We The Italians | Italian culture and history: Matera, the Sassi and Rupestrian Churches

Italian culture and history: Matera, the Sassi and Rupestrian Churches

Italian culture and history: Matera, the Sassi and Rupestrian Churches

  • WTI Magazine #158 Dec 17, 2022
  • 591

Ancient habitations dug into the tuff rock of a chalky plateau open up around a hollow, the Gravina di Matera, traversed by a torrent that flows in this spectacular and unique city in the Region of Basilicata. Roofs by turns become the foundations for new habitations on the levels overhead.

A dense lattice of narrow streets and alleyways fill up with the lights of the evening, giving off the impression that one is strolling through a Nativity scene of papier-mâché. This is Matera,  where the Rupestrian churches and uber-famous Sassi – the very peculiar settlements carved into the rock – were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. 

A walk through Matera’s historic center will transport visitors back into a past long-forgotten. The zone was already inhabited during the Paleolithic Era, when the first settlements were established in these calcarenite grottoes. Here the human ecosystem has been perfectly incorporated into the outlying natural environment, and has perpetuated throughout the centuries. The settlements have undergone various adaptations in each of the diverse historical epochs, from the first subterranean dwellings, to the sophisticated urban structures that followed, built with the materials extracted from the local rock – thus, they are an excellent example of the right use of natural resources. 

The terrain around Matera, so evocative as to earn the nickname “The Second Bethlehem,” has impressed writers, artists and directors for centuries; you may recall that Mel Gibson chose to film The Passion of the Christ here. In the 1950s, the people that lived in these caverns were transferred to modern quarters while the Sassi underwent complex restoration works, the objective of which was to return them to their original beauty. 

Among the oldest and most important spots, the Civita neighborhood, with its Romanesque Cathedral, is a natural fortress situated in the heart of the ancient city; it makes up the most fascinating part of this “rock city,” together with the Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso Hollows. The Sasso Caveoso dwellings have been left almost entirely intact, especially those dug into the area that runs into Via Casalnuovo. From the main piazza, the beautiful Church of San Pietro Caveoso enjoys an exceptional panorama over the underlying canyon, as well as a labyrinth of streets, churches and homes that cling to the pitches and slopes. 

Passing through Via Madonna delle Virtù, one happens upon Rione Sasso Barisano, the tourist attractions of which include a miniature reconstruction of the Sassi and the Museum of Peasant Society. 

Of the numerous Rupestrian churches in Matera that combine the charm of the stark rock with the refinement and elegance of their interior decorations, the imposing Church of San Pietro Barisano is definitely worth a visit. So are the Church of Santa Lucia delle Malve, the Rupestrian Complex of Convicinio di Sant’Antonio, the Churches of Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni, the Church of Santa Barbara with its splendid frescoes and, finally, the Rupestrian Complex of Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci, between Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. Every year this last complex hosts an important international sculpture show. 

The sites of worship that, in part, compose the Park of Rupestrian Churches of Matera, are many and are dispersed throughout the surrounding territory, within the Communes of Matera and Montescaglioso. The Park extends over 8,000 hectares and counts over 150 rupestrian churches, in addition to the numerous housing allotments dating back to the Paleolithic Era - such as the Grotta dei Pipistrelli (Cave of Bats), and the finds from the Neolithic Period, like the pottery of Diana Bellavista and Serra d’Alto.