From “Shame of Italy” to Capital of Culture: Matera’s Glow Up
Few cities in Italy have experienced the sweeping changes that this prehistoric canyon town has. For a city that was struggling to keep its citizens alive just 70 years ago, the last few decades have been a bit of a whirlwind. Let’s take a moment to unpack Matera’s rags to riches story and the challenges still ahead.
An Ancient World of Stone
Matera is also known as the underground city, thanks to the prehistoric cave dwellings carved into the canyon walls called the Sassi. Caves that continue to be in use to this very day. That’s not the only feature of this city that makes it one-of-a-kind. Looking out over its horizon feels like gazing over a sea of stone. A space that exists outside of the ebb and flow of time itself.
Unsurprisingly, many biblical themed films end up choosing Matera as their filming location. The stone houses and cobblestone streets make excellent stand-ins for ancient Israel. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, The Nativity Story, and that unfortunate Ben-Hur remake have all been filmed here.
The city’s roots go all the way back to the Paleolithic age. While an exact date hasn’t been pinned down, artifacts have been discovered that go back over 9,000 years. While it’s certainly not the oldest civilization out there, it is the oldest that has seen the most continuous use. Byzantines, Germanic tribes, Normans, as well as Benedictine and Basilian monks have all left their mark. A series of 150 churches are scattered across the caves. The most famous is the Crypt of Original Sin, AKA “the Sistine Chapel of Rupestrian art.” Not knowing what they had, the space had been used at one point to keep sheep! Today it belongs to a local winery, who offers tours to view the ancient frescoes. Not a bad way to enjoy some history in a unique setting.
The “Shame of Italy”
Matera’s problems began after Italy’s unification in 1870. All the way through the 1950’s it was an isolated, impoverished city. Families and their farm animals lived together in the caves dotting the ravine like Swiss cheese. No electricity, no running water. Disease and infant mortality rates were a major problem. It wasn’t until Carlo Levi’s 1945 book Christ Stopped at Eboli that people learned of Matera’s condition. The resulting outrage led to a visit by the Prime Minister in 1952. This ended up launching a campaign to build and relocate people to better housing.
As promised, new homes were built a few miles away and people left the caves behind. That sounds all well and good, but the Sassi residents were out of their element. They missed communal living and had trouble adapting to this new modern way of life. You have to understand, these people had never even dealt with the basic amenities that we all take for granted. For most, however, losing their close-knit community was the most difficult change of all.
Restoration & Recognition
Aside from the odd film crew, the Sassi became largely abandoned. Falling into neglect and attracting vagrants, the government considered covering them in concrete! As luck would have it, a group of college students began to research and explore the caves. What was this ancient source of shame for many of their parents and grandparents?
Together, they discovered the many cave churches including the Crypt of Original Sin. Thanks in part to Carlo Levi, the group lobbied for the protection the Sassi for future generations. Levi was a huge supporter of Matera, but didn’t live to see its rebirth (he died in 1971). It wasn’t until 1986, that a decision was made to improve the Sassi. In 1993, Matera was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status. Since then, restaurants, bars, jazz clubs, museums, spas, and boutique luxury cave hotels and rentals have all popped up.
A European Capital of Culture
Matera won its bid as a Capital of Culture back in 2014. While pleased at the time, some of that excitement has turned to anxiety. After all, overtourism is becoming more and more of a problem in Rome, Florence, and Venice. Could they contend with the possible strain on resources? This fear of becoming overrun with tourists looking for the next big Instagrammable hot spot wasn’t much of a thing back in 2014.
Infrastructure and accessibility are other areas of concern. The closest airport is in Bari in Puglia. From there, a 2hr. regional train or bus are the fastest route to Matera. Due to Italy’s notorious bureaucracy, a highway through Basilicata to Matera still stands incomplete even after nearly 40 years of construction. Ouch.
Paolo Verri, the head of Matera’s Capital of Culture events, is a lot more optimistic. Thank goodness, or this would be a very bleak article! He and his foundation see this as a once in a lifetime chance. For the first time, a southern Italian city is on the global stage. Even more spectacularly, one that was once a national disgrace.
Verri’s foundation is taking an interesting approach to Matera’s unique challenges. By introducing visitors to the culture and history of Matera, they welcome them as one of their own. Instead of tourists they become “temporary citizens.” In what other cities would consider a bold move, Verri has chosen to partner with AirBnB. Events don’t strictly take place within the city either. This will ideally keep overcrowding to a minimum. It also is intended to act as an incentive to get visitors to see the surrounding areas of Matera and the Basilicata region as a whole.
As a testament to its approach to hospitality, embracing technology, and sharing culture and history, the slogan “Open Future” is appropriate. For 19 euros you can get a temporary citizen “passport” that acts as a ticket to many of the capital of culture events in Matera for the duration of 2019. I say many because not all of the events require the passport. This could be helpful for day trippers, but you’ll need to check the website to see which events are free.
The year-long festivities include workshops, concerts, performances, and art exhibitions. Events and programs are grouped into five themes. There is Ancient Future, Continuity and Disruptions, Reflections and Connections, Utopias and Dystopias, and Roots and Routes. There are events geared towards kids, and plenty of food, wine, and beer activities for the adults. If you want to see the full calendar, head over to their event page for all the details. They’re also doing a pretty good job of keeping their YouTube channel updated for those who want a peek of the goings on.
Have you spent any time in this ancient city? Share your experiences in the comments below!