Sassi di Matera


photography
Sassi di Matera, Basilicata, Italy. Public Domain.

History

17-MAY-1952 Sassi rehabilitation law n. 619 by Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi.
1952-58 new quarters were built and the inhabitants of the Sassi relocated. The whole quarter was abandoned.
1989 reevaluation of the cave houses and start of renovation projects.
1993 inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
2019 Matera is the European Capital of Culture.

Description

photography
Sassi di Matera, Basilicata, Italy. Public Domain.
photography
Sassi di Matera, Basilicata, Italy. Public Domain.
photography
Sassi di Matera, Basilicata, Italy. Public Domain.
photography
Sassi di Matera, Basilicata, Italy. Public Domain.

The old center of the town Matera is called Sassi, derived from the Italian or Latin word for rock or stone. And that's what it is: a rock or cave city. A rather soft rock layer along the right side of a ravine was used to carve out houses and churches for centuries. And although the Sassi is the center of the cavities, there are more all along the ravine. There are some ten cave churches within the Sassi, and over 150 in the whole area.

Some of the caves are actually much older, There were a few natural caves along the Gravina of Matera which were visited by humans since prehistoric times. The oldest archaeological remains discovered so far date back 7,000 years. The prehistoric villages of Murgecchia and of Murgia Timone are located on the plateau overlooking the Gravina of Matera opposite the city. If there were such settlements in the city itself they were destroyed by younger buildings.

The city was founded around the 6th century BC, in the area where the 13th century Cathedral of Saint Mary 'della Bruna' and Saint Eustace stands today. For several centuries it was the hinterland of the big coastal cities of Magna Graecia, for example Taranto, Metaponto, or Crotone. The Romans built Rural Homes which are more or less gone. Since the 7th century, Benedictine and Greek-Byzantine communities came to the cities from Cappadocia and brought their own type of building cave houses with them. Chapels, churches, rupestrian basilicas together with monasteries were excavated from rock, hermit sites appeared at the same time. The city center was hollowed out for various reasons, churches, housing, cisterns, barns and more. The old center became known as Sassi, and later Sasso Caveoso in the south and Sasso Barisano in the north.

Matera is located at the border to Puglia, originally it belonged to the Terra d'Otranto territory of Apulia. Then it became part of the Basilicata and quite important, as it was the region capital between 1663 and 1806. The town flourished until Potenza became the region capital in 1806. A period of 150 years of decay started, which culminated in a new law in 1952, which was passed by Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi. New housing was constructed and between 1953 and 1968 over 15,000 people of about 30,000 inhabitants of the city were relocated by force. Obviously they were the poorest, living under the most miserable conditions, often in the same cave with their livestock. Matera became know nationwide as a national shame and a center of unhealthy living conditions and plagues.

About 70% of the underground sites of the Sassi are today owned by the government. Its a result of the relocation: one house in the Sassi was exchanged with a newly built house in the areas further uphill. In the 1980s there was the possibility to pay a tip to local children and they would guide one through abandoned caves where the door was broken. Since the Sassi was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993 the city has developed many underground sites, they were renovated and refurbished. There are numerous new underground hotels, shops, museums, and restaurants now. People even start to use them again for living.

So the easiest way to see underground structures is to visit some of the churches. Catholic churches in Italy are generally open all day and do not charge any fee. Donations are obviously welcome. More fun, but definitely more expensive, is to stay in one of the beautiful modern hotels which were built into the caves. There are several of them, most of them rather expensive, especially for the generally low price of this rural region in poor southern Italy. Rooms start at € 150 per night, but suites may be much more expensive. But there are also half a dozen museums in caves, from several Casa Grotte which show a cave house with historic furniture and household goods, to special museums like the cistern museum, and even impressive museums of modern art. And the most obvious way to see a cave is to have lunch or dinner in one of dozens of cave trattorias all over the Sassi.