When we speak of Giorgio Bassani, what comes to mind is, above all, the novelist. However, what is perhaps less well-known is the author’s commitment to safeguarding the Italian artistic and cultural heritage, which stood out particularly in 1955, when we saw him as one of the founders of the cultural association Italia Nostra, and as president of it from 1965 to 1980. In the essay “Dalle macerie, cronache sul fronte meridionale” (Feltrinelli, 2018), devoted entirely to Taranto by the recently deceased journalist Alessandro Leogrande, a chapter is dedicated to Bassani’s appeals for the recovery of the old town of Taranto.
Around the mid-1960s, when Taranto was being “resurrected” following the construction of the Italsider steelworks (now known as Former Ilva), the Christian Democrat municipal administration proposed razing the old city entirely, saving only a few monumental buildings so as to then build a sort of “new Manhattan” or “new Dubai”. Many intellectuals of the time were against this irrational demolition project, including Bassani, the architect Bruno Zevi, Giulio Carlo Argan, Cesare Brandi and Arrigo Benedetti.
Bassani stated that “there will undoubtedly be those who, in order to knock down the so-called minor buildings in the only ancient quarter left in Taranto, will offer to conduct a census on those buildings and churches of some value one by one, and even restore them out of their own pockets. But it will be necessary to be firm, avoid being blackmailed, and tell them no. That is because poetry is not the flower on the volcano. It craves context, it demands structure. It is the reflection of life, the proof of life. And just like life, it is never pure.”
Yes, historical-artistic heritage no longer has any value if the context in which it has developed, the real fabric in which its inhabitants move and carry out their daily lives, is excluded. Living and intangible heritage such as people, languages, customs and memories cannot be locked away in a museum. “Culture is only such if it is brought back to real life, not when it is experienced as summer fun”, writes Leogrande.
Historic centres such as those of Rome, Naples or Venice have mostly become indistinct shop windows or “brands” for the hasty tourist, besieged by B&Bs, shabby trattorias that look the same from north to south, and shops selling dumpster-stuffing junk.
Fortunately, Taranto, partly thanks to the intervention of intellectuals such as Bassani, has at least managed to save itself from the destruction feared by the municipality in the post-war period, and also from the gentrification that has affected other historic centres that are now unlivable. Despite this, and at this point it is necessary to read Leogrande’s book, Taranto is probably one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, but it has been completely abandoned and torn apart by the age-old Former-Ilva issue.
When you arrive by train from Lucania, just after the immense steelworks complex, like a ship in disarray, the old town appears with its dilapidated houses stacked one on top of the other. Most of its inhabitants left “l’Isola” (the isle) at the end of the last century, almost forced by the risk of collapse to move to the outskirts, to the dormitory suburbs that have expanded in a disorderly fashion. More than fifty years later, there is still no real, intelligent plan for the recovery of Taranto’s old town, but unfortunately, oy vey, personalities like Giorgio Bassani are missing in today’s Italy.
Translation by Gianluca Pace, revised by Onda Carofiglio, students at the Secondary School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.