In one of the most distinctive regions of Italy, in sunny Basilicata, is a small town that attracts attention with its unusual history and unique architectonics. The ancient town of Matera, carved out in rock, is the center of the eponymous province, and since 1993 it is under the protection of UNESCO, being the first cultural and archaeological monument of Southern Italy, inscribed in the World Heritage List.
It is hard to imagine, but just a few decades ago the caves of Matera were inhabited! Today, this place is a unique example of the urban ecosystem, a rare architectural and landscape ensemble, which has immortalized with its nature significant moments in the history of mankind: from primitive cave dwellings carved in the rock, to complex urban structures built on the surface of the earth and integrated with the natural landscape. The fact that Matera will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019 is an exceptional joy!
Matera: history of origin
The history of Matera goes back far into the depths of centuries. One of the most unusual features of this city is the fact that the territory of Matera has been continuously inhabited from the Paleolithic era until today. It is believed that this amazing city is one of the oldest in the world. Various objects have been found in the caves scattered along the Matera Gorge, indicating that a settlement in this place has existed since the Paleolithic. According to archaeologists, the first villages in this area began to appear during the Neolithic period. There are still preserved log hollows carved into the rock, as well as cisterns for water, grain storage and even ancient tombs from the dwellings of this time period.
Greek culture had a great influence on the development of the city. It is almost certain that Matera is a true Greek city. This assumption is confirmed by the image of the bull on its coat of arms, a typical symbol of Great Greece. Other scholars consider the bull to be the emblem of Metaponto, the ancient Greek city whose inhabitants were forced to flee to Matera after their hometown was destroyed by the Romans. In the late Middle Ages, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Matera lived through very difficult and turbulent times, passing from Lombards to Byzantines and Saracens until the bloody battle of Louis II in 867, who joined forces with the Lombards against the Saracen troops. A relatively quiet period for Matera began in the 11th century with the arrival of the Normans.
Since the first half of the 16th century the city began fighting for its own autonomy. This began with the events of 1514, when Matera revolted against the tyrannical policies of Giovan Carlo Tramontano, who set unprecedentedly high taxes for the population.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, Matera, under Spanish control, became the main city of Basilicata and at the same time the seat of the Royal Court. This triggered a demographic growth and a construction boom, but also led to a social decline. The dramatic increase in population forced Matera residents to settle in premises previously used for industrial purposes and riots began to flourish in the streets.
In 1927 Matera became the administrative center of the province of the same name. It was not until 1952 that the construction of new housing estates began and the Materians began to leave their cave dwellings. At that time, about 15,000 people lived in the grottoes of Matera. The last “cave dwellers” of Matera were only relocated in the 70s of the 20th century. In 1986 the Sassi di Matera, abandoned for several decades, began to be gradually restored and in 1993 this amazing city was listed as a World Heritage Site.
Matera (Italy) – the most detailed information about the city with photos and a map. See Matera’s main attractions with descriptions in the travel guide.
City of Matera (Italy)
Matera is a city in southern Italy in the Basilicata region. It is one of the most unusual and interesting places in the country, as well as one of the oldest settlements in Europe, whose history goes back seven thousand years. Matera has a magnificent old town, preserving almost intact historical core and a whole area of ancient cave houses, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
What to do (Matera):
€130 per tour.
Explore the labyrinthine streets and cave houses and discover a town with 7,000 years of history.
€144 per tour
Secrets of the Cave City
Explore the labyrinths of the cave quarter, visit the ancient church and take in the panorama of Matera
Geography and climate
The town is situated in the eastern part of the Basilicata region at an altitude of 401 meters above sea level. Matera borders the southwestern part of the province of Bari and has a hot subtropical climate.
- Population – 60.4 thousand people
- Area – 392,09 km2
- Language – Italian
- Currency – Euro
- Visa – Schengen
- Time – UTC +1
Historians consider Matera one of the oldest permanent settlements in the world. Its history goes back 7 to 10 thousand years. The modern city was founded by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. After the collapse of the Roman Empire (in the 7th century AD) the city was conquered by the Lombards and became part of the Duchy of Benevento.
The streets of Matera
In the 7th and 8th centuries, the nearby grottoes were inhabited by monks, mainly of the Benedictine order. In the 9th and 10th centuries Matera suffered several Saracen and Byzantine sieges. In the first half of the 11th century the city became part of the Norman domains. In the 15th century Matera became an Aragonese possession and was given to the Barons of Tramontano.
In the 17th century Matera was ceded to the Countship of Orsini and effectively became part of Puglia. Later the city was chosen as the capital of the province Basilicata, maintaining this status until 1806.
How to reach
Matera is easily reached by train from Bari. There are also direct bus services to the airport of the capital of Puglia.
Matera is a magnificent old town that includes a network of inhabited caves inhabited since the Paleolithic. The city is full of ancient architecture and ancient churches, charming narrow streets and alleys, stone stairways and viewing platforms with stunning views, beautiful courtyards strewn with bright green cacti, small trees and flowers.
The cityscape of Matera has in some ways retained a “biblical character” and a walk through its ancient streets is like a step back in time. This is why the town is often used as a natural backdrop for historical films.
Sassi is the jewel of the Matera, a magnificent cultural landscape of ancient inhabited caves and medieval stone houses, inhabited since the Paleolithic. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most atmospheric places in Italy.
The caves and houses of Sassi were inhabited until the second half of the 20th century and were considered almost “the disgrace of Italy”. People here lived in poverty and without comforts. Then the Italian government settled the inhabitants and turned the area into a striking historical and cultural space.
Sassi is divided into two districts: Barisano and Caveoso. Barisano occupies the northern part of this landscape and Caveoso the southern. The cave houses and churches were dug in limestone caves. The oldest ones date back to the pre-Roman period. Some cave houses are open to the public, others have been converted into stores and restaurants.
The cathedral is the jewel of Romanesque style and the most famous church in Matera. The cathedral was built in the 13th century on the highest point of the city and is a symbol of the cityscape. The church has a Latin cross plan and consists of three naves divided by circular arches supported by columns with stone capitals. Most of the interior of the cathedral is Baroque and dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Inside is an ancient Byzantine fresco with the image of the Madonna, dated 1270 and attributed to a certain Rinaldo da Taranto. The cathedral’s architecture stands out for its 52-meter bell tower.
In Matera there are more than 150 cave churches, many of them decorated with unique ancient frescoes.
San Giovanni Battista
San Giovanni Battista is a magnificent medieval church from the 13th century. The building has a predominantly Romanesque architecture with noticeable influences from other styles: Arabic style in the portals, Gothic style in the arches and Greek style in the plan of the building structure. In the right side of the church (the building has no real façade), the main portal, elegantly decorated with vegetal scrolls and dangling columns with sculptures of animals, stands out.
The interior consists of three naves bounded by eight columns with capitals. The central nave has a star vault and the side aisles have large transverse arches forming cross vaults. The medieval chapels contain a 16th-century fresco of the Madonna della Nova and two ancient wooden statues depicting Saints Cosmas and Damian.
Monastery of Sant’Agostino
The Convent of Sant’Agostino is an imposing complex of Baroque buildings from the 16th century. The complex consists of the monastery built by the monks of the Emeritian order of Sant’Agostino in 1592 and the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, built in 1594. Destroyed in 1734 by a terrible earthquake, the monastery was rebuilt and later became the residence of the Augustinian monks. Today it houses the office of the Office of the Architectural Heritage of Matera.
Church of San Domenico
The Church of San Domenico is a 13th century Romanesque building located in the central square of Matera – Vittorio Veneto. The church has a stern stone facade in which a very beautiful rose window with four relief figures stands out. The building has a plan of the Latin cross and a three-nave interior.
Church of San Francesco d’Assisi
The Church of San Francesco d’Assisi in the square of the same name was founded in the first half of the 13th century, expanded in the 15th century and almost completely rebuilt in the 17th century in Baroque style. The church has a notable late Baroque facade. Inside is the ancient crypt of Saints Peter and Paul, which contains an ancient fresco depicting a visit to Matera by Pope Urban II in 1093.
Church of San Pietro Caveoso
The Church of San Pietro Caveoso, built in the 13th century, is one of the symbols of the Sassi neighborhood of the same name. In the 17th century, the building was almost completely rebuilt. A Baroque bell tower was also added. Inside the church are many 18th century paintings and frescoes of saints. Numerous chapels are decorated with moldings, frescoes and wooden polyptychs.
Santa Maria di Idris (top right)
Santa Maria di Idris is a 12th-century stone church carved into the rock. It is located at the top of Monterrone, a large limestone rock that rises in the heart of Caveoso. The church can be accessed by a staircase that begins at the cave church of Santa Lucia alle Malve. The building has a simple stone façade. The interior, which has preserved fragments of ancient frescoes, has preserved almost nothing of the original structure.
Tramontano is an imposing 15th century castle in Aragonese style, built as a Norman residence on the edge of the old town with a magnificent view of the historic core of Matera. The complex originally consisted of eight square towers and was equipped with a bridge. Round towers were added in the early 16th century. In 1514 Baron Tramontano was assassinated and so the castle was left unfinished.
Palazzo Lanfranci is a 17th century Renaissance palace with a magnificent façade. The building was designed and built by Friar Francesco da Copertino at the request of Archbishop Vincenzo Lanfranchi to house the diocesan seminary and is considered the most striking 17th-century monument in Matera. The palazzo now houses the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art of Basilicata.
Palazzo del Sedile
Palazzo del Sedile is another striking monument of civil architecture in Matera. The palace was built in 1540 and reconstructed in the Renaissance style in 1759. The facade of the palazzo is decorated with two bell towers and six statues.
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