Organized by the American Academy in Rome, this exhibition highlights how photography has framed modern perceptions of Matera, a southern Italian town noted for its millennia-old cave dwellings. A palimpsest of history and traditions characteristic of Mediterranean culture, Matera in the twentieth century was transformed in the collective imagination from an ancient backwater at the edge of civilization to a cultural bellwether for the future of Europe. In the 1940s, following the publication of Italian author Carlo Levi’s best-selling memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli, Matera became a symbol of southern Italian backwardness. Today, just over a generation later, Matera has emerged as a model of authenticity that will represent Europe as Capital of Culture in 2019.
The exhibition charts Matera’s recent evolution through photography. It highlights for the first time the town's constant allure for photographers around the globe, as well as their pivotal role in transforming what Levi termed Matera’s “tragic beauty” into a symbol of ageless, Mediterranean place. Like filmmakers Pierpaolo Pasolini or Mel Gibson, who used Matera as a surrogate for Jerusalem, the photographers who ventured to Matera observed in its cave dwellings signs of the origins of civilization. At the same time, as was true of New Deal era photography in the United States, photography in Matera in the postwar years played a decisive role in shaping public policy, land reform, and social change. More recently, Matera has inspired artists to explore through photography concepts ranging from memory and perception, to identity and cultural patrimony. Featuring works by some of the most celebrated photographers of their time, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Esther Bubley, Luigi Ghirri, Emmet Gowin, David Seymour, and Carrie Mae Weems, the exhibition presents a new narrative about Matera’s ancient heritage.