Matera, known as “the underground city”, has been continuously inhabited since prehistoric times.
Located at the instep of the Italian boot, Matera, in the region of Basilicata, Italy is set along the ancient Appian Way. According to a spokesperson from the local Zétema Foundation. “What you see on the surface is only 30 percent. The other 70 percent is hidden.”
First occupied in the Paleolithic Age, (the Paleolithic period is defined as approximately 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 BCE) the 1500 natural caves in the ‘Sassi’ district of Matera over the past nine millenia have been gradually burrowed out and expanded into comfortable living spaces. We were told there are as many as 5 layers of cave houses built on top of one another along the steep ravine of this troglodyte settlement.
Matera’s past includes periods of splendor and periods of devastating poverty. By the turn of the 20th century the residents of the Sassi (means stones) were living in extreme poverty, infant mortality was devastatingly high and they were battling crippling diseases like malaria, dysentery and trachoma-an infectious disease causing blindness. To top it off, 35 percent of the cave homes had been declared dangerous.
In the 1950 and 60’s as part of a policy to clear the extreme poverty of the Sassi, the government of Italy used force to relocate the majority of the population to newly built public housing nearby. Although their environment was much healthier the people mourned the loss of their sense of community. By the late 1980’s, with renewed investment and vision to renovate and modernize the cave homes, add hotels, museums and restaurants, the younger generation started to purchase homes in the Sassi and began to create their vision of a unique tourist destination.
Today, Matera is flourishing. There are 60,000 residents and in 2019 it was voted the European Capital of Culture. Art events, concerts, and festivals are held year round. They reportedly especially love jazz and we certainly heard it everywhere.
Dalí in Matera – The Persistence of Opposites
As part of the Capital of Culture title there are permanent Salvador Dali sculptures installed around town. The sculpture of the horse may be the most honest, yet bittersweet. “The horse is saddled with time: it is time which controls all of man’s passage. Man believes he is in control of the voyage, but it is always “time” who is the ultimate rider. This surrealist beast can not be tamed by man, only admired. The horse is portrayed as the representation of life weighed down and harnessed by time, symbolic of our fleeting voyage through life.”
In addition to the Dali creations we found installed around town, we also attended a fantastic exhibition called the Persistence of Opposites in one of the most important rupestrian churches in the Sassi. The exhibition had nearly 200 works by Salvador Dali, many juxtaposed against ancient frescoed church walls.
In 1993 UNESCO named the Sassi di Matera and the Rupestrian Churches a UNESCO World Heritage Site describing it as “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”
Rupestrian Churches of Matera
We picked our way through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, up and down dozens of uneven stone staircases, discovering dead ends, tiny courtyards and enjoyed expansive views of the Sassi. There were oodles of rupestrian churches that had been carved out of a type of limestone called calcarenite.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria della Bruna e di Sant’Eustachio is referred to simply as Matera Cathedral and it is the seat of the Archdiocese of Matera-Irsina.
On the ridge that forms the highest point of Matera, in 1230 building began on the Cathedral. It was finished in 1270 and as seen in the picture at the top of this blog, the Cathedral easily towers above the city. The stunning interior decoration is mainly from an 18th century Baroque restoration.
Santa Maria de Idris sits high on top of a rocky spur offering a unique view of the city and the Gravina River. It dates back to the 15th century and is part of a complex that includes the oldest crypt with frescoes ranging from the 12th to the 17th centuries. The church was partially built and partially one excavated from the rock.
San Pietro Caveoso sits a few feet down from Santa Maria de Idris. This baroque style church also known as “Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church” and current facade and belltower are a result of a complete renovation in the 17th century. Once one of the major religious landmarks of Matera, it dates back to the end of the 13th century.
Inside the baptismal font is from the 13th century and the ancient frescoes have retained much of their original color and clarity.
Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi
This church, built and dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, after the saint visited Matera in 1218, was built on top of an earlier church. The ancient church can still be accessed today through a trapdoor where a fresco was found depicting the visit of Pope Urban II to Matera in 1093.
In the 18th century the beautiful Baroque facade was added as well as the 3 statues – Virgin Mary flanked by Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Anthony of Padua on either side.
There are more than 150 rock churches in Matera. Some are simple caves with a single altar and perhaps a fresco or two, often located on the opposite side of the ravine. Some are complex cave networks with large underground chambers, thought to have been used for meditation by monks. Chapels are mixed in among cave houses, and in the mysterious upside-down world of the Sassi, cemeteries were actually built above the church roofs.
Water management has a long history in this ancient city. For months the area is arid but springtime brings plenty of rain and collection of that spring rainwater is necessary. Early dwellers invested tremendous energy in building cisterns and water channels.
The enormous underground cistern located beneath the main square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto is one of a handful but this one is the largest. It collected rainwater that was filtered and flowed in a controlled way to the Sassi. After being used for nearly 150 years, the cistern was abandoned and closed when in the 1920’s a new aqueduct was built to bring water to Matera.
In 1991, during a renovation of the piazza, workers rediscovered the reservoir and during their exploration they discovered it was full of water. The water was eventually drained and a stairs and a walkway were built for easier access.
Over hundreds of years people had dug caves in the tuff for use as wine cellars, tanneries and warehouses. In the late 18th century the town engineers combined all those caves as well as a few homes into one large cavern. They lowered the floor, then rounded the walls and waterproofed them using a special waterproof terracotta plaster. They created an irregular shaped reservoir that is nearly 50 feet deep (15 meters), 164 feet long (50 meters) and can hold 1.3 million gallons (5 million liters) of freshwater.
Historic Grotto (Cave) Houses
Casa Grotta nei Sassi and Casa Grotto
We visited two cave dwellings in the Sassi. The pamphlets described as “see what a real peasant dwelling was like before the Sassi was abandoned, visit a typical cave dwelling with furniture and tools of the time”.
Without a doubt spaces were cramped, but for centuries a lot of life happened in those close quarters.
As mentioned above, Matera was able to manage their water supply well and the next picture is a typical opening in a home where a bucket could be dropped in to collect their daily fresh water.
Located not far from the train station, is the incomplete Tramontano Castle. The story associated with it is that although the new King of Naples, Ferdinand II, promised the materani that he would not give the town to another feudal lord, Count Tramontano obtained Matera and the surrounding area in 1496. In 1501 he began to build his castle.
He was in deep debt so quickly began to heavily tax the residents to fund the lifestyle. After more than a decade of the constant abuses by the Count, in 1514 a few citizens murdered the tyrant as he was leaving the Cathedral of Matera. The street name was changed to Via della Riscatto (Street of Redemption) and the castle has remained unfinished to this day.
Museum of Medieval and Modern Art and the National Museum of Matera
The museum is located in the prestigious Palazzo Lanfranchi and displays works of sacred medieval art, paintings on wood, wooden statues and painted stone. We viewed 17th and 18th century paintings, some amazing photography and a colorful collection of contemporary art by Giuseppe Siniscalchi.
Made with recycled fabrics for Matera by Stefano Bressani in 2021, his artwork caught our eye. It mirrors the photo we took from our hotel room with the full moon shining down over the Sassi at the top of this blog.
Pane di Matera
The city prides itself on its delicious bread, some of the best in all of Italy, baked in a wood-fired oven. Made with natural local products – a yeast base, a local ancient wheat flour, salt, and water. Another feature is its conical shape, which reminds one of the local terrain. The secret of its flavor and long preservation is in the special preparation of the yeast base, made from spring water and macerated fresh fruit.
The ancient primeval-looking scenery in and around the Sassi and Matera has been used by filmmakers for decades including more recent recognizable films like: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur (2016), Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman (2017) and the 25th James Bond film, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die (2021).
Cuccù statue in the Piazza Vittorio Veneto
In ancient times a “cuccù” was viewed as something that could keep away those evil spirits that haunted homes. It was a symbol of good luck and serenity. By the 20th century every child in Matera coveted a “cuccù”, just to have bragging rights of owning one.
The attractive little hand-sized chicken, with its colorful flowers and little birds then morphed into a symbol of fertility and it became customary to offer as a gift to newly weds on their wedding day.
The first glimpse of the sassi definitely makes one pause. The dramatic tangle of hundreds of monochromatic buildings is overwhelming. This city has come a long way since the 1980’s when the revival began. Citizens are once again proud to claim they are from the Sassi di Matera.
Saluti from these Materani,
Ted + Julia
- Church of Saint Clare
- Church of Saint Francis of Assisi
- Church of Saint Francis of Paola
- Church of Saint John Baptist
- Church of Saint Mary of Idris
- Church of Saint Peter ‘Caveoso’
- Church of the Purgatory