There are very few remains in the world like those of Matera, which is why in 1993, UNESCO decided to include the park of the rock churches and the two stony districts of the city, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, in the list of the heritages of humanity.
The history of Matera dates back to the Paleolithic period. Inhabited since the thirteenth century BC, it is one of the oldest settlements in Italy and in the world. The first inhabitants settled in the caves of the plateau, of which the most famous are the bat cave and the funerary cave, near which numerous artifacts ranging from the Paleolithic to the metal ages have been found. Then the territory was settled by nomadic populations who, finding the ideal habitat for breeding and agriculture, settled there permanently, creating a real housing system dug into the limestone rocks, alternating these interconnected structures with a series of underground labyrinths.
The Sassi of Matera
The Sasso Caveoso derives its name from the Latin word which means rich in caves, or from its southern orientation towards the town of Montescaglioso, once called Mons Caveosus.
The houses are built one on top of the other with a shape reminiscent of a classical amphitheater; in fact, the cave houses overlook a courtyard common to all. In the thirteenth century, the masonry Church of St. Peter ´Caveoso´ was built the center of the district, whose facade was however modified according to the Baroque style during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and enriched internally.
The Sasso Caveoso is dominated by a cliff within which the Church of Santa Maria de Idris is excavated. The name could be of Byzantine origin and would indicate the Virgin Hodegetria, or it derives from the water that was kept in the church in vessels called Idrie.
Thanks to a tunnel, the Church of Santa Maria de Idris communicates with one of the oldest rupestrian churches in Matera, dating back to the tenth century, San Giovanni Monterrone, which served as a baptistery. Inside there are numerous frescoes ranging from 1,100 to 1,600 and a medieval baptismal font.
In the lunette above the altar, the Christ Pantocrator blessing is represented, supporting a Greek text, testifying to the great influence of the Byzantine iconographic culture. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, again thanks to Byzantine influence, other cults spread, such as the one linked to Santa Barbara, to whom another fascinating church is named.
These churches were born and developed in tandem with the residential nucleus. In the eighth century, numerous Benedictine and Byzantine monastic communities also settled, which at first used the existing caves, while later they excavated new ones, transforming them into rock churches.
For this reason, the places of worship in Matera are very numerous, almost 150. The most monumental is Santa Maria della Vaglia. The façade, dating back to 1200, has four Romanesque portals and the interior is completely carved into the rock and carefully frescoed.
The church soon became the destination of all travelers who walk the Appian Way. Stopping here gave the right to indulgences, as evidenced by a fresco of the pope inside the church.
The Sasso Barisano could also take its name from its orientation towards the city of Bari or from the Barisius noble family who lived there in Roman times, but the most likely hypothesis lies in the root of the name, the same as the abyss (baratro), where in fact the stony district was developed right inside the chasm. Compared to the Sasso Caveoso, it has more construction work, but only of the facades of the houses that are carved into the rock but are extended towards the outside thanks to masonry work. The roofs of these houses were used to collect water or to act as a floor for the house above. There were also ten houses, one on top of the other, which is why the city is full of stairways, paths and, once upon a time, even small hanging gardens where a vegetable garden or a small orchard was kept.
In the district is the Church of St. Peter Barisano, built between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, then enlarged in the sixteenth century. The interior is completely carved into the rock and suggestively illuminated by a particular four-lobed rose window.
The Water Network and the Large Cistern
Remarkable is the water network created to meet the water needs of these parched lands, without rivers or lakes. The first canals for collecting water were dug during the Bronze Age, along the slopes that allowed it to be easily channeled into cisterns that are often connected to each other. The largest cistern, capable of holding 5,000 cubic meters of water, is the one that came to light in 1991 under Piazza Vittorio Veneto during the renovation of the square and can be visited.
The Cave Dwellings
The citizens of Matera inhabited the cave dwellings until relatively recently. Those at the base of the slopes descend internally, so that in the winter months the low rays of the sun could reach the last room to illuminate and heat it. In summer, however, the light and heat did not exceed the entrance, so these rooms remained cool. As the city grew, the cisterns were reused as homes, excavating new environments laterally.
In modern times, the poorer classes lived inside these houses; laborers and peasants were paid with part of that harvest that came directly from their work.
The warmest bedroom, the one where the kitchen was located, was reserved for the older person, and the animals, family heritage, lived with the people in the house. The mule, so important in working in the fields, was reserved a place near the bed, making it difficult for any theft.
The work tools, still preserved in some of these houses, were handcrafted by recovering any material. There was even a craftsman who put the pieces of broken crockery back together, piercing them with a wooden drill, stitching them up with wire and then grouting them with mortar; because there was no money available, anything could be repaired.
But Matera was also a very beautiful city, with its domes, its palaces, arches and hanging gardens, so much so that the Arabs defined it as magnificent.
The Economic Decline of the City, the Abandonment of Cave Dwellings and the Redemption of the City
Matera has been an important stage of transhumance for centuries, at the center of a dense commercial network based on the production and sale of wool. But with the English industrial revolution, the breeding methods changed, new competitors emerged and England ended up preferring Australian wool, which was cheaper, rather than Materan wool, and this caused the end of the economic well-being of the city.
Life wasn’t easy. Entire families lived in tight quarters, often with only what they needed to get through the next day. Then the war, poor sanitation and poverty quadrupled infant mortality compared to the national average. After being defined the shame of Italy, in 1952, De Gasperi, then president of the council, promulgated a special law to displace the stones and transfer its citizens to new homes. In the years of the economic boom, the Sassi were completely abandoned as if centuries of history and traditions were suddenly erased. It was then necessary to wait until the eighties for a process of recognition of their historical and cultural importance to begin which culminated in 1993 with the inclusion of the Sassi in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as evidence of disappeared civilizations, for their architectural and landscape importance and as an example of traditional human settlement that has maintained a harmonious relationship with the environment in which it developed.
Finally, the city restored its dignity and value and recognized its unique and timeless beauty. Even better, in 2019, Matera was named European capital of culture.