Matera - The reawakening of the Sassi

P.2 French P.3 Italiano

2016/10/11 - Written by Paolo Patrito
Matera - The reawakening of the Sassi
Matera - The reawakening of the Sassi
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In the heart of the Basilicata region lies an ancient city that has managed to overcome decades of neglect. It is called Matera, a city that’s home to the Sassi (a series of cave-dwellings that have been inhabited for over 8,000 years). In 2019, Matera, along with Plovdiv in Bulgaria, will share the title of European Capital of Culture.    

Declared a “national shame” in the middle of the last century, due to the dire poverty besetting a large slice of its population, today, Matera is a city in full swing. This is apparent along Via Ridola and Via Del Corso, the backbones of the historic centre – near the edge of the ravine on which the city is suspended – where there is a continuous stream of unearthed cave-churches and restored homes that have been transformed into boutique hotels, shops, bars and restaurants that are bustling on the weekends. 

Of course, there are still several deserted corners, inaccessible houses and quiet courtyards in the neighbourhood of the Sassi, especially in the more remote areas of the Sasso Caveoso. But life is returning in the Sassi at such a fast pace that even the people of Matera have been left stunned. “You see that woman collecting her laundry drying in the sun over there?” one of the guards at the Palazzo Lanfranchi asks me, while showing me a panoramic viewpoint of the city at sunset from the terrace of the museum. “For me it is a poignant scene, because until a few years ago, no one wanted to come back to live here.”

Matera - The reawakening of the Sassi

Around the time of the Second World War, the Sassi – ancient homes built into the rock, which for centuries were considered a sophisticated housing solution – became a symbol of the backwardness besetting the South of Italy. In those years, more than half of the people in Matera lived in caves, where men and animals shared the same spaces in precarious sanitary conditions. “Animals were the main good of the family, invaluable help in the fields and producers of manure that was heated to warm homes,” explains Pietro Colapietro owner of Casa Grotta di Casalnuovo museum (the Cave Homes of Casalnuovo) and one of the most active entrepreneurs in the revitalization of the city. “The mule was often kept at the foot of the bed, so it wasn’t stolen.” 

With the first of the special laws in 1952, the desertion of the Sassi began, a process that would last around 20 years. The inhabitants were given two options: to give up their homes in exchange for a new one, or to remain owners of their caves and buy a house in the new neighborhoods, like La Martella or Spine Bianche. For obvious economic reasons, the vast majority of people chose to give up their cave-home, and it is for this reason that today many Sassi are property of the State. 

Matera - The reawakening of the Sassi

Gradually, in the ’70s and ’80s, a slow process of rediscovery began, gaining new impetus after the Sassi were proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. “But the real rebirth of Matera, from a touristic point of view, began in 2004, when the city was chosen by Mel Gibson to shoot The Passion of the Christ,” explains Emanuele Rizzi, owner of Latteria, a gastropub in business since 1945. The following year, tourists began to arrive. Then, the candidature and election of Matera as European Capital of Culture for 2019 did the rest.” 

Among the main drivers of this challenge – that saw Matera compete against cities like Lecce, Siena, Ravenna, Mantova and Venice – is 50-year-old Turin-native, Paolo Verri, one of the most respected cultural managers in Italy; director of the Turin Book Fair and the Committee that planned the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy. Verri came to Matera in 2011 and literally fell under the charm of the city. He helped put together the application process in collaboration with the city administration, then lead by the mayor, Salvatore Adduce.

Matera - The reawakening of the Sassi

“Only by working there did I understand its true potential,” he explains. “Matera is extraordinary – a town on the border between what is created by God and what is built by man, merging nature and culture. It survives on an unstable equilibrium that is both a point of strength and weakness. Today many tourists have discovered its beauty (the flux of visitors has increased by 100 per cent in two years), but we must protect ourselves from the risk that the immediate result may make us lose sight of our ultimate goal: to transform Matera into a permanent capital of culture and innovation, capable of attracting work and tourism without losing its own identity.” 

Matera - The reawakening of the Sassi

The unfolding of its history, as such, is all in the hands of the people of Matera, especially the young. Like 23-year-old Andrea Santeramo, who in 2012 – sensing a change in the air – joined his brother in launching Apeneisassi, a startup that offers sightseeing tours of the city on board a modified Ape Piaggio. “We started with one vehicle; now we have three and we have transported thousands of people on a culture exchange that has helped us grow. We stayed in Matera because we believed in the possibility of fulfilling our dreams in our own land. And we have been rewarded, because Matera is changing for the better.”

Matera’s 2019 slogan, “Open Future,” encourages changes, growth and innovation. The future is open in Matera, and it is filled with great possibilities.

Translated into English by Athena Mellor 

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