Matera and his “Sassi”

“Of the cities I have been to, Matera is the one that smiles at me the most, the one I see the best, through a veil of poetry and melancholy”. (G.Pascoli)

Matera is the city of the Sassi, UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.

It is located in a remote corner of southern Italy, in the small region of Basilicata. It is not very easy to reach, which is why it has managed to remain relatively unknown especially to foreign tourists.
The original urban core has developed from the natural caves dug into the tuff rock and then shaped into increasingly complex structures within two large natural amphitheaters that are the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano.

The particular interweaving of caves used as dwellings, winding alleys, rock churches, terraces, gardens, underground tunnels makes the Sassi a spectacular example of an architectural complex perfectly adapted to the natural context.
Sassi are divided into two neighborhoods: the Sasso Barisano, the largest district, whose houses now host mostly stores, restaurants and hotels, and the Sasso Caveoso, considered the oldest neighborhood that best preserves the appearance of the rock town.

The Cathedral, built on the highest point of the city, offers a splendid view of the Sasso Barisano. It stands on the remains of the ancient Benedictine monastery of Sant’Eustachio. Since 1627 the cathedral was dedicated to Our Lady of the Brown and St. Eustace, protectors of the city. The facade of the building in Romanesque-Apulian style has an imposing rose window with 16 spokes (symbol of the wheel of life) dominated by the archangel Michael crushing the dragon.

On the side facade of the cathedral there are two other minor portals: “Porta di Piazza” embellished with a bas-relief depiction of Abraham, and “Porta dei Leoni” so called because of the presence of the statues two lions crouching to guard the faith. Remarkable the bell tower 52 m. high with 4 floors of which three with mullioned windows and one (the fourth) with single lancet windows surmounted by a quadrangular pyramid spire. The interior, remodeled in the Baroque period, is a Latin cross with three naves separated by columns with figurative medieval capitals. Note the beautiful wooden choir meticulously carved in 1453 by Giovanni Tantino, and on the high altar the large altarpiece “Virgin with Child and Saints” by Fabrizio Santafede (1580).

The birth of the rock churches dates back mostly to the early Middle Ages: crypts, hermitages and basilicas are scattered in the urban fabric of the Sassi, along the walls of the Gravina and on the murgic plateau. In a heterogeneous and harmonious whole in which Greek Orthodox churches are flanked by Latin churches, these structures are evidence of the development of the cultural and architectural level reached by the rock communities. There are about 150 rock churches spread over the territory of Matera, for the protection of which was established the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of the Matera, declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Among the numerous rock churches that can be visited we find: the church of San Pietro Barisano which rises in the Sasso of the same name, with its Romanesque-Baroque style façade (17th century reconstruction) and the interior completely excavated in the tuff where only the seven altars, a series of frescoes and the crypt with the ossuary remain (unfortunately); four rock churches grouped around a central courtyard constitute the Convicinio di Sant’Antonio (12th – 13th century) used from the 17th century as a cellar. It is dedicated instead to Saint Barbara the small church of Romanesque architecture of oriental inspiration rich of valuable wall paintings including a representation of the Saint with a rich diadem on her head and in her right hand the tower, symbol of her martyrdom.
A few kilometers from Matera, along the wall of the Gravina di Picciano is the Crypt of Original Sin, the church – cave magnificently frescoed (re)brought to light in 1963, called the Sistine Chapel of rock wall painting. The extraordinary painting complex of the Benedictine – Benevento school (8th – 9th century) that decorates the walls of the crypt is undoubtedly one of the most important examples of early medieval painting in the Mediterranean area.
Used for a long time by shepherds as a shelter for animals, the natural cavity was known to the local population as the “Cave of the Hundred Saints“, due to the presence of the numerous saints depicted on the walls. The restoration has returned some beautiful frescoes: biblical scenes related to Genesis, the Apostles, the Archangels and the Virgin. The author of the extraordinary figurative works is unknown, remembered simply as the Flower Painter of Matera for the presence in the lower part of the frescoes of numerous flowers with red petals.

Il Palombaro lungo is the large cistern dug under the central Piazza Vittorio used until the first decades of the last century to collect drinking water. Built in 1846 at the behest of Monsignor Di Macco as a water reserve for the inhabitants of Sasso Caveoso, the majestic cistern was brought to light in 1991 when the square was being renovated. The reservoir, 15 metres deep and containing about 5,000 cubic metres of water, was part of a water collection system formed by a complex network of canals, caves, tunnels, underground cisterns, to recover rainwater and groundwater in the vicinity of Castello Tramontano a Monte.

A suggestive path at a depth of about 17 metres allows you to admire the rooms of one of the largest cisterns dug into the rock in the world, an admirable work of hydraulic engineering, imposing and silent like a “cathedral of water“.

Gastronomy: simple and genuine ingredients combined in a cuisine with sincere flavours. Legumes, meats, vegetables, homemade pasta (orecchiette, almond peel) seasoned with tomato sauce, turnip tops, cardoncelli mushrooms, cheese (pecorino and caciocavallo cheese), extra virgin olive oil and, of course, bread from Matera IGP (ideal for typical bruschetta with tomato, with lampascioni cream and pepper bran) are the basis of Matera’s dishes.


Among the specialities: the Pignata, based on sheep meat, vegetables, herbs, cooked in an earthenware pot in a wood-fired oven; the Ciallèdd prepared with stale bread, potatoes, onions, herbs, eggs and turnips that have taken the place of the flowers (the aspadels) of the original recipe; the Crapiata based on legumes (spelt, chickpeas, lentils, peas, broad beans, beans), wheat and potatoes. All accompanied by strong reds (Aglianico and primitive) and fragrant whites (Greek, Muscat).