The Italian Almanac

sassi di Matera


Like many ancient European towns, the southern Italian town of Matera has a fortified castle perched on a hill. Its imposing, round crenellated tower was built in the beginning of the 1500s by Count Tramontano. But the castle offers only a page mark in the town's history. Count Tramontano was a transitory figure, assassinated by townspeople in 1514, and his castle never finished.

A more important story was unfolding in the town below, as it was around this time, from the late 15th century through the 16th century that the town's famed Sassi - meaning "stones" - largely evolved from pastoral cave dwellings to an urban maze of yellow and grey limestone buildings encrusting the jagged walls of the rocky gorge, fueled by population growth and relative prosperity.

Cobblestone lanes zigzag around buildings with thick walls and vaulted ceilings, up steps and into blind alleys, crafted for feet, hooves, and carts. Scrubby, arid plants spring from the stones of eroding homes and the stony ground between them. A stream tinkles at the bottom of the canyon. On the other side, primitive caves pock scrub and rock. Matera's "City of Stone" is a timeless sedimentation of nearly continuous human dwelling from deep prehistory to modern times. Mel Gibson filmed "The Passion of the Christ" here for the resemblance of some areas to old Judaea.

In his book "Giardini di Pietra" (Stone Gatdens), Pietro Laureano reckoned Matera's complex water collection system captured enough rain and condensation to foster a thriving pastoral economy, terraced gardens and remarkable density for many centuries. Laureano helped secure the Sassi's status as a UNESCO heritage site in 1993, and was one of the first to resettle in the old stone city in the mid-1990s, when it was a ghost town, abandoned since the 1950s.

As late as 1595, the chronicler Eustachio Verricelli described Matera as "endowed with salubrious air" and "inhabited by ingenious men", but by the end of the 18th century, over-population and increasing disparity between rich and poor had transformed the Sassi into a purgatory for peasants. By the mid-20th century, Sassi residents were still packed in damp, cramped cave dwellings with their animals, and were plagued by crushing poverty, disease, hunger, high fertility and extreme infant mortality. Nearly 20,000 residents were evacuated to government housing in the 1950s.

Public incentives passed in the late 1980s and the efforts of local cultural pioneers like Laureano led to repopulation of the Sassi through the 1990's and early 2000s. The Sassi are again nearly fully occupied - this time by a few thousand of the town's cultured class - and all of its spaces spoken for, many snapped up by Japanese visitors. The area is dotted with picturesque bed and breakfasts, luxury hotels, restaurants, shops, cafes and even a virtual golf course housed in a massive cistern.