Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Matera – caves vs. modernity

Matera has been on my radar for some time. I swear, I didn’t go there just because the region of Basilicata made a positive splash at the BTO Buy Tourism Online 2012 conference in Florence, or because of their bid to become the 2019 European Capital of Culture (which they are defending in front of a committee on Nov 13, 2013), or due to the really fabulous video of Matera in miniature by a winner of a video contest promoted by the region of Basilicata. OK, maybe the video inspired me just a little bit… I do get goosebumps every time I see it.

Before the recent media hype about Matera, cleverly created by the region of Basilicata in support of the city’s bid to become a capital of culture, I had heard about this place where people lived in caves up until the 1950s from a friend of mine who visited a few years back – after her visit, I included the city in an article for Boots’n'All about off the beaten path Italy, and added it to my personal must-see list. My family and I went during the Christmas holidays of 2012.

Matera, it turns out, is not as isolated as one might think. It’s just over an hour from Taranto and the Valle d’Itria in Puglia, where we’ve frequently visited relatives (and about which I’ve written a short guide in which I have included Matera). If you wish to make the road more difficult for yourself, you can follow the wrong signs and pass over some very lunar-seeming mountains at the edge of a national park, right by an international space station that must make a few astronauts feel right at home. Otherwise you can take any one of the slightly straighter and larger “strada statali” (state roads) that connect Matera with neighbouring areas.

It is also not nearly as small as one might think: the city has a population of 60,000, and the historical area covers quite a lot of ground. I fully underestimated the size of this town and the number of things to be seen here. Doable as a day trip from the Valle d’Itria, it might also be worth it to also spend the night, incorporating visits to nearby Laterza or Ginosa (both in Puglia).

The modern shopping pedestrian areas

The modern shopping pedestrian areas

Approaching the “Sassi” of Matera – literally the stones, or the prehistoric dwellings – from the tourist parking lot at the edge of the modern city, or from the train station, you find yourself in a typical wealthy Italian small town, nicely repaved, with lovely boutiques and wide piazze populated by young families. Off the main piazza and shopping street, you can look out over one area of the Sassi, and you start to realize that this is a town working on resolving a paleolithic past with a modern future.

sassi matera

View of sassi from loggia off shopping area

Modern living came quickly to Matera, forced onto its populace in 1952 when the Italian government declared that it was unsafe to live in caves carved out of the porous rock that characterizes this valley. People were forcefully moved to newly constructed areas at the edge of the city, abandoning the Sassi that had housed them, their animals, and their dirt-poor ancestors for the previous nine or ten thousand years.

The “Casa Cava” is an artists’ reconstruction of one such dwelling, helpfully narrated by a good English audio system. You enter a space in which the only opening, for air and passage, is the doorway, and that is entirely carved into the soft calcareous tufa rock, crudely shaped into archways that define niches.




Casa Cava

In a home like this, imagine a family of ten or so people – an average of six children, plus the nonna and maybe some other relatives, plus your donkey and hens. No running water, a hearth for cooking, basic multifunctional furniture for sleeping, working, and eating space. Outdoor space and farmland was limited here, due to the unfriendly terrain and harsh weather, so animals were kept inside, and diet was limited.

matera landscape

Matera’s landscape is rather inhospitable

Did I mention that it’s really cold here?

The scene we see might represent life here in 1945 just as in 1900. Life probably wasn’t much different in 1800, just the clothes would have changed. When Carlo Levi wrote Christ stopped at Eboli (1945), Matera was representative of the hard poverty of southern-Italian peasant life.

Matera’s living nativity reconstructs Bethlehem using the natural features of the city

Another reconstruction of past life that helps us imagine a sanitized version of historic Matera is the presepe vivente, or living nativity, put on annually by people from this and neighbouring towns, that use the Sassi as a natural backdrop. After all, Mel Gibson chose Matera to film The Passion of Christ – there are few places in the world that could offer a troupe scenery like this, but with reliable electricity and hospitality services right around the corner.

Conservation and promotion of the Sassi di Matera and the Rupestrian churches in the park that surrounds the town is a relatively recent concern: it was admitted to the UNESCO Heritage list only in 1993. This brought attention and money to the city, which has done a lot in the past two decades to move into the future. As the dossier presented for the candidature as city of culture (see below) says, “our city is betting on culture… culture is the foundation upon which we can work to build a new development model” – something I have been saying all of Italy needs to do.

The committee declares that they want to “show that another southern Italy is possible.” Being voted Capital of Culture would permit Matera to establish and carry out a solid plan towards cultivating creativity and sustainable production in a city that is strongly aware of its stone-age roots. The funding – more than 900 million euros – that would come with this honour would be certainly a plus, and Matera seems more deserving than other candidates due to the manner in which they have turned around and refused to abandon the historic city, developing innovative ways to make it live again.

By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • Joan Schmelzle

    Wasn’t Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ”?

  • arttrav

    Thanks Joan, that’s what you get from using sources in another language: wrongly translated movie titles :)

  • Ingrid

    Great article – a few other facts about Matera I learnt when I visited for the first time in 2008. When people were ‘kicked out’ of the Sassi i the 50s there was a lot of consultation in the design of apartment buildings that would ‘recreate’ the community of the Sassi as groups of families would help one another tremendously. They also could not afford for the relocation to be a disaster. The Grandparents would look after groups of children while their parents tended livestock and crops further away from the homes. I was lucky enough to have a guided tour which included being privy to Sassi homes in the process of being excavated with a builder whose job he explained to me is not only a restorer but n part archaeologist as they rediscover the Sassi and it’s secrets.

  • arttrav

    Thank you for sharing, Ingrid! That’s fascinating. There is certainly a lot more to be said – and learned – about this place. I only scraped the surface with my short visit.

  • Anonymous

    That video just kills me. Fabulous! I simply must go. G and I have been talking about flying to Bari for a day to eat at his favourite restaurant (I kid you not)…side trip required!

  • arttrav

    Oh my, that’s a bit extreme! I think Bari with a side trip to Matera and all in one day is not quite enough time :)