Matera in Southern Italy

Friday, 12 October 2018 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, European Capital of Culture, UNESCO World Heritage

© Tango7174/cc-by-sa-4.0

© Tango7174/cc-by-sa-4.0

Matera is a city in the province of Matera in the region of Basilicata, in Southern Italy. It is the capital of the province of Matera and the capital of Basilicata from 1663 to 1806. The town lies in a small canyon carved out by the Gravina. Known as la Città Sotterranea (“the Underground City”), Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, having been inhabited since the 10th millennium BC. Its historical center “Sassi“, along with the Park of the Rupestrian Churches, is considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1993. On 17 October 2014, Matera was declared Italian host of European Capital of Culture for 2019 with the Bulgarian town of Plovdiv.

Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the “Sassi di Matera”. The Sassi originated in a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, and these dwellings are thought to be among the first ever human settlements in what is now Italy. The Sassi are habitations dug into the calcareous rock itself, which is characteristic of Basilicata and Apulia. Many of them are really little more than caverns, and in some parts of the Sassi a street lies on top of another group of dwellings. The ancient town grew up on one slope of the rocky ravine created by a river that is now a small stream, and this ravine is known locally as “la Gravina”. In the 1950s, the government of Italy used force to relocate most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Until the late 1980s the Sassi was considered an area of poverty, since its dwellings were, and in most cases still are, uninhabitable. The present local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented, and it has promoted the regeneration of the Sassi with the aid of the Italian government, UNESCO, and Hollywood. Today there are many thriving businesses, pubs, and hotels there.

Matera preserves a large and diverse collection of buildings related to the Christian faith, including a large number of rupestrian churches carved from the soft volcanic rock of the region. These churches, which are also found in the neighboring region of Apulia, were listed in the 1998 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund. Matera Cathedral (1268–1270) has been dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna since 1389. Built in an Apulian Romanesque architectural style, the church has a 52 m tall bell tower, and next to the main gate is a statue of the Maria della Bruna, backed by those of Saints Peter and Paul. The main feature of the façade is the rose window, divided by sixteen small columns. The interior is on the Latin cross plan, with a nave and two aisles. The decoration is mainly from the 18th century Baroque restoration, but recently a Byzantine-style 14th-century fresco portraying the Last Judgment has been discovered. Two other important churches in Matera, both dedicated to the Apostle Peter, are San Pietro Caveoso (in the Sasso Caveoso) and San Pietro Barisano (in the Sasso Barisano). San Pietro Barisano was recently restored in a project by the World Monuments Fund, funded by American Express. The main altar and the interior frescoes were cleaned, and missing pieces of moldings, reliefs, and other adornments were reconstructed from photographic archives or surrounding fragments. There are many other churches and monasteries dating back throughout the history of the Christian church. Some are simple caves with a single altar and maybe a fresco, often located on the opposite side of the ravine. Some are complex cave networks with large underground chambers, thought to have been used for meditation by the rupestric and cenobitic monks.

Matera Cathedral © Berthold Werner/cc-by-sa-3.0 © Bönisch/cc-by-sa-2.0-de © flickr.com - Giuseppe Rinaldi/cc-by-2.5 Interior of a cave-house © Airin/cc-by-sa-1.0 © Luca Aless/cc-by-sa-4.0 Santa Maria di Idris and San Pietro Caveoso © Tango7174/cc-by-sa-4.0 © Tango7174/cc-by-sa-4.0
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Santa Maria di Idris and San Pietro Caveoso © Tango7174/cc-by-sa-4.0
Matera was built above a deep ravine called Gravina of Matera that divides the territory into two areas. Matera was built such that it is hidden, but made it difficult to provide a water supply to its inhabitants. Early dwellers invested tremendous energy in building cisterns and systems of water channels. The largest cistern has been found under Piazza Vittorio Veneto. With its solid pillars carved from the rock and a vault height of more than fifteen meters, it is a veritable water cathedral, which is navigable by boat. Like other cisterns in the town, it collected rainwater that was filtered and flowed in a controlled way to the Sassi. There was also a large number of little superficial canals (rasole) that fed pools and hanging gardens. Moreover, many bell-shaped cisterns in dug houses were filled up by seepage. Later, when population increased, many of these cisterns were turned into houses and other kind of water-harvesting systems were realized. Some of these more recent facilities have the shape of houses submerged in the earth.

The Tramontano Castle, begun in the early 16th century by Gian Carlo Tramontano, Count of Matera, is probably the only other structure that is above ground of any great significance outside of the sassi. However, the construction remained unfinished after his assassination in the popular riot of 29 December 1514. It has three large towers, while twelve were probably included in the original design. During some restoration work in the main square of the town, workers came across what was believed to be the main footings of another castle tower. However, on further excavation large Roman cisterns were unearthed. Whole house structures were discovered where one can see how the people of that era lived.

Read more on City of Matera, italia.it – Matera: A City Rediscovered, italia.it – Matera: The Sassi and Rupestrian Churches, unesco.org – The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera, Wikivoyage Matera and Wikipedia Matera (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.










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