Culture and Folklore

Easter festival of folk Voxha Arbëreshë in San Costantino – Photo © Apt Basilicata

Thirty years have gone by since Piovene, in his description of Basilicata, wrote that this poor region, despite its disadvantages, emits an authentically clever, sharp intelligence. The proud Lucanians have always maintained their own cultural identity, based both on solid traditions and their welcoming character. This pride and determination are essential to the survival of these people.

Political domination and repression have never defeated the people of Basilicata and they have always been able to rise to their feet again even though their land continues to be difficult to cultivate.

The Lucanians have fought bitterly to retain it and when forced to leave never went very far from it. Many Lucanians today hold prestigious positions, above all in education and the arts. Perhaps this is because intellectual studies represent a challenge and the possibility to rise above the status of the ‘southern peasant’. Nevertheless, the people carry the land inside them; this land so drenched with light that it cannot be forgotten.

Basilicata is a land that witnessed the birth of such important poets as Horace, Albino Pierro, Isabella Morra, Michele Parrella, Luigi Tansillo, Rocco Scotellaro, and Leonardo Sinisgalli. There are also the men of letters: Giuseppe de Robertis, Tommaso Stigliani, and Carlo Salinari, along with the philosopher Emilio Paolo Lamanna and the jurists Mario Pagano and Emanuele Gianturco; historians like Giacomo Racioppi and Govanni Battista Bronzini; southern intellectuals Giustino Fortunato, Francesco Saverio Nitti and Ettore Ciccotti, or medical researchers like Rocco Mazzarone; the archaeologists Domenico Ridola, Michele La Cava and Vittorio de Cicco; as well as the composers Gesualdo da Venosa and Egidio Romualdo Duni. Many others have studied or represented this land: the archaeologists François Lenormant, Eleanora Bracco and even more Dinu Adamesteanu and the art historian Emile Bertaux; other southerners like Salvemini or Zanotti Bianco or Carlo Levi (political-detainee); and anthropologists, ethnologists and urban planners or intellectuals like Adriano Olivetti, Manlio Rossi Doha, Ernesto De Martino, Edward Banfield, Frederick G. Friedmann, Luigi Piccinato and Ludovico Quaroni.

For several decades the ‘circoli culturali’ (culture clubs) have carried out an important role in the development of culture, stimulating knowledge and an enrichment of the region. More recently, the University of Basilicata has created new incentives for researching the characteristic cultural roots. A most positive experience is the ‘International Sculpture Exhibit in the Rupestrian Churches‘. The ‘festa popolare‘ (local village festival) is one of the fundamental events in Lucanian society, and even today the festa popolare carries out a very important cohesive role in the region. Without doubt, the most extraordinary thing about these festivals is the unconditional participation of everyone. The festivals witness the return of the emigrant to his ‘paese’ (native village) to participate in activities that are most often rooted in pre-Christian rituals.

Many of these festivals are divided among religious and pagan motifs like those that give thanks for the harvest and ask for a prosperous year to come.

Maggio di Accettura – Photo © weltanshauunggrb

The ‘Maggio di Accettura‘ (May Chopping) is a typical pagan festival, whose origins lie in antiquity. A very large tree is chopped down and carried to the center of the village. Stripped of its branches and bark, it ‘marries’ a younger tree that is inserted at its top. This ritual is believed to give the tree generative powers and is carried out above all to ask for a prosperous agricultural harvest.

Celebrations identical to the ‘Maggio di Accettura‘ are held in Oppido Lucano, Pietrapertosa and Garaguso.

In Potenza, on the other hand, the ‘Sfilata dei Turchi‘ (Procession of the Turks) takes place. Tradition wants that on a night in May, while the inhabitants of Potenza were sleeping, a band of Saracen pirates navigated their boats upstream against the current of the Basento and attacked the city. Taken by surprise, the inhabitants found themselves defenseless. Suddenly the sky lit up and a row of angels appeared, surprising the Saracens and giving the citizens time to organize their defense. Once the invaders were sent away, the people attributed the miracle to S. Gerardo who, during his life, had been the bishop of Potenza. The procession honors him by re-enacting the events of the legend.

Festa della bruna assalto al carro

In Matera, on July 2, the villagers give thanks to ‘Madonna della Bruna‘. This festival, which has been held for over 600 years, also has its origins in a legend which tells of a beautiful, impoverished woman who asked a peasant, travelling by horse cart, for a lift into town. The peasant agreed, and at the entrance to the village the woman revealed herself to be the Madonna (Holy Virgin) and asked the peasant to deliver a message to the bishop of the city. The bishop, accompanied by a band of believers, then set out to greet the Madonna. Once they reached the place where she had been, they found only a statue on a Triumphal Carriage. The bishop ordered that the carriage should be taken to the cathedral, but the soldiers of the city, in the meantime, had been told to sequester it. The citizens then decided to destroy it in order for each of them to remain in possession of a part of it. The celebration of this legend begins at dawn with a procession of shepherds. After the procession of the Triumphal Carriage, escorted by knights, the festival culminates when the people destroys the Carriage itself at night. The destruction of the Carriage represents the citizens’ hope for a prosperous harvest. Anyone who is able to take a piece of the Carriage away with him is considered to be lucky in the coming year.

Misteri della Passione

In Barile, on Good Friday, it has been traditional since the middle of 1600 to repeat the ‘Misteri della Passione’ (the Passion Play). Most suggestive, and involving the participation of all present at the ‘Via Crucis’ (Way of the Cross), it re-enacts the ancient rituals of sorrow that were typical of the ‘veglia funebre’ (wake).

Another tangible sign of the elements of rural life is the typical arrangement of the ‘casa contadina‘ (peasant house). Its design has been altered with time and by now is kept alive merely as a reconstruction. The typical peasant dwelling was that of the ‘Sassi’ of Matera, probably the most significant symbol of a social condition that regarded an entire population. Originally located in a cave without windows and having damp walls, it was home to the peasant, his family and his animals. The essential furnishings were nearly all constructed and used for the purpose of storing the food. Everything from dishes to eating utensils and other objects were primarily hand-made. The animals spent the night inside the cave dwelling with the family members. You can well imagine that this is no longer the case, even though since only 1952. Today the ‘casa contadina’ survives only in reconstruction. However, anyone who is familiar with this history can easily find some of its basic elements in the arrangement of space and furnishings in many of the region’s modern kitchens.

Where to stay in Matera

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Basilicata History

Matera – Photo © maurizio guarino

The very ancient land known as Basilicata was already inhabited in the prehistoric age. The settlements of Venosa and the Bradano Valley date from the Paleolithic period while the organized agricultural villages around Matera and Melfi sprang up during the Neolithic period. From that time until the Bronze Age the region became an important center of communication between the Jonian and Tyrrhenian populations, giving rise to important settlements. The inland regions began to be populated during the Iron Age. It was during this phase that many Indo-Europeans arrived in Lucania, among whom the Liky from the Illyrian coast.

In the 8th century B.C. Greek colonies landed on the Lucanian shores of the Jonian Sea. This historic event gave birth to that flowering civilization that will be remembered in history as the Magna Graecia. Metaponto, Siris and Heraclea are the most important settlements. Between the 6th century and the 5th century B.C. certain Osco-Sabellic tribes came down from the Irpinia, while the Lucanians settled the more inland regions. Later, in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., the Lucanians attacked the Greek colonies along the Jonian coast in their quest for new land to cultivate. Meanwhile, between the 4th century and 3rd century B.C., the Romans pushed their way into Lucania as they continued their expansion. At first the Lucanians were allied with the Romans against the Samnites.

Later, not wanting to yield to Roman domination, they allied themselves with the Samnites and the Greek colony in Taranto to combat the Romans. Meanwhile, in 291 B.C., Venusia (today Venosa) becomes the first Roman colony in Lucanian territory. The Romans fight against Pyrrhus who was rushing to the aid of the Greek colonies, and loose a battle that took place between the areas of Metaponto and Heraclea (today Policoro), which became famous for the heavy losses incurred on both sides. In the northeast, Roman domination increases: the town of Grumentum (today Grumento) is founded and the road that connects Grumentum to Venusia is constructed (Via Herculia). 280 B.C. witnesses the end of Magna Graecia.

In the 2nd century B.C. Lucania is under Roman domination. The proud and warlike Lucanians rebel against Rome, which had decided to impose landed estates, but are defeated. From 27 B.C. to 14 B.C., under the Augustan Empire, Lucania is divided into two parts and unified with Apulia, the Regio II, and with Brutium, the Regio III. At the end of the 3rd century Dioclesian reunites the area, unifying it with Brutium. With the decline of the Western Roman Empire the region sinks back into deep isolation, which destroys the already impoverished economy. We are in the Middle Ages. Between the 6th century and the 9th century, the Longobards annex Lucania (with the exception of the Byzantine possessions in the region of Matera) to the Duchy of Benevento.

The Byzantines, gathered in Lucania in their effort to escape religious persecution in the Orient, give life to the phenomenon of the Rupestrian (rock) Churches. They proliferate on the Murgia of Matera. Meanwhile, the Saracen invasions force the Lucanians to retreat to the surrounding mountains and hills. Between the 8th century and the 9th century, Matera is annexed to the Duchy of Benevento, while the rest of the region passes under Byzantine domination. In the 11th century and 12th century the Normans conquer Lucania, making it the center of Italian political life. In 1059, Melfi is the capital of the Norman realm. When Norman domination ends, the Swabians and Angevins compete for control of Lucania and southern Italy. Frederick II of Swabia is born.

In 1231, in Melfi, he enacts the Constitutiones Utriusque Regni Sicilae (the Constitutions of the Two Sicilies). At the end of the 13th century the Angevins control the Realm of Naples and the Two Sicilies. Feudalism has begun, during which time many Lucanian lordships spring up and which the Aragonese attempt to oppose. The Barons, faithful to the Angevins, try to overthrow the Aragonese Reign and the ‘Congiura dei baroni’ (baron conspiracy) is planned in the Miglionican Castle in 1441. Between the 13th century and the 16th century Bourbon power consolidates. Certain Albanian communities arrive in Basilicata, settling along the slopes of Vulture and the Pollino Massif.

In 1663, Matera is the capital of the Lucanian Province of the Kingdom of Naples. This period witnesses the beginning of bloody rebellions by peasants against the barons who exploit the land, forcing the population into famine. In 1707, the Austro-Sabaudian army occupies Lucania, and after the Treaties of Utrecht and Rastadt it passes into the hands of Charles VI of Austria. The Bourbons return to power with the Peace Treaty of Aquisgrana. In 1799 a peasant rebellion is repressed with mass executions. Then power passes briefly to the French, who after a short time are forced to return it again to the Bourbons. A part of the Lucanian bourgeoisie adheres to the ‘Moti carbonari’ (Carbonari uprisings). Between 1861 and 1868 the entire region is affected by the phenomenon of Brigantaggio (banditry), rebellions against power generated by the extreme isolation of the population and which finds its ideal habitat in the thick woods of Mount Vulture.

The beginning of the 20th century, in 1902, sees the first meeting of Socialists in Potenza. Poverty has reached unacceptable levels and the phenomenon of emigration begins, reaching its high point in 1913. In 1943, Matera is the first southern Italian province to rebel against Nazi-Fascist occupation. When World War II ends, it becomes necessary to tackle the problem of the ‘Sassi of Matera’ (ancient rock dwellings) which, because of overpopulation, had become a health risk. In 1952, a state law decrees the evacuation of the Sassi district. During the same period ‘Riforma Fondiaria’ (land reform) begins and transforms the face of the region. Unfortunately, emigration damages the communities of Basilicata since it provokes a progressive demographic impoverishment. The 1980 earthquake in Irpinia creates serious problems in the entire northern region and in the capital Potenza.

The University of Basilicata is established in Potenza in 1984, which a few years later opens a campus in Matera. In 1986, the Italian government enacts a law to finance the restoration of the Sassi of Matera, which is still being carried out among a multitude of problems. At the beginning of 1994, UNESCO declares the Sassi of Matera ‘heritage of humanity to be handed down to future generations’ and counts it among the territories under its protection. FIAT establishes an enormous factory in the industrial zone of S. Nicola of Melfi. In the same year the National Park of Pollino is established.

Where to stay in Matera

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Classic Italian Food And Wine Pairings – Red Wine And Basilicata Dishes

Pollo alla potentina

Basilicata forms the instep of the Italian boot. This lovely but generally unknown hilly and mountainous region is located in the southwest corner of Italy. Like so many other parts of Italy over the centuries Basilicata has known a series of conquerors, each of whom has left a cultural and culinary trace. The region’s centerpiece are caves, which have been occupied for thousands of years and have now become trendy tourist attractions, complete with upscale restaurants and, I daresay, fine local wine.

Start off your meal with some delicious vegetables. One great dish is Piatto di Erbe alla Lucana (Dish of Herbs Lucana Style) consisting of eggplants, onions, yellow peppers, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and a few other ingredients. Begin by salting the eggplants to remove those bitter juices. First fry and then simmer the veggies and their accompaniments. This is definitely not a quick dish to make, but you’ll enjoy it whether you are a vegetarian or not. The suggested wine pairing is an Italian Syrah.

Lamb is really quite popular in Basilicata. Make sure that you try Cutturiddi o Agnello in Casseruola (Cutturiddi or Lamb Casserole), which is made from a combination of lamb breast and shoulder along with pearl onions, chili peppers, ripe tomatoes, and a few other ingredients. The classic wine pairing is the local Aglianico del Vulture DOC named for the extinct Mount Vulture volcano that gives the wine its special taste.

Maybe you like your lamb to be baked. Try Agnello e Funghi al Forno (Baked Lamb with mushrooms), is ideally made with cardoncelli mushrooms that tend to grow under thistle bushes. Other ingredients include chili peppers and olive oil. Suggested wine pairings include Italian Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Pinot Nero. I have this sneaking suspicion that Aglianico del Vulture would also work very well, even if you had to substitute with mushrooms from your grocer.

Nobody will blame us for yet another popular but different local lamb specialty, this time based on leg of lamb. Agnello Venosino (Lamb Venosino style). Other ingredients include asparagus, onions, grated Pecorino cheese, eggs, and olive oil. This delicious dish calls for an Italian Cabernet Sauvignon, or those Piedmont prizes, Barbaresco DOCG and Barolo DOCG.

Let’s not forget chicken. One local dish is Pollo alla Potentina (Chicken Potenza Style), chicken braised in white wine with onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and some other ingredients. Among the recommended wine pairings are an Italian Pinot Nero and a Barbera from Piedmont.

About the Author

Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten computer and Internet books, but frankly prefers drinking fine German or other wine, accompanied by the right foods and the right people. He teaches computer classes at an Ontario French-language community college. Check out his wine website with a weekly column reviewing $10 wines and new sections writing about (theory) and tasting (practice) organic and kosher wines.

Where to stay in Potenza

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Basilicata Festivals

Easter festival of folk Voxha Arbëreshë in San Costantino – Photo © Apt Basilicata

This is a partial list of local festivals, fairs and costumed events. To verify the exact dates, please contact the local tourist board.

In most of southern Italy, the town festival is a fundamental event in the life of all residents. If they have emigrated abroad, they try to come home. If they never left, they plan all year for the events, most of which stem from pre-Christian rituals.

In Basilicata, two characteristic events held in many small towns are the May Chopping Festival (Sagra del “Maggio”), in which the entire village watches as a large tree is chopped down in the forest, dragged into the main square and “married” to a younger tree; and the Procession of the Turks (Sfilata dei Turchi), in which the townspeople re-enact a historical night in May when a band of Saracens were vanquished from Potenza with the help of an army of angels.

Pignola: Palio of S. Antonio Abate.
Villa d’Agri: Befana Canterina.
Aliano: Carnival.
Rotondella: Fire Festival.
Rocchetta al Volturno, Carpinone, Capracotta: Maitinate Carolers.

Rapolla: San Biagio.
Cercepiccola: The Mesi Pageant.
Tufara: The Cheese Game & Devil’s Procession.
Castelnuovo del Volturno: Deer Hunt Pageant.

Atella: Via Crucis Costumed Parade (Thursday before Easter).
Barile, Maschito & Venosa: Via Crucis Pageant (Good Friday).
Rionero in Vulture: Via Crucis Pageant (Saturday before Easter).
Garagusa: Costumed Procession.
Termoli: Good Friday Procession.

Campobasso: Corpus Domini Pageant.
San Martino in Pensilis: Ox-Cart race.

Melfi: Feast & Tournament of the Holy Spirit.
Potenza: San Gerardo (May).
Matera-Picciano: Santa Maria di Picciano (first Sunday of May).
Policoro: Madonna of the Bridge.
Tricarico: Madonna of the Fountains (second Sunday of May).
Accettura: May Chopping Festival.
Larino: San Pardo Festival & Procession.
Ururi: The Cart Race.

Moliterno: U Casiadd Local Cheese Festival.
Rotonda: Sant’Antonio & Fir Tree Festival.
Gorgoglione: Madonna of Pergamo.
S. Giorgio Lucano: Harvest Festival.

Avigliano: Madonna of Carmine.
Matera: Madonna of Bruna Pageant & Procession.
Ielsi: Wheat Festival Pageant & Parade.

Castellagopesole: Nights of Frederick II of Swabia.
Melfi: Homage to Frederick II of Swabia.
Rapone: Sausage & Cheese Festival.
Bernalda: San Bernardo.
Matera: Crapiata.
Oliveto Lucano: San Cipriano & the Rites of May.
Pisticci: San Rocco.
Termoli: San Basso Fishing Boat Procession.
Ripalimosani: Palio Horse Race.

Ripacandida: Vulture Rabbit & Garlic Festival.
Viggiano: Santa Maria of the Sacred Mountain.
Sarconi: Bean Festival & Market of Local Products.
Aliano: Madonna of the Stars.
Matera-Timmari: Feast of God the Savior (first Sunday of September).
Miglionico: Dried Fig Festival.

Melfi: Varola Festival & Market.
Riccia: Grape Fair.

Paterno: Nativity Scene.
Montescaglioso: Pettole Festival.
Agnone: Docce Torchlit Procession.
Oratino: La Faglia Torch Lighting (Christmas Eve).
Guardialfiera: Living Nativity Scene.

Where to stay in Matera

Hotels, apartments, B&Bs and villas can be searched and reserved here.

Matera’s Province Castles

Bernalda Castle

Basilicata castles – Matera Province

Of the many feudal castles that existed in the region, remain only isolated towers and ruins :

Bernalda Castle: The Castle, built in 1470, appears a bit squat, as it was typical in that era. It was erected by Bernardino de Bernardo, who founded the town. Bernardino, who was secretary of the Aragonese court, with the construction of the fortified Castle initiated the building of the town which bears his name. Some sources, however, claim that the Castle already existed during Norman times. The truncated cone base of one of the cylindrical towers leads us to believe that the construction was Angevin instead. In any case, there are many adaptations and stratifications in the castle architecture.

Irsina Castle: The old Montepeloso Castle (ancient name) was a Norman construction later altered by Frederick of Swabia in 1228. Today it appears much as it did in the 16th century when it became a Franciscan convent. The crypt was excavated from the foundation of one of the quadrilateral castle towers in 1100.

Ferrandina Castle: The Uggiano Castle, a Byzantine military fortification, dating to the beginning of the 9th century, was taken over and rebuilt by the Normans at the beginning of the 11th century, and was changed into an elegant residence by Jacopus de Astiliano in the first half of the 14th century. An earthquake destroyed it in 1456 and today it is in ruins.

Miglionico Castle: Called ‘Malconsiglio’ (ill-advice), it was in the Miglionico Castle that in 1481 the barons plotted against the King of Naples, Ferdinand I of Aragon. The Miglionico Castle was also the fief of Hector Fieramosca. It was built by the Normans in the 11th century and their style is perceived in the squared, lateral towers. The cylindrical towers are from a later date. The interior appears altered and divided, but the charm of this castle remains unchanged.

Matera Castle: Around the beginning of 1500, the Tramontane Castle was built under the name of the feudal lord who was given the city by Ferdinand II. The building dominates the Bradano River Valley. You can see two cylindrical towers and in the middle an enormous, circular embattled tower. The form is quite unusual for the era and is due to the fact that the feudal lord initially tried to imitate the ‘Maschio Angioino’ in Naples. He was unable to finish it in time because he was killed, most probably because, as owner of salt mines in Manfredonia and of a grain depository in Barletta, his presence overshadowed the other wealthy men in the area.

Nova Siri Castle: High above the sea you can see the gorgeous Bollita Tower, 1300.

San Mauro Forte: All that remains is the main Norman tower (altered in 1400) and the tower with its three-tiered corbels, one of the best-preserved in the region.

Miglionico Castle – Photo © pingendiartifex

Scanzano Jonico: Small, but truly different, the Castle of Scanzano Ionico preserves its antique center gathered around the ‘Palazzaccio’, master’s edifice, highly regarded by the inhabitants of the castle.

Tricarico Castle: All that remains is the very high, cylindrical tower. It represents the typically defensive characteristic of the Ngevin habitations.

Valsinni Castle: We will conclude with the most poetic of the castles. Seen from a long distance away, today it has an Aragonese appearance and its most famous owner was the poetess Isabella Morra di Valsinni (1520-1545). However, we know that it already existed during the Middle Ages.

Where to stay in Matera

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Basilicata cuisine

Peperoncini – Photo ©

In Basilicata there are many kind of Salami, a lot of local regional Recipes, they pair very well with the local Wine. You can enjoy them all while you Travel the region, It’s all part of the best Italian Food.

The peperone di Senise, or Senise pepper, is cultivated in a number of villages in the provinces of Matera and Potenza, in the heart of Basilicata.

These include Senise, the village that gives the  pepper its name, stands on the slopes of a hill in the valley of the river Sinni.

Traditionally used for flavoring peasant dishes, the Senise pepper is today a specialty of the Basilicata region and has been produced with IGP status (Indicazione Geografica Protetta – Protected Geographical Indication) since 1996. Brick red in color, the Senise pepper may be eaten fresh.

It has a slightly elongated form and thin flesh, and contains very little water, making it particularly well suited to being dried and turned into powder. In powdered form, the Senise pepper is often used for making local cheeses and cured meats, and for flavoring soups.

salsicce lucane

In Basilicata food the best salsicce lucane, or lucanica sausages, the pork sausage of Basilicata (which was once known as Lucania) are made using only top quality meat, seasoned with salt pepper and fennel seeds, or with pork fat, pepper, salt, peperoncino, and fennel seeds. Although the people of other regions of Italy would quibble with the idea that this sausage originated here, few would argue that the varieties produced in the region, where pigs are prized and still fed almost entirely on natural foods (bean, corn, acorns), are some of the finest in the country.

Some typical dishes of the Basilicata regional food are lamb cooked in a pignata, or earthenware pot, and flavored with bread crumbs, carrots, cheese, and sausage, or al cuturillo, cooked with chicory. Also exceptional are the Basilicata’s pastas, such as the local orecchiette, dressed with cherry tomatoes and cacioricotta, the wonderfully scented local cheese. In the province of Potenza, two tasty specialties are pupazzella, small round hot peppers in vinegar filled with anchovies and parsley; and pasta with lu’ntruppc, a tasty meat sauce made with meat and sausage.

Regional recipes

Calzone di verdure
Cavatelli alle cime di rapa
Cazmarr – Marretto di agnello alla Lucana
Grano al ragù
Grano dolce
Pignata di pecora
Pollo alla Potentina
Sagna chine
Spezzatino di Agnello