By Joe Cannavo
When an Italian American speaks of his/her Italian ancestral roots and says the family’s origins are in Basilicata, people including Italian Americans get a blank look and say, “Where?”
Basilicata is possibly the least-known region on the peninsula. It is tightly fitted between Puglia, Calabria and Campania and is the most sparsely populated part of the country. Little is written about the region, and what is published generally refers to it as “poverty-stricken” or “backwards.” Basilicata is misunderstood, underappreciated and overlooked.
Its history in some ways parallels much of the rest of southern Italy, but also has a uniqueness unto itself.
It was known in ancient times as Lucania, which was at the time a territorial division of southern Italy corresponding to most of the modern region of Basilicata, with much of the province of Salerno in Campania and part of that of Cosenza in Calabria. Before its conquest by the Lucanians, a Samnite tribe, about the mid-5th century BC, it formed part of the Greek-dominated region of Oenotria. Recent discoveries of elaborately painted graves at Paestum, a city taken by the Lucanians about 400, suggest that by the 4th century BC the tribe had developed a culture of great vitality and distinction. Although they allied with Rome in298, the Lucanians opposed and were defeated by that power in the Pyrrhic War (280–275), the Second Punic War (218–201), and the Social War (90–88). The founding of a number of colonies of Roman citizens on confiscated land in the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BC led to a growth of population and prosperity in the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. In the 3rd century AD, economic and social problems brought about the area’s decline.
The modern name of Basilicata derives from the Greek “basilikos” which refers to the basileus, the Byzantine emperor, who ruled the region in the 9th through 11th centuries. Others argue that the name may refer to the Basilica of Acerenza, which held judicial power in the Middle Ages. As cited previously during the Greek and Roman Ages, Basilicata was known as Lucania, named after the tribes which populated the region in the Iron Age. Modern-day Basilicata, still often referred to as Lucania, can be thought of as the “instep” of Italy, with Calabria functioning as the “toe” and Puglia as the “heel.” The region covers about 3,900 square miles and in 2010 had a population slightly under 600,000. The region is divided into two provinces: Potenza and Matera.
The people of Basilcata and their dialect are still referred to as “Lucano.” Sometimes one may hear the descriptive word “Basilicatese,” used, though very infrequently. The dialect of the region is an offshoot of Neapolitan with influences that range from Old French to Norman, creating one of the most distinct Italian dialects both from phonetics and lexis points of view.
Visitors to Basilicata are smitten by the natural beauty and the genuine warmth of the people. There are only two cities — Potenza, the regional capital, and Matera, a splendid ancient place that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and probably the oldest city in Europe. The rest of the region is composed of relatively small towns, stubbornly clinging to hilltops and keeping their traditions alive.
Basilicata dips two toes into two seas, but overall the landscape is rocky and rugged, even primitive.It has a unique and raw beauty. There are wavy wheat fi elds, rolling hills punctuated with olive groves and grape vines, and Colorado-like Mountains with rivers that serpentine and slice through gorges. Time-worn villages cling to ridges and hilltops. Millions of stars cast an amazing display. Butterflies dance in the sun, and eagles and falcons guard the skies. And the Lucani welcome visitors with curious glances and open smiles.
So if you are planning a trip to Italy in the near future, you might want to consider this: The New York Times ranked Basilicata No. 3 in its list of “52 Places to Go in 2018,” calling it “Italy’s best-kept secret.”