“The first time I saw her, I went crazy, because it was simply perfect.” More than anyone would think that Mel Gibson dedicated these words to a beautiful woman. Instead the protagonist of this love at first sight is Matera, a town that rises in the eastern part of Basilicata to 401 meters above sea level, on the border between the Murge plateau to the east and the Bradanica pit to the west. Matera was elected European Capital of Culture 2019. The director of “The Passion of Christ” chose to shoot his most famous film here in 2004. Matera is built entirely on the rock: what is now the urban settlement of Lucania has developed starting from natural caves: the famous Sassi (en. Stones) . A place so magical and evocative that it must be protected, at any cost. In 1993 UNESCO declared the Sassi di Matera a World Heritage Site, the first site of the south to receive this privilege. For the first time in its history Unesco talks about “Cultural Landscape”, to describe a place in the world where History breaks into every foreshortening , in every stone, in every corner.
Matera: the history of the European capital of culture 2019
The charm of this land comes from the fusion of different landscapes, civilizations and cultures. Every age has left its mark on Matera, without succeeding in winning over the Past, without changing it, without affecting its purity and originality. The Sassi di Matera impose themselves on the view as a unique panorama in the world. A perfect example of adaptation to the environment: here the man has been able to exploit the characteristics of the natural environment to transform a rocky spike in a place of daily life, in shelter, in home. The rocky landscape of Matera begins to take shape in the Palaeolithic: to the caves already present naturally are added those carved by man. With the advent of Christianity among the sassi di Matera began to emerge impressive places of worship: the Cathedral of Matera, the church of San Giovanni Battista, the Church of S. Domenico, the Church of Santa Maria della Valle Verde on the Via Appia. In the ’50s the fame of Matera was not particularly positive. In “Christ stopped at Eboli“, Carlo Levi describes it as a place of sorrowful beauty, in which the demographic increase had created a situation of total degradation through the Sassi di Matera. The world’s attention spilled over what was then called the “national shame” by Palmiro Togliatti. With the “Special Law for the displacement of the Sassi” imposed by the government, Matera became a ghost town. With the appointment of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the rebirth of this town, unique in the world, has begun, a treasure of Southern Italy dear to the whole of Europe.
The Sassi di Matera: the traces of a past that resists to progress
The urban nucleus of Matera is formed around the hill of the Civita that divides the Sassi in two: the Sasso Barisano facing east and the Sasso Caveoso facing south. Both rocky spurs rise on one of the sides of a canyon dug in time by the Gravina stream. The dwellings excavated by the Lucanians over time have represented the heart of rural civilization, ancient refuges that made the cold stone warm. Today the stones have been restored and rehabilitated, and many of these rocky houses hide a surprising interior. With the small lights lit in the snowy winter evenings, on the slope appears a real papier-mâché crib, a characteristic that earned Matera the nickname of “little Bethlehem”. Time seems to have stopped in Matera, as evidenced by the Casa-Grotta in the heart of the Caveoso rock. The life of many large families concentrated in a room that was also shared with the animals. On the other side extends the Natural Historical Archaeological Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera, also known as the Murgia Materana Park. Here are the oldest settlements in the area: the Cave of the Pipistrelli, the Neolithic villages of Murgecchia, Murgia Timone and Trasanello to the north and the rock villages of Selva, the Saraceno village to the south.
What to see in Matera: an immersion in the Lucanian culture and traditions
On every respectable spurs rocky there is a castle and Matera is no exception: on the Lapillo hill stands the Tramontano Castle, dating back to the fifteenth century and left unfinished after the death of its owner, Count Tramontano. Many churches of all ages will capture your attention. Among the most characteristic: Santa Maria de Idris, Santa Lucia alle Malve, San Pietro Barisano. A majestic bell tower announces the presence of the Romanesque-Pugliese cathedral. Unmissable is the visit to the Palombaro lungo, also known as the Duomo dell’acqua, one of the largest tanks in Europe. And then again noble palaces, squares and panoramic points. In Matera you breathe culture at every step and nature becomes art in this little piece of the ancient world.
The perfect movie set: Matera on the big screen
Matera has also won the hearts of great directors of all time. 55 features have been set here, among the Sassi di Matera. It begins in the ’50s with‘ La lupa ‘(1953) by Alberto Lattuada,‘ Il conte di Matera ‘(1958) by Luigi Capuano with Virna Lisi,‘ Le due sorelle ‘(1950) by Mario Volpe. Then you get to the most recent films, such as ‘Basilicata Coast to Coast’ (2010) by Rocco Papaleo with Alessandro Gassman, Paolo Briguglia and Max Gazzè. Two masterpieces of Italian and international cinema have been set in Matera. In 1964, Pier Paolo Pasolini turned “The Gospel according to Matthew” here. For the story of the life of Jesus, from birth to resurrection, the unforgettable Italian director chose non-professional actors and extras among the Lucanian peasants. As already mentioned, in 2004, Mel Gibson also fell in love with Matera, who chose her as the location of his “Passion of Christ.” Same scenario, but a stellar cast to reconstruct the last tormented moments in the life of Jesus.
Matera 2019 is Europe’s choice to celebrate culture. Everyone’s eyes will be further laid on this Made in Italy jewel. As the world continues to accelerate, there is a place where the clock hands are still, where the scent of the past blends with that of freshly baked bread, where life slows down and simply enjoys itself: this place is called Matera .