Fabrizio Fiorenzano
Fabrizio Fiorenzano

Stones of Matera

To visit Italy means to stay in a nation that from many aspects I prefer to define, “The little America.” Yes, because like the United States, from the natural side, Italy is able to offer to the visitors seas, mountains, lakes, rivers, deserts and forests. The difference is that in Italy you can find and discover things that not all the nations of the world are able to offer. For example the alive and warm contact to the oldest history and civilizations.

One of the most enchanting and suggestive places in the world, that until some years ago was not so famous and known is, of course, the ancient part of the city of Matera. In terms of greatness it is the second city of the region Basilicata after the city of Potenza. It has been considered, for long time, a poor and deprived place without any interest. However, in the time, it has got a great notoriety, and above all, that importance and appreciation able to make it deserve a place between the Italian sites elected by the Unesco: “World Heritage

Since 1993 in fact, Matera has been inscribed in this prestigious list especially thanks to its historical and characteristic old districts. We are talking about the “Stone Caveoso” and the “Stone Barisano”. Both, in addition to the district “Civita” give origin to a huge and wide complex, and at the same time, to a fascinating urban nucleus.

With the decline of the Roman empire there was the abandonment and the impoverish of the coastal areas. This caused the exodus of the population toward the internal installations of prehistoric age, that suffered from various constructive stratification, in which is still possible to notice a strong connection among the Greek and the Byzantine environment happened during the centuries.

Matera is a unique and exceptional example of a cultural tradition and civilization of our own story. For its constructions, architectural and landscape complexes, it is also the direct testimony of the most important human history moments.

We can consider it as a great example of a traditional human installation and colonization of the territory that represents a culture (or more cultures).

From Neolithic age to our days, for a period of about seven thousand years, human life was spent always in the same place without interruptions.

The old city has risen in a rocky area behind a great inlet called Gravina of Matera and developed in a narrow and intimate relationship with the rock.

The numerous natural caves in the territory of Matera, were the first houses of the inhabitants that did not passively suffer from the forms of the nature but instead the people took advantage from the morphology of the land, determining new routes and architectures.

So began an important and fatiguing work of excavation and the reusable masonry material was used to close the entrances of the caves.

Exist many caves one over another and arranged, in good part, in a chaotic and blunderer way. Is possible to count up to ten dug floors the one on the others. The roof of a house can appears as a road, a stairway, a garden or as the floor of another house.

We can see, walking through the Stones, to come upon in many chimney pots that sprout out of the road. And without understand, we are quietly walking on the roof of a house.

Is not easy to distinguish a natural rock from something made by the human being. This form of architecture is called “Spontaneous Architecture“. In the sense that it conforms itself to the territory in a new way, even if the realized forms reveal cultured and elegant architectural styles.

The word “Stones” points out that historical center where a lot of houses were dug and built in the rock and that immediately strike the attention of visitors arriving in the city. It is a so surreal and unusual landscape that gives the emotion to stay in front of a picture.

Its rocky and Byzantine churches adorned with old paintings appearing on the surfaces of the walls eroded by the time. Its antiquities and the rests of a country civilization that lived in the caverns that lived into the caves until the end of the sixties years, are still now under our eyes with a transparency and an unique charm. It is here that is possible to breath the perfume of the history at a pure state. A place where the time seems to have been stopped and having the power to arouse a strong sense of respect. Although Matera is not a so famous place from an archaeological point of view, as Pompeii, Agrigento or Pozzuoli are, it has those such environmental characteristics so to be made impossible not to be stricken or to remain indifferent in front of a such exceptional beauty, that has done of Matera one of the most suggestive and appreciate cities of the world.

It is not at all a coincidence that the sceneries of this place have been the only ones to be able to sustain the weight of a monumental artistic and cinema work as the movie of Mel Gibson “The Passion of the Christ”, a work that absolutely  required of a special environment endowed with mystical colors. The American director, before Matera, visited Tunisia, Morocco, New Mexico and Turkey. At the end he decided that the only a place like the Stones could offer the possibility to realize the film.

The enthusiasm of Mel Gibson for Matera is reassumed in these words pronounced by the director: “Some parts of the city are two thousand years old, and they resemble to the landscape that probably was in the Judea. The architecture of the city, the rocks and the surrounding landscape have furnished us an exceptional background. We have made a lot of trust on the sight that was had there. The first time that I have seen Matera, I have lost my head, because it was simply perfect!”


But the history of Matera is full of other famous cinema events since they have been over forty films turned here by the greatest directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alberto Lattuada.

But which was the true reasons of the suit and total abandonment of the Stones happened during so many years? And again, why the historical center of this city has become in the time a ghost place? Everything has origin with a slow, progressive and inexorable yelding of the ecosystem initiated at the end of the eighteenth century, that caused a breakup of the natural equilibriums and of the conditions of life producing an irremediable impoverishment of the life itself.

The reasons that changed the face of Matera during the years was many, as for example the increase of the population as the crisis of the agricultural life, but above all, the construction of new residences that have made more and more difficult, and subsequently impossible, the provisioning  of water for the old residential center.

Some cisterns were emptied and used to widening the available space in which to live, even the cisterns themselves ended up being turned into the residences. Due the nature of the territory it was practically impossible to have waterworks structures or a sewerage. The houses had become by now of promiscuous use and in many cases they entertained in adjacent environments both people and animals.

A lot of rocky churches were transformed from places of cult in houses and the situation was destined to worse up to the forties years. 

The Government, after have seen the risks of this new condition of life, sentenced that was illegal to live in this manner, so it decided to offer to the inhabitants the possibility to live in new houses asking in exchange a little and derisive canon for the expropriation and the abandonment of the old and ancient residence.

Only the richest inhabitants did benefit of this situation because they could afford to purchase a new house refusing the proposal of the authorities. The richest ones succeeded so to maintain the ownership of the old and precious residence.

It was so that in a limited period of fifteen years, about 18.000 people, beginning from those that lived under the worse conditions, abandoned the old houses of tufo in order to move themselves toward the new districts until the total evacuation of the historical center.

Matera was now an alive city with a dead central area, and so the Stones became the greatest and completely abandoned historical center of the world.

If we want better understand which was the usage of the inhabitants living in the ancient districts of the Stones of Matera before they were abandoned, is advisable to visit in Vico Solitario, inside the neighborhood of the Stone Caveoso, a typical house cave furnished with the furniture, the beds and the utensils of that epoch so to offer to the visitors the possibility to have a precise and more realistic idea of how was organized the familiar life in this place. It is a true and very beautiful experience!

Today, local authorities and environmentalist associations are fighting to preserve Matera from the annoying invasion of the Tour operators that would succeed only in violating, with the entry of the mass tourism, the sacredness of a magic place like this. Unfortunately the economic interest often exceeds the public decency and we warmly hope that this threat of commercial infection never will arrive at the heart of the city.

The best and advisable season to visit Matera is between the months of May and July. The weather is still beautiful and the chaotic Italian mass tourism of August is not yet running. If you do not want to be assisted by a local guide (some of them speak English and can take you to discover some of the unknown sites of the city), you can purchase a typical tourist guide book or got useful info from a lot of internet resources.

Matera is far only five hours car driving from Rome and about three hours from Naples.

The fastest way to arrive at Matera is the car or motorcycle but bus or train can be alternative solutions. You can rent a car for one day or for a couple of days spending one night in one of the comfortable and cheap hotels of Matera.

Photos and text by Fabrizio Fiorenzano

HIGH RESOLUTION PICTURES (Tiff or Jpeg) are available for sale upon regular request at the address: https://www.frcreations.it/contacts/ using the contact form with subject “Photo request”.  


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