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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