Italian land and nature: Matera, A City Rediscovered
- WTI Magazine #114 Apr 20, 2019
Touring Matera is like experiencing a forgotten past - you feel as though you are setting foot in a nativity scene when you visit this charming city in Lucania. It’s no coincidence it’s referred to as the second Bethlehem, and was the setting for Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew).
In the 1950’s when the inhabitants who lived in the grottos dug out of the mountain were forced to abandon those dwellings to settle in modern districts, no one would have ever thought that those grottos - the Sassi - would have become the symbol of a reborn city. UNESCO added the Sassi of Matera to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1993, as a whole and millennial way of life to be preserved and handed down to our descendents. In fact, it was recognized as a model for living harmoniously with the environment while integrating with it and taking advantage of resources without disturbing the environment.
The People of the Sassi
Geologists call it calcarenite and common folk refer to it as tuff: It’s the rock surrounding Matera that this land’s master craftsmen learned to work with in ancient times. This friable, adaptable material is abundant in the mountain that dominates the city, so it seemed only natural for the people from Matera to go up there and dig out that rock to build a home in it.
The material that was extracted was processed to make the façade of the dwelling. After the first home, others were built until there was a network of houses, tunnels and alleyways passing over and in each other to become that magic place called Sassi - a gigantic sculpture, a miracle of town planning that has been recognized as a World Heritage Site.
Since then, several efforts have been made to restore them. Today a visit of the Sassi is a true journey into the past of these people.
However, Matera is not just the Sassi. In fact the city encompasses several areas associated with different eras. The oldest one is in the Civita district, which due to its morphology, can be considered a natural fortress. The area is also home to the Romanesque Duomo or Cathedral, built c. 1268-1270 on the acropolis. It houses many works of art including a Byzantine Madonna from the 13th century called Madonna della Bruna.
The Medieval Renaissance section is located along il Piano or plain, on the outskirts of the Sassi.
Matera has many churches from the 13th-19th centuries, with a large Baroque group, S. Giovanni, S. Domenico and the duomo being the oldest.
Il Parco della Murgia
In some way, Matera is the symbol of a rural civilization that has been able to keep its traditions alive. The most significant expression of rural art developed in the area of Matera is in the many churches dug out of the tuff, which often times are frescoed. They are scattered around the Murgia plateau or encompassed within the urban fabric of the Sassi of Matera.
Make sure you visit the Parco Archeologico Storico Naturale della Murgia e delle Chiese Rupestri del Materano, extending for over 8,000 hectares amongst the towns of Matera and Montescaglioso. At first sight, it appears to be a rocky desert dotted by low vegetation, carved out by deep canyons, steep precipices and shaped by the atmospheric events. Even in this inaccessible area with a seemingly desert appearance, nature has created a large number of plants and animals and man has left traces of his presence from prehistoric times to date.
The oldest indications of this presence were discovered near the Grotta dei Pipistrelli (Bat Cave), which is located along a ravine that can be accessed from the Agna di Matera neighborhood. This grotto was dug out by the sea and has been lived in by man since the Upper Paleolithic period.