The origin of Matera


The original shape of the area where the Sassi still persist was purely hilly and rich in vegetation.

At the top of the hill was built the district called “Civita”, where today stands the cathedral of Matera built in the thirteenth century. On the left the Sasso Barisano and on the right the Sasso Caveoso.

If we go back in time to prehistory, this hill appeared as a place suited to the permanence of nomadic peoples in search of food, water and defense.

The thick vegetation that covered the rocky cliff was rich in wild animals and fruit and was delimited by three quarters of a deep morphological depression, called Gravina. This is crossed from north to south by the river of the same name; and by two furrows of river erosion called “grabiglioni” that converged from west and south towards the torrent.

In another cleft, to the left of the river, bordered by the hills of Murgecchia and Murgia Timone, there is “u yiry” (the gorgo), a perennial pond fed by the river Jesce.

Finding the ideal conditions for the settlement, these first inhabitants settled on this impregnable height that allowed the control of the surrounding territory.

The first settlement

Subsequently, the natives moved to the surrounding natural caves and then to excavate new ones to meet the needs of the entire community.

Later, it’s with the advent of agriculture and breeding that the conditions are established for a subsistence economy and for a permanent permanence of human groups. Many centuries pass and while elsewhere great civilizations and monumental buildings rise; here we continue to dig and go deeper and deeper, developing the largest cave settlement in the world. The archaeological evidence of this area allows us to confirm a stable and increasingly numerous human presence.

The depopulation and the reconquest of the Sassi

During the first millennium B.C.E., especially from the 5th century onwards, the “Civita” experienced a demographic decrease. Fidings from the Greek and Roman periods are very rare, probably due to a migration to the Ionian coasts in conjunction with the colonization of Magna Graecia.

The migration process was even more exacerbated by the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the consequent occupation of the territory by peoples who were alien to Latin civilization.

The restocking of the surrounding hill and caves began only with the presence of a Longobardo military garrison; whose leaders lived in buildings built in the area called “Castelvecchio”. Longobardo ethnic groups settled, instead, in an area of the Sasso Barisano.

The first urban nucleus was consolidated under the Byzantine government and around the “Civita” the city walls were erected, inside which there were the administrative authorities, while the rest of the population found hospitality in the caves of the Sassi, then called Caveoso and Barisano.

The monastic orders Era

With the arrival of the monastic communities, however, the excavation was no longer random. The churches became real architectures with apses, naves, columns, capitals, obtained by capable excavators under the skillful guidance of the monks. Thus, the caves also became shops, stores, stables and factories. Inside the walls the Benedictine monastery of Sant ‘Eustachio was built, where Pope Urban II stayed between 1093 and 1094. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with the Norman-Swabian domination, the walls around the “Civita” widened; from which the two doors of “yis” and “sis” (lower and upper) were accessed from the floor, and from port “p’stal” (Posterla today Pistola) on the side of Sasso Caveoso.

In 1270 the Cathedral was built, which, together with the monastery of Sant’Eustachio constituted an impressive monumental complex for the inhabitants of the surrounding caves. Thus the “Civita” became the administrative-religious center of the city, and several noble palaces were erected in the course of the following centuries. (the two Gattini palaces, Palazzo Malvezzi, Palazzo Moro, etc.).

The expansion outside the wall

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (the Angevin-Aragonese period) the city expanded outside the walls with the birth of Piazza Sedile.  Meanwhile in the Sassi, thanks to economic and social growth, the houses built with the tuffs caved from the caves below and the “Civita” assumed the current urban configuration, above the two districts Barisano and Caveoso. Towards the beginning of the 16th century, the city was ceded by the Aragonese to Count Giovan Carlo Tramontano, who was later killed in 1514 by the inhabitants in revolt for taxes. In 1663, in the Spanish era, the city of Matera obtained the dignity of the capital of Basilicata and the seat of the Regia Udienza. This transfer remained unchanged until 1806, when Giuseppe Bonaparte, named King of the Two Sicilies, transferred the capital to Potenza.

 The post-unification declines

After the Unification of Italy, a certain malaise began to spread in Matera and in other areas of the Mezzogiorno due to the lack of redistribution of the land. The emergence of popular unrest culminated with the killing of Count Gattini; he was responsible for having taken possession of the state lands and of not having redistributed them to the population.

 The second World War and the abandonment of the Sassi

Matera was the first Italian city to rise against the Nazi occupiers on September 21, 1943. The liberated city was clamoring for agrarian redistribution, anticipating the reconstruction movements. In 1948, the question of the Sassi of Matera broke out, raised by Togliatti first and then by De Gasperi, and which forced the 15,000 inhabitants of the Sassi to move into the new residential quarters of the city. In 1986, a national law ordered the recovery of the Sassi, degraded by thirty years of neglect and the damage of the Irpinia earthquake.

European Capital of Culture 2019

Many are the reasons that led to the choice of Matera as European Capital of Culture 2019; the jury was impressed by the enthusiasm and innovativeness characterizing the artistic approach. There are several projects with the potential to attract a diverse and wider European audience, including the great Renaissance exhibition of the South.

How to visit

The guided visit to Matera is included into “Making traditional bread of Matera” and “From Wheat to Oven, the centenary history of Matera bread” experiences.