by Mark Russell
Descending into the Sassi, visitors can spend countless hours exploring the rich architectural heritage of this stony labyrinth. The sophisticated residential structures of the Sasso Barisano, some dating to the Renaissance and still bearing architectural decoration from the period, are a reminder that the Sassi were a fully integrated part of Matera’s urban fabric until at least the eighteenth century. But the most fascinating part of these valleys is their caves. So much has been excavated from the soft limestone, or tufa, over the centuries that the Sassi are like giant pieces of worm-eaten wood.
|Far from simple holes in the ground, however, the caves can be large, architecturally sophisticated, and integrated with above-ground structures. Many have been adapted to a variety of functions over the centuries, from church, to house, to granary, to cantina, and now perhaps to hotel! Furthermore, the Sassi boast impressive and complex water-collection systems, with numerous underground cisterns, that were developed over centuries.|
The rich peasant culture that animated this world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries comes alive in the Museo Laboratorio della Civiltà Contadina in the Sasso Barisano. Housed in a large cave complex, the museum documents the material culture of the Sassi and boasts a large collection of artisans’ tools and domestic implements. Visitors also step back in time in the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario in the Sasso Caveoso. Occupied until the 1950s, this cave home has been restored and decorated to recreate the domestic life of a Materan family. In both these places I felt a strong physical connection to the world of my grandparents.
The Sassi are also home to numerous churches, both built and excavated from the tufa, that testify to the importance of religious life in Matera. Of great architectural interest, each offers its own particular attraction, be it the medieval frescoes in the rock-cut churches of Santa Maria de Idris and Santa Lucia alle Malve; the deep, dark caves of the Madonna delle Virtù, now home to an exhibition of contemporary sculpture; the tombs beneath San Pietro Barisano that once held the remains of its clergymen; and the dramatic setting of San Pietro Caveoso perched on the very edge of La Gravina. One can even find the cave where Matera’s small congregation of Protestants worshiped in the early twentieth century.
But there is something that is often and conspicuously overlooked about Matera, even as the city attracts publicity in the context of its candidacy for European Capital of Culture. Simply put, Matera is much more than the Sassi. Many who plan a visit do not expect to find a place that resembles countless other small Italian cities and is home, on the plain above the cave valleys, to Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque churches, palazzi, public squares, and thoroughfares. For example, Matera boasts a spectacular thirteenth-century cathedral in Apulian Romanesque style with an elaborately-decorated Baroque interior.
|The Church of San Giovanni Battista is an incredibly evocative medieval structure with its fine portal carving, high interior elevation, and carved column capitals. Sitting on a low hill overlooking the city, the unfinished Castle Tramontano, with its large squat towers, dates from the Renaissance. The Piazza del Sedile still retains its Renaissance plan and the Palazzo del Sedile, completed in 1575, is now home to the Conservatorio di Musica.|
The most impressive of Matera’s Baroque churches is San Francesco d’Assisi with its decoratively sculpted façade and many works of sculpture and painting.
And of course there are museums. Perhaps the best known is the Museo Nazionale Domenico Ridola. The region around Matera is one of the most important archaeological zones in southern Italy and the museum contains artifacts retrieved from local excavations. These date from the Paleolithic and Bronze Ages through to the periods of Greek and Roman settlement. The seventeenth-century Palazzo Lanfranchi is home to the Museo Nazionale dell’Arte Medievale e Moderna. Its Pinacoteca d’Errico houses a collection of Neapolitan art from the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, while the Collezione Carlo Levi is comprised of several paintings by the famous writer, artist, and champion of Matera.
|But Matera is more than a museum. Italy is renowned for its food culture and the city does not disappoint those who love to eat. There are numerous restaurants, many of them in the Sassi. Matera comes alive on a summer evening when the Piazza Vittorio Veneto and surrounding streets are full of people of all ages strolling and enjoying gelato. But the most exciting time to visit Matera is in early July.|
Every year, on the 2nd of that month, the city celebrates the Festa della Madonna della Bruna. The highlight of the day-long festivities is the triumphal procession including bands and costumed knights on horseback. The dramatic climax comes late in the evening with the destruction of the papier-mâché float created to bear the image of the Madonna. Its fragments are preserved and displayed as talismans by those fortunate enough to get hold of them. At the end of a long day, sitting with Materan friends among the medieval tombs above the Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve and looking out over La Gravina, I enjoyed one of the best fireworks displays I have ever seen.
There are many good reasons why Matera is a candidate for European Capital of Culture 2019. The Sassi are principal among these. But history has richly endowed the city in many other ways, and its appeal extends beyond its cave civilization. Ultimately, Matera is a living, modern, and very pleasant city whose culture still comes in many forms.