Matera - Photo: www.understandingitaly.com
History of Matera
Although the original cave dwellings date back to prehistoric times, the town of Matheola was established by the Romans in the 3rd century BC since when it has enjoyed a varied and colourful history.
Matera was conquered by the Lombards and became part of the Duchy of Benevento.
AD 700 - 800
The caves were used as monastries by Benedictine and Greek-Orthodox monks.
AD 900 - 1000
Matera was caught up in the struggle between Saracens, Byzantines and the Germans which lead to the destruction of the city.
Matera came under Norman rule.
Having endured a series of earthquakes and plagues, Matera was occupied by the Aragonese and was gifted to the Tramontano family.
The population of Matera rebelled and killed Count Giovanni Carlo Tramontano.
Matera was handed over to the Orsini and then became part of the Terre d'Otranto di Puglia.
Matera ceased to be the capital of Basilicata as Potenza was appointed in its stead by Joseph Bonaparte, the king of Naples and elder brother of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Matera was made capital of the Matera province.
Matera became the first city in Italy to rise up against the German occupiers.
The 'Sassi' caves
The ancient town of Matera was built on the side of a ravine called 'The Gravina' which was created by a river now reduced to a small stream. Many of the famous 'Sassi' dwellings are really only caves dug into the hillside made of the calcareous rock that characterises much of the landscape of Basilicata and Puglia.
View of The Gravina from Matera
As the town expanded, new streets were often constructed on the rooftops of other houses and it is this 'layering' of the 'Sassi' houses that has created the extraordinary images for which Matera has become famous.
Unesco called Matera "The most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region." and made it a World Heritage Site in 1993.
Arriving in Matera - Photo: www.understandingitaly.com
Fodor's Guide said of Matera: "Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago". Indeed, many of the inhabitants of Matera did live in unacceptable conditions which were described graphically by the Italian writer Carlo Levi in his book 'Christ Stopped at Eboli'.
After the 2nd World War, the population of Matera grew to around 16,000 and hygenic conditions deteriorated rapidly. Prime Minister, Alcide de Gaspari visited Matera in 1950 and was horrified by what he saw. He was determined to improve living conditions and throughout the 1950s the Italian government forcibly evicted residents, relocating them to better housing in the modern part of the town.
Inside one of the Sassi Caves
However, many people refused to leave and chose to remain in the caves despite the hardships. Since the 1980's, the local administration in Matera has begun to realise the tourist potential of the caves, and has begun a regeneration programme with help from the European Union, the Italian government, UNESCO, and also from some Hollywood film producers!
The strikingly primitive setting of Matera's 'Sassi' caves has been used as the setting for many biblical films, such as:
Pier Paolo Pasolini's 'The Gospel According to St. Matthew' (1964)
Bruce Beresford's 'King David' (1985)
Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' (2004)
Catherine Hardwicke's 'The Nativity Story' (2006)
Matera today is a thriving city of over 60,000 inhabitants. The modern part of the town is spacious and pleasantly laid out, housing many bars, restaurants, shops and businesses and the 'Sassi' are extremely popular with tourists from all over the world.
A more modern street in Matera
Matera has a large selection of churches and monasteries representing virtually the entire history of the Christian church. Some of these are just simple caves with a single altar and fresco and some are more complex cave networks with large underground chambers, thought to have been used for meditation by monastic orders over the years. Other churches worth a visit are: Matera Cathedral, Madonna di Idris, San Pietro Caveoso (in the Sasso Caveoso) and San Pietro Barisano.
Detail and date on one of the churches
There are also several original 'Sassi' houses open to the public that have been kept in their original state and set up as museums. Other caves have been converted to restaurants and there are even some caves that have been converted to extremely comfortable but very unusual hotels.
Population density: 156.0 per square km
More information here