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The Weight of Emptiness: A Journey through Memories and Metaphors in the Literary Park of Carlo Levi

14 Dicembre 2022
The Weight of Emptiness: A Journey through Memories and Metaphors in the Literary Park of Carlo Levi Foto: Domenica Santomaggio Diraviam Domenica Santomaggio Diraviam
In the late spring of 2022 I visited the Carlo Levi Literary Park in Aliano as part of a pilgrimage through the Italian natural spaces that inspired famous literary figures.

Over the course of time, one becomes implanted within the fabric of their native environment, sensually aware of the nuances that mark the passage of time and even a slight disruption in the balance of nature. A transplant carefully observes and precariously adapts to the environment, but possibly cannot achieve the same level of belonging. When the setting is as otherworldly as Aliano’s “lunar” landscape, distinguished by the centuries-old olive trees, supported in the white clay precariously poised among unstable ravines, it presents unique opportunities and challenges for adaptation and survival. The artist is poised to translate the monochromatic variations of clay into paintings that blend with the worn visages of his neighbors. The poet manipulates rhetorical devices that portray the crumbling of brittle gravel beneath the weight of men and beasts repeatedly trudging up and down the hills. The novelist compiles a memoire conveying the perpetual struggles of the community battling against inequitable social and natural circumstances. Meanwhile, the local inhabitant, generationally bound to the clay, the ravines, and the olive trees, finds these forces of nature inescapably embedded within his wrinkled skin, his cracked hands, and his bitter trembling voice. If the opportunity presents itself, the native seizes it and flees, but in my experience visiting the Literary Park of Carlo Levi, there is an ostensible magnetism that draws them back to Aliano. This was the trajectory of two figures who shaped and were shaped by Aliano; the Antifascist writer and artist, Carlo Levi who resided in Aliano between 1935 and 1936, and the second-generation Italian American artist of Alianese ancestry, Paul Russotto (1944-2014). 

 In late spring of 2022, I visited the Parco Letterario Carlo Levi in Aliano, as part of a pilgrimage through these natural spaces in Italy that inspired famed literary figures. My quest was to visualize the land and the circumstances that ousted Italians en mass during the Great Migration and qualitatively assess the progress of the subsequent generations and those who stayed behind. My itinerary began at the Parco Letterario dedicated to Ignazio Silone in Pescina, followed by Ovidio in Sulmona, Gabriele d’Annunzio in Anversa, and Giacomo Leopardi in Recanati. As my trajectory pointed toward the southern regions of Italy, I planned a day trip to Aliano from Matera. Each experience was as unique as the writer it honored and the geographical landscape that influenced the literary works. The guided walks transformed flora, fauna, and geological structures into echoes of prose and poetry. 

 “Si snoda il colle in un timido verde / e si distende sotto il sole; chiusi / son gli orizzonti”, the opening lines from Carol Levi’s Poesia XVIII were the first whispers I perceived entering down the sun scorched two laned main road of Aliano into a barren town square. The path was manicured with greenery, ravines and distant groupings of olive trees flanked both sides of the village. My guides met me by the San Luigi Gonzaga, the church in this central part of town. Aside from an elderly gentleman on a motorized scooter (whom we would later meet), we four were the only souls in public that day. It was uncanny to be accompanied through a modern day Aliano that survived like an unaltered set from the passages in Carlo Levi’s novel, Christ stopped at Eboli. My mind’s eye resituated me in the present moment only upon seeing the murals commissioned to Italian high school students on the whitewashed walls. The colorful exposes conjured up an image of jovial conviviality among the talented youth (re)immortalizing their semiotic translations of the dissonant “terra senza conforto e dolcezza, dove il contadino vive, nella miseria e nella lontananza, la sua immobile civiltà’, su un suolo arido nella presenza della morte” (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli 1) and reassured me that Levi’s pursuit of social justice was ongoing. 

 I recognize that my interpretation of my surroundings and this experience was unavoidably conditioned by my passion for the Levi as a novelist, poet, artist, and social activist. My connection to Aliano is limited to the analysis of Levi’s memoire, its film adaptation, his portraits of the farmers and Giulia, the Santarcangelese, and his poetic verses that chronicle cyclical nature of this community. It was my serendipitous encounter with a local Alianese that relieved my subjective bias and added a protagonist to Levi’s legacy. The name of this elderly man whom we had seen earlier in the day on his motorized scooter remains a mystery. He was a local in search of an audience, as eager to share his history as we were to hear it. Born in 1930, this nonagenarian narrated memories that aligned with each stanza of Levi’s poem “Mistica della prosa”. In a thick dialect that emanated from a toothless smile embedded in a tired and wrinkled countenance the color of the pantano sterile in the first stanza, we learned that he migrated from Aliano to Germany after World War II, destitute and unemployed. He was proud to be able to secure a job abroad because of his advanced skills – he could count to one hundred. He told us stories of a Marchigiano of similar circumstances, who befriended him. Then he became very somber remembering his return home. To my understanding, he had learned of his love’s infidelity and resumed his previous life of working the land. On his motorized scooter he ushered us into the shade and continued a non-linear account of his life, with intermittent sobs he recounted his desperation (evoking Levi’s verses “come il passato, un altro anno. / Eternità vuota. / senz’erba né voce di sposa / è la straziante ruota / mistica della prosa”). It was difficult to decipher whether he felt blessed or cursed to have reached such an advanced age, especially living in the inescapable daily presence of the ravines and abysses, geographical metaphors of oblivion. 

 Throughout our conversation and well into my lunch (served in the only open restaurant, more appropriately described as a family kitchen) I kept imagining myself as a participant in the conversation that Carlo Levi narrated with the gravedigger outside the cemetery. “The ground was littered with calcified bleached bones, flowering out of the graves and worn away by wind and sun. To the old man these bones, the dead, animals, and spirits were all familiar things, bound up, as indeed they were to everyone in these parts, with simple everyday life. ‘The village is built on the bones of the dead,’ he said to me in his thick jargon, gurgling like a subterranean rivulet suddenly emerging among the stones, and twisting the toothless hole that served him for a mouth into what might have been meant for a smile…. The old man was quite right, whether he meant these words literally or symbolically, as a figure of speech.” (Levi, Carlo. Christ stopped at Eboli. New York: Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974). I was so enthralled by this image that I could hardly wait to continue exploring. I was anxious to visit the cemetery after lunch while this conversation was still fresh in my mind. But this was a place where nothing happens in a hurried fashion, the meal lasted throughout the early afternoon and consisted of several courses of locally produced meats, cheeses and pasta and garden picked vegetables accompanied by artisanal wine. The ripest and plumpest cherries and desserts followed, as a reminder that even in this rugged and unforgiving landscape succulence and sweetness do exist. 

 Before heading to the cemetery in the outskirts, we visited the home that had been converted into a gallery dedicated to the artist Paul Russotto whose maternal roots trace back to Aliano. His work, like that of other artists who share his hybrid and generational experience, displays his ties to Aliano interwoven with his cultural ties to America. There are elements in the abstract paintings that honor the color and texture of the area in which he spent his summers, but there is also an undeniable regard for Russotto’s formative years in America and perhaps the intention to leave the misery behind. Unlike Levi’s repatriated bird of passage who flaunts his record player and boasts of the fortunes he has acquired abroad, Russotto seeks to give back to this community and strengthens Levi’s legacy, that of the outsider who returns. Russotto’s art and his work merit a discussion all their own. In their abstract qualities, his paintings reveal a mystical trait that was inherent in the Lucanian faith. It is a noble gesture for the artist to retire his artwork from the limelight in New York to a space that is off the grid like Aliano. Furthermore, he displays traditional familial respect by preserving these works of art in his mother’s hometown and bestowing an honor upon her. 

 Our visit through the Literary Park began at the imposing look out point behind the monument to Carlo Levi, and continued through the meandering streets adorned with tableaux, visits, and views that breathed life into the writer’s words and images. It concluded in solitary reflection at the cemetery. Beyond the wrought iron gates and colorful murals on the exterior walls I roamed through a maze of unassuming headstones, remarking on the inscribed names and dates, imaging those who Levi had met during his year of imposed exile in the village. Those markers assigned a distinct identity to the anonymous population whose circumstances he had taken to heart; individuals that in the span of a year had so marked his own soul that the Torinese native chose to be interred among them. I also contemplated on the ancestors of Paul Russotto, with cracked hands and deformed, malnourished bodies, they spent their lifetime cyclically tilling a despondent and unyielding soil so that decades later the artist may use his gifted hands to paint and repatriate a lasting product of cultural legacy. And of course, my thoughts were fixed on the local inhabitant we had met, a living monument in the village that Levi had described as a place where it seemed the “whole earth had died”. He endured with a story to tell, in an authentic vernacular, that framed the essence of a time and a space that Christ had forgotten but the Parco Letterario Carlo Levi remarkably safeguards.

Domenica Santomaggio Dirivian


  1. Some examples of Carlo Levi’s paintings of the inhabitants of Aliano in the pinacoteca.
  2. The view approaching the village of Aliano
  3. Public art created by high school students celebrate Levi’s life and legacy and add color throughout the town
  4. This local resident has experienced nearly a century of Aliano’s history and was eager to share his personal narrative.
  5. Our knowledgeable guides opened doors to the past as we visited local structures that were important to Carlo Levi during his year in exile. Here we stand before the home he occupied. It was amazing to take in the same scenery and understand the relationship between the people and their land as Levi himself perceived it from his balcony and from street level.
  6. Inside there is a time capsule that speaks to the social and economic conditions of Aliano in the first part of the 20th century. This is an interesting display of simple tools stored alongside masks that were worn during festivals. This exhibit verifies the mystical component of the agrarian belief system.
  7. An example of Paul Russotto’s painting that captures the colors and textures of his maternal roots in Lucania.
  8. An overview of Paul Russotto’s abstract work that interweaves elements from both parts of his hybrid cultural experience.
  9. The outer walls of Aliano’s cemetery, a shaded space in which Carlo Levi liked to escape from the oppressive heat in summer and a favorite painting spot as well.
  10. Carlo Levi’s eternal repose – a very unassuming structure following his Jewish traditions. It overlooks the olive trees, white clay, and the ravines in the shared sacred space with his neighbors of his year in exile.

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Carlo Levi

Aliano (Mt)

Sono arrivato a Gagliano un pomeriggio di agosto, portato in una piccola automobile sgangherata. Avevo le mani impedite, ed ero accompagnato da due robusti rappresentanti dello Stato, dalle bande rosse ai pantoloni e dalle facce inespressive. ...

dal Cristo si è Fermato ad Eboli


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