Matera, Italy: The Ultimate Challenge in Urban Renewal

Sep 23, 2016 Avatar Nadine Davidson Nadine Davidson

Tourists are flocking to Matera, Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about three hours southeast of Naples and an hour’s drive southwest of Bari.

The story of Matera is actually a tale of two cities. The upper city of Matera was built above the cave dwellings of the lower town known as Sassi, which means stones in Italian.

Sassi’s limestone-hewn hollows predate history, but in the 7th and 8th centuries housed Benedictine monks and other monastic orders. Over time, rooms were built on top of the ancient caverns as well as churches—more than 150 of them—many with their wall frescos still intact. By the end of World War II,
however, Sassi had become the disgrace of Italy.

By then, Sassi’s more affluent residents had moved to Matera, the newer town built above Sassi, while the poorest locals continued to live in squalor below sans electricity or sanitation. As a result, to admit you were from Sassi was to invite scorn.

By 1953, the incidence of malaria and infant mortality in Sassi had climbed so high that the Italian government took ownership of Sassi and moved the cave dwellers, all 17,000 of them, into modern, public housing. Unless a resident could afford to install electricity and plumbing, they had to leave.
The goal was to convert Sassi into an empty, picturesque ruin for tourists to ogle. According to our guide, Cosmo, his grandfather was one of the few able to retain his Sassi home and it remains in his family until this day.
The government plan ran into problems when hooligans and squatters moved back into the caves, threatening to turn Sassi back into the same squalid place it had been before the government takeover. A new plan was devised. Instead of leaving Sassi uninhabited. Italy offered leases for a nominal charge to those who promised to add the necessary utilities. For some, Sassi’s slippery stone walkways remain a major deterrent. Nonetheless, adventurous urbanites and a host of small hotels, bars, restaurants and shops have moved into Sassi creating a place not just to see, but to experience.
Thanks also to the global reach cinema—Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Timur Bekmambetov’s recent remake of “Ben-Hur” are among some 25 movies filmed here—tourists from all corners of the planet are finding their way to Matera and Sassi.

Now that Matera has already been declared the 2019 European Capital for Culture, the pace of urban renewal has doubled. Today, to be from Sassi no longer invites disdain. Even the mayor lives here.

Nadine Nardi Davidson