A “Sassi” Life in Matera (Part I)

April 4, 2016 / Places
Matera, Basilicata

“C’era Una Volta” — Once Upon a Time

Approaching Matera, you are immediately struck by the distinctive Sassi which, even from a distance, are a remarkable and dramatic sight.

Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio

The Sassi (lit. stones, i.e. crags/caves), are believed to be among the first human settlements in Italy. A perfect natural fortress, as early as 7000 BC, nomadic peoples sought refuge in these caves and they have been continuously inhabited ever since.

Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio

The caves are the result of water eroding the tufa rock over thousands and thousands of years into the sides of the gravina (gorge, gulch). Additional digging and quarrying of the soft tufa resulted in the troglodytic (cave-dwelling) lifestyle characterized by a complex system of underground dwellings, churches, cisterns, and tombs.

Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio

Divided into two sections, Sasso Caveoso to the south and the Sasso Barisano to the north, what was once a productive settlement declined into what Carlo Levi referred to in his 1945 novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, as “a symbol of the misery of the peasant” in southern Italy. When he first set eyes on Matera, he wrote: “No one can see Matera and remain unmoved by its expressive, touching, painful beauty.”

Photo circa 1910 di G. Matarazzo

Photo circa 1900 www.sassiemurgia.com

www.sassiemurgia.com

In 1952, the combination of overcrowding of both humans and their animals, as well as the extreme poverty and appalling conditions, were judged to be unhealthy by the Italian government. They decided to relocate inhabitants to the more modern areas of the city although many chose to continue living in what was considered uninhabitable conditions.

Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio

Thanks to Eustachio Rizzi and his sons you can visit a typical Sassi casa grotta. Furnished with antique furniture and sculptures, they have faithfully recreated and portrayed l’antica casa grotta, the cave-dwelling life of the people in Matera up until the end of the 60’s.

Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio
Photo by Victoria De Maio

In addition, taking 3 years to complete, Eustachio created an exact miniature replica of the Sassi di Matera proudly displayed in the Rizzi’s shop. A visit to both is certainly a must when you visit Matera.

Photo by Victoria De Maio

(Be sure to continue on to Part II of A “Sassi” Life in Matera – La Citta Nella Roccia)

For more information, please visit www.anticamatera.it – which has an automatic audio play, lower your volume setting before clicking! – and www.materasassiinminiatura.it)

Victoria De Maio

by Victoria De Maio

Victoria is a lover of all things Italian! A travel advisor, blogger, writer, tour leader, and published author, she is passionate about traveling to and writing about Italy.

Her book, Victoria’s Travel Tipz Italian Style, is available on Amazon.

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23 Responses to “A “Sassi” Life in Matera (Part I)”

  1. Mary Jane

    Always learn so much for your posts. These photos and your commentary provide a great overview of this area! Thank you Victoria!

    Reply
  2. Ginny Siggia

    I am reminded of a similar environment, the favelas outside of some Brazilian cities. People live in great poverty on hillsides, but favelas can be in the most beautiful of natural settings, and with the best views in the area. Probably the air is cleaner than in the cities. You can imagine the government itching to gentrify the area.

    Reply
  3. Ginny Siggia

    I also had a student who returned, not to his native Hong Kong, but to a very isolated location in rural China. He and his wife lived in the most beautiful of settings, lush and green. It looks like their home was carved from the face of the hill, with a rough and pretty wood door. Theirs was a peaceful and simple life. They have returned to Hong Kong, but doubtless will carry that peace and beauty with them forever.

    Reply
  4. Donald Sassi

    Thank you! Of course this is of much interest to me. My father was born in Isernia, province of Compobasso, region of Molise. I was never aware of this. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Victoria De Maio

      Jack,
      Grazie, it’s a very interesting place. I think Part 2 will be published soon which offers more information about Matera “today”…

      Reply
  5. Maryanne Maggio Hanisch

    Love this! I have to see it some day. I’ve been to many a “Historical Museum Village” here with my elementary students, but this is really unique.

    Reply
    • Victoria De Maio

      Maryanne,
      The “museum” showing how they lived is really touching and fascinating as well…as a former teacher myself, I know you would love it…

      Reply
  6. Hazel Rotondo Potvin

    I would love to visit Materna especially after your article and great pictures.

    Reply
    • Victoria De Maio

      I hope you get to visit, Hazel. There is a Part 2 to my article which I hope will be published soon –it will give you a look at Matera “today”…

      Reply
  7. Margaret Dorsch

    My husband and I will be visiting Matera in May, staying overnight. Greatly looking forward to seeing the south of Italy and will now look out for the Rizzi’s shop during our stay. Thank you Victoria for these notes. How shamefully the rural people of southern Italy were exploited over centuries by elites from the north and absent rulers! But the dignity shines out of their faces still in your wonderful photos!

    Reply
    • Victoria De Maio

      Margaret,
      Definitely go to his shop and the museum! There is a Part 2 which I hope GB will publish soon. Be sure to have comfy shoes –lots of stairs in Matera! Also, take a tour in a “golf cart” with a surrey top – inexpensive and well worth it…
      Enjoy your travels in Italy.

      Reply
  8. Gianna

    I have isited Matera. Crossing through the plaza and approaching an iron railing you are suddenly struck by the awesome natural beauty of I Sassi. You must see it both by day and by night. Given the opportunity I would visit Matera again. We were told that Mel Gibson;s movie “The
    Ppassion of the Christ ” was filmed i
    there.
    Thank you for a wonderful article.

    Reply
    • Victoria De Maio

      Gianna,
      I agree about seeing it in the day and evening. A very haunting place with quite a history. Yes, we visited where the “Passion of the Christ” was filmed as well.
      I hope you get to return…

      Reply
  9. Loretta Spoletini Holliday

    Lived many years in Trastevere but did not know about Matera then. Now, my brother-in-law, Antonio Spoletini, a “capo grouppo” in film industry, works frequently in Matera on films. My nephew, Luigi Spoletini, worked with Mel Gibson on Passion of the Christ as Assistant Director…many funny stories regarding happenings on set! Can’t wait for Part II. How can such a small country contain as many beautiful and fascinating locales as are shared with us by your wonderful contributors?

    Reply
  10. Victoria De Maio

    Loretta,
    Thank you for sharing – Matera is just coming onto the “radar” of the world – for better or worse… It is certainly a fascinating place to visit.
    I love that you love Italian Notebook :D. So gratifying to contribute and learn from everyone.
    Buona giornata!

    Reply
    • Loretta Spoletini Holliday

      Tante belle cose, Victoria………………..e grazie mille!

      Reply

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