A Festival of Destruction in One of the Oldest Cities in the World

Michael Cunningham Travels to the Southern Italian City of Matera

In Japan, Shinto Buddhists destroy their shrines every 20 years and then rebuild them exactly as they were, to remind themselves that everything is transitory, but then again, everything returns.

In Barcelona, construction continues on the Sagrada Familia church, which was left unfinished when its architect, Antoni Gaudi, was killed in 1926. The work is impeded, however, by the fact that Gaudi’s plans for the church were destroyed in a fire, by inept “abstract” sculptures added to the western façade in the 1960s and 70s, and by an ongoing shortage of funds: the two fountains of mercury, meant by Gaudi to flank the main façade, are not likely to be built—at least, not anytime soon.

The perennially unfinished Sagrada Familia reminds us that the churches we imagine may always be grander than any completed church can ever be. Which is probably integral to their sacredness. We venerate not only the church itself, but the idea of a more fabulous church, which the existing church merely symbolizes.

In the city of Matera, in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, an annual parade held in honor of the Madonna Della Bruna, the city’s patron saint, features an elaborate, exquisitely constructed float that, once it’s rolled through the streets and reaches the central square, is demolished by citizens, who literally tear it to pieces, until there’s nothing left.

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This serves to remind the people of Matera that every human creation, from churches to parade floats, could always be better than it is. Each year an even more splendid float is built, and each year it’s torn apart again, because perfection will always elude human efforts, no matter how skilled, no matter how inspired.

Matera knows about perseverance. It knows about the urge to complete that which can never be completed.

Matera is one of the oldest—it may actually be the oldest—continually inhabited cities in the world. Although its exact age is impossible to determine, it certainly dates back to the Paleolithic Era, when human beings first started making tools out of stone. Matera was a fully established, thriving city by the arrival of the Bronze Age.

The city has been carved, over eons, into an outcropping of limestone that rises above the surrounding farmland like a giant fist bursting up from deep within the earth.

Many of Matera’s habitations are caves, and many of its buildings—or what appear to be buildings—are facades, the interiors of which prove to be caves, as well. Matera is like a gigantic beehive, solid-looking on the outside but actually made up almost entirely of tunnels, passageways, chambers, and chambers atop chambers.

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If most cities aspire to the erection of ever-taller buildings, which speak of our attempts to reach the sky, Matera speaks of a more primal urge to burrow into the earth; to be held and protected there.

We seem to favor the familiar over the strange, even if the strange is technically an improvement.

Matera—its stones, its streets, its structures—is essentially all one color, a dusky un-white, like a bone picked clean and left out in the desert, for sun and rain to do their work.

There are no trees. There is no grass. It seems that everything fragile, everything tractable, was blown away eons ago. Matera is made solely of that which can resist catastrophic force. Matera is what’s left, after the cataclysm.

When I went to Matera, I understood that you have to go there to truly comprehend the place. Pictures are fine, but they don’t convey the feeling—which is palpable the moment you enter Matera—that you are a rather fragile being, skating across the rock-hard surface of mortality itself.

You are temporary. Matera is not.

The narrow lanes of the Stassi, the oldest area, are the most tangibly haunted, but they’re haunted by spirits so long departed as to have shed their human particulars. Matera is haunted not by ghosts, but by humanness itself: humanness scoured by time; humanness in its purest and most essential form, divested of its habits, its battles, its yearnings and its fears. Its ghosts are what would be left of us if everything we thought of as ourselves were stripped away.

As you walk through Matera you may glimpse its ur-phantoms, but only fleetingly. That ancient human essence, that swirl of unquiet, drifting across an otherwise silent piazza… no, sorry, you missed it. But wait, there it is again, slipping past the doors of a church… no, it’s gone again. Maybe you only imagined it.

Matera is a place that inspires visions, just as it inspires doubts about one’s visions.

None of that shows up in photographs.

Nor does the sight, across the valley that divides the living city from the extinct one, of the no-longer-inhabited caves, home to Troglodytes of the Paleolithic era, who, you might imagine, are looking back across the valley at you from the far side of the time-space continuum, each of you wondering over the dream you seem to be having about the other.

Also unphotographable is the strange sepulchral cleanliness of the place, a spare and merciless Buddhist cleanliness that would be familiar to the Shintos who destroy and rebuild their shrines every twenty years…

As well as the fact that, in the evenings, the deepening sky fills with birds, which look from a distance to be swifts or thrushes but prove, if you get closer, to be miniature falcons, replete with the falcon’s predatory head and its unflinching, calmly murderous eyes. The falcons embody the harsh imperishability of Matera, a city that, in a certain sense, preys on time itself. Time, after all, eats almost everything, but it can’t seem to eat Matera. And if Matera doesn’t exactly eat time, it is as unconcerned about it as a falcon is about the sky.

In the evenings, the deepening sky fills with birds, which look from a distance to be swifts or thrushes but prove, if you get closer, to be miniature falcons.

I need to tell you a little more about Matera’s history, because Matera is history, in ongoing collision with the present. It could be said that Matera is a living illustration of the fact that our histories create our present, our present creates our future, and that that’s been going on, nanosecond by nanosecond, since the earth was formed.

Like most cities, even those a millennium or more younger, Matera has had its rises and its falls. It was, for more than 200 years, the capital of Basilicata. It has been visited by emperors and archbishops.

There have been harder times, too. As recently as the 1950s, conditions there were so bad—the majority of citizens living in caves, without electricity or plumbing—that the government built new towns for them, conventional houses on grassy knolls, replete with power and water.

The people of Matera, however, were unwilling to move. They preferred the (dis)comforts of home, as people throughout history have tended to. We seem to favor the familiar over the strange, even if the strange is technically an improvement.

Given the difficulty of life in Matera, it’s not surprising that it tends to the worshipful. It’s home to over 150 churches, many of them (yes) in caves. Many are covered in frescoes painted by anonymous painters five hundred years or more before Giotto was born.

Matera’s religiosity took a more modern turn when Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed The Gospel According to St. Matthew there in 1963. At least a dozen films about the life of Christ have been filmed there since, because the Matera of today looks more like Christ’s Jerusalem than Jerusalem itself.

Among the most recent was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in 2004. A number of Materans still tell stories about their work as extras in the film, including a man who proudly proclaimed to me that his finger, pointing defiantly, is visible in one of the shots (but only his finger).

Another Matera man showed me one of his prized possessions—a piece of the cross on which the actor playing Christ, in The Passion of the Christ, was crucified.

I duly admired it. From politeness, I refrained from mentioning that it was a bit of wood from a Hollywood prop, and not a fragment of the True Cross. It wasn’t entirely clear that the difference mattered all that much to the owner of the 15-year-old wooden scrap.

Which made sense, in a place that existed thousands of years before the birth of Christ. I don’t mean to be blasphemous—nor, I’m sure, do the people of Matera—when I say that Matera has been so often visited, by emperors and holy men, that both Pasolini and Gibson seem like more recent members of an endless array of famous and illustrious people, not by any means the most exalted, but not insignificant, either.

Whether the grand hotels and fancy restaurants remain or not, Matera is not really subject to change.

Matera’s fortunes have been steadily on the rise of late, not only since Mel Gibson made his movie there but after the city was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993 and, all the more so, since it was designated a European Capital of Culture for 2019.

In anticipation of the increased tourism, there are now five-star hotels in Matera alongside world-class restaurants, many of them in impeccably whitewashed and beautifully outfitted caves.

There remains, however, a powerful sense that whether the grand hotels and fancy restaurants remain or not, Matera is not really subject to change, not in any deep or lasting way. It seems clear, if you go there and walk its narrow streets, that Matera will survive whatever ephemera the wind blows away, whether it’s poverty or expensive hotels.

In closing, I should tell you a little more about those parade floats, the ones that are torn apart every July during the festival of the Madonna Della Bruna.

The tradition dates back to the 14th century, when Matera was ruled by a particularly corrupt count, who lived so extravagantly that he doubled and then tripled taxes, simply to pay his personal expenses.

The count’s final, intolerable act was to order a shoddy, threadbare float for the Festival of the Madonna, a cost-cutting gesture by a man who built golden palaces for himself, and gambled away in a single night more than anyone in Matera earned in a year. The pitiful float, once it appeared in Matera’s streets, was torn apart by citizens who had, purely and simply, had enough.

The count was subsequently attacked and killed as he left church, by people who were never caught, though one of them, just before the murder, carved an unsigned confession into a column in the church, which is there to this day.

Matera has been destroying the festival floats ever since, no matter how grand, no matter how beautiful.

If you go to the Festival, and see the float under attack, you may notice that the people who tear it apart, who take bits of it home—a papier-mache cherub’s wing, the base of a papier-mache column—are almost always young. If you speak to them as they carry their treasures away, you may find that only a few have any idea about reenacting a rebellion against a greedy count who’s been dead more than five hundred years.

And yet the rite is performed faithfully, every year, and it doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference if the men who reenact it know about the significance of the gesture, or are just giddy with the annual permission to tear something apart. Who doesn’t understand that particular impulse?

It’s Matera, after all. It’s a city that contains countless stories and has been home to countless generations, some of which are remembered and some forgotten, and some of which are recorded in archives but unknown to most of the people who live there today.

It’s Matera, where a piece of a cross made by Hollywood to crucify an actor can be venerated simply because it’s part of ongoing history, whether by “history” we mean the lives of saints or the making of a movie.

It’s not as if stories, and generations, don’t matter. But Matera is, first and foremost, an ongoing demonstration of survival itself; of the human ability to persist, even at great cost, and of our impulse to live where our forebears lived.

Even if the place is harsh and uncomfortable, even if its soil is unyielding and its water supply negligible… still, it belongs to us, and we to it.

We are, if nothing else, a determined species. We all have survived so much. Until further notice, Shinto worshippers will destroy and rebuild their shrines every twenty years. The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona may one day be completed, but whether it’s eventually finished or not, Gaudi’s vision of it will always matter more than the church itself.

Matera, still very much alive, gaunt and barren and strangely beautiful, has stood for millennia, and may stand for millennia to come. For millennia it has been telling us, silently, that we can, and quite possibly will, persist, even in a world that can seem all too ready to be free of us.

We may not be much, as a species—not when you look at our history, our wars, our habit of rewarding the rich and depriving the poor—but we’re possessed of a tenacity, a profound and inexhaustible drive simply to go on, that verges on genius.

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham is the author of the novels A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, The Hours (winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award & Pulitzer Prize), The Snow Queen, Specimen Days, and By Nightfall, A Wild Swan and Other Tales (illustrated by Yuko Shimizu), as well as the non-fiction book, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown. He is a Senior Lecturer at Yale and lives in New York.





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