Matera – ancient yet happening

By Gabriele Martulli from Visite Guidate Matera –

Years may pass, but some few cities retain their ancient charm: Matera, an incredible city carved into the soft tufa rock continues to leave visitors speechless. This unique landscape is unlike anywhere else in the world and looks like a miniature version of ancient Jerusalem. No wonder Mel Gibson chose it as the backdrop for his movie Passion of the Christ.

But Matera and especially the Sassi of Matera, as the tufa dwellings are called, haven’t always been movie stars. In the past, the Sassi was place of misery and poverty, inhabited by the poorest and infested with malaria and was even defined as “National Shame” around the 50s, resulting in a massive re-settlement, restoration and financial aid to get Matera back on its feet.

The Sassi of Matera was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. Today, visitors are attracted by charming alleys, houses carved into the rock, rock churches, hidden cisterns, breathtaking views, wonderful cuisine and welcoming hospitality in the region of Basilicata.

Connection to the past

Human settlements in the area of Matera date back to the Paleolithic age and reminds visitors of man’s great ability to adapt to any natural context. Matera is a large open-air museum, which allows those who visit it to get in close contact with the customs and traditions of the past.

In the Hellenic age, the area was under the influence of the people of Magna Graecia and was basically a Greek colony. The origins of the city date back to the consulate of Metellus in 3rd century BC, who baptized the city Metheola.

In 664 AC, Matera passed under the Lombard rule, was annexed to the Duchy of Benevento and then suffered serious devastation following the invasion of the Franks. The most important testimonies date back to the 7th and 8th centuries, when Benedictine and Greek-Orthodox monastic communities settled in the numerous caves. The 9th and 10th centuries were characterized by the bitter struggles between Saracens and Byzantines, who tried several times to seize the region.

The following centuries, between pestilences and earthquakes, saw the city pass through a short municipal phase, then landed in the 15th century to the Crown of Aragon. In the 17th century, Matera belonged to the Orsini family and became the capital of Basilicata, a title that remained until 1806, when Giuseppe Buonaparte transferred the title to Potenza.

Christ no longer stops at Eboli

In 1927, Matera became the provincial capital, and in 1935 the writer, physician and painter Carlo Levi was exiled here for a year. An exile, that resulted in the novel from 1945 “Christ stopped at Eboli”, depicting the massive poverty of the region.
In 1948, the question of the Sassi and its extreme poverty was raised. In 1952 Matera received funds for construction of new residential areas, that developed the new city, into which the 15.000 people living in the cave-houses moved. In recent years Matera and its Sassi has flourished and offers tourists more welcoming facilities and a rather large and rich cultural program, with the birth of a large number of cultural institutions that have been responsible for restoring and enhancing Matera.

A stroll through the Sassi

On the edge of the cliff, facing north-west, the Sasso Barisano is the hub of the old city. Facing south is the Sasso Caveoso, arranged as a Roman amphitheatre with the cave-houses that descend into the valley. To separate the two Sassi is the “Civita”, a rocky hill in the canyon that for millennia was invisible to the eyes of the enemies. Here stands the Cathedral and several noble palaces. The Cathedral, internally restored, contains interesting paintings by local artists, among which the 16th century crib of Altobello Persio and the 15th century wooden choir by Giovanni Tantino by Ariano Irpino stand out. Also very interesting are the other Romanesque churches in the historic center, San Giovanni Battista and San Domenico.

Along the 17th century ridge of the “Piano”, you can admire the civil and religious buildings of the Baroque period, including the churches of San Francesco da Paola, San Francesco d’Assisi, Chiesa del Purgatorio and Santa Chiara, until you get to Palazzo Lanfranchi, currently home to important art exhibitions and the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art of Basilicata, with a large collection of paintings by Carlo Levi, many works of the Neapolitan school of the 17th and 18th centuries and various works from different centres of the province. Equally noteworthy is the Domenico Ridola National Archaeological Museum, which preserves artifacts found in the territory of the “Parco della Murgia” and provides much information on the cultures and indigenous people.

Among the buildings of the centre, in addition to the many noble palaces such as Palazzo Bernardini from the late 15th century or Palazzo del Sedile, built in 1799 and now home to the Conservatory of Music, another imposing building is the Tramontano Castle, built in the 16th century outside city by the will of Count Giancarlo Tramontano and remained incomplete due to the premature death of the count.

The wonders of Basilicata do not end with a visit to the city: just as impressive and interesting is the Murgia Materana Park, an archaeological park established in 1990 and inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list together with the Sassi. Here, you find rock churches scattered along the slopes of the ravines and the Murgia plateau as well as varied wildlife with important birds of prey like the red kite, Lanner falcon and Egyptian vulture. Another Nature park just 1/2 hour drive south of Matera is Gravina di Laterza, also called the Grand Canyon of Puglia.

Matera’s City of the Sassi is appointed European Capital of Culture for 2019: an important victory for a land that is often forgotten, which will thus free itself forever from the sad definition of “national shame”. Matera is an interesting destination for a holiday, every moment of the year and for every age.

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