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The Sassi of Matera
Palimpsests were medieval docments that were erased and then reused a number of time in order to preserve precious paper. The erasure were not perfect and traces of older writing often showed though, building up, layer by layer, a kind of ghostly record of all that had gone before. In a sense, most of Southern Italy could be called an archaeological palimpsest.
The region of Basilicata (or Lucania) is a case in point. There are still remnants of the ditch villages of pre-European peoples from 8,000 years ago. On top of this there are signs of early Indo-European peoples such as the Oenotrians and the early Greeks of Magna Grecia who displaced them in the 8th century, b.c. This is mixed with signs of Italic tribes such as the Lucanians, Oscans, and Samnites, all absorbed by the civilization which was ultimately to leave its own indelible imprint across three continents: the Romans. Then came the Lombards, Byzantine Greeks, the Normans, the Angevin French, the great Spanish realm of Charles V, (on whose empire "the sun never set"), and so forth down to our own day when the area was taken up into a united Italy.
one of the two provinces of Basilicata (the Italian
region adjacent to Campania in the south); the capital
city of the province is also named Matera. The old
part of this city of 50,000 inhabitants is known the
world over for its ancient urban complex, the Sassi.
Of all the kinds of dwellings we humans have built
over the ages—our huts, shanties, castles,
hovels—nothing quite arrests the attention as the sassi
of Matera. Built on—into, really—both sides of a
gigantic limestone outcropping overlooking a deep
ravine, the sassi (meaning, simply, "stones")
are a labyrinth of cave-dwellings. The caves,
themselves, were lived in without interruption from
the Neolithic (about 10 thousand years ago) until the
1960s and are thus likely to be the oldest continually
inhabited human settlement in Italy. As "The Sassi and
the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera," the
site has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage
list since 1993. From the UNESCO description:
This is the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem. The first inhabited zone dates from the Palaeolithic, while later settlements illustrate a number of significant stages in human history. Matera is in the southern region of Basilicata.
The sassi came into their own between the 8th and 13th centuries AD, when the caves became a refuge for groups of monks persecuted in the Iconoclast controversy that shook the Byzantine Empire. In Matera, these refugees were isolated and safe in a no-man's land between waning Byzantine power further south and unstable Lombard influence to the north. The monks moved into the caves and built halls, sanctuaries and chapels. Later, many of the cave dwellings were taken over by peasants as homes for themselves and quarters for their animals. Over the last millennium, houses have organically grown out of the original fissures and caves; steps, roofs and balconies have been added; everything is arrayed in an irregular jumble, layer upon jagged layer, roof to wall, balcony to doorstep, all so helter-skelter that the overall impression is that of a beehive built by bees who don't like following orders.
On a more
sombre note, writer Carlo Levi, upon seeing the sassi
for the first time, said he was reminded of his
childhood visions of what Dante's Inferno
must have looked like: the descending layers
spiralling down into darkness and who knows what
awful perdition and, when the sassi were
still inhabited, the thousands of candles
glimmering in the small windows at night might
indeed have looked like fires burning in hell.
Levi's infernal vision notwithstanding, others
have seen quite the opposite in Matera. The
strange combination of age and agelessness about
Matera lends it a Biblical quality, and here is
where, in 1964, director Pier Paolo Pasolini
filmed his life of Christ, The Gospel
According to Matthew and where, in 2004, Mel
Gibson filmed The
Passion of the Christ.
The entire complex is perhaps the most outstanding example anywhere in the world of spontaneous rural architecture, yet the problems of great numbers of people living at such close quarters were enormous. There have been utopian claims that the 20,000 inhabitants living in the sassi at mid-20th-century were a unique example of peasants, landowners, shepherds, craftsmen, merchants and laborers living in social harmony. The modern Italian state did not see things quite that way. It saw an infant mortality rate of 43%(!) and a medieval folk magic that treated ills by sprinkling the blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken on the victim.
passed during the 1950s to alleviate the
overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions. This
meant moving most of the people out. New quarters
were built in the town of Matera, itself, and the
sassi have now essentially become empty
shells, except for a small and strictly limited
number of inhabitants. The area has become, as
well it should, an object of tourist interest, and
this has led to an ongoing project to keep the
houses, churches, villas, the small squares and
long flights of stairs of the sassi from
deteriorating. As noted above, the sassi
have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list
of cultural artifacts worth preserving at all
Aside from the houses, themselves, there are in the area a great number of ancient cave churches displaying Orthodox as well as Catholic ornamentation within. Time and vandals have ravaged them to a certain extent, but some original Greek icons on cave walls are still clearly visible and venerable. Even traces of prehistoric habitation can be found within some of the caves.
If you want
to actually buy one of the sassi dwellings and
restore it, you can do that, too, and get a 50%
subsidy from the state! On the other hand, if you
just want to visit for a day, it's only a few
hours south of Naples on a fast autostrada.
2004 I had a kind letter from Elizabeth Jennings of
Matera, who tells me that "...A goodly portion of the
Sassi are now restored and the area is a beehive of
activity, particularly in summer. Restaurants, bars,
pizzerias, salsa clubs...the
streets hum with the sound of foot traffic and
voices...concerts and plays...and a plan to convert a
huge grotto into the Casa Grotta, a big cultural
center. The human overlay is very modern and young."