Italy’s ancient city built from stone will be European culture capital

Europe’s culture capital in 2019 is an ancient Italian town so old that its stony roots are solidly grounded in paleolithic times. Yet, Matera, a spectacular hill town an easy drive from the trendy Puglia region, is very much projected in the future
Its famous ”sassi” — dwellings carved out of caves and natural stone along steep inclines overlooking a torrent — were just a half-century ago synonymous in literature, documentaries and social studies with primitive, southern Italian poverty. Lately, Matera’s ”sassi” are being snapped up for hotels, boutiques and homes for the well-to-do, including architects, photographers and others inspired by breathtaking views to design modern-comfort homes while preserving stone structures dating back centuries.
In the last century, it seemed like Matera, inhabited for thousands of years, would become a stark ghost town. “Cristo si e’ fermato a Eboli,” Carlo Levi’s landmark memoir-book of the physician’s, writer’s and painter’s exile during Italian fascism, introduced to much of the world, including to many Italians in the north, the abject poverty and backwardness of many of the “contadini,” or country folk, in the remote mountain villages of Basilicata, a small region of stupendous nature and hardy natives, in the “instep” of the boot-shaped peninsula. For those who didn’t read the book in Italian lit classes, there is the 1979 film of the same name, by director Francesco Rosi and with Gian Maria Volonte’ starring as Levi. For those planning to experience Matera, one of Basilicata’s two provincial capitals, reading the book or seeing the movie is great preparation, for it will make the contrast between ancient Matera and today’s Matera even more impressive.
Matera is fascinatingly explored on foot — unless you have a mule as many residents used to transport themselves or goods. The roofs of “sassi” become roads for the upper parts of the town, which seems to rise ever higher, giving amazing views of the Gravina torrent below and the other part of town across the valley. Matera appears as a bony warren of a place that seems to go on forever. Matera has been likened to Cappadocia in Turkey for its unique complex of cave dwellings.
After Levi’s book was published as a introspection of his internal exile in Basilicata, photographers poured into Matera to document what appeared to be an odd and anachronistic way of life. (A photo exhibit entitled “Matera Imagined” with some wonderful scenes of everyday life, lending dignity as Levi did, to the local inhabitants, was put on display at the prestigious American Academy, in late 2017, in its headquarters on Rome’s Janiculum Hill; the exhibit moves to Matera’s Lanfranchi Palazzao, a painting gallery, where it runs through Feb. 4, 2018.)

With Basilicata’s rural poverty a shameful blot on Italy’s image, a major energy company built a new section of town, with modern-day conveniences. Many of the ”sassi” emptied out, with residents moving to newer dwellings.
But others stayed, clinging to their homes with natural stone for walls and roof, and with only a small ”window” letting in light above a solid wooden door. Generations had lived there, often along with their animals, as the stony structure of the town meant precious little space for the likes of barns or pens.

Recognizing Matera’s architectural, social and cultural value, the U.N. culture agency UNESCO put the town’s “‘sassi” and primitive churches on its World Heritage list two decades ago.

Tourists today can spend hours or even days exploring Matera’s past and present. High in interest are several churches built eight and nine centuries ago. The cathedral dates to the 1200 and features a rose window, typical of the Romanesque style found in Puglia. The church also is famed for a fragment of the fresco of the Madonna della Bruna, patron saint of Matera.
Matera’s churches are carved out of omnipresent ‘tufo,” tuff, or from natural caves. Some of their locations date back to settlements of ancient monastic communities, and ghosts of their presence seems to pervade even today to those wandering on rugged, narrow stone trails on the town’s outskirts. Its ”chiese rupestre’ are perhaps the most striking of its religious heritage, some dating back to the 9th century, such as the cave church of St. Barbara, a primitive place indeed still conserving its frescoes.
The churches are suggestive of Matera’s history reflecting cultural influences of East and West. Straddling the 1st millennium A.D., Greek and Latin communities settled along the ravines, Ancient Greeks left traces of the Magna Grecia era on the town’s provincial outskirts. Among other civilizations leaving their influence were the Saracens, Normans and Swabians.
There is also a castle on a hill looking down at Matera. The unfinished building was begun in the late 15th century by a tyrannical rule, Count Tramontano. He was killed in a popular revolt on a street whose name reflects its bloody past — Via del Riscatto” or “Vengence Street.”
Today, shops with pottery, local foods and other souvenirs occupy some of the ”sassi.” One popular souvenir reflects times in Matera when families brought their unbaked bread to comunal bakeries, embedding in the confection a letter formed out of dough reflecting an initial of each family, so they could ”recognize” their own bread when the baked goods were pulled out of the oven.