Matera is an incredible city of stone as the cave dwellings had been carved on a rocky outcrop in the region of Basilicata. This picturesque city is situated in two canyons divided by swiftly flowing water, the Gravina River. The white stone caves were used as natural shelters around 10,000 BC. This makes the Matera settlement has been declared the third oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world. 

The history of this place depicts that it was occupied by various people belonging from different cultures such as Greek, Roman, Byzantines, and Bourbons. This place was declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and the European Capital of Culture in 2019 due to these diverse cultural inhabitants. 

Gradually, this led to the growth in tourists’ population and became an eye-captivating touristic destination. This magnificent city can be explored by planning a day trip from Bari as there are frequent trains with a change at Altamura. 

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Architecture of Matera Settlement ©Sonu Mohanty

1. The History behind Matera Settlement

The exact date of the beginning of Matera settlement is debatable. However, there are pieces of evidence that show the existence of the inhabitants from the ancient Paleolithic to the Neolithic period. This was the era when the natural caves were used as a shelter. 

Matera has a diversifying architecture and culture as it was occupied by various rulers from different parts of Europe. In 251 BC, the town was founded by the Roman Lucius Caecilius Metellus and was named as Matheola. 

Gradually, this place was developed as a city in 664 AD and became a part of the Duchy of Benevento when it came under the influence of the Lombards. The city expanded from the 8th Century onwards; the period when it was colonized by Basilian, Byzantine and German emperors. In the 15th Century, the city after experiencing a series of earthquakes and communal phases came under the possession of the Aragonese. 

Matera became part of the historical region of the Terra d’Otranto in the 17th Century. Later it became the capital of the province of Basilicata.  

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Natural Shelters during the Paleolithic Period ©www.cepolina.com

2. Evolution of Matera’s Architecture 

The habitable caves were the oldest existing architecture in Matera. In the 8th Century, the occupation of the natural caves intensified which led to the construction and expansion of the town’s boundary wall. 

This was the first manmade inhabited nucleus known as ‘Civita’. It gained its popularity among the tourists from its ancient town of ‘Sassi di Matera’ or ‘Stone of Matera’. The white calcareous rock is aesthetically beautiful in the architecture of Matera settlement. 

One of the earliest man made structures were the classic caves enclosed by a wall of excavated blocks on the two ‘grabiglioni’, Sasso Caveoso, and Sasso Barisano. In the 13th Century, the Romanesque church was built on the Civita between the two Sassi. 

The ‘Sassi di Matera’ and the Park of Rupestrian Churches of Matera’s are well-known examples of rock-cut architecture. It represents the evolution of the human settlement by maintaining a harmonious relationship with its natural surroundings with time. 

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Evolution of Matera’s Architecture ©Sonu Mohanty

3. Provision of Water Collection and Supply 

There was difficulty in the provision of water supply as Matera settlement exists above a deep ravine. In the earlier days, there was the construction of cistern and systems of the water channel to eradicate this problem. The largest cistern is supported by the strong and solid pillars with a vault of more than 15 meters high. It is a water cathedral located under Piazza Vittorio Veneto which could be navigated by boat. These cisterns were installed to collect and filter rainwater and to distribute to various dwellings in Matera.

There was the presence of a large number of superficial canals that supplied water to the pools and hanging gardens. Unfortunately, most of the cisterns in pit-houses faced seepage. There was also a rise in population over time and gradually, the cisterns were converted to houses. In recent time, an advanced rainwater harvesting system has been adopted by building earth-lodge in the shape of a house submerged in earth. 

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Underground Rainwater Harvesting System ©www.picturethispost.com

4. Landmarks

Sassi di Matera and Park of the Rupestrian Churches are the two main attractions in Matera which have been recognized by UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a few distinct landmarks that exist in Matera settlement. Cathedral of Saint Mary ‘della Bruna’ is one of the notable landmarks built in the Apulian Romanesque style of architecture in the 13th Century. 

Casa Grotta nei Sassi is a historical site where the cave has been recreated to portrait the primitive lifestyle of the people. Piazza Vittorio Veneto is a popular attraction which is also known as the ‘Fountain Square’ because of the presence of a large monumental fountain. This was created to collect water from the hill above the castle. 

There are a few significant places that exhibit ancient arts and sculptures such as Matera Basilicata Foundation 2019, Museo della Scultura and Palazzo Lanfranchi. 

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Piazza Vittorio Veneto ©www.electatravels.com

5. Existing Condition of Matera Settlement

The unadapted caves were still occupied by people of Matera settlement. They were living with no access for the sunlight and no basic amenities. This deteriorated the health condition of the localities and created. Hence, around 30,000 people were forced to abandon their dwellings. 

The problem was noticed after the publication of the book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ by Carlo Levi. Here, he had portrayed the poor condition of the historic caves and the lifestyle of the people. Modern dwellings were erected between 1953 and 1968 for the cave dwellers after an immense amount of effort. 

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Existing Condition of Matera Settlement ©Sonu Mohanty

The city was renewed after the 1980 flood to maintain its aesthetic beauty. There are visitors from different parts of the world to capture the picturesque caves, churches, and wall paintings. There are a huge number of tourists every year who visit to experience their stay in the rock-cut dwellings. This has also been a popular shooting location for films like the Passion of the Christ (2004), Oman (2006), The Wonder Woman (2017), and James Bond movie- No Time to Die (2020). 

References

01) Online Source: Matera – Wikipedia

02) Online Source: The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera – UNESCO World Heritage Centre

03) Online Source: From Underground Slum to European Capital of Culture: Matera, the Subterranean City of Caves | ArchDaily

 

Sonu Mohanty
Author

An architect and interior designer by profession. A passionate traveller who developed inquisitiveness on expanding her knowledge and gathering information on different styles of designs and architecture around the world. She strongly believes that nature and history plays a key role in the field of architecture.

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