From the balustrade in Piazzetta Pascoli there is a stunning view over the whole of the Civita, the ancient city overlooked by the Cathedral bell-tower, and the Sasso Caveoso. It looks like a “crib city”, a highly unusual urban spectacle that never fails to awaken extraordinarily powerful feelings in those who come upon it for the very first time.
Its geographical locus is fundamental to the essence of Matera. Every city has its origins in that particular blend of factors that make the survival of an organised community possible. Among the prime requirements are defensibility, water, woods, an abundance of provender and land suitable for cultivation.
The land around Matera was eminently suitable for an agrarian and hunting community.
Permanent settlements of organised social communities go back as far as the Neolithic Age.
Three separate villages, like the points of a hypothetical triangle, gravitated around an infinite source of water locally known as the Jurio (or “gorgo”, meaning whirlpool), a small lake in the Gravina of Matera in front of the Piazzetta where we are now standing and which constitutes an important reservoir. The fact that it is so deeply embedded between tall overhanging rocks that the sun’s rays cannot reach its surface means that the evaporation process is radically diminished so that even during the summer months, when the torrent that fed into it dried up completely, the lake managed to conserve an abundant quantity of water. These settlements survived, probably until man the hunter and breeder developed into man the farmer when, because of the lack of land suitable for cultivation on the Murgia, two of these villages were abandoned in favour of the Civita hill.
Thanks to various determining factors such as its inherent defensibility and its barycentric position between the Murgia, which was ideally suited to stock rearing and hunting, and the land suitable for cultivation lying fallow near the Bradano river, the Civita hill was gradually developed and became a populated, albeit disarticulated, agricultural and agrarian nucleus.
So it continued during first the Greek and then the Roman periods, although it is seems likely that interconnecting relationships developed between the various settlements over the course of the centuries until the Civita hill gradually became a single village in which a meagre living was eked out in the cave dwellings cut from the tufa rock-face – a highly unusual way of colonising the rocks - which continued and developed over the following centuries as the chiselled rocky slopes became home to ever-growing numbers of multilevel habitations connected by a maze of steep steps and alleyways.
During the Late Middle Ages, Matera was a crucial border point between the Byzantine East and the West; it was fortified by the Lombards in particular for use as a “Stewardship”, thus assuming to all intents and purposes the role of a city, with its own defensive city wall and a castle, on the top of the hill.
It is easy to pick up the traces of the defensive wall by looking straight along from the Cathedral over to the line of the rocks, now broken up by buildings that have been erected on the sites of the old castle and of the wall. This circle of walls formed a ring around the rock on which the Cathedral now stands.
At much the same time, the two valleys on either side of the Cathedral were slowly becoming inhabited. Modest rural settlements known as casali took root, which, with the rock-churches, provided the basis for what was to become the urbanisation of the Sasso Caveoso in front of the Cathedral and the Sasso Barisano at its back.
Between the year 1000 and the C14th, the historic centre of Matera was planimetric, and looked like a bird with its wings outspread: the Civita was the head and body and the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano were the two wings.
Before launching into a description of the city, this is probably a good time to discuss the origins of the name Matera. There is a certain amount of controversy over this and so far, no single expert in the field has managed to find a convincing etymological explanation on which all the others are prepared to agree. Some claim that it derives from the Greek “Meteoron”, some from the Greek-Ionic Matera, meaning mother, others still maintain that it is the result of the fusion of the first few letters of the names of the two ruined cities in Magna Graecia that lay on the banks of the Ionian Sea not far from Matera: Metaponto and Heraclea. The name remains shrouded in mystery.
From the C15th onwards, the city began to overshoot the boundaries of the defensive wall and put down its roots in the two large valleys, laying the foundations for the two districts of the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso. The rocky mass of the Monterrone with its two rock-churches marked by a big iron Cross rises up directly in front.
Straight down, below the balustrade, one can see the twists and turns of the road running across the face of the dwellings underneath that made such an impression on Carlo Levi, reminding him of Dante’s Inferno, an image in the film of his book “Christ Stopped at Eboli” that unintentionally brought notoriety to this singular urban nucleus.
During the 1950s, these districts were abandoned by their inhabitants as a result of a special law promoting the construction of new residential areas on the hills surrounding the city in view of the appalling sanitary conditions, mainly caused by massive overpopulation of the Sassi during the C19th.
After lying empty for more than twenty years, proposals for its recovery were put out to international tender, the upshot of which was that the Sassi were once more incorporated into the city and the process of revitalisation began. Matera was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 on the strength of its historical urbanistic importance.