Italy's city of shame Matera becomes Europe's pride
MATERA - AFP
Fifty years after Italy's Matera was a national embarrassment because of its extreme poverty, the city is rescuing its dignity, baroque palaces and cave churches to become a European Capital of Culture.
"Yes, it's true, we went from shame to glory," Matera mayor Raffaello De Ruggieri told journalists ahead of the southern city's year-long stint as a European Union-designated cultural crossroads in 2019.
In the 1950s, prime minister Alcide De Gasperi, one of the EU's founding fathers, was outraged by Matera's underdevelopment, where many lived in ancient limestone caves without electricity or running water, lives ravaged by malaria.
"Archaeological remains show that people have been here for 8,000 years," said mayor De Ruggieri.
To achieve that, around 300 cultural performances, workshops, exhibitions and conferences are being organised, from music to food to readings.
The relatively isolated city, with no airport, high-speed train station or even a motorway, hopes visitors will be inspired by the mystical atmosphere to write, sculpt and create music or installations which will in turn become an exhibit.
Many films set in the early days of Christianity have been filmed in these narrow, historic streets, including Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" and Pier-Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St Matthew."
The city, reached by winding roads, has become better known, and for better reasons, since 1993 when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Patrizia Capriotti, whose shop sells craft objects and clothes, many made from recycled waste, says the cultural capital is "a project that is too far from reality."
"I'm worried that we'll become another Venice," invaded by mass tourism, she said.
"The problem is the tourism model, people will move into the poor neighborhoods and turn their stone houses or family caves into tourist properties," said Capriotti, an architect by training.
Not far from the 12th century Church of the Madonna delle Virtu, as featured in "The Passion of Christ", Vito Cuscianna, a 27-year-old business and marketing graduate, is hiring out his Vespa three-wheeler to visitors.
"My grandfather Donato is 90, he was a farmer and lived in a sassi," he smiled. "But he would never have imagined seeing Wifi or jacuzzis inside these prehistoric caves!"