From shameful to chic, Matera comes back to life in caves.
The French call it deja-vu, and nothing better describes the sensation you have when you arrive in Matera, in the region of Basilicata, in Southern Italy.
The famous “Sassi of Matera”, Unesco World Heritage Site, has been pictured so many times in movies (Pasolini’s “The Gospel according to St.Matthew”; Arrabal’s “The Tree of Guernica”; Beresford’s “King David”; Rosi’s “Three Brothers” and “The Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson, to name just a few), that you will think you have already been there.
But in case you haven’t, Matera is there to be discovered. Despite being famous for its “Sassi” (stones), houses dug into the characteristic calcareous rock, Matera also boasts Romanic and Baroque churches, elegant squares and noble 17th and 18th century mansions. But let’s go back to the original “Sassi”, the primitive dwellings for farmers and their livestock. They might not be the first thing you notice when you arrive: the stunning baroques façades, Romanic rose windows, ancient convents and fortresses will instantly capture your eyes and blow your breath away. But then comes the real magic: a town within a town reveals itself to you; invisible but populated since the 13th century.
As is often the case, the first inhabitants were the monks who colonized the cliffs, transforming the caves into monasteries and rock frescoed churches. Then the peasants and traders arrived, establishing stores, hostels and drinking taverns.Eventually the inhabitants of Matera realized that “down under” they could be sheltered from invaders – and in the South of Italy there has never been a lack of invaders. They started to live in the caves dug along the cliffs, and in order to make them more confortable they also built water tanks, wells, and vegetable gardens. The “Sassi” became a kind of irregular mesh, thick in places, sparse in others, where simple dwellings inside the caves co-existed with noble mansions, embellished with monumental doors and stone carvings. Caves with beautiful mansions on their rooftop, all made of the same tufa rock, elaborate façades hiding other caves: it almost looks as though the local witches cast a spell on this incredible town, an intricate knot in which stones, alleys, cisterns, churches, façades, streets, walls, caves and steps are unavoidably, and sometimes inexplicably, linked. Geography, geology, economics and politics, despite the lack of right financial tools, have produced a unique place, the result of a stubborn will. After the Second World War the unhygienic living conditions in the “Sassi” became a national shame and in 1952 the government forced people to move out. Peasants had to leave the place and many went on to become workers on the building sites of the new estates. “Sassi” was discarded.
During the economic, boom Matera became the focal point of attention both in Italy and abroad. It became the symbol of a lost rural world. Adriano Olivetti, a radical mogul, arrived here in 1949, fell in love with the primitive environment and the austere farmers, and asked the famous architect Ludovico Quaroni to build a new village for the exiled. The unique and visionary experiment engaged artists and intellectuals. The result was a hamlet that is still an important example of the Italian urbanism of the era.
Today, the “Sassi” are all but dead. But the magic of Matera reveals itself once more. Neglected for years, the “Sassi” have not been forgotten and, thanks to a respectful restoration, little by little this precious history has come back to life, and the area is being populated again. Where men and animals used to live together there are now elegant hotels, with comfortable rooms, panoramic terraces, monastic pokeys, ancient arcs and deep vaults, all carved into the local stone, with a minimalistic design and equipped with the latest – though invisible – technology. Life, death, and back to life again. Matera is now one of the candidates to become European Cultural Capital in 2019 with good chances to succeed. Just one more reason to visit it now.