Read an Excerpt
Seasons in Basilicata
The Lure of Levi
This is a closed world, shrouded in black veils, bloody and earthy— that other world where the peasants live and which no one can enter without a magic key . . . Here there is no definite boundary between the world of human beings and that of animals and even monsters. And there are many strange creatures here who have a dual nature . . . everything is bound up in natural magic . . . and a subterranean deity, black with shadows of the bowels of the earth . . .
Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli
Some say his coffin is full of rocks.
It lies deep in the heavy clay soil at the edge of the cemetery in Aliano. The cemetery is at the highest point of the village, on a watershed ridge above the Sauro and Agri Valleys. The views from there across the eroded calanchi canyons, which seem to be melting like cake frosting into the scrubby and scraggly olive orchards far below, are the finest in the village. And Carlo Levi's grave has the best view of all, west across the calanchi, the muscular outlines of the Pollino range and, on a clear spring day, the massive bulk of the Calabrian massif.
The grave site has recently been rebuilt with a simple two-walled enclosure overlooking a deep gorge, but the headstone remains the same as before, bearing its simple inscription: Carlo Levi 12.11.1902-4.1.1975.
Others say his actual remains are in Rome, jealously guarded by a lover. His nephew, Giovani Levi, who lives in Venice, is vague about the whole matter and prefers to discuss the impact of his uncle's books and political career on theMezzogiorno, "Land of the Midday Sun," that wild region dismissed by refined, affluent northerners as "the South" (with the usual complacent smirk) or, more offensively, "the land of the terroni" (peasants). As with everything involving Carlo Levi, opinions are divided, sometimes dramatically, ferociously. But all that will be revealed later.
For the moment Anne and I are sitting in the shade of a line of pine trees by Levi's grave, watching hawks float on the spirals in the heat of the "sacred time," the afternoon siesta. We're thinking about the life of this man who worked so arduously on behalf of his "beloved peasants," attempting to eradicate the centuries-old inequities of a harsh feudal system and create conditions conducive to human dignity and new economic progress in the South.
We're remembering his most famous book, Christ Stopped at Eboli—first published in English in 1947—and its impact on us both when we first read it years ago. One reviewer described it as "an unforgettable journey into the dark, ancient and richly human ethos of Southern Italy." Others saw deeper, more holistic nuances. An eminent European sociologist even suggested that the primitive elements Levi discovered here reflected "the deepest, darkest parts of the Soul of our World"—elements also dramatically reflected in Francesco Rosi's famous 1978 film of the book, featuring Italian heartthrob Gian Maria Volentè as Levi and Irene Pappas as his witch-housekeeper, Giulia Venere (Mango).
Levi wrote his masterwork following his confino, his house arrest in the remote Basilicatan hill town of Aliano, where he was exiled before World War II by an irate Mussolini, il Duce, who wasdetermined to quell Levi's rampant, antifascist activities and writings. Almost sixty years later Levi's book, translated into thirty-seven languages, continues to provide insights into this wild region, located in the instep of Italy's "boot." Still mysterious and elusively tied to a darker age and deeper pagani touchstones of knowledge and belief, the region is relatively unchanged by the country's overreaching Catholic influence.
A true Renaissance man—physician, philosopher, artist, writer, inspired speaker, and later a senator in the Italian government— Levi was born in Turin on November 29, 1902, into an affluent, talented, and respected Jewish family. He graduated in medicine at the early age of twenty-two. That same year, he exhibited his artwork at the Biennale of Venice and began his vociferous antifascist activities, with the Giustizia e Libertà movement, which ultimately condemned him as a "threat to national security." He was sentenced to five years confino in one of Italy's wildest regions, a term that was reduced to seven months (from October 3, 1935, to May 20, 1936), following Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia.
Those less impressed by Carlo Levi's political values and writings often refer dismissively to Christ Stopped at Eboli as a "novel," implying that much of the dark, bleak, primitive, sempre miseria ("always misery") peasant world in Aliano he describes—a world "which no one can enter without a magic key"—is largely fictitious. To some, it is either a figment of a vehemently antifascist, prounderclass imagination or, according to other cynics, a masterful work of mystical fantasy.
Prior to our time in Aliano and other placesin a region that once harbored a host of strident socialist critics, the plight of Mezzogiorno peasants was regarded as beneath the dignity of national politicians to investigate and certainly never to acknowledge. One of the most outspoken "revolutionaries" was Rocco Scotellaro, a close friend of Levi's, who appeared in redheaded rhetorical fury in many of Levi's Aliano-period paintings. As a poet and ultimately the mayor (sindico) of Tricarico, Scotellaro used his verses and vision as powerful instruments for social and economic emancipation. Similarly, in the village of Tursi to the Southeast, Albino Pierro, a renowned poet who wrote in the local Arab-tinged dialect and was once a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, was also a reformist for the sperduti ("the forgotten people").
Levi saw himself primarily as a physician and a painter, and certainly never claimed to be a poet. However, both his art and his eloquent prose paint an intriguing and almost poetical portrait of Aliano, his place of exile in 1935-1936, the most strident era of the Mussolini fascist dictatorship. And there is no doubt, based upon our own time there, that Levi's descriptions of the setting and mood of the village of Aliano could not be bettered. Certainly not by me.
Here's a brief collage of Levi's impressions from his worldfamous book, which, as one critic suggested, became "the symbol of many other dire realities in our divided world today." That thought... Seasons in Basilicata. Copyright ? by David Yeadon. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.