community that is making its historical and archaeological heritage a cultural potential open to social transformations and communication.

Actors of this change are cultural and social operators, volunteers, journalists and artists, temporary or permanent citizens of Matera, that we met in the 2-days schedule of meetings and panels arranged for the students. After an initial exploration of the ancient city, wandering around the Sassi districts, the Casa Cava, the Palombaro (the ancient cistern of the city) and the fascinating church of San Giovanni Battista, we introduced the students to the management of the Fondazione Matera 2019 that prepared the bid book for the European Capital of Culture challenge and that is now responsible for activating the lines of action outlined in the candidacy dossier.

We were also invited to meet the local branch of the Professional association of Italian Journalists in a curricular workshop held at Fondazione Sassi Matera about the “Charter of Rome”, a code of conduct for the media coverage of stories of asylum seekers, refugees, victims of trafficking and migrants living in Italy and elsewhere. While saddened and concerned by the Paris terror attacks, occurred the night before the meeting, we have discussed the implications of a biased media coverage of immigration and cultural diversity with press and TV journalists, social workers and volunteers, and also with a refugees from Palestine.

The local television TRM TV, whose headquarters we visited after the workshop, reported the event and interviewed some of our students. The efforts of a forty-years-old local station to be part of the digital revolution of television are stunning, with the start-up of a themed digital channel TRM-ART, in Italian and English, to cover events and topics related both to local and international art.

Our visit ended in the offices of the immigrant advocacy group Tolbà, an association that promotes multicultural integration, connecting migrants and asylum seekers with local people. Tolbà offers the introduction to wide range of services to immigrants, from education to health, from legal assistance to job placement, showing that Matera is a city open to cultural integration in the widest sense. Graziella Cormio, coordinator and founder of the project, has shown us the library of Tolbà, an incredible collection of books edited by volunteers and published by the association, with multi-cultural and multi-language volumes whose aim is to teach Italian to migrants' kids and help them to preserve their linguistic and cultural origins.

Despite the very tight schedule of meetings, we managed to enjoy the slow pace of the city and its lovely food, which is simple and very tasty: the bread of Matera is considered to be the best in Italy, and it is the base for a local starter named “Cialledda”, a soft “Bruschetta” with tomato, olives, onion, basil and olive oil. We also tried the local wood-fired pizza, grilled lamb, orecchiette with vegetables and a wide range of local cheeses.

With its breath-taking panoramas, with the unique appeal of its ancient buildings, with the welcoming spirit of its people, Matera has won us over, in a very special way.