Matera: From Italy’s Dirty Shame to a Culture Capital

Published by Lisa Tisdale on

The story of Matera is truly a tale of two cities. When traveling around Italy, one can enjoy the rich history evident in many areas.  Consider the much beloved and visited Tuscan city of Florence, which was a wealthy, Renaissance center.  Today you can enjoy the art and architecture as you wander the streets of Florence, which feels much like exploring an outdoor museum.  Walking here, you are following in the steps of Florence’s famous residents, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo and Dante among others. 

Visiting the southern Italian city of Matera is a completely different experience.  Life was tough in Matera and not for the weak.  A life lived in Matera meant you worked hard to earn your way. As you walk around modern day Matera, you can still feel the struggle that was daily life here.

Cave Dwellings Known as Sassi

Matera’s Vast History of Poverty 

Matera has been around for over 9,000 years. It is often cited as one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world.  The area is far from a tropical paradise. It is a very barren, dry land.  To establish homes in the soft tufo rock that most of the area is comprised of, inhabitants used a construction technique defined as “architecture in negative”. The technique requires removing the rock to create cave homes as opposed to building structures.  As DT Cox says in his 2015 article in the New Yorker, “Materans were tough and self-sufficient. They had their own rituals and songs, their own demons and dialect.”

Much of the Southern part of Italy has traditionally been poorer. Matera was among the most difficult of environments in which to carve an existence.  Life inside the caves, known as “Sassi” meaning rocks, was very grim.  Parents and grandparents would sleep in the front of the one room Sassi with children and animals in the back.  The inhabitants lived in wretched conditions, earning Matera the reputation of “la vergogna nazionale”, or the shame of the nation.  In the 1950s, as Italy was attempting to improve its post WWII image, one of the areas of focus was cleaning up Matera.  Most of the locals were moved out of the Sassi to more modern dwellings nearby.

Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris

A Materan Renasissance!

In the 1990s, the area experienced a resurgence.  The city earned a Unesco World Heritage site designation in 1993.  Residents returned to their homes.  They cleaned the Sassi, re-purposing some, converting them into museums, shops, restaurants, and bars.  The area retains many of the stone churches that were carved into the tufo, some with well-preserved frescoes. 

Today you can walk the streets and admire the unique city with its 1500 Sassi carved on top of one another.  Walking along the winding streets you may notice graveyards on top of churches.  Whatever it took, the Materans made life here work.  You cannot help but admire the hardiness of the people of this rugged city.  The word troglodyte, meaning “cave dweller” had negative connotations.  Today, the locals proudly use it to describe themselves and they have every reason to boast.  About 60 years after Matera was known as the Shame of the Nation, the city earned the title of a 2019 Capital of European Culture.   

Street Scene, Matera

Matera’s Accolades Drawing Crowds

Tourism has been slowly rising since Matera added the World Heritage Site designation. It is increasing rapidly since receiving the 2019 European Capital of Culture title. If you want to see it before it becomes too touristy, do not wait! Now is the perfect time to visit this amazing cultural center. You cannot beat walking in the steps of history here and feeling the pride of the Materans.

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Tis Travels Tips

If you plan a trip to Matera, which I highly recommend, consider adding a visit to Alberobello, about an hour away, where you can visit the conical shaped houses, also a Unesco World Heritage Site.  Alternatively, a little further away, is the Amalfi Coast with beautiful, seaside towns including picturesque Positano.

Exploring Matera

To read more Italy trip ideas, click here!

Categories: Destinations

Lisa Tisdale

Lisa Tisdale has traveled all over the world, writing about her experiences and making local contacts. She recently completed a three-month trip through Italy, exploring her favorite country’s food, wine, and sites, and making new friends!

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