Matera, from “shame of Italy” to capital of Culture in 2019.

The evolution of a city and its “sorrowful beauty”.

Asking an inhabitant of Matera to talk about his city is like asking a child to talk about his mother. “The first time I saw Matera I lost my mind because it was just perfect”: the famous American actor and director Mel Gibson affirmed, in the aftermath of his “first time” in the Lucanian city, so suggestive to be chosen by Gibson himself to set his masterpiece “Passion of the Christ” (2004). Carlo Levi, one of the most important narrators of the twentieth century, described it as follows: “In the caves of the Sassi there is the capital of the peasants, the hidden heart of their ancient civilization.
Anyone who sees the Sassi of Matera is inevitably impressed by his expressive and touching sorrowful beauty “. The blame for the conditions in which they lived in the Sassi after the Second World War and the harsh condemnation that branded it as “shameful of Italy” ended up isolating it from the rest of the world and deeply marked its story. The stubbornness of its citizens has, however, been able to revive the city. Now Matera is a city in full swing where tradition and modernity come together and give life to a very special magic. The original urban nucleus has developed from the natural caves carved into the rock and subsequently modeled in increasingly complex structures within two large natural amphitheatres that are Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. The Sassi rise on one of the sides of a canyon excavated over the years by the Gravina stream. On its steep walls appear the characteristic stratifications of houses (called “casegrotta” because carved into the tuff), courtyards, balconies, palaces, churches, streets,  gardens. Then there is another level, a world that is more internal and invisible at first sight, consisting of cisterns, nevieres, caves, tunnels and water control systems. There is a road that runs almost parallel to the Gravina stream and, like a sort of axis, crosses the two Caveoso and Barisano areas. There are numerous alleys that alternate between buildings and from which it is possible to get on and off to arrive in always different and surprising corners. Here, once, everything was under the control of everyone, because everything was done on the same space, often with a well or a fountain in the middle. The common well where the clothes were washed or the oven where the bread was kneaded made the neighborhood the fulcrum of the organization of life in the Sassi. Everyone knew each other, the festive and the mournful events were always shared. The “neighborhood” (in the dialect of Matera: v’c’nònz) was certainly the social model of life that animated those places. Unfortunately, the dizzying demographic rise of the early nineteenth century combined with a tremendous crisis of pastoralism led to a nefarious social upheaval that was attempted to remedy by extending the city perimeter with the first buildings on the plane, but it was not enough; the casegrotta were expanded in which, however, people and animals lived together. The situation changed when in 1952 Alcide De Gasperi, at the suggestion of the Lucanian Minister Emilio Colombo, with the “Special Law for the displacement of the Sassi” imposed two thirds of the inhabitants of the city, about seventeen thousand people, to leave their homes to move to new districts specially prepared. The Sassi were thus gradually abandoned; the degradation and neglect spread like wildfire and a deafening silence took the place of life that had animated houses, caves and churches, while the city expanded far, but not too far, from there. Everything changed with the Special Law n. 771 of 1986 authorizing the citizens of Matera to return to the old districts made of tuff to make them live again. Slowly the city began to reappropriate its history, its identity and its roots. In 1993 the UNESCO declares the Sassi of Matera a World Heritage Site, while on October 17, 2014, its designation as European Capital of Culture for 2019 takes place, thanks to picturesque and fascinating places, scattered along its alleys, such as for example the Rupestrian Churches.  These are religious structures excavated in the tuff, an important evidence of the presence of Benedictine, Longobard and Byzantine monks: Santa Maria de Idris – San Giovanni in Monterrone, dates back to the fourteenth century and preserves ancient frescoes; Santa Lucia alle Malve is located near the aforementioned S. Maria de Idris in the Malve district and is the first female monastic settlement of the Benedictine order, dating back to the 8th century and the most important in the history of Matera; San Pietro Barisano or  SS. Pietro e Paolo at the Sasso Barisano, originally called San Pietro de Veteribus, is the largest rupestrian church in the city; Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci, built around the first Millennium with the annexed monastery. Then there is the other side of Matera, the most primitive and sometimes inaccessible, which is on the other side of the Gravina stream, specularly to the Sassi. Here the Natural Historical Archaeological Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera extends, also known as the Murgia Materana Park. Among the Sassi and the Natural History Archaeological Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera there are 155 rupestrian churches, most of which are located in the Murgia Park, well hidden by dense vegetation and dug along the steep banks of the Gravina stream in impervious places, difficult to access, embellished with spectacular frescoes. The Park also preserves the oldest settlements in the area such as the well-known “Grotta dei Pipistrelli”, whose Paleolithic finds are preserved in the National Museum of Matera, the Neolithic villages of Murgecchia, Murgia Timone and Trasanello in the north, the rupestrian villages of Selva and the Saraceno village to the south. The historic city center is represented by Piazza Vittorio Veneto also known as “Piazza della Fontana” due to the presence of the great “Fontana Ferdinandea” in the past. In its subsoil there are more than 5000 square meters of hypogeal rooms, a real submerged city connected with the Sassi. Continuing along the Via del Corso you get to Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi where you can admire the impressive seventeenth-century church in Baroque style. The Cathedral, dedicated to the patron saints of Matera, Maria SS. della Bruna and Sant’Eustachio, built in the Apulian Romanesque style, is flanked by a majestic bell tower (54 meters high) that dominates the whole landscape of the city. Among the impressive buildings built in Matera during the Middle Ages, a special mention must be made for the Tramontano Castle, located outside the city walls, in perfect Aragonese style. Today a walk in this European capital of Culture also allows us to attend excellent taverns and pretty artisan shops, which have grown in quality and number in the last twenty years. Our journey ends here, but it is worth remembering that every 2nd of July Matera is transformed and this has happened for more than 600 years. It is the New Year of  Matera, a real event for the city, awaited and organized throughout the year: the feast of Maria Santissima della Bruna, the patron Saint. There is no doubt that there is a strong need to shake off, definitively, the mark of backwardness that for too many decades the city has borne as a burden, but the danger is too much to go too far, risking losing its “Sorrowful, fragile but perfect beauty”. This does not mean closing the doors to innovation and progress but, today more than ever, the imperative must be to preserve and protect the enormous heritage that has led the city to be what it has become today; “a mogghj a mogghj a quonncjvajn “(” what will come will be better than what it was”).