Sassi di Matera: 9 Things I’ve Learned

The Sassi
The layers of the Sassi seem to rise up from the canyon.

A deep and abiding reverence permeates the layers of Sassi di Matera. It goes much deeper than the grief and dispair of those living in the disarry found just before its evacuation began in 1952. It was also a land courted by many religous suitors, as seen through the cathedrals and Rupestrian churches of many orders that dot the canyon and city. We are here on holiday for the month of August. And, after two weeks, I’m ready to share some learnings. 

August in Italy means holiday.


Il Marito and I decided to indulge in chiuso per ferie with the entire month of August away. But, unlike the masses we did not head to the sea. We ventured inland, to the hinterlands of Southern Italy’s Basilicata region. This month we are living a different kind of dream in the mystical town of Matera. Far from the sea, but not from tourists.

Sassi di Matera, once called “the shame of Italy”, is a popular tourist destination that draws visitors from all over the world. It’s easy to see why. History oozes from every pore.

The Sassi is a city built into rock with homes of cave dwellings dating back 7000 years. It’s a world my mind cannot fully fathom. But, wants to understand.

We’ve been taking in a lot of great information during our time here, but by far the best was our guided walk through the Sassi with native Mariangela of Cook n Fun at Mary’s. She shared family stories, historical details, and personal experiences that brought Matera to life for us.

Sassi di Matera
A view from the canyon; you can see the layers rising up.

To kick off my written exploration of Matera I selected nine learnings to share.

To me, they tell a story of a sorrowful land that was distinctly primal, built of basic survival. That lifestyle remained essentially unchanged until the early 1950s when the Italian government ordered its evacuation due to inhumane living conditions.

Today Matera greets visitors with a mournful magic that burns your eyes as the sun reflects off the white limestone by day and by night glitters with its signature porch lights. In all my travels I’ve come across few scenes more enchanting.

Sassi d Matera sunrise
Sunrise in the Sassi.

Nine Things I’ve Learned About Sassi di Matera

1. What is the Sassi?

Sassi translates to stones. The Sassi is a settlement that was built into the area’s porous limestone of tufa, calcareous rock. The original living quarters were primitive cave dwellings on the other side of the canyon. Gradually, the people made their way over to build the city known today as Sassi di Matera. The Sassi is made up of two neighborhoods, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. 

Matera Cave Dwellings
The original cave dwellings can be seen from the Sassi.

2. Matera dates back to Neolithic times.

It is one of the oldest towns in the world with about 7000 years of recorded, uninterrupted human activity. Today there is a new part of Matera with a population of some 60,000 people. Mariangela explained that Matera itself was only the rocky Sassi until the 1600s.

3. Sassi di Matera is something of a troglodyte skyscraper.

It’s estimated that there are eight to 10 layers of homes in the Sassi, one built atop the other. They lack order due to the natural curvature of the canyon. Perhaps unsurprising, formerly the rich occupied the higher levels while the poor resided in the lower more basic cave dwellings.

The Sassi
The layers of the Sassi seem to rise up from the canyon.

Defined: Troglodyte (noun) – a person who lives in a cave.

4. Life in the Sassi was decidedly social.

Mariangela explained that the homes were built in a courtyard shape. All the doors opened to a common area where families played, sang, and worked together. The hard life found the men up early making a 10 kilometer (6 mile) trek, with their livestock, to work the fields. They were away all day, late into the night. The women and children joined together during the day in their shared space.

Sassi di Matera
Still much of the Sassi awaits rebirth.

5. Families made bread at an open neighborhood oven.

The peasant community made bread in large quantities to ensure a constant food supply. The dough was made at home, then carried to the community oven. They marked their loaf with a wooden stamp to identify it after it was baked. It’s likely that this practice was also done to conserve limited natural resources. I also loved when Mariangela pointed out the chimneys. Not one is the same. She explained that the chimneys were family symbols. Some even display their initials.

Chimneys in the Sassi
No two chimneys are the same in the Sassi. They were family symbols.

6. “The city you see is a machine harvesting water,” one resident said.

The city built a remarkable water system that allowed them to move water from above and down into the city. They drew from a drainage system that captured fresh rainwater. The underground aqueducts were so large that they used boats to navigate them.

Matera Water System
Old terracotta drainage pipes.

7. As impressive as the city was in infrastructure, the conditions the people lived in when the Italian government surveyed the scene led to a complete evacuation.

In the early 1950s Carlo Levi’s book, Christ Stopped At Eboli, drew attention to the forgotten land. The Sassi was visited by then Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi. What he found was shocking: entire families living in single room cave dwellings with their livestock, sans running water or electricity. Disease and insects were rampant as raw sewage ran amock in the streets.

Who is Carlo Levi?

Dr. Carlo Levi was an Italian-Jewish painter, writer, activist, and doctor from Turin. Levi was exiled to the neighboring town of Gagliano as a political prisoner due to anti-fascist beliefs. His book “Christ Stopped at Eboli” is not primarily based in Sassi di Matera, but in the province of Matera. Though, it was this writing that brought attention to the living conditions. 

8. Despite the evacuation orders of 1952, Sassi di Matera was not completely empty until the late 1980s / early 1990s.

Some 16,000 residents were offered a trade of their cave dwellings for a new apartment. As mentioned, those caves housed more than just people, also their livestock. Initially, the animals were left behind. Residents returned frequently to shelter their horses, mules, goats, pigs, etc. in their abandoned homes. Today many walled up doors can still be seen – those were boarded up by the government to keep people from returning to house their animals.

Sassi di Matera evacuation
The government boarded doors to keep former residents from returning to the evacuated Sassi.

9. Today about 70 percent of Sassi di Matera is government-owned.

The restoration has been underway for nearly two decades now. To claim a space in the Sassi a person or entity must take on the complete renovation and rebuilding, including the planning, execution, and costs to obtain a government lease for the property. When asked if former residents returned Mariangela explained that her husband’s grandmother grew up in the Sassi and like many of the others she refuses to return to even see it. It brings up too many memories of that hard, sad, and rough life. She cannot believe that today people come from all over the world to see the site.

Sassi di Matera restoration
New life contrasts with the old all throughout the Sassi.

Mariangela said it was a miracle that the revitalization has taken place. She recalls as a child being told not to go into the Sassi because of “bad people” and drugs.

Mariangela’s sister, who currently lives in The Netherlands shared that every time she comes home she spends time just taking in the beauty and magic.

In 1993, Sassi di Matera was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. That means that it is considered ‘outstanding value to humanity’ and is protected to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the area. A visit here makes it easy to see why.

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