Christian Tyler on Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli

In Italy’s Dark Heart

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On a motorbike ride across southern Italy in the Sixties, I stopped at an outdoor café in a hilltop village somewhere in the middle of Basilicata. A group of men and boys gathered a few yards away and, with that unnerving look of blank curiosity and suppressed hostility which you sometimes encounter in peasant areas, watched in silence while I drank my coffee. My discomfort ended only when they turned to inspect the much more interesting English motorcycle, a big old 350cc BSA. One of the boys mumbled a comment, and the ice was broken.

Late last summer I found myself once more crossing the region, in the reverse direction this time, driving with my wife in a hired car.

The grape-harvest had begun when we set off in an end-of-summer cloudburst from the vineyards of Puglia behind Taranto. We called first at Castellaneta, clinging perilously to the lip of its ravine, climbed a smooth yellow-paved street past the birthplace of the film idol Rudolph Valentino and reached the cathedral on the very edge of the chasm. It was closed, of course, for restauro.

Matera greeted us with a graveyard of scarecrows set on a rocky promontory. Dressed in gaudy rags with punctured footballs for heads, the figures were hung on rough wooden crucifixes round the still smoking embers of a fire. We visited the grimly magnificent troglodyte city in the canyon below the modern town. Here 20,000 people and their animals once lived in malarial destitution. A foetid smell came from abandoned cave dwellings; the well-made rock houses seemed deserted also, but for the mournful sound of a saxophone from an upper room which echoed round the canyon.

Eight miles out of Matera we passed a sign marked ‘Grassano’. A bell rang in my head. Wasn’t this the place described by Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped at Eboli, his famous account of Italian peasant life in the 1930s? We debated whether to turn off. But the rain was sheeting down and we drove on over the ridge to

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About the contributor

Christian Tyler long ago gave up motorbikes for writing, but still thinks they’re the best way to travel in strange places.

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