by Mark Russell
Matera is candidate to be the European Capital of Culture 2019.My maternal grandparents could never have imagined this!
|In 1921, my grandmother left her family home in the Sasso Barisano for Toronto. She was on her way to marry a Materan man she had never met.
My grandfather had arrived in Canada in 1913 and was eager to find a wife from his home town, especially one who shared his new-found Protestant faith. As family legend has it, if the couple were not married within three days of my grandmother’s arrival, she would have been obliged to return to Italy. Thankfully, this was not the case.
Instead, my grandparents married late in 1921, raised seven children, and became pillars of Toronto’s community of Italian Protestants.
I wish I knew more about my grandparents’ lives in Matera.
Although they maintained a correspondence with family members who remained in Italy, they set their minds upon building a future in Canada. Their past was one of hardship that they were not eager to relive. In fact, many members of Toronto’s Italian community would not admit to having lived in the Sassi, Matera’s large urban cave complex. This is hardly surprising.
| By the beginning of the twentieth century, the city had suffered a long period of urban decline and neglect by local and national governments. As a result, its now famous Sassi, continuously occupied since the late Middle Ages, had been transformed into a peasant ghetto.
One Neapolitan journalist described Matera in 1902 as “bizarrely constructed on the sides of a hill with hardly any contact with civilization, in continual contact with the earth.”
The people, who he described as illiterate and superstitious, were “housed in fetid homes, without air and without light where people, donkeys, and pigs sleep in horrible promiscuity.” It was this image that Carlo Levi offered to Italy and the world in his wonderful book Cristo si è fermato a Eboli published in 1945. In the 1950s, the Sassi and the misery of their peasant inhabitants were denounced as a national disgrace and Matera’s caves forcibly evacuated.
How different things look in 2014! Matera is now considered unique among Italy’s many cultural assets and its candidature for European Capital of Culture is well deserved.
|In 1993, UNESCO listed the Sassi as a World Heritage Monument, noting their importance as a rock-cut settlement that illustrates several significant stages in human history. In addition, the landscape around Matera is home to dozens of rupestrian, or cave churches some established as early as the seventh and eighth centuries. Once occupied by both Greek-Orthodox and Benedictine monks, many contain Byzantine-style frescoes of surprisingly high quality.|
Consequently, Matera now attracts tourists from around the globe, many attracted by its exotic appearance and a perception of the city’s timelessness and separation from the modern world. This perception has been encouraged by several films including Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), both of which were filmed on site.
To be sure, the Sassi that we see today are not ancient, nor are they timeless. Instead, Matera is the product of a rich and fascinating history closely interwoven with that of Southern Italy. And the city continues to change: former cave dwellings are now home to restaurants, bars, hotels, commercial offices, high-tech companies, and new residential development. And yet it is because of their ancient appearance that the Sassi constitute Matera’s principal appeal. Both the Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso offer a wonderful vista that one never forgets.
This is heightened by the fact that the city is dramatically perched on the edge of a deep gorge, known as La Gravina. There are several vantage points from which to enjoy an urban fabric that is incredibly rich and varied with its seemingly chaotic medley of streets, houses, stairways, parapets, arches, window sills, gables, balconies, corbels, and galleries. There is nothing quite like this in Italy; the eye is held captive by this architectural wonder and never tires of a scene that is lit so differently by the sun at various times of the day. And the Sassi are no less beautiful at night when they glow in yellow and orange lamplight against a richly dark sky. Whether looking for intriguing details or dramatic panoramas, Matera is as much a photographer’s paradise as any Italian city.
End of part I – Part II is here