Monday, June 29, 2009

The Eternal Gratitude of Aliano

Our tour of Basilicata continues...

Aliano seems to bask in its infamy. Seventy years ago it had been a typical peasant village in remote southern Basilicata, scraping to survive, and ignored and derided by the central government. It would have remained hidden and forgotten in its lunar-like hills had it not been paid a visit by destiny.

When the Mussolini government wanted to silence the political writings and rabble-rousings of a Jewish doctor and anti-fascist named Carlo Levi, it could think of no punishment more severe than banishment from his northern city of Torino to the hinterlands of Basilicata. Modern communications and northern news filtered very slowly- if at all- from there, so Levi and his inflammatory activism would be safely out of their dictatorial hair.

Levi arrived in Aliano to find an abject poverty in stark contrast of his prosperous north, which seemed a world away. The remote locale was neglected and remained outside of time while resources were focused on northern industrial technologies and interests. Levi spent his two years of political exile acting as town physician while painting local scenes and characters and taking detailed journalistic notes which he would use to write his well-known book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. From his house on the edge of the village, Levi observed, interacted with, tended to, painted, and chronicled the life, hardships, and contrasts of a place within his own country that was foreign to him.

When he was released from his house arrest, Levi penned his most famous work, which shed light on the political, economic and social problems of the south, and would eventually bring attention and change to the region. And the town of Aliano could not have been more grateful.

Today, Aliano is still small and still remote, but the appearance, well-being, and status of the town is very different thanks to Levi, whose writings and presence continue to live on there. Many of the buildings have been spruced up and restructured, with more work obviously underway. The place looks tended to and cared for, unlike the descriptions of squalor that Levi chronicled upon his arrival. Inhabitants stroll the streets, gather in the piazza and coffee bars, smiling their friendly greetings at visitors. Tourists from across Italy come to see it, and cars bearing license plates from other European countries are parked in the municipal lot. The paese pays homage to their famous guest, who championed their cause, with numerous namings in his honor - a street, piazza, coffee bar, restaurant all bear his name. A statue of him stands at the entrance to town. Aliano is considered a "literary park," with placques affixed to buildings with quotes in Levi's words as he had described each landmark in his book, so visitors can tour the town and see it through his eyes and words.

The house of his interment has been turned into a museum. Many of his paintings are on display in the Museo della Civilta` Contadina (Museum of Peasant Culture).

It was Carlo Levi's request to be buried in Aliano and his grave lies in a panoramic spot in the cemetary, up above the village. It is sprinkled with pebbles left by visitors to show how beloved he was. Aliano is isolated on top of a hill with commanding views of the weirdly-eroded countryside and surrounding mountains. The town has come a long way since their illustrious guest came to stay, but the timelessness of their traditions and the splendor of their natural surroundings are unchanged. Nor is their affection for the man who served them so well and continues to impact their well-being.

All rights reserved. Valerie Schneider 2009


Anonymous said...

Most interesting and informative.

Thanks Valerie!

Donna in SF

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

I saw the movie "Christ Stopped at Eboli". It was very, very moving.

I guess Il Duce's plan to shut Levi up backfired.

Saretta said...

What a nice and generous post. You have obviously had a better experience at Aliano than my family did. Everything related to Levi was closed (on a weekday) and we were treated so badly at the restaurant (could only find one) that I ended up yelling at the owners "Aliano is a backwater hole and will always be one if you treat people this way. I'm going to tell everyone to avoid Aliano at all costs!" And, trust me, I am a peaceful, non-yelling type usually.

Valerie Fortney-Schneider said...

Donna - Glad you enjoyed it!

Ragazza - It was a moving movie, huh? I think Il Duce would be shocked at how much it backfired.

Saretta - Wow, I'm surprised you had such an opposite experience! Yikes, that's terrible. How do you say "Aliano is a backwater hole" in Italiano? That might be a useful phrase for me to tuck away for future reference.

Maria Valdemi said...

You cannot kill an idea with exile or a gun.

Christ did stop at Eboli in the guise of Carlo Levi.