Castlebuilders and Political Puppets: Postwar Italy Reconstructed
University of Texas, San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas, USA
Catapulted into the modern age following World War II, the Southern Italian provincial capital of Matera stands as a temporal microcosm of the effects of Western modernity upon a previously isolated area. Through closure of the ancient cave habitations (called the Sassi), transfer of the population to modern housing, and resultant abandonment of the traditional peasant lifestyle, the national government colonized this intra-European Other. Working through the postwar reconstruction program, the government transformed the populace from dialect-speaking, land-working peasants into Italian-speaking, wage-earning citizens. A star-studded (and starry-eyed) cast of social scientists, planners, and progressive architects collaborated in Matera to study the peasant cave population and analyze the social dimensions of architecture and urbanism. Strongly influenced by the ideas of Bruno Zevi, they implemented their Neorealist experiments in Matera. Previously mocked as the epitome of the Southern Question, Matera now became the model modernist (rural) city. Described as the Italian Utopia, it became the postwar prototype for the culture and economy of Southern Italy.
Though cloaked under rhetoric of non-partisan collaboration, this effort was nonetheless highly politicized. It was largely funded by U.S. postwar reconstruction money—which backed Italy’s Christian Democratic leaders over Communist leaders in this early Cold War skirmish. In addition, the eventual failure of many aspects of the program can be traced directly to their opposition to Christian Democratic policies.
Through oral histories, analysis of 1950s Italian architectural journals, historic photographs, and period poetry describing Materan changes in the 1950s, this study reveals the tension between political and architectural goals of modernizing Matera and demonstrates the way in which designers were used as puppets in the political-economic theater of this time.