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Back to Basilicata

Jasper James A Matera courtyard in Basilicata.

Photo: Jasper James

In the city of Matera, in the little-known region of Basilicata, I stumbled upon my first long-lost relative—or someone I assumed must be a relative. I had been in southern Italy for less than a week, researching my family story.

Vita, our family matriarch, had emigrated from the Matera province more than 100 years ago, after killing a man during a card game. She made her escape by steamship to Jersey City, New Jersey, and then died prematurely at the age of 59, the result of being hit in the head with a sock full of rocks on Mischief Night, 1915.

Karma, I figured. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Or, in Vita's case, the sock.

As far as Vita's life and crimes in Italy were concerned, I had very little to go on, just her name and some rudimentary knowledge of where she had lived in the province of Matera, in the villages of Bernalda and Pisticci.

I had persuaded my friend Lisa to make the maiden voyage with me: Basilicata, tucked into the arch of the boot, near the Gulf of Taranto, was the last of Italy's secret corners, I told her, still wild, still mysterious, and—like the details of Vita's crime—on the verge of discovery. Matera, the city, is known throughout Italy for its sassi (cavelike dwellings), many of which had been dug as early as the eighth century by hermit monks fleeing religious persecution.

In Matera's Santa Lucia alle Malve, an ancient cave church, we came upon a fresco, one of many painted by the Byzantine and Benedictine monks who had lived there. The fresco was of Saint Agatha, about whom I knew very little. When I saw the painting, though, I flinched.

It was like looking into a mirror.

I turned to Lisa, flustered and feeling a little weird about the familiar features floating above mine. "Do you think this looks like me?" I asked.

"Oh, my God," she said, stepping back to get a better view. "It does."

There was the oval face; the downturned, Lennonesque nose; the almond-shaped eyes; and my permanent frown, firmly in place. I looked at this reflection, painted right above where the cave's kitchen had once been, and wondered who had put it there. I imagined the hermit monks who had lived here, creating their Eastern Orthodox Madonnas and saints, using the faces of the local women they'd met as their models.

Now, the whole point of being a hermit monk, I thought, was that you didn't meet any women, or anyone at all. Maybe the model was simply someone this artistic monk had fleetingly glimpsed on the streets of Matera, had bumped into just in passing. One of my ancestors, perhaps.

It dawned on me that this was entirely possible. My great-great-grandmother had been born in the nearby village of Bernalda. Maybe this was where her mother, Teresina, had lived. Or Teresina's mother. Or grandmother. Or her own great-great-grandmother.

I spiraled back in time, falling, falling, inside my own head, generation past generation, and landed right here, like a stone, inside this cave. What if my ancestors had been shepherds or wayward monks and had started out their virtually prehistoric existence in Matera?In this very cave?

"Who knows?" said Lisa, casually reading my mind. "Maybe she's a distant cousin."

My genealogical adventure had begun three days earlier, in Rome, where Lisa and I caught a train for our descent into Basilicata. For close to four hours we watched civilization slowly slip away, the Roman aqueducts surrendering to poppy fields and fruit orchards, then to the palm trees and fishing boats of Naples and Salerno, to cacti and stretches of woods where, 150 years ago, brigands had stashed their hostages.

Our ride ended in Potenza, the regional capital of Basilicata, a modern city rebuilt from the ruins of the 1980 earthquake. Here we rented a car and for another hour drove east on the empty and pristine Basento Valley highway. We passed through vineyards, white hilltop villages, and the craggy Lucanian Dolomite mountains until, finally, we came upon Matera, a city the color of old bones.

Because of the city's raw, untapped beauty, several movies have been filmed here in recent years, including Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ and John Moore's remake of The Omen, starring Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, and Mia Farrow. Thanks to Hollywood, the tourists have just begun to trickle in; a few fans of The Passion have come to retrace the steps of "Jesus." But the restaurants are authentic, the nearby beaches uncrowded, and the locals not jaded by visitors—yet.

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