|In October the Council of Ministers of the European Union will decide which of the six nominated Italian cities will become the European Capital of Culture 2019. Matera, the City of the Stones, is among them and while the other cities are very beautiful and rich with history and culture, it is my opinion that Matera is most deserving of this title. You have only to compare Carlo Levi’s description of Matera in the 1940s to the Matera of today to appreciate the extent of the city’s renaissance. Matera has gone from being referred to as “Italy’s shame” to one of the country’s cultural and historical assets.
Life in southern Italy was hard and work was scarce, so like many others, my grandfather emigrated from Matera to find work in another country.
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.
|The negative media coverage that Levi’s exposé generated compelled the government to act, but it also undoubtedly wounded the Materans’ collective psyche. Their town and their way of life became a source of embarrassment. People abandoned their homes for new, government-subsidized housing in the 1950s and the Sassi remained neglected for decades. People rarely spoke about their old neighborhoods and some even denied ever having lived there; but other stalwart inhabitants refused to leave the lives they knew and what had been their family homes for many generations. When I visited Matera in 1979, I found the Sassi almost a ghost town and I can only imagine the emotions my grandfather felt when I showed him pictures of what had become of his beloved Matera.|
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.
|When I returned several years ago, I found a revitalized Matera, one that, if he were still alive, would make my grandfather very happy and extremely proud. Today, in a marriage of antiquity and modernity, many of the caves of Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso have been transformed from primitive to posh. You will find homes, luxury hotels, fine restaurants serving delicious local cuisine, spas where you can get pampered and shops ranging from elegant to trendy.|
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.