Matera’s Sassi, a journey through time
Once upon a time there was an ancient city dug into rocks and nestled between the earth and the sky. It dates back to the Stone Age and it is set in the south of Italy, in that forgotten region called Basilicata. There was once the town of Sassi and there still is the town called Matera, today belonging to the Unesco world heritage. This is the most outstanding example of a prehistoric troglodyte settlement perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem, probably the first human settlement in Italy. The discovery of some caves, “la Grotta die Pipistrelli” and “la Grotta Funeraria”, led historians to believe that people were living here as early as the year 700 BC.
The Sassi are houses dug into the calcarenitic rock itself, which is characteristic of Basilicata and Apulia, locally called “tufo” although it is not volcanic tuff or tufa. Through the centuries the caves have been houses, churches, caverns, monasteries and hermitages built in the natural cave of the Murgia, known as the Park of the Rupestrian Churches. The Murgia is a calcareous highland plateau characterized by deep fault fissures, ravines and rocks which stretches over 1,016 hectares surrounding the old city. The ancient town grew up on one slope of the ravine, locally known as “la Gravina”, created by a river that is now a small stream. From the first inhabited nucleus called “Civita”, the two districts called Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano spread over the ravine like natural amphitheatres looking at the sky, separated by the white church Santa Maria de Idris which seems arising from earth. On the top of Murgia Timone’s Belvedere, where you have a breath-taking view of the city, it is worth stopping for as long as you can and losing yourself in contemplation.
This cultural landscape, as Unesco defines it, struck the Italian writer Carlo Levi as the representation of Dante’s Inferno when he was sent to exile in a little town called Aliano, near Matera. Actually the two Sassi, like Dante’s circles, constitute the complex plan of the old city of Matera which looks like a Greek omega where everything is in perfect harmony. Arcades and hidden passages lead you through suspended gardens and orchards, humble houses and noble palaces where one person’s ceiling is another person’s floor. In the past all the houses shared a common well, the highest model of social life and solidarity, where people went to do the laundry, to have a laugh and to exchange news. Natural sunlight warmed and enlightened the caves as in a North African casbah. And when the sun set down over the rocky heights, candle lights made the Sassi look like a real nativity scene. Matera takes its name from the Greek “meteora”.
From the Stone Age to nowadays, The Sassi have kept their beauty authentic. The prehistoric villages dating back to the Neolithic became from IX to XI century the habitat for the rupestrian civilisation of eastern origins which built canals, wells and passages giving the Sassi the actual shape. Then the Normans added fortifications to the old Civita which subsequently became a splendour of renaissance and baroque frescoes and palaces until XVIII century. Then the sanitary and social decay in the early 1900 made of Matera the shame of Italy. The Sassi were dirty caves where large families and animals lived together in a tiny space with not enough food for everybody. Evacuation was ordered by the government in the 50’s. It was only in the 80’s that Matera was rediscovered and requalified until it became a movie set even for Hollywood directors like Mel Gibson, and an exclusive destination for tourists in search of boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants.
Walking through alleys and secret paths means travelling through Matera’s history again. On 20th December I went to Matera with my mother. She’s always enthusiastic about visiting the Sassi for the nth time and, as for me, I need to breathe that magic air every time I come back home, to my region. We usually wander through the caves only to admire the hidden beauty and the still unkown views. And every time we go, forgotten vaults and ignored arcades are revealed to us in that small town which is still a labyrinth to me. Anyway we always find the way to go and eat something. We chose Area 8 for a quick but interesting lunch in a cosy ex convent kitchen with a creative cuisine and laid-back atmosphere. The early afternoon is always the best moment to return to the historic Casa Grotta in Vico Solitario to sink into that rural life of the time when children slept on the hay and animals lay at the other end of the only bed. Then the weak and rosy light of winter afternoons always evokes in me a pensive mood.
So we walked towards the Rupestrian Churches on the hill in front of the Sassi. San Giorgio al Paradiso, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria De’ Armenis, San Pietro Caveoso and Madonna de Idris are the most stunning churches dug into “tufo”. Blurred frescos and black Madonnas recall that period, around 1000, when Basilian monks brought the orthodox iconology from Anatolia and Syria. The black Madonnas, rather common women than idealised Virgins, must have struck the Italian writer and director Pier Paolo Pasolini who shot in Matera his controversial “The Gospel according to St. Matthew”. Then a glimpse of baroque at Palazzo Lanfranchi or a wander through eclectic masterpieces at Musma museum of contemporary art is what you need to end the day in Matera. When lights are on and stars are shining in the dark sky, the sound of wind from Murgia is the only voice you hear through the Sassi. Time has passed and hasn’t passed at all.
The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera – Italyhttps://www.gounesco.com/heritage/proof/materas-sassi-journey-time/https://s3-ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/gounesco.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/13224023/Sassi-di-Matera-1024x708.jpghttps://s3-ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/gounesco.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/13224023/Sassi-di-Matera-150x150.jpgUncategorizedfrancesca ferri,heritage,heritage site,italy,Matera,mel gibson,pier paolo pasolini,Rupestrian Churches,Sassi,southern italy,stone age,The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera,travel,World Heritage Site,world heritage travel