Known with the appellations of “Città dei Sassi” and “Città Sotterranea”, it is known throughout the world for the historic Sassi districts, which make Matera one of the most ancient inhabited cities in the world. In 1663, it was separated from the province of Terra d’Otranto, of which it had been part for centuries, to become, until 1806, capital of the then province of Basilicata in the Kingdom of Naples. During this time, the city experienced significant economic, commercial and cultural growth.
Civitas Mariae was proclaimed on 21 November 1954 by a municipal resolution. Pope John Paul II visited it on April 27, 1991, calling it the city of the Visitation and the Magnificat.
On 17 October 2014, Matera was designated, along with Plovdiv (city located in Bulgaria), European Capital of Culture for 2019.
Matera is one of the oldest cities in the world whose territory contains testimonies of human settlements starting from the Paleolithic and without interruptions up to our days. It represents an extraordinary page written by man through the millennia of this long history.
Matera is a city with a fascinating and complex history: a border town, of contrasts, of competition and fusion of landscapes, civilizations, cultures, different. From the rock civilization to those of the Byzantine and Oriental origins, to the advent of the Normans, the systematic attempt to reduce the rock city to the rules of the culture of the European city: from the Romanesque, to the Renaissance, to the Baroque, the last eight centuries of construction and finishing of the city have tried to shape, overcome the natural resistances of the pre-existing rocky habitat, determining architectures and urban arrangements of particular quality and originality.
Today, again in the sign of European urban culture, the aspects of the challenge of redevelopment, of sustainable recovery, of regaining the lost identity are the activities that have brought to the fore this unique city which has rightly become a World Heritage Site. On the basis of this particular historical event, Matera today offers its visitors the fascinating sensation of discovering, on the original thread of their culture, their emotions, the sometimes apparently humble, sometimes cultured traces of that competition they have at long characterized the city.
The Sassi of Matera
The unrepeatable architecture of the Sassi of Matera tells of man’s ability to adapt perfectly to the environment and to the natural context, masterfully using simple characteristics such as the constant temperature of the excavated environments, the calcarenite itself of the rocky bank for the construction of the houses outside land and the use of slopes for the control of water and meteorological phenomena.
The architectural structure consists of two systems, the one immediately visible with the successive stratifications of dwellings, courts, ballot boxes, palaces, churches, street gardens and gardens, and the internal and invisible at first sight consisting of cisterns, burial caves and water control systems, essential systems for the life and wealth of the community.
Originally the Sassi of Matera were a rocky environment very similar to the one where the Park is located opposite on the other side of the canyon carved by the Gravina di Matera. The western side of the Sassi is characterized by steep walls that overlook the stream. Above, the slope presents a series of terraces, hills and plains more suitable for human settlement, places that over the millennia have been transformed from rock villages into a real city.
The first human settlements in the territory of Matera date back to the Paleolithic and developed using the natural caves that in large numbers define the rocky landscape of Matera. Over time the natural caves were joined by those excavated by the man who found in the crumbly tufa rock an exceptional possibility of settlement sheltered from natural agents. The rock complexes formed the first form of the urban nucleus with environments still present today incorporated within buildings and buildings constructed above ground from the Middle Ages onwards.
After going through the phases of prehistory: the Paleolithic, the Neolithic and the different ages of metals, the history of Matera will be strongly characterized by the advent of Christianity. The Christian imprint becomes culturally dominant in a short time. Throughout the Middle Ages the rocky landscape was systematically transformed with the construction of impressive places of worship.
During the Middle Ages, impressive buildings were built including the majestic 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. From this moment on a real urban nucleus takes shape, initially concentrated around the Cathedral which is located at the top of the Civita hill (Civitas, city) which divides the Sassi in two: the Sasso Barisano facing east and the Sasso Caveoso facing South.
The Sassi of Matera rise on one of the sides of a canyon carved out over time by the Gravina stream. On the other side there is the Archaeological Natural Historical Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera also known as the Murgia Materana Park, whose landscape represents the original context of the places, developed over time with urban settlements only on the Sassi side.
The Park preserves the oldest settlements in the area. These include the Grotta dei Pipistrelli whose Paleolithic findings are preserved at the Domenico Ridola National Museum in Matera, the Neolithic villages of Murgecchia, Murgia Timone and Trasanello to the north and the rock villages of Selva, the Saracen village to the south.
Visit the Sassi of Matera
Today the Sassi of Matera offer the visitor a great cultural landscape, which is why UNESCO has included them on the list of World Heritage Sites. From an architectural point of view, they present an incredible series of elements that have stratified over time, from rock complexes. excavated by man, to the rock churches, burial areas, which alternate continuously with buildings of all different eras: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque up to the modern era. The visitor will find in continuity caves, hypogeums, palaces, churches, neighbourhoods, stairways, balconies, gardens and vegetable gardens all set one in the other to form a unique and magical place.
Walking along the main axis that connects the two Sassi districts with via Bruno Buozzi, via Madonna delle Virtù and via D’Addozio, it is possible to cross this landscape and to admire at the same time that of the opposite side of the Parco della Murgia Materana. It is possible to go up and down from the numerous alleys that alternate between the buildings and find themselves in always different and surprising corners.
Rock Churches in the Sassi of Matera
Particularly interesting are the Rock Churches that can be visited in the Sassi of Matera.
These places bear witness to the evolutionary passage of man from the prehistoric stages to Christianity.
The Rock Churches are in fact found in places of particular importance and in all probability were already places of worship in the rock civilizations that preceded the Christian one. The most interesting and visitable ones are:
Santa Maria de Idris – San Giovanni in Monterrone
The Church of Santa Maria De Idris is situated within the rocky spur of the Monterrone which dominates the Sasso Caveoso, near the Church of San Pietro Caveoso and the square of the same name. The location is beautiful and offers a unique view of the city and the Gravina.
Santa Lucia alle Malve
The rocky church of Santa Lucia alle Malve is located near the previous S. Maria de Idris in the Malve district. It is the first female monastic settlement of the Benedictine order, dating back to the 8th century, and the most important in the history of Matera. Inside there are some of the most beautiful and important murals in the territory of Matera.
San Pietro Barisano
It is located in the Sasso Barisano, originally called San Pietro de Veteribus, it is the largest rupestrian church in the city of Matera. Archaeological investigations have allowed us to identify the first rock structure, dating back to the 12th – 13th century, below the floor.
The historic center of Matera is located on a plateau that delimits the Sassi of Matera at the top. Here too, Matera shows different levels of overlapping urban strata. In fact, in the central square Piazza Vittorio Veneto there are some openings that show the original level of the places, today called hypogea, which are located below the same square. The hypogeums articulate in continuity forming a real submerged city connected with the Sassi. Here there are exceptional rocky structures such as the large cistern called Palombaro Lungo with walls 15 meters high and until recently navigable.
The historical center of Matera is developed with streets that connect different squares along an axis called eighteenth-century axis of the city because it took its appearance starting from the end of 1600. In the center of Matera there is a series of important buildings and churches that have had a particularly important throughout the city’s history.
In Piazza Vittorio Veneto dominates the large Palazzo dell’Annunziata, the current convent that now houses the Provincial Library.
In front of the large prefecture building, the 13th century Church of San Domenico, the Church of the Knights of Malta.
At the center of the square, there are four large openings that show the hypogeums where there is also the large cistern of the Palombaro Lungo, and the rocky Church of the Holy Spirit dating back to the 10th century AD
A little further o, there is another former convent of S. Lucia at the fountain that divides the eighteenth-century church of the same name and the Ferdinandea fountain on the left.
Continuing along the Via del Corso, you arrive at Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi where the imposing seventeenth-century church of the same name is located. Here too, there are hypogeums that testify to the original level of the place under the square.
To the right of the square you enter Via Ridola, dedicated to Domenico Ridola for his studies and research on the archaeological past of the city. On the left, there is Piazza del Sedile, home of the Conservatory, formerly Palazzo di Città and seat of the Municipality of Matera, from here follow all the most important noble palaces that from the square through the narrow Via Duomo come to surround the Cathedral of Matera.
From Piazza del Sedile going up via Duomo, you reach the Cathedral dating back to 1270 flanked by a majestic bell tower that dominates the entire landscape of the city. The Cathedral has a Romanesque-Apulian style, but is characterized by unique and prestigious artistic details and elements both inside and outside.
Around the Cathedral, there are the palaces of the families with noble titles that inhabited them such as Palazzo Gattini (Conti Gattini), Palazzo Venusio (Marchesi di Venusio), Palazzo Malvinni Malvezzi (Dukes Malvinni Malvezzi). These families besides the palaces also had great possessions in the territories of the Murgia and the Matera countryside. These palaces were erected in such a way as to constitute defence structures for the mother church.
Continuing to the right from Piazza S. Francesco, you enter Via Ridola where the Church of Purgatory is located immediately. On the right side, there is the Domenico Ridola National Museum where the finds of the archaeological researches conducted by Domenico Ridola in the territory of Matera are exhibited.
At the end of Via Ridola, there is Piazzetta Pascoli delimited by another large palace, Palazzo Lanfranchi, now home to the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art of Basilicata. On the left, a lookout overlooking the Sasso Caveoso, a very beautiful panorama dominated in the centre by the rocky spur of the Monterrone where the rocky churches of Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone are located.