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Frank Gruber

Journey to the Past and/or the Future

By Frank Gruber

Longtime readers of this column know that one of my accomplishments is to have family who bought an old farmhouse in Italy where I can vacation. Some will remember 'Renzo, the old dog who was discovered to have a nose for truffles.

It's sad to report, but Renzo died earlier this summer: run over by a car under which he had taken shade. He was ancient and beset by various miseries, and it might have been the best thing for him and, but for the shock of it, for everyone else. The driver of the car was a villager, and my father thinks that he may not have attended a party we had recently because of his lingering shame.

My wife and son and I spent most of last week at the family place, but before that, for various reasons, we did some traveling. Along with my father, we made a driving trip through southern Italy.

We spent a day and night in Naples, but the direction we took was to the ankle and heel of Italy -- to the regions of Basilicata and Puglia, respectively. My father had visited these places decades ago, but it was new territory for the rest of us.

Not to be overly apocalyptic, but "Il Sud" is a good place to visit if you want to reflect on what the world might be like if the rich and powerful of today screw things up. I mean if global warming happens, if "Peak Oil" is for real, if something even more deadly than AIDS comes along, and/or if civilizations don't stop clashing, then the history of southern Italy might provide a good guide to what the developed world of today might experience in a few centuries.

For more than a thousand years southern Italy was the First World. For hundreds of years, as "Magna Graecia" -- "Greater Greece" -- it was a rich part of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean. Then, for most of a thousand years, it was among the richest parts of the Roman Empire. Its cities were proverbial for their wealth -- the word "sybaritic" comes from the Magna Graecia city of Sybaris, founded in the eighth century B.C. (and destroyed by other "Italian Greeks" in 510 B.C.).

We saw suggestive bits and pieces of this wealth in archaeological museums in Metapontum and Taranto. For a very long time -- going back before the Greeks to the Neo and Paleolithic periods -- the ancient people of the South kept busy, busy, busy churning out stuff, both utilitarian and artistic and often both.

The telescoping of periods in a museum -- showing the artifacts of centuries and even millennia, room by room, exhibit case by exhibit case -- blurs the sense of time passing.

But in a museum limited to a defined locality, chronological exhibits of artworks and artifacts, especially when combined with architectural remains, make the point that when technological change increases productivity -- the application of agriculture, for instance, to previously uncultivated lands -- wealth explodes and this explosion allows for consumption of goods, and city and monument building, on what can only be called a monumental scale.

Temple Ruins at Metapontum (Photos by Frank Gruber)

But the lesson of southern Italy is that what goes up may come down. The disintegration of the Roman Empire resulted in the end of urban civilization in the South. Populations mysteriously disappeared, although archaeologists and historians most suspect plague and environmental collapse as the root causes.

In any case, the Mediterranean economy -- based on trade -- fell apart. Instead of a commercial highway for grains, olive oil, wine and manufactured goods, the Mediterranean became an invasion route.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and for more than a thousand years the depopulated, but still agriculturally productive south attracted successive invaders: Byzantines, Lombards, Saracens, Franks, Normans, Hohenstaufens (with a role for Richard the Lion-Hearted thrown in), Pisans, Genoese, Swabians, Angevins (both French and Hungarian), Ottoman Turks, Aragonese, Bourbons, French (Napoleon), and, as some southerners will still tell you, the Northern Italians who threw out the Bourbons and "united" Italy by annexing the South.

From the guidebook, it seems like every city was sacked at least once. Wars cost money then as now. The various invaders had one thing in common -- they taxed the locals to pay for the privilege of being conquered and then defended from the next conqueror.

One town we visited -- Otranto, now a quiet fishing harbor and beach resort -- was sacked as recently as 1480, by the Ottomans, who were in alliance with the Venetians. The King of Aragon kicked the Turks out a year later, and rebuilt the castle there, notwithstanding that the old castle hadn't been effective against the Turkish fleet. That had to cost a few ducats, but fighting the last war is not a new thing either. (The castle did provide Horace Walpole with the inspiration for the first Gothic novel, however.)

The Castle of Otranto

These invaders drained the south dry, but even so it took time. The opulence of the Baroque towns that arose in the relative peace of the early years of Bourbon (Spanish) rule -- cities like Matera, Taranto and Lecce -- is evidence that the land was still productive.

But the Bourbon cities and the Bourbon ruling class -- typical of all the invaders -- were not productive. The land-owning families that built the churches and palazzos were absentee landlords who lived off the wealth the peasants created. By the mid-20th century the villages of the South were a byword for poverty, ignorance and disease -- namely, malaria.

No place epitomized this more than the "Sassi" of Matera. These were habitations -- extended caves -- dug into the rocks (sassi) of a gorge below the city. The 23,000 people who lived in the Sassi lived without decent sanitation or even light or air. In the 1930s, as Carlo Levi recounted in his famous book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, children sick with malaria would cry out to well-dressed visitors for "chino" -- quinine.

A Baroque Gate in Lecce

After the War, reform-minded Italian governments -- relatively democratic and relatively uncorrupted by the standards of the preceding centuries -- brought new ideas and new investment to the south. Malaria was eradicated, land was redistributed, roads were built, and industry returned -- to a level probably not seen since Roman times. Peasants in villages isolated on the tops of mountain ridges have experienced more change in 60 years than in the prior 3,000. (The Sassi have been used as a film set for various Biblical movies, including "Kind David" and "The Passion of the Christ.")

The Sassi

In Matera, the government moved the people of the Sassi out of their hovels and into modern social housing -- urban renewal that for all the good it did, it's important to note, also disrupted families and communities. It's funny how the wheel turns, but in the 1980s UNESCO declared the abandoned Sassi a World Heritage site, and now, with the addition of modern plumbing, the government is encouraging a repopulation of the Sassi -- the ultimate gentrification project.

Gentrification in the Sassi

Okay, so what's the point? As I said before, I don't want to be apocalyptic, but if we, the wealthiest society in history (so we keep telling ourselves), screw up the environment and foul our own nest, or spend ourselves into oblivion building the equivalent of moats and castles, it won't be the first time.

But the reason I don't want to be apocalyptic is that the history of southern Italy also shows that the ignorance, fear, suspicions and venality of the world need not condemn us. The inevitable is not immutable.

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