The Mystical Land of Calabria

A seaside town in Italy called Belvedere.

Squashed in between the serene eastern mountains and the gleaming Mediterranean Sea, Belvedere is a small scenic spot of only a few thousand people, and it provides a simulacrum for what is perceived to be one of the main clashes of the 21st century – that of tradition and modernity.

In the middle of Belvedere’s tiny town square, (three coffee shops, two bars, a pharmacy), there is a large unfinished building. The edifice has been sat there for seven or eight years after the funding dried-up. An empty building, though, is no strange thing. There are plenty of other empty buildings in Belvedere, some which have holes for windows, the kind that is indicative of Italian inefficiency and corruption, and some which have sea views but boarded-up windows, the kind that wait to be inhabited for a month in the summer by holidaymakers. Belvedere’s dilapidated mystique, although not offering enough to boast international tourism, is enough to attract Italian holiday-home owners back each year. It is beautiful in obvious ways, with a ruined castle on a hilltop and an abandoned red-brick factory and such, but, if the unfinished buildings were finished and the cracks in the walls were filled with glue, such gentrification might in fact deter holidayers from the city, for whom Belvedere must seem like a movie-set.

Belvedere is in Calabria, a region often described as the foot of the Italian boot. Per capita, Calabria is the poorest region in Italy. Over the last decade, unemployment has increased so much that it has become one of the poorest places to live in Europe. In January 2019, Calabrian youth unemployment rose to 33%. Over the centuries, Calabria has been prone to strife and poverty – it has been beset by earthquakes, pirates, erosion, malaria, and the mafia – and its economic problems today stem from the fact that Calabria is economically stuck in centuries past. Although Calabria produces the best citrus fruits you’ll ever taste and has wine to rival Tuscany, there is no large-scale production of these products in Calabria. The economic atmosphere is one of subsistence.

The 21st century tension between modernity and tradition might be characterised as this: that while those who live in poor rural areas and want to escape to a more prosperous life do so, those who live in already prosperous urban areas also want to escape, but do not. For where would they escape to? You migrate from the countryside. You do not migrate to it. At least for young people, the opportunities of the cities are too great. There is a gravitational pull: a symptom of an asymmetrical relationship between the city and the countryside that stretches all the way back to when Italy was old, with scholars of Rome often calling the relationship between the Roman city and the Roman countryside a “parasitic” one.

These two worlds are co-dependant, and if the gravitational pull becomes too much for society to bear, then, like a dying star, society will start to collapse, as the poverty of one has an impact on the prosperity of the other. The consequences of unemployment in Calabria is that the anti-globalists get the youth vote, and, in recent elections, M5S, or the Five Star Movement, achieved 43% of the senate vote in Calabria. Many of the problems the 21st century faces might be helped by understanding the rural and the urban as two worlds which, although requiring equal attention, not requiring equal treatment. To not pay attention to the specific needs of specific regions is to underestimate places like Calabria, as Napoleon did when, having conquered Europe, he passed off the Calabrian Insurrection of 1807 as insignificant, and then watched as the resulting brigandage cost France 250,000 men. The Calabrian people would have been in their rights to think that, after Napoleon, after centuries of being oppressed by distant governments, they would finally enter the modern age in the sense that someone born and raised there could expect to stay and have opportunities there. Instead they have been neglected, so of course they then turn to extremist leaders. They thrust their pitchfork through the ballot box, instead of through a French solider.

We should make decisions on what to preserve and what not to preserve. In the neighbouring province of Calabria there is the city of Matera. Matera is a settlement of epic beauty which dates back to Neolithic times. Now a World Heritage Site, Matera’s recent history has been marked by the clash of tradition and modernity. In the 1950s, the Italian government forcibly evicted the troglodytes who lived there because their traditional ways of living were thought to be a vergogna nazionale, or a ‘national shame’. The community dispersed, and the ancient language of Materano was largely forgotten. But when Matera’s touristic uses became apparent decades later, the community was encouraged back into the abandoned buildings and a proud people were made state-dependant. The 21st century tensions between modernity and tradition are not what they seem – one is not the antithesis of the other. When people perceive modernity and tradition as in an inescapable binary, they do things such as bribe communities to keep the buses full of tourists coming. The Romanesque and Baroque churches are still beautiful when swarmed by coaches full of tourists, and no doubt there are positives to tourism, but one wonders what other stupid decisions will be made in the name of modernity, when so much has been lost already.

It is in this spirit of caution that I do not think it wise to idealize or demonize the countryside. Calabria is certainly beautiful, but it isn’t a paragon of virtue to which we should flock, just as the dorps and towns across middle America are not an amoral Wild West from which we should flee. We must try for balance. It’s often said that a reason for the tumultuous political events of recent years is that the cities are wealthy and the countryside is not. If we cannot immediately change policy to rectify this, we can do our bit by looking upon the rural as a place of permanency.

A scholar of Calabria was once reported as saying:

Calabria is looked down upon by the Northerners. Yet we gave Italy her name and some of her most valued possessions. Do you know that [it was here that] the learning of the Greeks was preserved when Rome was in the hands of the barbarians? The forest of Vallombrosa grew from seeds carried by the monks from our immemorial forest, the Sila; and in the same way ancient learning preserved in those hills by Boetius and Cassiodorus was transferred to Saint Benedict’s monastery for the future enlightenment of the world.”

Horace loved southern Italy as place which “more than all the others smiled back.” The disconnect between the rural and the urban is one which fails to recognise something like intrinsic value. We would do well to try and appreciate this problem as something we can ourselves contribute to solving by changing our mindset and not seeing these two worlds as in eternal opposition. To do this would be to eventually resolve some of these economic asymmetries, and then those once-quiet corners of the world might, as Horace knew them to, smile back.

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