Matera, beautiful empty shell
A UNESCO world heritage site, Matera is said to be the earliest settlement in Italy. The 3rd oldest city continuously inhabited* in the world after Aleppo in Syria and Jericho in West Bank, the sassi were abandoned in the 1950s due to poor hygien and insalubrity. Not long ago, Matera was known as “the shame of Italy” and was a true slum.
Carlo Levi wrote an excellent description of these times:
"In these dark holes I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lay dogs, sheep, goats and pigs(…) Children appeared from everywhere, in the dust and heat, stark naked or in rags, eyelids red and swollen(…) and with the wizened faces of old men, yellow and worn with malaria, their bodies reduced by starvation to skeletons(…) I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty."
First, a bit of etymology.
1 sasso, 2 sassi and there are indeed 2 sassi in Matera: Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. Plus the district Civita which separates both Sassi and is the oldest institutional, religious and commercial district.
The term sasso derives from Latin saxum. It means a hill, rock or great stone. And Matera is indeed a big rock carved city.
At first small inhabited settlements that developed around several places of worship, they spread beyond the boundaries of the ancient defensive walls of the Civita, creating 2 independant settlements: the Sasso Caveoso, mostly made up of cave-houses, and the Sasso Barisano, which is largely formed by traditional houses, built using more complex building techniques.
Whilst the last inhabitants were being evacuated in the 1950s, a group of Materan students decided to oppose the authorities' decision. For them, the problem was economic. Poverty made the Sassi unhealthy. Homes were not all dangerous. In fact only a third of them were really a problem.
By the 1970s, these students identified many abandoned architectural and when some of them became part of the establishment in the 1980s, the Sassi started to recover.
What really is interesting is the model used to restore them. 30-year leases were offered at nominal cost to tenants who agreed to renovate the caves under the supervision of conservation experts.
Matera is being gentrified. There is no doubt about it. But this gentrification does not affect inhabitants since the Sassi were already empty. Unfortunately, it does affect the authenticity of Sassi as the only life there is brought by restaurants, souvenirs shops, cafés, hotels and museums, making the area looking like a tourist enclave.
The biggest challenge now is to ensure that the Sassi develop as a living community, with access to hospitals, transports, grocery stores...
To better enjoy Matera, walk deeper into the Sassi, further from the tourist shops. Go where works are undertaken to have a glance at what it once was.
The old town is actually not that difficult to walk around.
Piazza Vittorio Veneto
Previously called Piazza Del Plebiscito the square was also known as ” Fountain Square ” because of the presence of the monumental Fontana Ferdinandea monumental built in 1832 to collect water from the hill above the castle.
The Palazzo dell’Annunziata now houses the provincial library while the Governor’s Palace is a hotel.
Nearby you will find the most touristy street of the Sassi.
Piazza del Sedile
It is one the main squares of the old town. Do not miss the Palazzo del Sedile, now the headquarters of the Conservatory of Music ”Egidio Romualdo Duni” and Gervasio Auditorium. There is a supermarket right next to it.
Cathedral of the Madonna della Bruna and St. Eustace
Built 1230-1270, its architectural style is Romanesque-Pugliese.
Chiesa Del Mater Domini
Cute little church commissioned by Silvio Zurla, Commander of the Knights of Malta, in 1680.
Church of San Giovanni Battista
Church of Sant'Agostino
Church of Purgatorio
Look at its peculiar architecture in the shape of a mitre.
Church of San Pietro Caveoso
Church of San Francesco d’Assisi
Rupestrian churches are a common feature of Paleo-Christianity in Basilicata, Puglia, and the Cilentan part of Campania. Matera hosts 7more than 150 of them.
Only a few are open to public. Check the opening schedules ahead.
Do not under any circumstances use flash when photos are allowed. It severely damages the frescoes.
Complex of Convicinio di Sant’Antonio
Church of San Pietro Caveoso
Church of Sant'Agostino
The Church of Santa Maria di Idris
Church San Pietro Barisano
It is the largest cave church. No photos allowed but they sell beautiful postcards.
Chiesa rupestre di Santa Lucia alle Malve
Nearby, there is the necropoli di Santa Lucia alle Malve also called Cimitero Barbarico.
Complesso Rupestre di Madonna delle Virtù e San Nicola dei Greci
There are 2 points of view near Palazzo Lanfranchi. One is the terrasse of the museum. The other is on the left side of the museum when you face it. There also belvederes near the duomo and the Convent of Saint Agostino. Beautiful views can also be seen from the Piazza Vittorio Veneto. The rupestrian Church of Santa Maria di Idris and Church of San Pietro Caveoso also offer great views over both the sassi and the gravina, the canyon landscape surrounding them.
Actually, almost every corner of the old city can offer you a beautiful view over the surroundings.
On the other side of the gravina, there is the Viewpoint of Matera and the Sassi in Murgia Timone which allowed you to see the whole city (old and new). There is a path from Matera but it was closed due to heavy rains when I was there. If closed, you will need a car to go there.
These strange holes in the rocks seen on the other side of the gravina are the palaeolithic caves which make Matera so unique. They are open to public.
The Tramontano Castle, whose construction started early 16th century, was never finished.
It is not a must see in Matera but if you have time, it is not far from the city centre. Also, if you are a dog owner, there is a park for dogs at its foot.
L'antica Casa Grotta
L'antica Casa Grotta is a small but impressive family-run business. The audio is really well done, full of interesting facts about the Sassi. The staff is lovely and the entry cheap. It is also a bit of a hidden gem so I encourage you to go see them. It is right in front of Sassi miniatura run by the same family.
Sassi in miniatura
This is one of the places to go to buy souvenirs.
Eustachio Rizzi decided to reproduce the Sassi di Matera as they really were and as he remembered them from his adolescence (in the 50s). The artwork is spectacular.
National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art of Basilicata
Word of advice, the staff here and at the archaeological museum is rather annoying. They do not have change or do not want to calculate and prefer to lose visitors. They complain if you have even 5 euros and they complain if you have 3 euros in coins.
Do not miss the large painting by Carlo Levi depicting the way people lived when the sassi area was a slum.
The Palombaro Lungo is a huge reservoir of water beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto. It was built between 3000 years ago and 1700 and really looks like a subterranean cathedral. The visit is cheap, lasts 25min and is really interesting.
There are other museums in Matera: Museum of Archaeology, Casa Cava, MUSMA, Casa Noha, Casa di Ortega, Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, hypogeum, Museo Laboratorio della Civiltà Contadina (peasants museum)...
Matera is a clean city. A bit too clean to my taste. There are almost no graffiti and their absence is striking in a country in which you find them everywhere. Fact is many facades have been rebuilt.
Matera is the European capital of Culture this year. Information can be found on the following website.
When I visited Matera in December 2018, many restoration works were being done, especially in the far east end of the Sasso Caveoso.
Salvador Dalí - La Persistenza degli Opposti
Great way to visit the Complesso Rupestre di Madonna delle Virtù e San Nicola dei Greci, the exhibition shows two particularly important aspects of Dalí’s creativity.
Literary works, less known side of the artist.
Matera by night
The best viewpoints are near the duomo and near Palazzo Lanfranchi.