Aliano seems to bask in its infamy. Seventy years ago it had been a typical peasant village in remote southern Basilicata, scraping to survive, and ignored and derided by Italy’s central government. It would have remained hidden and forgotten in its lunar-like hills had it not been paid a visit by destiny.
When the Mussolini government wanted to silence the political writings and rabble-rousiing of a Jewish doctor and anti-Fascist named Carlo Levi, it could think of no punishment more severe than banishment from his northern city of Torino to the hinterlands of Basilicata, in Italy’s southern instep. Modern communications and northern news filtered very slowly- if at all- from there, so Levi and his inflammatory activism would be safely out of their dictatorial hair.
Levi arrived in Aliano to find an abject poverty in stark contrast of his prosperous home region, which seemed a world away. The remote locale was neglected and remained outside of time while resources were focused on northern industrial technologies and interests. Levi spent his year of political exile in Aliano under house arrest, acting as town physician while painting local scenes and characters, and taking detailed journalistic notes which he would use to write his well-known book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. From his stone house on the edge of the village, Levi observed, interacted with, tended to, painted, and chronicled the life, hardships, and contrasts of a place within his own country that was foreign to him.
When he was released from his house arrest, Levi penned his most famous work which shed light on the political, economic and social problems of the south, and would eventually bring attention and change to the region. And the town of Aliano could not have been more grateful.
Today, Aliano is still small and still remote, but the appearance, well-being and status of the town are very different thanks to Levi, whose writings and presence continue to live on there. Many of the buildings have been spruced up and restructured, with more work obviously underway. The place looks tended to and cared for, unlike the descriptions of squalor that Levi chronicled upon his arrival.
Tourists from across Italy come on a sort of pilgrimage, clutching dog-eared copies of the book, and cars bearing license plates from other European countries are parked in the municipal lot.
Aliano has been designated a “literary park,” making it a sort of open-air museum. Plaques with quotes of Levi’s descriptions are affixed to buildings so visitors can tour the town and see it through his eyes and words. The house of his internment has been preserved and turned into a museum containing documents and lithographs donated by Levi. Many of his paintings are on display in the Museo della Civilta` Contadina (Museum of Peasant Culture).
It was Carlo Levi’s request to be buried in Aliano and his grave lies in a panoramic spot in the cemetery up above the village. It is sprinkled with pebbles left by visitors to show how beloved he was.
Aliano is isolated on top of a hill with commanding views of the weirdly-eroded countryside and surrounding mountains. Aliano became “modern”, but the timelessness of their traditions and the splendor of their natural surroundings are unchanged. Nor is their affection for the man who served them so well and continues to impact their well-being.