What is Matera?
Matera, most famous for its “Sassi” or rock dwellings, has been settled in continuously since Paleolithic period. In fact, the area of the Sassi is said to be the site of the first ever human dwellings in Italy! These dwellings were carved into the rock and built on top of each other along the edge of a ravine overlooking the Parco della Murgia. Today while they have been upgraded for modern habitation, some stores and houses still incorporate these caverns and many are accessible to Matera;s tourists. Matera as an official city founded by Romans in 3rd BC, much later it became Lombard territory in 664, when it became a part of Basilicata. Matera then passed hands between Basilicata, Puglia and the various reigning families that controlled the territory.
In the early Christian history, Matera housed many Benedictine and Basilian monasteries which were then founded in the various grottoes of the area.
The cavern houses of the Sassi were often inhabited by entire families, who then also stabled their animals in the same living area. Due to these conditions, and the natural issues such as lack of running water, mosquitos, and dampness, the Sassi became an embarrassment of Italy. The Sassi were considered so uninhabitable that they were evacuated in the 1950’s, later towards the 1980s people began to return to the Sassi, today both the modern city and Sassi are livable and accessible, and most Materani are proud to share the history of the caves.
In 1993, the Sassi of Matera were officially recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Now they have also been named the Capital of Culture for 2019.
While Christ Stopped At Eboli by Carlo Levi brought attention to Matera, the city has also inspired many filmmakers and has set the scene and been the subject of many films such as:
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).
Bruce Beresford’s King David (1985).
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (
Abel Ferrara’s Mary (2005).
Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story (2006).
Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Young Messiah (2016)
Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur (2016)
Roberto Rossellini’s Garibaldi (1961)
Brunello Rondi’s Il demonio (1963)
Nanni Loy’s Made in Italy (1965)
Roberto Rossellini’s Anno uno (1974)
Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Star Maker (1995)
John Moore’s The Omen (2006)
Liu Jiang’s Let’s Get Married (2015)
Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman (2017)
Our Time in Matera
From Rome, the train dropped us in Salerno then it was a two-hour bus ride to Matera. We drove through the cliff-like hill side of Basilicata seeing many different landscapes, from the dry fields of yellow grass, the cliffs and mountains only spotted with vegetation, the marshes filled with goats and herons in the water. I still don’t understand how people somehow found their way through all this to end up carving houses out of Tuffo in a mosquito infested ravine, but whatever led them so deep inland to the arch of Italy’s foot, I am glad they did and left us with the beautiful city Matera is today.
As soon as we got to Matera it was time for the most important stop: Gelato. l remembered the I Vizi degli Angeli Gelateria in the main square, still one of my top gelaterie in all of Italy. This time I got Figs and Aglianico. Normally I would prefer something creamier, but seeing as how Basilicata has only one DOCG wine and they turned it into gelato I decided it had to be done, and really, what can you pair with a strong red wine gelato?
Even though the last bit of light was being covered by dark clouds and the old street lights of Matera only provided scarce yellow light, we wasted no time exploring every winding path of Matera. Once leaving the main squares the streets become so quiet, only occasionally do you meet a tiny bar or a group of ragazzini.
The next day was dedicated to exploring all the art and history Matera had to offer.
Three Chiese Ruprestri:
Madonna de Idris, and San Giovanni in Monterrone: both connected they stand on top of a small cliff, overlooking both the city to one side and the Park to the other. Inside are Frescoes dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. The name “idris” leads back to a greek word meaning to guide the street or water, this became another name for Mary in Constantinople, the name spread to Byzantine territory. This specific church was half constructed outside of the natural rock, and have carved into the rock formation.
Santa Lucia alle Malve: The first monastic church by the Benedictine monks dedicated to a woman, originally from the 8th century, many of the frescoes still seen today date to the 13th century.T he church was eventually inhabited before the evacuation in 1950’s.
San Pietro Barisano, the largest of the Chiese Rupestre, dating from the 12th/13th century.
It’s truly amazing how some of the frescoes within the churches have managed to be kept, even though Nature seems to have been against them since the beginning. Of course, every cave has bright green mold creeping along the highest edges, but it seems just to add to the beauty of the churches.
The next stop was MUSMA: Museo della Scultura Contemporanea Matera. Talking to the woman managing the museum she explained to us that Matera has a series of Private museums, all run by women that have been built up mainly through incredible donations. MUSMA happens to be located in the Palazzo Pomarici, the previous palace of one of the various noble families that used to live in the area.
While their permanent collection is stunning, the most memorable was a joint exhibition between MUSMA and the Chiesa Madonna delle Virtu, who both were displaying an exhibition by Novello Finotti “Dalle profondità del tempo”. He did sculptures of stone playing on different aspects of the human body. One of my favorites was a “nest” made of hands, or a sculpture of a naked torso, with the body above the chest becoming a bunch of asparagus.
Matera is really deserving of the Capital of Culture title, around every corner something is happening, from artisan crafts to historical caves to contemporary exhibitions and galleries. If you are planning a trip anywhere in the South of Italy, I highly recommend stepping just a little out of the way to check this city out, I personally cannot wait to be back!