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