Standing on the panoramic viewing point above the ancient town of Matera in the region of Basilicata in southern Italy, the concept of time passing is somehow transcended as you gaze in mild disbelief at the scenery in front of you. For a few moments you feel yourself being transported back through the ages as if by instant time travel.
The town of Sassi (stones) of Matera seems to have grown randomly, if not organically, right out of its very own rocky ground. The stones extracted to make cave dwellings on the inside have been use to build new and extended housing on the outside. Alternating from one level to the next the houses and caves below make up the pathways and streets for the houses on the level above. In some places part of the rocks – the earth itself – is still exposed, blending almost seamlessly with the limestone brick walls of the constructed buildings. On the other side of the spectacular Gravina canyon you see the many palaeolithic caves, dark holes in the wall of the soft tuff limestone of the Murgia plateau, looking back at you from the beginning of mankind…
From shame to fame
In 1950 about 16.000 people were living in the ancient town known as Sassi di Matera, literally “the stones of Matera”. The living conditions were sub-standard compared to the rest of the nation but many people refused to move to newer, modern quarters of the town. There was no running water in the houses so the main streets was basically used as sewers. The hygienic conditions had deteriorated to the point where Prime Minister de Gasperi, after a visit in July 1950, called Matera “the shame of Italy”, prompting a series of reforms for the redevelopment of the district of Matera and the construction of houses for the peasants, workers and craftsmen. The ancient part of Matera was declared uninhabitable.
The first exodus from the cave dwellings took place in 1952. In the 1960s the Sassi of Matera was completely abandoned, leaving behind a ghost town devoid of human presence and consequently of human memory of the place. About 20 years later, in 1986, a new law was implemented for the environmental and architectural preservation and recovery of the old cave dwellings and houses.
Matera, the Sassi and the Park of Rupestrian Churches were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1993. This has since fuelled the interest for Matera throughout the world. In addition, numerous films by well known directors, among them the Italian writer Pasolini’s “The Gospel according to St. Matthew” (1964), have been made here. King David featuring Richard Gere (1985) and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2002) both used Matera as setting in stead of Jerusalem.
Matera, old and new
Although many buildings are still abandoned and in dire need of repairs, the two main districts of Matera; Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano and the oldest part, the Cività in between them, are slowly but surely being revitalized by private homes, restaurants, artisan shops, hostels and small hotels and an increasing influx of tourists.
The “materani”, the people of Matera, seem to have mixed feelings about old Matera. For some, the Sassi of Matera belongs to a past that is of little interest, perhaps even shameful still. Others seem optimistic about the future of the old town, especially people with time and money to invest in rebuilding the houses, for leisure or for business purposes. The possibility for a slow life in a truly unique setting is appealing to many. Opportunities for future growth are there, despite complicated ownership rules and regulations, and thanks perhaps, to the blessing in disguise of being a World Heritage Site.
All photos by Asgeir Pedersen, IN Editions
This article was first published May 15 2014.