Matera, Italy

The trip to Matera really began with the train journey from Bari as I was struck again and again with how rocky and essentially barren the landscape was.  The only things growing were olive trees and a little scrub grass but the rock was everywhere – walls, houses, piles and even gravelling the orchards.  Vernacular building is made out of the available materials and around Matera what there is, is stone.  Looking out across from the inhabited areas to the other side of a valley, I could still see many caves that might have once been very primitive dwellings.   In Matera, where I stood, the same type of caves had been occupied some 9000 years ago in the Paleolithic period (it is probably one of the oldest settlements in Italy) and gradually the caves had been enlarged and improved … to a point.

At wealthy moments in Matera’s history, its inhabitants moved up out of the valley to build medieval and then renaissance houses and civic buildings for themselves but the poor always lived in the Sassi – or cave dwellings.  This was true right up until the 1950’s when the endemic malaria and 50% child mortality rate turned into a national scandal which induced the government to forcibly remove all the residents to housing blocks in the upper area.  The whole valley stood empty and abandoned for decades until people began to  recognize its architectural significance.

Since it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 it has been gradually reoccupied by the tourist industry.  Cave houses have been converted to hotels, restaurants and shops.  It seems like a certain number of locals have also taken up residence in the much improved structures.  Still many of the buildings stand empty at this point.

More striking even than the general cityscape are the troglodyte interiors.  Several of the orignal cave houses have been fitted up as demonstrations with furniture and statues of the former residents.  Casa Grotto is one such house which shows the conditions of life just before the Sassi area was evacuated.  A family of eight plus their chickens and DONKEY lived in a one room cave.  The only natural light and air came from the door at the front.  Water was collected in a cistern below the house and hauled up from the trickling flow with a bucket.  No ventilation, no power, no plumbing.  Its small wonder that the area was considered unsanitary.  Still there was a power in being in the small space.

The other  building I spent time inside was the Convicinio di Sant’Antonio, a medieval monastery cut into the very edge of the valley.  It was turned into wine cellars in the 1700s and now houses a rather avant garde art museum but the space still echoes with the original monks.  The complex runs lengthwise along the valley and has several doors and window openings but can still never have been bright.  Outside, stairs cut into the cliff lead up to terraces above that must have provided access to much needed sunshine and growing spaces.   The stone is pretty soft (to allow people to work it in the first place) but many carvings and frescoes remain in the monastery.  I wandered it alone for nearly an hour trying to absorb the spirit of the place.

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