This summer we visited Lyon, France and Matera, Italy, two European cities, which share some common traits: both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites with roots in ancient Rome, situated on hillsides above rivers and crowned by majestic cathedrals. However, upon walking their streets one feels dramatic differences, metaphorically speaking, it is the difference between living and dying. Lyon is a vibrant metropolitan center, the second largest city in France located in the Rhone-Alpes region and situated on a continuum between Paris and Marseille at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. Matera, located in Basilicata in Southern Italy, is a city whose breathing is shallow, so near death the priest has given the last rites, the children have long ago moved away, and all that remains is the cemetery sextant to care for the gravesite. Yet, Matera mysteriously lingers in the imagination. Would I return to Lyon and Matera? Yes, but for different purposes: Lyon to seek my living, and Matera, to seek the meaning of my life.
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities speaks to the imaginative potentials of cities and provides a framework to consider Lyon and Matera. One of Calvino’s sections Trading Cities features Esmeralda, a city reminiscent of Lyon. “Esmeralda’s residents are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day…the network of routes is not arranged on one level, but follows instead an up-and-down course of steps, landings, cambered bridges, hanging streets…combining the segments of the various routes, elevated or on ground level, each inhabitant can enjoy every day the pleasure of a new itinerary to reach the same places.” On our visit, we walked the historic narrow walkways named traboules passing through buildings linking streets on either side in the in Vieux Lyon and the slopes of the Croix-Rouss. Thought to be built in the 4th century, the passageways allowed craftsman to move quickly from their workshops and homes on the hill to the silk merchants on the river. The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, built in the late 19th century crowns the hillside on the site of the Roman forum of Trajan. Today, Lyon is a major centre for banking and industries such as chemical, pharmaceutical, biotech and computer software.
In his section Cities and the Dead, Calvino conjures Matera with the imaginary city of Argia. “What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt…..over the roofs of houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds…..from up here nothing of Argia can be seen; some say, ‘its down below there,’ and we can only believe them. The place is deserted. At night, putting your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam.” Matera, an agricultural settlement, believed founded by the Romans in the 3rd century, was built upon a hillside of soft tufa, which permitted the inhabitants to build underground chambers and dwellings as well as cisterns drawing upon the water table from which the “la Gravina” river flowed in the ravine below town. For many centuries the city thrived and many magnificent churches and monasteries were built including the 13th century Matera Cathedral. However, over population and agriculture expansion coupled with the mismanagement of water supplies reached a crisis point in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the city began a steady decline. Matera became the symbol of peasant misery in southern Italy as described by the author Carlo Levi in his 1945 novel Christ Stopped at Eboli.