ALIANO A Town Immortalized by Carlo Levi
Visitors to the tiny hilltop village of Aliano in Southern Italy are very unlikely to forget it. The surrounding countryside is as desolate as a lunar landscape and the village is perched precariously on top of calanchi which are deforested, sandy soiled, rocky hills. In 1980, a major earthquake shook the region of Basilicata and rendered many of Aliano’s clay buildings uninhabitable. Young people have moved away to find their fortune and the population now numbers less than 1000. Why then is this an absolute mustsee place for visitors? The first and immediate answer to this lies in Aliano’s 20th Century history and importantly in its portrayal as ‘Gagliano’ in Carlo Levi’s outstanding memoir “Cristo si e fermato a Eboli” (Christ Stopped at Eboli). In his book Carlo Levi explains that the people of Gagliano “feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself – that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience.” Eboli was the place in Campania where the road and railway branched away from the area of Lucania, where Aliano is situated. Aliano and nearby villages like it were extremely poor. The people lived on a meagre diet of bread, oil, crushed tomatoes and peppers. Sanitation, education and health care were virtually non-existent, and superstition and spells played a more significant role in people’s lives than Christian teaching. Carlo Levi was born in 1902 in Torino to wealthy parents. He studied medicine and painting and spent some time living in Paris. On returning to Italy in the early 1930’s, he became involved in an antifascist movement in Torino and he was eventually arrested and exiled to Aliano from 1935 to 1936. Levi was shocked to discover a level of poverty there that was almost unknown in northern Italy. He worked as a doctor in Aliano and was made extremely welcome by the town’s hospitable inhabitants. He continued to write and paint after his exile ended and he eventually went into politics. Levi’s writings about the plight of the people in Southern Italy prompted changes in the Government’s thinking leading to more financial investment in the poorer areas of the country. After his death in 1975, Levi was buried in Aliano, where his memory is treasured to this day. Everywhere in the small town are plaques and statues of Levi and the town boasts a literary park and Museum bearing his name. In a local restaurant La Contadina Sisina, the owner proudly displays a photograph of her father as a young child with Carlo Levi and she points out a reference to her father in Levi’s famous book. Standing by Levi’s statue outside his well-tended house and looking across at eerie clay ravines stretching as far as the eye can see, is an intensely moving experience for visitors. Of course, Aliano’s history goes back well before the 20th Century. It is thought that in the 8th Century AD prehistoric caves in the area were inhabited by monks fleeing persecution and there are references to Aliano in texts dating from 1060. Aliano developed its own dialect known as “Alianese” which is still spoken today and the people have maintained many of their old traditions. During Aliano’s Carnevale a few weeks before Easter, local men dress up with horned masks and cowbells, hats covered in streamers and long underwear and parade through the main street throwing flour at the crowd and making grunting noises. This improvised comedy called “Fras” appears to have been designed to exorcise evil spirits prior to Lent and is a good example of the significance of superstition in the lives of the people. Another fascinating tradition was the use of architecture to ward off the evil eye – the “malocchio.” Visitors today can still see some of the older homes built with two windows facing forward and stairs leading up to the house’s main floor. The result is a house that looks like a face. When the house is lit from inside, the windows look like burning eyes intended to scare any bad spirits away. From Aliano it is just a short distance to the larger town I Sassi di Matera, which is fast becoming a ixture on tourists’ itineraries and for good reason. Matera is a magical place which warrants its own article but if you are travelling there, do try to it in a side trip to Aliano. There is something about this small town that is unique and unforgettable.