In 2011, almost a decade ago now, I visited the Italian city of Matera in the Basilicata region. A friend of mine had been born there and spoke of it as one of the must-see places in Italy.
Matera is an ancient town carved into and constructed upon a rocky plateau, but in the late 1950’s it was evacuated by government decree due to unhealthy living conditions. All its citizens moved into newly-constructed modern neighbourhoods away from the old town. The historical Matera became a ghost town for many years. However, in the last decade or so, and thanks to new technologies and investments, the old town is being brought back to life with restored cafes, boutique hotels, shops and quirky apartments.
On our visit, a scant few of these restored businesses were open, and we only saw two people while walking around. Very eerie! We entered many cave-like dwellings (sassi) with shelves carved into the walls, soot-covered ceilings, and scraps of furniture – signs that families had once called these simple places home. I thought of my friend and her family who had lived in these sassi, and reflected on the stories of incredible hardship she had shared.
We got turned around a number of times in the maze-like streets, wandering down narrow alleys and taking stairs to who-knows-where. But around every corner, we’d discover another deserted home and another story of a family long gone. I found the experience of exploring old Matera emotionally moving.
I have often looked at my photos from the visit as possible painting subjects, but I’ve routinely backed away out of fear. Fear of painting in such a narrow palette of colours, fear of the difficult drawing, and generally being fearful of not being able to transfer my special experience of this place into the art. But this month, everywhere I seemed to go, there was Matera – on social media, on TV, in articles. Was the Universe sending me messages? Who knows, but I got the message. Get over my fears and paint my memories of Matera!
Or maybe I was finally ready, because like the visit, it has been one of my most enjoyable art-making experiences this year!
Oh, and you definitely have to add Matera to your must-see list!
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