With ghosts and goblins everywhere and Halloween just around the corner, I figured it’s a great time to talk about one of my favorite motifs in art: memento mori. Memento mori is Latin for “remember death.” The phrase is believed to have originated from an ancient Roman tradition in which a servant would stand behind a victorious general as he paraded through the streets; as the general basked in the glory of the cheering crowds, the servant would whisper in his ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” . . . “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”
We moderns don’t like to think too much about death unless treated more as a camp statement of style, but for those living in antiquity all the way up to the beginning of the 20th century, death was seen as a motivator to live a virtuous life. To help reflect on this, artists created paintings, sculptures and mosaics depicting skulls, skeletons and other symbols of death to encourage contemplation on how you live your life. Romans also used the phrase memento mori to remind one another of the brevity of life, and that death makes us all equal . . . and to remember to live life and each day to its fullest. By honoring death, you thus honor life. The flip of Memento Mori is Carpe Diem … seize the day. Rejoice, and be glad in it!
Perched high above the instep of the Boot in the eastern extreme of the region of Basilica is a city unlike any other in Italy. What makes Matera unique and marks it as a Southern Italian “must see” are its historic, or rather prehistoric, quarters: the sassi. Literally meaning “the rocks,” Matera’s sassi offer the best example of troglodyte (cave-dwelling) existence anywhere in the Mediterranean. People have inhabited these caves since Paleolithic times (as early as 15,000 B.C.), making Matera one of the world’s oldest continuously settled cities, older than Petra or Byblos.
Matera’s sassi give the impression of a city that’s crumbling, and as little as 50 years ago that impression was accurate. Following WW II and Carlo Levi’s shocking exposé Christ Stopped in Eboli, Matera was considered “the shame of Italy” and residents were forcibly evacuated. Then, in the 80’s, a younger generation, fascinated by the cave dwellings, began inspired restorations and people started moving back in. Artisans set up workshops and galleries while bars, restaurants and boutique hotels sprang up. The UNESCO designation in 1993 and, later, the filming of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ helped put Matera on the map, but tourism only really picked up five years ago when Matera won its bid to become the European Capitol of Culture 2019.
You know tastes have come full circle when travelers clamor to live like troglodytes … at least for a few days!
A special thanks to Frank Yantorno for this stunning slideshow. Frank lives outside of Bolzano and is a spectacular photographer, fine artist and guide with Ciclismo Classico.