I have just read Helene Stapinski’s new book, Murder in Matera. The sub-title tells all: ‘a true story of passion, family, and forgiveness in southern Italy’. Carlo Levi’s authoritative Christ Stopped at Eboli it isn’t. Yet for those who love Matera it is well worth a dipping into it.
This is a whodunnit written by an Italian American whose great-grandmother was involved in a murder. But who murdered whom? Helene Stapinski tries and fails to find out more in her first sojourn to Basilicata. She comes up against Carlo Levi’s Other Italy. A decade later this feisty writer returned. The result is this story of her own mission and, to be honest, a bodice-ripper laced with anecdotal stories about the desperate plight of the southern peasantry in the making of Italy.
Matera is such a glorious jewel of a city today that it is hard to credit the mores and deprivation of the later 19th century. More remarkable too is Stapinski’s heroine, Vita Gallitelli. Her dignity, resilience and determination are the core of this book. Taking ship from Naples in 1883 along with 61,000 other Italians that year, she certainly possessed the right stuff. A life in New Jersey awaited her before she herself was struck down by accident or assassin.
I can see Vita's face in the celebrated women of Cantalupo, Molise photographed in the 1950s by Frank Monaco (born to an Italian American in 1917 in a railway car in Altuna, Pennsylvania): Monaco captures the haunting serenity of these tough but pragmatic villagers.
There are no images in Stapinski’s book. Instead in racing narrative she vividly recalls how extraordinary the first generation of Italian Americans were. Matera, now in its pomp as a World Heritage City about to be Europe’s City of Culture, should embrace its lost daughters. In their own way they were heroines.