top of page

A History Lesson from Italy

With more than 200.000 COVID-19 cases and more than 29.000 deaths Italy has filled the international headlines as the first European country impacted by the corona crisis. Today's blog entry is about a topic that has occupied headlines long before the COVID-19 crisis: globalization and protectionism.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher said: "History teaches us that man learns nothing from history". At Positive Parivartan, we want to change that. With a small anecdote on a town in Italy, the intention is to learn about the consequences of protectionism in this day an age. The small town can teach us that staying connected is the only way for humankind to progress.

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time there was a town, in the midst of Italy, called Matera. The town is known as the world’s third oldest city, inhabited continuously for around 7000 years. The city was prosperous and became the capital of Basilicata in 1663.

One day, it was the year of 1806, Joseph Bonaparte "moved the seat of the region's government to Potenza, sixty miles to the west". (New Yorker)

Understandably enough, Matera felt upset losing its power. They complained to Joseph Bonaparte and said that they have held the position as capital city for more than 100 years, why this sudden shift? Joseph Bonaparte dismissively told Matera: "You need to become more independent."

Matera took his words literally: From 1806 onwards, "Materans were tough and self-sufficient. They had their own rituals and songs, their own demons and dialect. Many of their traditions developed as ways of preventing waste. Using shared ovens, they produced a unique horn-shaped bread that was leavened and baked slowly, yielding large pores that helped it stay fresh for a week. Rainwater was captured by a complex network of stone basins and underground ceramic pipes. Resourceful as the Materans were, however, their life style increasingly lagged behind that of the rest of the world." (New Yorker) Matera basically closed the borders to prove to Joseph Bonaparte, that they are capable to live fully independent. Matera was able to be fully self sufficient. This worked well in the short term, but in the long term the picture changed: Lonely Planet History further describes, "In the decades that followed, an unsustainable increase in population led to the habitation of unsuitable grottoes – originally intended as animal stalls – even lacking running water. The dreadful conditions fostered a tough and independent spirit." The New Yorker Magazine concludes, that "over time, Matera became known as “the capital of peasant civilization.”" Rulers came and went, but the locals endured in their cave homes, or grotte. Reputed as the "shame of Italy", Matera was purposefully left out of the country wide development.

In 1935, when Mussolini exiled writer, Carlo Levi, to Matera, Carlo published a book called "Christ Stopped at Eboli" describing the poverty ravaged by disease. Only then did Matera slowly face the limelight.

And now?

Today, Guardian writes on the latest development of Matera: "The Unesco designation in 1993 and the filming there of The Passion of the Christ, starring Mel Gibson in 2004, helped to put Matera on the map, but tourism only really took off after 2014, when the city won its bid to become the European capital of culture for 2019."

In addition, the latest James Bond movie (release date was delayed due to COVID-19) was also filmed in Matera. The town walked through history, from being prosperous to being called the "shame of Italy" to a town overflooded with tourists. Architects and sustainability experts are impressed with the conservation of rainwater, waste storage and space reuse, that Materan people created during the "shame" period. As soon as the walls of Matera were fallen, the town joined the progress of Italy and became the tourist destination it is today.

The Learning

What Matera did, when closing its borders, is called protectionism in today's economic term. Protectionism is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as "actions of a government to help its country's trade or industry by putting taxes on goods bought from other countries or by limiting the amount of goods that can be imported. Basically, protectionism protects one's own interests, by closing its own borders and any connection to outside.

Huffington Post has written a series of blog entries describing the Universal Laws. One of which is "Give to Receive". In Huffington Post's Article on this Universal Law, Author Peter Baksa, describes it as follows: "The more you give, the more you will receive. Even a simple prayer or thought directs energy. It is a form of giving. A simple prayer, a showing of appreciation are ways of directing energy outward. The intention behind the thought must be to create happiness or joy for the giver and the receiver. Like the ebb and tide of the ocean, what goes out always comes back." In Matera's case, history shows, that closing borders, becoming truly independent and self sufficient, without exchange and connection to outside, without "giving", might benefit in the short term - in the long term however seriously relinquishes your potential to progress and to "receive".

A spiritual explanation to foreign policy might be far stretched for some, there are however economic and political expertise who have expressed the dangerous path we are walking with the current protectionism on the rise.

US President Trump has put his "America First" foreign policy method on the global stage, which many countries copy. In a globalized world, isolation trade policies from one country forces other countries to protectionism. A chain reaction that is impossible to avoid in current globalized network.

The BDI, the Federation of German Industries, warns that the rising protectionism and nationalism in the countries "endangers economic growth and jobs worldwide."

And the European Central Bank have published an article in the ECB Economic Bulleting in 2019, in which the authors describe the economic implications of rising protectionism. Below graph shows the increase in harmful trade measures announced. (

"Globalization is a fact, because of technology, because of an integrated global supply chain, because of changes in transportation. And we're not going to be able to build a wall around that."

The Learning and Corona

The intention is to learn from history. Protectionism and isolation foreign trade policies will cause significant harm to our society and diminish the opportunity to further progress. Matera teaches this. Opening borders has brought Matera to the limelight.

The COVID-19 crisis is putting protectionist vs globalized behavior and decision making to the test. The question is, can we learn from history this time? Can we work together to find a vaccine, instead of fighting, who gets it first? Can the story of Matera help shift our mindset to build a more compassionate and collaborative world? During the COVID-19 crisis, we are all going through the same difficulties - can we treat our population as we would our family? Can we treat the population of neighboring countries as we would our family?

The question is: Can we become good hearted decision makers?


97 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page