Matera (2015-09-08)

Matera is a stunning ten-thousand-year-old city carved out in stone. It is the second-largest city of the Basilicata region in Southern Italy (the ancient region of Lucania, or in Greek: Λευκανία).

Matera has two famous stone districts (also called ‘sassi’): Sasso Caveoso (the older one, with homes – or holes – carved out in the rock) and Sasso Barisano (the newer one, in which parts of the houses are carved out in the rock and parts are built in traditional style).

Even in the 20th century, infant mortality rate in Matera’s sassi was as high as 50%. An average house was inhabited by a three-generation family with up to six children as well as the livestock. It is hard to believe that a good couple of years after World War II people in Western Europe still lived in such sub-standard conditions. Moreover, the Italian government undertook any actions whatsoever to change this situation after the publication of a book by Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli (Italian: Cristo si è fermato a Eboli). Below is a paragraph describing everyday life in the sassi of Matera at the time Levi visited Matera (early 1940s):

“I set out at last to find the town. A little beyond the station I found a street with a row of houses on one side and on the other a deep gully. In the gully lay Matera. From where I was, higher up, it could hardly be seen because the drop was so sheer. All I could distinguish as I looked down were alleys and terraces, which concealed the houses from view. Straight across from me there was a barren hill of an ugly gray color, without a single tree or sign of cultivation upon it, nothing but sun-baked earth and stones. At the bottom of the gully a sickly, swampy stream, the Bradano, trickled among the rocks. The hill and the stream had a gloomy, evil appearance that caught at my heart. The gully had a strange shape: it was formed by two half -funnels, side by side, separated by a narrow spur and meeting at the bottom, where I could see a white church, Santa Maria de Idris, which looked half -sunk in the ground. The two funnels, I learned, were called Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. They were like a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno. And, like Dante, I too began to go down from circle to circle, by a sort of mule path leading to the bottom. The narrow path wound its way down and around, passing over the roofs of the houses, if houses they could be called. They were caves, dug into the hardened clay walls of the gully, each with its own façade, some of which were quite handsome, with eighteenth-century ornamentation. These false fronts, because of the slope of the gully, were flat against its side at the bottom, but at the top they protruded, and the alleys in the narrow space between them and the hillside did double service: they were a roadway for those who came out of their houses from above and a roof for those who lived beneath. The houses were open on account of the heat, and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front doors.

Some of them had no entrance but a trapdoor and ladder. In these dark holes with walls cut out of the earth I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds, and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lays dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs. Most families have just one cave to live in and there they sleep all together; men, women, children, and animals. This is how twenty thousand people live.”

Following the international success of the book, the Italian government forcefully moved the entire population of the sassi to nearby modern blocks of flats, as the unsanitary conditions in the sassi houses were considered to be a shame for the Italian Republic.

Recently, Matera was immortalised by Mel Gibson in his famous “Passion of the Christ” movie, since many scenes (for example this one: were shot not in Jerusalem but in Matera.

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