A Vote for Matera
Why Matera Should Be The European Capital of Culture 2019
by Diane Hirsch
When he last saw Matera in 1911, it was a densely populated town teeming with life. The Sasso Barisano, where he lived, and Sasso Caveoso are neighborhoods that were chiseled into the limestone cliff many centuries ago. Connected by a labyrinth of stairs, the houses sit one over the other. Expansion was extremely limited, and in the years after he left, the Sassi became severely overcrowded.
Southern Italy had always been largely isolated and ignored, but the publication of Carlo Levi’s book “Christ Stopped at Eboli” in 1947 drew considerable attention to Matera. While it was not the only impoverished town in the south, what was so shocking was the extent of the squalor in which the people lived. The homes were caves that lacked plumbing and electricity, the living quarters were often shared with farm animals, and disease ran rampant.
In 1993 Matera’s Sassi and the Rupestrian Churches were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. This recognition brought favorable worldwide attention and an infusion of much needed money. It resuscitated the town and people began moving back into the Sassi, renovating the abandoned spaces. Hard work and the ensuing tourism helped Matera achieve its current status as one of southern Italy’s main tourist destinations. More importantly, Matera was recognized as a place of major significance not only to Italy, but also to the world. The younger generation could embrace the Sassi and be free from the stigma their parents and grandparents experienced.
No longer isolated, there are new technology businesses and satellite dishes everywhere.
Throughout the Sassi, Civita and the piano (the more modern part of Matera that overlooks the Sassi), you will find the Cathedral, remarkable churches too numerous to list here, Castle Tramontano, the Ridola National Museum, the Museum of Medieval and Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture and the Duni Theater and Conservatory.
In addition to the ancient architecture, you will see fine examples of Byzantine, Baroque and Romanesque styles. Under the main piazza you can tour the Palombaro cistern where the townspeople once collected water. A 17th century hypogeum has been converted into an auditorium and theater called Casa Cava where concerts, cultural, and media events are held. Matera is also host to such annual international events as the Women’s Fiction Festival, jazz, and other music festivals.
Matera is a unique and rare place that not only exemplifies humanity’s progress from our prehistoric beginnings to our tech-savvy present, but its people are a testament to the strength of the human spirit to overcome hardship and adversity, to rebuild, and to once again flourish. Without such resolve, culture and tradition would not endure.