Matera: the “Sassi “ and life in the caves

Matera is one of the oldest cities in the world.

From the Neolithic to present days, in fact, for about 7000 years the human story took place, without interruption, in the same place. The ancient city was founded in a rocky area, next to a big rift, called the “Gravina di Matera” and developed on the rock. At that time, even caves were used as a dwelling. With the civilization, using blocks of tufo from the Murgia Materana, the city “out of the land” was built.

The original site of the city of Matera (called Civita) was built, in the center of Rione Sassi. Today, on top stands a cathedral from the XIII century. In the Roman period the Civita was fortified by walls, below which there were open spaces with numerous caves and large stones, which represent the reason why the two old districts were called Sassi (stones, rocks), which over the years got the names of Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano.

There was a time when the caves had a great functional importance: all begins from the seventh century. A.D. with the massive presence of the Benedictine and greek-bizantine monastic communities. Chapels, churches, basilicas excavated in the rocks were thus built, as well as other buildings for common life and prayers. Basically, however, the inhabitants of the Sassi, as long as the economic conditions allowed, were building “above ground”, using the caves as stores, cellars and stables. In 1663 Matera became the capital of region Basilicata until 1806, when the capital was moved to Potenza. This was the best time for the city. This is confirmed by a number of notable civil and religious buildings including the Baroque churches and monasteries, now home of numerous public and cultural institutions. From the first decade of the 1800s until 1952, the city experienced a long period of decline due both to the recurrent crises in the agricultural economy and the loss of political and administrative power. The decay was so hard to force poor people to use the caves as dwellings, where to recover animals, too.

After World War II, the public opinion showed an increasing interest in the life conditions of the inhabitants of the Sassi. On the 17th of May 1952, after visiting Matera, President Alcide De Gasperi decided to sign Law no. 619, asking for the restoration of the Sassi, the construction of new districts and he ordered that people living in the caves, should move to the new and modern houses, in order to preserve both their health and the image of Italy outside the Country. Anyway, although the life conditions where very hard and the igienic situation extremely noxious, it was difficult to force all the people to move from what they called their own homes; the last small group of people, was convinced to move in the late 1960s.

Once all the inhabitants were moved to the new homes, it remained to determine the use of a historical center of 30 hectares, now completely empty. With the law n. 771 of the 11th of November 1986, after almost twenty years of complete abandon, the restoration of the Sassi was funded and it is still in progress.

In 1993 the Sassi were declared a UNESCO “World Heritage Site”, along with the park of the Rupestrian Churches overlooking the town. The reason is that Matera represents ” the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem. The first inhabited zone dates from the Palaeolithic, while later settlements illustrate a number of significant stages in human history”. The city of Matera is a candidate to become in 2019 “European Capital of Culture.”