Basilicata, a region bordering with Campania (West), with Puglia (North-East) and with
Calabria (South), with a population of about 610.000 people scattered in one hundred and thirty
towns, until 1950 had a type of life modeled on an archaic agricultural system, only in the last
twenty years updated with well-watered cultivation areas, service sector jobs and pockets of
industrialization. The isolation of the small communities has perpetuated archaic customs and
beliefs, linked to forms of psychological impoverishment and illiteracy.
Italo Talia has written: "The same Basilicata dialects distinguish themselves from those of
Campania and Puglia by a more accentuated conservation of archaic residues: in the Potenza
territory the long Norman, Swabian and Angevin dominations, have barely grazed the Latin
lexical patrimony, and in the Matera territory the Greek-classical heritage is more evident than the
Byzantine (Talia, 1976, p. 146). Anna M. Compagna attests that the passage from the use of Latin
to the vernacular is to be dated from the first decades of the Fifteenth Century and, in fact, it can
be surmised that the "lack of an intense communal life in the Kingdom during the Fourteenth
Century explains the absence of local vernacular documentary texts, found in such abundance
elsewhere" (Compagna, 1983, p.280). Raffaele Nigro has documented a widespread usage,
beginning with the Seventeenth Century, of poetic and political texts, but also religious and
scientific, written in vernacular (Nigro, 1981). In the Nineteenth Century it is the historian
Giacomo Racioppi who collects, starting in 1948, the songs of Moliterno, Saponara, Spinoso and
Latronico, which would later become part of the collection edited by Casetti and Imbriani
In the Positivistic Age there was a keener interest in the recording of dialect, resulting in
the publication of the collections in the dialect of Matera edited by Francesco Festa (1872 and
1883) and by Molinaro del Chiaro (1882) and the one in the dialect of Potenza by the poet Pietro
In 1932 there is the isolated case of the drama in the dialect of Senise: A mugghiera ru
miricane [The American's Wife], Naples, Unione, by Paolo De Grazia. Homologous to dialect, to
its syntactical constructions and symbolic density, is the entire poetic and narrative form of Rocco
Scotellaro from Tricarico (1923-1953), one of the most significant Italian poets of the Neorealstic
period, whose popular elements have been underlined (cf. Grassi, 1965), but not totally charted
nor reconstructed through lemmas and concordances.
Even the refined Hermetic poet Leonardo Sinisgalli from Montemurro (1908-1981) toyed
with dialect, going as far as collecting a few "poems from Basilicata selected and transcribed from
the indigenous dialects." See with what keenness and stylistic force he presents those texts:
"Basilicata is a land of passage: we poor natives are the only travelers who throw out their bags
and knapsacks under the overhangs of these desolate stations.[...] The people don't walk, they
trudge, they drag themselves here and there. The great clamor is made by roosters and jackasses.
The great event is the hen clucking. It is not a mystery for anyone that down here a religion was
born from the silence and from an egg science. It is not surprising that Pythagoras was able to
discover the laws of music and the cruel Zeno made men suspicious of the play of the senses. [...]
I present to you a variety of indigenous verses. Many of these songs are familiar to my ears.
Some are shouted, some are accompanied by the wail of the bagpipe or the cupo-cupo, others still
are whispered sottovoce like prayers. The words I have transcribed into my language are rustic
words, they are common words. They have not been dressed with lime by the Academy, they have
not been milked and then boiled. Our indigenous poetry has a simple, straightforward structure. It
is a comment, a summing-up. It is never empty talk. [...] I have preserved all that I could of so
much adorable "idiocy" and I have naturally sought in the forms a syntactic stability rather than an
easy symmetry of tones. Lately there has been a great deal of talk about the necessity of widening
the bounds of culture by searching beyond traditional stylistic patterns in the broader field of
spontaneous art. It is a certain symptom of a more comprehensive, more affectionate inclination
towards the monuments and the neglected fragments of a humanity relegated outside of history. I
too, with a new spirit and more enjoyment, have made a journey towards the origins" (Sinisgalli,
Poesie lucane, 1955, 2nd ed. 1992, passim). Also in that text, Sinisgalli wrote: I still remember by
heart the song that children shout at the moon:
Moon, new Moon,
I haven't seen you yet.
But now I have seen you!
I kiss Jesus Christ's foot (ib., p.9)
From the Spinosa versions (n. LXIX) we can recover the dialect test of this area:
a) Luna, Luna nova,
Nunt'avia vista ancora;
E mo' ca t'aggio visto,
E salutami a Gesù Cristo.
b) Luna, Luna nova,
Ca mme faccio 'i tagliolini. (Lotierzo, 1983)
For Sinisgalli one should at least see the Mondadori collection L'ellisse (1932-1972) (Milan,
1974), which summarizes the evolution of a poetry that started out from a Hermeticism of the
Ungaretti tradition, capable of traversing archaic myths and southern primitivism, and reached,
after a transfiguring relationship with dialect, more relaxed rhythms, laden with wit and
epigrammatic terseness, in which Sinisgalli renders the tension between existential restlessness and
the cautious trust in inquiring reason. Nevertheless, in translating dialect into italian for Italian
readers, Sinisgalli was attesting that dichotomy between oral usage and the rarity of written
material. In the Sixties it was Pierro who constructed a personal language in the Tursi dialect,
while the folklorists (E. Cervellino, G.B. Bronzini and then N. Tommasini and E. Spera) produced
collections of songs, proverbs, customs, prayers, preparing the climate that will lead to Francesco
Galasso and, lastly, to Rocco Brindisi's creative outburst. Let's proceed in rapid succession.
Michele Cariati's (Melfi, born in the late Nineteenth Century) few poems appeared
posthumously in 1967 in Melfi, bearing the title A calata del sole. "The themes are the most
common in dialect poetry, memory, folklore, sketches" (Nigro, in Lotierzo-Nigro, 1981). In the
dialect of Rionero in Vulture were published, in 1977, the realistic poems of Michele Granata,
edited by Enzo Cervellino (Nigro, 1981). A similar reprint of the poems of Antonio Cautela of
Melfi, with the title La sarcinedda mia [My Bundle of Wood], came out in 1977 (Civitavecchia,
Tipografia Lucana) (Nigro, 1981). From Carmine Cassese's (born in Rionero in 1915, self-taught,
blacksmith) unpublished poems Nigro presented some of I cunt r mammagrann [Grandmother's
tales]. Nigro indicates the various myths that accompanied Cassese in his creativity: M. Granata's
dialect poetry, the epic-fabulous poetry of Dantean derivation, the Communist party, the rural
world. "Cassese's poetry, especially the one in Italian, is obviously full of stops and starts... But in
the dialect verses, where he remembers a past filled with bitterness and misery, which is also
Basilicata's past, the descriptions become concrete and pure in the simplicity of exposition..."
(Nigro, 1981). Rolando Muscio (Lavello, 1939, tailor, self-taught, also a playwright) in 1955
published La fere d Lavidd [Lavello's Fair] and in 1960 (Lavidd d semp [Forever Lavello]. Nigro
said of him: "Muscio is motivated by the rhetorical ideals dear to the
agricultural society and Fascism, the fatherland, the war dead, the family, at times outdone by the
penchant for local color and melodrama. Missing is an ideological vision of the world, and the
emigrants themselves are in turn derided (when they are depicted in a reality other than the
original) and pitied" (Nigro, 1981). In the Lavello dialect are also written the poems of Carmine
D'Antonio published in 1982, Lavidd' iè semb' Lavidd' [Lavello Is Always Lavello] where, in a
descriptive tone, he reflects on the human types and the town's situation, both with ample
borrowings from folklore and with a measure of detached irony. In 1981 Andrea Mancusi
presented, in the Avigliano dialect, La matréia [The Stepmother]. To the mournful conditions
following an earthquake are dedicated the poems of Cos' e fatte d'la terra mia [Things and Events
of My Land] (Potenza, Olita) by Filippo Langone. In 1984 Enza Scutari published with Volonnino
her poems in the dialect of the Albanians, for centuries present in groups across our region. In the
dialect of Montescaglioso (Matera) Giuseppe Matarazzo published in 1984 U pais' mi [My Town]
(Libreria Incontri). Still in 1984 one should mention the best collection of material for Carnevale,
edited by Enzo Spera Licenzia vo', Signora (Magistero di Bari). In 1985 Domiziano Viola
published Ascenne ra 'u festine [Coming Out of the Party], prefaced by F. Galasso. In 1982 had
appeared the volume Canti e nenie popolari arberesche, edited by A. Bellusci, V. Piccirillo, P.
Rosati, R. Cardone, E. Scutari, D. Mazzeo, L. Pandolfo, A. Pescuma, N. Scaldaferri, E. Corbo.
In the Viggiano dialect Pietro Varalla, retired railwayman, published his poems, among which we
note Radici delle mie radici [Roots of My Roots] (Villa d'Agri, Ars grafica, 1984), in which he
depicts customs, proverbs and rituals of Viggiano. After a few acrostics, Varalla traces the cycle
of life, the events after the 1980 earthquake, loneliness but also the Carnival and the crowded
feast of the Black Madonna.
The review Nodi, promoted by Antonio Lo Tierzo, in the nine issues published between
1979 and 1985 published and reviewed dialect poets. In Matera, edited by Raffaele La Macchia, is
published the Bollettino della Biblioteca Provinciale di Matera, which often reports on research
or bibliographical references dealing with dialect literature.
Franco Noviello, a high-school principal, edited a large collection of Canti popolari della
Basilicata (Bella, 1976), and for five years has been directing the review Rassegna delle
tradizioni popolari (Schena, Fasano), in which one can find both essays on dialects and poems
with southern themes, in addition to the compendium of the 1988 dialect poetry award. With
Andrea Mancusi and Angelo Vito Stolfi, it is mainly the physician Franceso Galasso, who died in
1992, who has honored the dialect of Avigliano, gathering in 'Nda lu bèllevere [In the Belvedere]
(Lavello, Finiguerra) sonnets, poems, songs and prayers, that succeed in attenuating the
sentimentality with which the provincial world is often looked upon with a vision that can capture
the drama and the tensions of the people of Avigliano. In this idiom, showing extensive Latin
roots, are evident both Appenine and Neapolitan forms, with slight traces of the Puglia type.
Domenico Chieffo, published L'acqua d' la funtanedd [The Water of the Little Fountain] (Appia 2
and then Osanna Ed., 1980) in the dialect of Venosa, a collection filled with suggestive historical
memory and existential longings, whose Italian translation was edited by Rosa Miglione. In an
elegiac aura, Chieffo depicted people and places of Venosa, with a poignant sense of the death of
traditions and the regret for a long-lost ethics. The world of childhood resurfaces, from Maria the
school custodian to the various Christams Eves, the Befana, the carnival and the bonfires of St.
Joseph, with a subtle melancholy accompanied by the real harshness of living. Having noted that
Chieffo's poetry has roots both in popular poetry and middle-class culture, and that it harks back
to the poetry of Horace, Nigro writes that Chieffo keeps on "delving into what we have called the
problems of common life, the gnawing of existence. The discovery of a changing world and the
natural attachment to the past. The discovery of a consumer society in the very simplicity of
children, the awareness that the rural world is about to disappear and the discovery of the
selfishness and individualism characteristic of a technological civilization (Nigro, 1981).
On June 29, 1986, the mayor of Ruoti promoted a "Price for dialect poetry from
Basilicata," which went to Antonio Santangelo, Gaetano Genovese, Pasquale Colucci, Lucia Sileo
and Rina Bernardi (reported in Matera's Bollettino). For a concise and informed literary synthesis,
Albanian poetry included, one should consult Basilicata (Brescia, La Scuola, 1987) by Tito
Spinelli who, with anthological passages, places the history and geography of regional literature in
an elegant and informative framework.
Michele Dilillo (Irsina, 1929), didactic director, published U p'zzcantò (Mt, Liantonio,
1987), Le belle cose quaselle (Mt, Liantonio, 1986), U' capasidd d'u ret p'a paggh' (Mt,
Liantonio, 1989). Giovanni Caserta has written that "he freely adapts folktales from his town,
immersing himself in a primitive culture, laden with sexual appetites, as they were being lived in a
society without ideals, made brutish by poverty and ignorance. In Irsina's world, which for Dilillo
becomes the symbol of human life itself, there is no love as sentimental abandon, but only
bewilderment in the senses and in sex. This, in fact, is a fondness for transgression and it is
transgression, that is, sin and fondness for sin, which in old age can become contrition and
anguish" (Caserta, in Bollettino, 1991). Raffaele Nigro (Melfi, 1947), presently director of RAI in
Bari, an established novelist, prolific essayist, many-faceted poet, has bent Melfi's dialect to
markedly experimental results in Giocodoca (Schena, Fasano, 1981). The severed tongue of
dialect remains a collective instrument of identity and recognition, although irony and skillful
wordplay overwhelm the subject at hand. In Giocodoca Nigro employs his idiolect polemically, in
order to sing how for all of us who tempt our luck is "a snake and ladders game this passing day,"
how "these words are like a gunshot," capable of raising philosophical questions, even with the
political use of analogy. The twenty poems of Giocodoca, always graphically (un)composed, with
six dialect texts of various texture, place Nigro, a keen student of popular traditions and the
southern mindset, in the groove of the experimental neoavantguarde, which he has subsequently
left behind, most decidedly in his narrative. Here Nigro varies and dismantles idioms, trying his
hand at a variegated historical material. Both the way words are written down and the use of
dialect in Nigro take on the task of signifying a damaged and almost indefensible reality, assaulted
first by the ethnocide of emigration and then by corrosive consumerism. Therefore Nigro's dialect
is neither memorial nor regressive, it is not a descent into a protohistorical or mythical-childlike
world, but it is a living fragment, residual cry, a uniting language in the struggle for the new
development of the South. In the preface, Leonardo Mancino defined these poems: "fresh,
readable and passionate letters on the condition and agony of words." Protesting against the
overbearance of the languages of mass-media, Nigro traverses dialect as well, experiencing a
constant communication problem, the uneasiness that blocks projects and relationships, forcing
the poet into the precarious role of the chance-taker (Catalano, 1986, p.72).
ANTHOLOGIES AND DICTIONARIES
Canti popolari delle province meridionali, edited by A. Casetti e V . Imbriani, Turin 1871-72.
I canti popolari di Spinoso, edited by A. Lotierzo, Naples 1983.
I poeti della Basilicata, edited by A. Lotierzo e R. Nigro, Forlì, 1981 (reprint 1993).
Le rose e i terremoti. La poesia della Basilicata da Scotellaro a Nigro, edited by Catalano
Ettore, Venosa 1986.
Basilicata, edited by T. Spinelli, Brescia 1986.
Dizionario dialettale della Basilicata, edited by R. Bigalke, Heidelberg 1980.
Dizionario dei dialetti di Picerno e Tito, edited by Maria T. Greco, Naples 1990.
H. Luedtke, Lucania, Pisa 1980.
R. Nigro, Basilicata tra Umanesimo e Barocco, Bari 1981.
A. Lotierzo, La parola e i frantumi, Forlì 1982.
P. Caratù, "Il Nuovo Atlante fonetico lucano", sta in: AA.VV. Lingua, dialetto e poesia popolare
in Basilicata, Villa d'Agri 1985.
L. Sinisgalli, "Poesie Lucane," Civiltà delle macchine, a. III, n.2, March 1955, reprint ed. by G.
Appella, Rome 1992.
G. Caserta, Storia della letteratura lucana, Venosa: Osanna, 1993.
M. De Blasi, L'italiano in Basilicata, Potenza: Il Salice, 1994.