ABOUT 50 years ago, some thought that the strange dwellings had become a kind of Dante’s “inferno,” leading the authorities to decree their evacuation. Partially repopulated, they have now even been included in the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, safeguarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
What are we talking about? And why have they provoked such different reactions in the course of time? The answer to the first question is simple: the Sassi (literally, “Rocks” in Italian) of Matera, in southern Italy, just above the heel of Italy’s “boot.” But to answer the second, we need to understand what they are and to know a little of their history. Why not accompany us as we visit the Sassi and learn something about them?
“Among the Italian landscapes that generate the most amazement,” according to writer Guido Piovene, the Sassi form, in effect, a city endowed with the “attraction of the incredible.” In order to get a panoramic view, we make our way to a natural vantage point overlooking a deep gorge. On the opposite side of this ravine, in front of us, is the city of Matera. In the brilliant summer light, we see houses clinging to the rock; they seem to have grown one on top of the other. As the narrow roads between them wend their way down to the bottom of the gorge, they form a tangled knot somewhat resembling the steps of an immense amphitheater. The many holes in the rock face that we see are, or have been, dwellings. In short, these are the Sassi—cave houses wrought out of rock!
A Surreal Atmosphere
To get to the Sassi—the ancient city center of Matera—we have to pass through the modern city, with its traffic and its noise. Entering the old city is like passing through a time warp; we emerge into a surreal atmosphere in which the chaos of the present gradually gives way to images of times gone by.
Don’t expect to see any cave dwellers emerging. Today, you can hardly see the original ancient grottoes anymore, for tufa (a rock composed of compacted volcanic ash) facades, if not full-fledged buildings, have been constructed in front of them in the styles of various periods: medieval, baroque, and modern. As we go along, the scene appears to be in continual transformation before our very eyes.
According to archaeologists, a few thousand years ago groups of nomads, probably shepherds, settled in this zone. The numerous natural cavities that riddled the area offered shelter from the elements and from predators. Soon, many caves were inhabited. Archaeologists’ finds seem to indicate that the area has been populated continuously from that time on.
The Sassi themselves, however, were inhabited gradually. In Greco-Roman times, there was a small settlement on the highest point of a rocky spur, the present-day old city center. In those ancient times, writes Raffaele Giura Longo, the Sassi were “two wild valleys, two basins that opened on the sides of the old city hill above and overlooked a sheer drop into the gorge; they were not inhabited but . . . were covered by thick vegetation.” From the early Middle Ages, with the systematic digging of soft tufa and the construction of roads, squares, and houses using the rock obtained from the excavations, the Sassi began to take on their typical appearance.
There was a need for houses and places to keep animals and to carry on the activities connected with livestock raising, such as the production of cheese. The main activity, however, was agriculture. Vegetable gardens were established on the wide terraces dug out of the side of the deep ravine that the Sassi overlook. Signs of the terraces can still be seen. Most of the social life was centered in the neighborhoods, courtyards surrounded by several dwellings.
An Impressive System of Water Collection
It could also be said that the history of the Sassi is that of man’s simultaneous struggle against, and symbiosis with, rock and water. Though not overabundant, in the rainy season surface water eroded the agricultural land of the terraces—conquered with such great labor—as it ran down the sides of the ravine. So the inhabitants of the Sassi saw the need to channel rainwater and collect it.
But how and where could it be collected? On the terraces, cisterns were dug and made impermeable. A system of channels and gutters conveyed what water was available toward these cisterns, which were initially used in connection with agriculture more than anything else. According to architect Pietro Laureano, their number, “far greater than that of the inhabited caves or than those needed for drinking water,” testifies that “the cisterns of the Sassi were originally an impressive system of water collection for irrigation.”
The system also provided sufficient drinking water, and with the growth in population, this factor became increasingly important. For this reason, an ingenious arrangement was adopted. Cisterns were connected one to another, both on the same level and also on terraces at different levels. “Like a system of enormous stills, they permitted the progressive purification of the liquid as it passed from one cistern to another.” The water was then drawn from one of the many wells that studded the Sassi. The mouths of some of these wells can still be seen today. So much water in an otherwise arid area was exceptional.
A House in the Rock
As we go down the stairways and follow the maze of narrow streets, we realize that these ancient neighborhoods are set out on descending levels, so that we often find ourselves walking on the roofs of the houses opening onto the terraces below. In certain places, there are ten levels of dwellings, one above the other. Here, man lives in close contact with the rock. As early as the 13th century, official documents called these neighborhoods “Sassi.”
We stop outside a dwelling. The elaborate and relatively modern facade should not fool us, for here a more recent entrance in tufa has been added to the original one. This is a typical Sassi dwelling. After passing the threshold, we go down a series of steps into a large room where most of the domestic activities of the family once took place. We go down more steps into a second room, beyond which there is yet another. Some rooms were old cisterns that had been made livable—the opening above, where water used to enter, was stopped up, and the entrance was built by digging into the side of the terrace. The innermost rooms were once used just to house beasts of burden, while the family lived in the rooms nearest the entrance. Light and air were provided by a large opening above the door. Needless to say, today inhabitants of the Sassi no longer keep beasts of burden inside their homes!
Many of the dwellings are below street level. Why? Because the entrance and some of the cave houses themselves were dug on a slight slope to exploit the sun’s rays. In winter, when the sun reaches its lowest point on the horizon, its rays could enter the house, illuminating and warming it; in summer the sun’s rays got no farther than the entrance, and the inside stayed cool and humid. On the back wall of the cave we are visiting, we see a sculptured niche with several “shelves.” It is a sundial, designed to indicate the sun’s movement throughout the year. When we come back out, we have a strange sensation. The coolness of the cave had all too soon made us forget the summer heat outside!
Decay and Restoration
Surreal atmosphere apart, the Sassi have suffered various changes. Though for centuries they remained a coherent and relatively efficient urban nucleus, during the 18th century something changed. New buildings and streets obstructed the efficient system of water management, creating problems in the regular elimination of refuse. As a consequence, disease increased. Further, changes in the economy of the area resulted in increasing poverty among the agricultural families of the Sassi, which were becoming more and more crowded.
The progressive decay of this once beautiful area seemed inevitable. So with the idea of resolving the problem once and for all, in the early 1950’s, the official decision was made to evacuate the Sassi. For the more than 15,000 residents of Matera who lived here, that meant a real trauma, particularly from the social point of view, as deep ties of friendship that had been forged in the neighborhoods were broken.
Many believe this incredible townscape, however, ought not to be lost. Thus, thanks to an efficient work of restoration, the Sassi are slowly being recovered and reinhabited. Today, many tourists like to experience the atmosphere breathed among the ancient squares and tangled streets of the Sassi. If you should ever come to this part of the world, why not stop by to visit this centuries-old city that grew out of the rock?
1. Panoramic view of the Sassi of Matera; 2. “The neighborhoods,” with well in left foreground; 3. inside a typical dwelling; 4. Niche used as a sundial; 5. A channel once used to carry water to cisterns