The place History left behind

12:08 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

Italy is rich in History, from the Romans to the Renaissance. But between the ruins of temples, the masterpieces of art and scientific discovery, there are places that history failed to touch. Matera is one such place.

The Greeks didn't come to Matera nor the Romans, or even Dante or Mussolini. A small town on the edge of nowhere, its existence forgotten in the metropolises of Milan, Rome and Naples. Residents joked that even Catholicism forgot about Matera with the often repeated phrase 'Christ Stopped at Eboli'.  Matera was finally revealed to the world in Carlo Levi's book of the same name. At the time Matera was a national shame because of its abject poverty. But to many people today it is beautiful, unique and it is one of my favourite places in Italy. What makes it so special?

Travelling through the region of Basilicata and into Matera is nothing spectacular. Open mines and industrial plants scar the countryside and the first thing you see of modern Matera are charmless concrete apartment blocks. But what Matera is famous for is the Sassi, the ancient cave dwellings. We left the modern town behind straight away and made our way towards the Sassi. Walking along Via Del Corso, we began to find baroque churches and the occasional piazza. One of the best examples of Baroque architecture is the Church of San Francesco d'Assisi, with its beautiful stone facade which seems to change colour with the sunset. But as we explored, we were drawn into the narrow streets and suddenly, the view of the Sassi opened up before us.

Matera is built on the side of a canyon, with tiny stone buildings jostling for space. The modern town lies on the flat plain whilst the old Sassi fall beyond into the canyon. We were standing on the edge of the canyon and given a dramatic panorama of the city, where we began to see its beauty. There are little stone buildings everywhere, with narrow streets and stone staircases crisscrossing the valley. An ancient warren. As darkness descends on the town, the sky turn purple and little lights begin to appear in they valley, as if the stone Sassi are trying to reflect the stars above.

The Greeks and the Romans ignored this part of southern Italy, preferring to settle in more hospitable places. The valley is steep and treeless, and the soil isn't of great quality, so it wasn't a natural place for a settlement. But the canyon is littered with caves which could provide people with shelter from the elements. People began to settle in the caves and work the land as best as they could. Eventually, the caves became too small for the families in them and they began to build new rooms on top of the caves. Organically, a town grew alongside its growing population. Eventually municipal buildings and commercial buildings were built. But people continued to live in the caves, in terrible conditions. The south of Italy has always been terribly poor and Matera is remote, far from signs of the modern world. When Carlo Levi wrote about his political exile in Basilicata, he drew the world's attention to the region and in particular, Matera.

People were living in abject poverty, with truly terrible conditions. The cave dwellings had no windows and many had no doors because the door was the only source of light and fresh air. The people had little furniture and whole families would sleep in a single tall bed, with a wooden cot hanging from the ceiling for babies. Their dogs, chickens and pigs would sleep on the floor beneath them. Amongst this filth without ventilation, sanitation or even electricity, disease was rife. The young were decimated by the rampant malaria, trachoma and dysentery, leaving Matera with one of the highest rates of infant mortality rates in Europe. It seemed like a life from the depths of ancient history. It is easy to forget that the book was actually published in 1945, by which time the aeroplanes were flying in the sky, Frank Sinatra's cover of White Christmas was on the radio and Sir Alexander Flemming won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of Penicillin. Matera's situation was almost beyond hope.

In 1950, the Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi visited the town and Matera became infamous as la vergogna nazionale, 'the national shame'. The Government devised a plan to evacuate the people, rehouse them in modern apartment buildings and destroying the Sassi.  The Government hired prestigious architects and engineers to build modern concrete apartment blocks with windows, electricity, plumbing and bathrooms. They had Modernist ideals to pursue and careers to build. They began the process of rehousing and moved people out in phases. The people who had moved had the basics of a healthy life but quickly became unhappy. Sure life in the Sassi was difficult, but in the apartments they felt isolated from their family and friends. They couldn't see the kids playing in the streets or gossip with the old lady next door while putting out the laundry. When they relocated the community en-masse, it simply disintegrated. They'd lost that intangible essence of fraternity. 'Top down' planning had failed.

Meanwhile, a group of students in Matera had organised themselves and began to ask themselves about the fate of Matera and in turn their own fate. Instead of forcing abstract extrinsic ideals upon the community, they sought to discover Matera's intrinsic qualities. They unearthed unique layer after unique layer of beauty. they found Byzantine frescoes, churches carved out of bare rock, marvellous architecture (with as much as 75% hidden beneath the surface) and ingenious water collection methods. They employed three different types of cistern systems to collect rainwater and had done this for hundreds of years. It was these methods of water collection and storage that eventually saw Matera being classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The students began the process of repopulating the Sassi and eventually convinced the Government to protect the Sassi and provide funds for restoration.

The unique ancient architecture and townscape had been saved from modern obscurity. Compared to its Modern cousins everywhere else in the world, Matera looks magnificent. And the film makers began to notice. Matera feels antique, of another time. It has lent itself to many famous films, often replicating Jerusalem. Some of the most famous movies filmed in Matera include Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), Alberto Lattuada's La lupa (1953) and the modern remake of Ben Hur (2016). It is now a town thriving on tourist money and will become the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Matera's time has finally come.

We learnt about all of this in the great tourist attractions in Matera. You can learn about the history at the Casa Noha Documentary Museum on Recinto Cavone and explore a traditional cave dwelling at Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo on Rione Castelnuovo. You can even try the traditional food in the restaurants, but seeing as this was such a poor area don't expect too much! A traditional dish was puree di fave e cicoria 'mashed broad beans and chicory'. Marcy enjoyed the food but I thought it was a little plain!

What's fascinating to me is that today the Sassi are full of homes and business and life because local people organised themselves and took direct action to preserve their homes and their identity. It wasn't the Government or Developers that revitalised the place, but the residents. Its a wonderful example of community action, or 'bottom up' planning. Today we have a wonderful town that is the complete opposite of the identikit cities we live in today. But more personally, its is a town that is completely beautiful and unique, somewhere to get lost in and fall in love with.
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Thanks for reading my blog! If you liked it please leave me a comment and let me know what you liked! If you've got any questions please ask them and if you've got any amazing travel recommendations please let me know, I'm always looking for somewhere new to explore. Ciao for now!

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