The Sassi of Matera


Think of a town so mindboggingly chaotic and alien to look like something out of time – something so uniquely beautiful to make some of its visitors go mad. This is no exaggeration: ask actor and director Mel Gibson, who admits to have literally lost his mind while scouting the locations for his movie The passion of the Christ. He found his sets in Matera, in southern Italy: the film came out great, and the man quite worse for the wear. Luckily, most tourists survive the visit just fine, although deeply amazed.

Fact is, the central, ancient part of Matera is entirely carved out of two enormous soft limestone rocks, sensibly called Sassi (‘rocks’, indeed) in Italian. Its first inhabitants began living in the natural caves dotting the area 13,000 years ago – you can still visit them today, and appreciate the incredible effort of sculpting a whole city to bend nature to the human will. The work, which continues to this day with very careful interior renovations keeping the outside untouched, left traces of a multitude of architectural styles layered one upon the other through the centuries, and this is what makes Matera so unique.

Describing the city in detail is impossible, as its unusual origins produced a veritable labyrinth of narrow alleys crisscrossing the sassi in all directions: horizontally, vertically and through them. Buildings have been built one out of another, so it is common to find the façade of a church, then walking in and discovering a cistern, and taking a sideways detour reaching the communal court of the medieval equivalent of a condominium. The effect of it all is dazzling to outsiders, also because of the disconcerting superimposition of elements going back even 3,000 years ago through the 1700s.

Although surely chaotic, the sassi are also a marvel of efficiency. Waterways and cisterns guaranteed their survival throughout the centuries, while the very limestone of the buildings ensures that they remain at a constant temperature of 15 Celsius degrees – just a cool enough to be comfortable. The structure is obviously hard to integrate with modern necessities like a proper sewer system, electrical conduits and so on. This led to a gradual depopulation that was stopped in 1952 by a series of State interventions aimed to preserve the cultural heritage of the sassi while upgrading them to modern living standards. The effort was a resounding success, and today the sassi of Matera are a symbol of Italian tradition visited by tourists from all over the world.