Listen to the article

The enchanting beauty of Southern Italy, in all its delicate and poignant glory, seems to be unaware of its own splendor, and this unawareness is precisely what adds to its charm. There are villages nestled beneath skies that seem to exist solely to reflect and contrast with the stone below. Matera is one such place.

Before I became fluent in Italian, I mistakenly associated Matera with “terra”… My earth. Now, I understand that some trace the origin of its name to the Greek “meteora.” Like a shining meteor, Matera—whose hues of white, ocher, bluish-white and gray reflect the changing weather—is nested between the two infernal cavities of the dramatic and rugged landscape of Southern Italy: the Sasso Caveoso District and the Sasso Barisano District. These are like two pans of a balance scale, perfectly poised, separated by a rocky spur crowned by the stone church of the Virgin of Idris. The “sassi,” which literally means “stones” or “pebbles,” are in fact dwellings that were carved into a particular rock type known as calcarenite by humans from the Paleolithic era up to the middle of the last century.

In Matera, we stayed with Tonia and Roberto. From the very top, we observed the shifting moods and hues of the city and its patch of sky. We breathed in the night air that filtered through the spongy pores of the arched Sasso roof. Fabio, Tonia’s son, introduced us to the heart of Matera, guiding us through its labyrinthine paths. “The roofs serve as steps, and the steps become other roofs,” wrote Carlo Levi. The writer portrayed the town in his work, Christ Stopped at Eboli, but also captured its essence in his painting Lucania as well as in several other canvases bequeathed to the Lanfranchi Palace, where the poet Pascoli once taught. From the Pascoli square lookout, we descended the steps to the expansive Casa Grotta, furnished for tourists in a bygone style. Amid the early-century wooden furniture, copper kitchenware and ceramic dishes, we imagined humans and their livestock, crammed into one space, with mangers adjacent to kitchens, troughs opposite marriage beds and animals warming the cavernous dwellings in the brutal Basilicata winters.

In 1958, the Sassi were labeled the “shame of Italy.” The De Gasperi law mandated their evacuation. Unsanitary conditions compelled the Sassi’s inhabitants to move, willingly or otherwise, to the newly constructed town, built in red brick following the housing project model. In exchange for a mere 40,000 Italian lire, equivalent to three teachers’ salaries of that era, they transitioned from a Bethlehem-like existence to a 20th-century suburban life, experiencing a transformation that would usually occur across several centuries. The old town still resonates with the vibes of Bethlehem, especially at night, when one drives along the scenic route beside the cliff, captivated by the silvery sandstone, questioning whether it’s starlight or lamplight that renders it celestial. Particularly around the St. Augustine complex, beneath a flourishing palm at night, the resemblance struck me. After an eight-kilometer trek, Matera’s magic was palpable; it felt like cinema. In fact, film pioneers have graced this anachronistic Bethlehem: Pasolini filmed his Gospel According to St. Matthew here, Alberto Lattuada adapted Moravia’s She-Wolf, and the likes of Sofia Loren, Omar Sharif, Virna Lisi and Nino Manfredi have all walked its streets. But it was in 2002, with the filming of Mel Gibson’s The Passion, that Matera’s fame came to exceed all expectations.


At Cantuccio, we relished chickpea soups reminiscent of those from the previous century. The back of the room showcased pictures of the delightful owner alongside a stunningly beautiful Mary Magdalene, portrayed by Monica Bellucci, tempting enough to whet the appetites of Mezzogiorno’s patrons. With her tousled hair and flawless features, Bellucci had spent months, along with thousands of extras, in this southern Cinecittà where there’s no need to adjust even a stone to mimic the lanes of the Via Crucis. However, in none of the film representations do the Sassi ever represent themselves. They variously stand in for Jerusalem, the caves of Bethlehem, troglodyte homes from bygone eras or the impoverished villages depicted by the Taviani brothers. Yet, never is a “sasso” explicitly identified as such in any of these movie scenes.

Eleonora, a spirited and captivating guide of Matera and granddaughter of a dweller from these densely stacked homes, shared this with us. “The Via Lucana often marked the boundary between the two cities: the ancient city, denied, and the modern one, the only acknowledged area for over half a century. Have you seen the Veneto Square lookout with its three arches?” she inquired as we walked up a set of stairs. “Well, we walled it up to hide the Sassi from view… because we were ashamed of them!”

The De Gasperi law, in its enforcement, did intend to restore and rehabilitate these sites. Ironically, something good came out of this: as is often the case with Italian ventures, it ran out of funds. Thus, the Sassi weren’t ravaged. Those who couldn’t be evicted remained owners, ingeniously continuing to channel rainwater through tile-made pipes to cisterns with waterproofed bases inside their homes, reminiscent of inverted cones. Indeed, the largest cistern in Europe, carved out of calcarenite, lies beneath Veneto Square, which once served as a water reserve for residents during shortages. It was this ingenious system that led UNESCO to designate Matera as a World Heritage site in 1993. Sharing my admiration for the site’s breathtaking beauty with a professor from the region, he responded, “How can you not feel a universal, primordial pull in a place deemed a heritage of humanity?”

On the other side of the ravine, where the city hasn’t expanded due to the absence of easily excavatable calcarenite, there are nevertheless caves and dwellings dating back to the Paleolithic era. The Ridoli Museum is dedicated to this history. Was it my visit to this museum and the sight of pieced-together ceramic jugs that made me reflect upon its origins? Probably. Ever since my visit, Matera feels profoundly personal. From one slope of the ravine to the other, on both sides of the slender stream that persistently carved out a “gravina,” or canyon, humans have ceaselessly etched out shelters in the rock. One can trace, with astonishment, their evolution over centuries. And one can’t resist capturing the Sassi with iPads.

This morning, I witnessed dawn breaking over the dome and the rock churches adorned with Byzantine frescoes. If Southern Italy remains oblivious to its beauty, it’s perhaps because words often fail to encapsulate it. Seeing is believing. Maybe next year… in Matera?