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Materan Contradictions: Architecture, Preservation and Politics.

Materan Contradictions: Architecture, Preservation and Politics, by Anne Parmly Toxey. Ashgate Studies in Architecture. Burlington, Vermont, Ashgate, 2011. xvi, 361 pp. $119.95 US (cloth).

The city of Matera is unique among Italy's many historical and cultural assets. Located in the Basilicata region of the country's south, Matera is partly comprised of a large urban cave complex, known as the Sassi. This has been continuously occupied since the early Middle Ages. More sporadic human settlement in the region, often in dwellings excavated from its soft limestone, dates back to the Paleolithic age. Following the Second World War, Matera's caves, and the misery of their peasant inhabitants, were denounced as a national disgrace and the Sassi forcibly evacuated. And yet in 1993, UNESCO listed the Sassi as a World Heritage Monument, noting the site's importance as a rock-cut settlement that illustrates several significant stages in human history. Consequently, Matera now attracts visitors from around the globe, many attracted by a perception of the city's timelessness and its separation from the modern world. This perception has been encouraged by films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), both of which were filmed on site.

Anne Toxey's book is a detailed account of the political, social, economic, and architectural ideas, debates, and events--on the local and national level--that, since the 1950s, have motivated undertakings to preserve Matera's cave dwellings as a museum or renovate them for modern habitation. As such, it offers a micro-history of Italian urban development in the second half of the twentieth century. But more importantly, the book is a study of the role and effects of historical preservation within the context of political, social, and economic modernization in Italy and Europe. Far from being simply about the passive curatorship of art, architecture, and history, Toxey argues that the state-sanctioned effort to preserve the past is a powerful tool for political and social control that generates significant social and economic change. This is a largely unstudied aspect of increasingly significant local, national, and international initiatives to preserve the built environment in Europe and the world.

The first three chapters provide a succinct introduction to the geographic setting of Matera, and an account of the city's political, social, and urban history until 1952. In particular, Toxey charts the developments by which social status was enacted and inscribed in the built environment from the fifteenth century. The segregation and ghettoization of the Sassi, especially during the nineteenth century, was the most important outcome of these developments and ultimately resulted in the demonization of the cave dwellings, and the displacement of their population. Toxey's account of this history is informed by clearly articulated arguments. The most important of these is that increased attention to the Sassi as unfit for human habitation was motivated by: international currents of ideological change that promoted new ideas and expectations about modern lifestyles; postwar initiatives to modernize Matera that were, in many respects, a continuation of Fascist plans and interventions formulated and enacted in the 1920s and 1930s; and postwar action to transform the Sassi that was a form of domestic colonization by which the national government sought to modernize the peasant society of the Italian south, and transform its inhabitants into Italian citizens, by dictating politically sanctioned lifestyles.

The remaining three chapters cover the period from 1953 to 2006. In these, Toxey guides the reader, in a clear and detailed manner, through a complex history. This begins with unsuccessful attempts politically, socially, and economically to transform the Sassi and their inhabitants in the 1950s; to an interest in the preservation and repopulation of the cave dwellings from the 1970s; and, finally, to an appreciation of the site as a cultural resource of historical and architectural importance. These chapters trace urban and architectural design in Matera and describe how Italy's government worked through architects and urban planners to assert control over the city's inhabitants as part of an attempt to reshape the South. Toxey's discussion of the more recent turn to preservation stresses that the newly preserved Sassi more strongly reflect the culture that is restoring them than that which created them. It also demonstrates that debate about the site's future continues, and is informed by local disagreements about the city's history. Finally, the author illustrates that the impetus to preservation has manifested itself, in actual fact, not in the development of the site as a museum, but as the willful renovation and reuse of the Sassi. Former cave dwellings are now homes to restaurants, bars, hotels, commercial offices, and high-tech companies. Once a peasant ghetto, the Sassi have become a means of prosperity that has effected and benefited the entire city economically, socially, and politically.

The notions that our understanding of the past is informed by contemporary perspectives, that collective memory is shaped by social geography, and that memory is revised to suit current identities are, of course, not new ones. But the value of Materan Contradictions resides in the fact that these ideas are corroborated through the detailed analysis of the history of a particular city, and the fact that this serves to elucidate broader currents in Italy's postwar development. It also resides in Toxey's exploration of preservation as a modernism that, as a form of political, economic, and social colonization, inscribes memories, identities, and narratives onto a place and effects both negative and positive changes. The epilogue usefully reiterates these arguments, but also introduces ideas that are crucial to understanding the book's detailed analyses and that, consequently, should have been provided to the reader in the prologue.

Materan Contradictions is an ambitious and successful study. It draws on an impressive range of sources including a large body of scholarship and archival material, travel literature, newspaper articles, oral testimony, and detailed analysis of the built environment. It is also richly illustrated with images, maps, and plans, and features extensive, informative notes and a bibliography. The book will appeal to historians of modern Italy and the Italian South; those pursuing research in European modernism and modernization; scholars interested in urban history; and those specifically interested in architectural and historical preservation.

Mark A. Russell

Concordia University
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Author:Russell, Mark A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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