There are places in Italy that are so ancient their continued existence feels like science fiction. The temples at Paestum for example, lit up at night, look to me like ancient spaceships that landed on the plains. Matera, with its bone-colored churches and rock hewn homes, feels like another planet.
Proof of Matera’s other worldly qualities is the fact that GPS absolutely does not work there. Insisting to try is to propel yourself into a video game where you’re suddenly driving through the pedestrianized zone of the city center, trying to evade capture by the video surveillance cameras who will grab your license plate number, and send you an expensive ticket. If you’re on foot with Google Maps, you may as well be Wile E. Coyote taking directions given by The Roadrunner who will tell you, in 200 meters, turn right, and fall into the ravine.
If you’re at all familiar with Matera, you probably know these two opposing facts: 1) It was once the "shame of Italy” because of the horrific poverty exposed by the book “Christ Stopped at Eboli” and 2) It has some amazing luxury hotels.
After a regional decline that began when the wool industry moved from central and Southern Italy to Australia, Matera’s poverty was atrocious. During the reign of Benito Mussolini, writer Carlo Levi was exiled to near Matera for his anti-Fascist views. For a political dissident to be exiled in his own country is testament enough to how remote and abandoned Matera had become.
People lived clustered in caves, usually sheltering goats and pigs in the same spaces. The arid climate and stony land made basic survival a torture. Malaria and cholera were rampant. Levi’s book about the forgotten people of the region was a deeply political act that successfully brought about government intervention. The caves called sassi were cleared out and residents relocated to new, modern homes. Matera’s slate was wiped clean.
The deserted sassi became a hideout for drug addicts and criminals, but by the late 1960s a group of college students interested in reclaiming Matera formed an exploring club. On weekends they traversed the ravines and gorges and found over 150 cave churches from the Middle Ages. They organized campaigns to clean out the sassi and artists began inhabit them. Ancient cisterns were transformed into swimming pools. By the 1980s, more and more local people reclaimed the sassi and began renovating them into small hotels and spas. Without the baggage of a glory period in Matera’s history to hold them back, the forward momentum continued and Matera was named the European Capital of Culture in 2019. This astonishing achievement however is just one piece of the story, but to continue along this journey, we need to leave behind the modern world and use a paper map.
In the 1140s a cartographer named al Idrisi was commissioned by the King of Sicily to sail around the world and make a map, the final product called The Excursion of One Who is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World. Al Idrisi visited Matera and described an ingenious system of cascading water channels and cisterns he saw there. He noted the clever ways that residents organized their lives in the sassi to capture every drop of rainwater to feed their hanging gardens.
Four centuries later the historian Eustachio Verricelli wrote of Matera as a place where “the air is so good that very few people get sick and the inhabitants live very long: many of them live ninety, one hundred years.” He described Matera as a masterpiece of urban planning, with vertical vegetable gardens, and intricate water systems which delivered heating and cooling to the sassi. The most unforgettable description of all: “when it gets dark, after a trumpet sounds, all the inhabitants place a lamp out of the houses — it looks like a starry sky, the sky and the stars are under the feet and not above the head…”
Instead of dominating nature with urban grids, the people of Matera lived tucked inside the landscape, having considered and accommodated the sparse rain, harsh winds, rocky soil, and abundant sunshine.
The decline of the sassi began in the mid 1600s when eco-conscious Matera became a capital city, and the local elite built their palaces directly on top of the sassi in an area they called the civita. All the water channels designed to feed terraced gardens and wash away sewage were smashed or blocked, destroying the engineering that underpinned the city for centuries. Think of it like a slow-motion Johnstown Flood.
As the consequences of the climate crisis come into focus, cities need to learn how to manage with less water, energy, and more and more people migrating to cities. Matera, which has always lived by rural values, has much to teach the rest of the world. Its glory period is now.
Join me for a 90 minute discussion of Matera: The City of Caves on Thursday March 31 at 5pm EST.