Sassi di Matera: Unraveling Centuries of History and Timeless Charm
If you seek a destination in Italy that is as unique as it is fascinating, look no further than the Sassi di Matera. Nestled within the historic center of Matera, in the picturesque region of Basilicata, these two districts are a testament to the city's enduring history and cultural significance. The Sassi, ancient cave dwellings inhabited since the Paleolithic period, have earned Matera the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, gracing the silver screen in numerous movies and TV shows.
Discovering the Sassi di Matera
The term "sasso" finds its roots in Latin, meaning a hill, rock, or great stone. The Sassi are houses skillfully carved into the calcarenitic rock, locally known as "tufo," a defining feature of Basilicata and Apulia. The streets wind atop one another, creating a captivating and layered urban landscape, enhancing the charm of Matera's Old Town.
The Sassi are divided into two main areas: Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. The former, situated closer to the ravine formed by the Gravina River, boasts an irregular shape. Meanwhile, the latter is more spacious with a linear layout. Combined with the Civita, the oldest part of the city built on a spur that separates them, they form the intricate tapestry of Matera's historic core.
The Evolution of the Sassi di Matera through Time
Originating from a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, evidence suggests human habitation as early as 7000 BC. Throughout the ages, the Sassi absorbed diverse historical and cultural influences, including the Roman, Byzantine, Lombard, Norman, Angevin, Aragonese, and Bourbon periods. Consequently, the Sassi evolved into a harmonious blend of architectural styles, incorporating elements of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical design.
The Sassi also boast a rich religious heritage, with hundreds of rupestrian churches intricately carved into the rock. Adorned with frescoes spanning from the 8th to the 18th century, these churches reflect artistic influences ranging from Byzantine and Romanesque to Baroque. Among the noteworthy churches are Santa Maria de Idris, San Pietro Caveoso, Santa Lucia alle Malve, and Madonna delle Virtù.
Abandonment and Rediscovery of the Sassi di Matera
In the 1950s, facing dire living conditions marked by extreme poverty, malaria, overcrowding, and a lack of basic services, the Italian government made the difficult decision to relocate most of the Sassi's population to modern areas of the city. Regrettably, these conditions were deemed an affront to the new Italian Republic. However, resilient individuals continued to preserve their ancestral traditions and culture in the Sassi.
In 1993, UNESCO recognized the Sassi as a World Heritage Site, acknowledging their exceptional testimony to human history and culture. Subsequently, with support from the European Union, the government, and UNESCO, the local administration initiated the regeneration of the Sassi. Today, they stand as a vibrant destination, hosting thriving businesses, pubs, hotels, museums, and cultural events, while offering breathtaking views of the Murgia plateau and the Gravina canyon.
Experiencing the Sassi di Matera
To fully immerse yourself in the beauty and charm of the Sassi di Matera, explore their narrow alleys and staircases, marvel at their architecture and craftsmanship, and visit their churches and museums to delve into their rich history and art. Stay in one of the cave hotels or B&Bs to experience their cozy and authentic atmosphere, and savor local cuisine and products like bread, cheese, wine, and pastries.
For a deeper understanding, join guided tours or workshops that unveil different facets of the Sassi's culture and heritage. Participate in festivals or events celebrating their traditions and creativity, watch movies or shows featuring them as scenic backdrops, and even create your own art or craft inspired by their shapes and colors.
The Sassi di Matera beckon as a treasure trove of history, culture, and beauty, enchanting visitors with their timeless appeal. They are a sanctuary where centuries of human stories and emotions resound, inviting you to discover the profound essence of Matera's enduring legacy.