Un po' di storia

The area around Matera presents an abundance of archaelogical finds. In the Palaeolithic, when man was a hunter-gatherer, the naturally-formed caves and the rock overhangs in the ravines served as shelters, and later, in the Neolithic, when man became sedentary, he began to practice agriculture and lay the foundations for the first settlements, near rivers and farmland. With the discovery of metals, humans went back to a nomadic existence, travelling around with their animals and then returning to the original locations, along the slopes of ravines, near water sources and to sites that were easy to defend. The villages consisted of huts made out of wood and clay mixed with straw and of rock-hewn caverns along the slopes of the ravines. This form of dwelling has survived to the present day.

At the time of the Greek colonies of Taranto and Metaponto, during the Roman era, and again in late antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, the most widespread form of settlement in Matera and its ravines were the troglodyte dwellings of prehistoric origin, a labyrinth of caves into which the early Christians built their first rupestrian churches. But the inhabitants also began to add masonry constructions in front of the caverns.

A really interesting aspect of the city’s history is that while the tradesmen, the farmers and shepherds have always lived in grottos carved into the rock, the archbishop, the clergy, the monks of the various religious orders, the nobles and merchants of the city invariably resided in majestic palaces built to suit the taste of the time.

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Lower Paleolithic

Middle Paleolithic

Upper Paleolithic

Mesolithic

Ancient Neolithic

Middle and Upper Neolithic

Eneolithic

Bronze Age

Iron Age

Archaic Age

Classical Age

Roman Age

Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages

Renaissance

Baroque

Risorgimento

20th century

Modern times to present day

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Lower Paleolithic

The most ancient materials are found between the hill of Serra Rifusa and Masseria Porcari and in Palombaio dell’Annunziata, Masseria Potito, Pietrapenta, San Martino, Grottolini. Among the artifacts we have bifaces of jasper, quartzite, flinty limestone, compact and flinty sandstone which can be attributed to the Middle and Upper Acheulean. The urban area of the city too must have been frequented by groups of hunters even if there is a lack of evidence – and difficult to recover in the Sassi (Italian for “stones”) now that the area has been completely urbanized.

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Middle Paleolithic

It is possible to trace back the first shelters made of naturally-formed caverns to the Middle Paleolithic, when humans became more numerous. The Cave of Bats and the Funerary Cave, located on the right flank of the Matera ravine, are about four kilometers from the Sassi district. The many findings of lithic artefacts of the Levallois-Musterian type, collected by the archaeologist Domenico Ridola from Matera and his collaborators on the terraces flanking the Matera ravines, Picciano and Bradano (Cozzica, Murgia Sant’Andrea, Lucignano, Serra Monsignore, Santa Lucia sul Bradano), are proof that there was widespread human occupation in the area.

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Upper Paleolithic

As in all of southern Italy, in the Upper Paleolithic human occupation was more sparse. This period is attested by the findings from the Grotta dei Pipistrelli, Grotta Funeraria and a few other sites (San Martino, Cozzica, Serra Sant’Angelo) where pebbles decorated with geometric engravings were found.

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Mesolithic

Up until now, research has not revealed any finds that can be traced back to the Mesolithic, although some Upper Paleolithic finds may also have also been used in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. In the Cave of the Bats a stalagmite layer corresponding to the Mesolithic seems to indicate the hardening of the climate and the consequent abandonment of the cave.

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Ancient Neolithic

The Matera region is home to the most ancient Neolithic settlements, housing structures, with huts and pits for foodstuffs, surrounded by defensive walls and moats, dating from the end of the seventh millennium BC. The Neolithic village of Trasano, about five kilometers as the crow flies from the Sassi, is surrounded by a wall that is considered among the oldest in Europe, has brought to light the oldest ovens discovered in Italy as well as the oldest Cardium pottery. In this period the natural caverns were used for ritual purposes and the presence of the first terracotta spoons made as imitations of wooden ones is also attested. A fragment of a vase with imprinted decoration (Cardium pottery) was found in Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi, on the site of the Bank of Italy. On the same square, various holes for wooden stakes for huts, pits for storing food and fragments of building plaster were also discovered. Based on the recovered prehistoric materials that were found in the inhabited centre of Matera, we can assume that the first neolithic settlements must have been built on the elevation that forms the nucleus of the city, the so-called Civita, occupied by the Castelvecchio and the Cathedral, on the plateau that overlooks the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso, i.e. the area of the Bank of Italy and Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi and the hill of the Castello Tramontano. It is possible therefore that the moat of the Castle and the moat that encircled Piazza San Francesco and which in the Middle Ages was crossed by two drawbridges, had their origin in the Neolithic. The moat was eventually covered by a road that was first called Via Fossi and is now the Via del Corso.

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Middle and Upper Neolithic

This period is characterized by the production of pottery in the style of Serra d’Alto, whose name derives from a hill in the Materano area where pottery decorated with various geometric figures was found, as well as the oldest painted pottery that came to be widespread in southern Italy, Sicily and Malta. A Neolithic quartzite axe was collected on the Lapillo hill which is dominated by the Tramontano Castle.

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Eneolithic

As in all of Southern Italy, there is no clear distinction between the Neolithic and the Eneolithic or between the Eneolithic and the Early Bronze Age because of the continuous human occupancy on the same sites. The evidence is of funerary type (natural and man-made caves, stone cases of Neolithic tradition) and comes from Grotta della Monaca, Grotta dei Pipistrelli, Grotta Funeraria, Murgia Timone, Cappuccini and Serra Monsignore. In a tomb located in Matinelle di Malvezzi a copper object associated with ceramics in the late style of Serra d’Alto was found. A fragment of a vase decorated with bold streaks of Eneolithic type surfaced in the area around the cathedral.

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Bronze Age

Archaic materials that can be attributed to the Apennine civilization come from the Civita of Matera (Cathedral and Ospedale Vecchio), from the collective tombs of Murgia Timone, Murgecchia, San Francesco a Chiancalata, Lamaquacchiola and Cozzica, and from the tomb in the natural cave at Pietrapenta. Other materials excavated in the Civita of Matera (San Nicola dei Greci, Cathedral, Recinto Campanile, Ospedale Vecchio, Gradoni Duomo, Santa Lucia alle Malve), in Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi and in Contrada Cappuccini date back to the Middle and Recent Bronze Age. In the Recent Bronze Age the funeral rite of cremation spreads out further afield and is manifest on the castle hill, in the Civita of Matera and in Timmari, where more than three hundred cinerary urns were found. From Piazzetta Caveosa comes a bronze axe that must have been used for hewing the grottos.

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Iron Age

Of the Iron Age settlements, those of Timmari, Murgia Timone and Murgecchia are well known. The latter was built on more ancient dwellings and has brought us geometric pottery in the Oenotrian and Japigio styles. In this period, the Murgico plateau was abandoned in favour of the Sassi area (Civita, Saint Nicholas of the Greeks, Madonna de Idris, Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi). Vast necropoles of tumulus tombs are located the Neolithic villages in Murgecchia, Murgia Timone, Trasano, Trasanello and Tirlecchia.

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Archaic Age

In the urban area, materials of bichromatic geometric and Japigia type pottery come from Piazza San Francesco, from the site of the Bank of Italy, from the Cathedral, from San Nicola dei Greci, from Ospedale Vecchio, from via San Pietro Caveoso, from Santa Lucia alle Malve and from Madonna de Idris. In some of these sites bits of plasterwork were also found. In San Nicola dei Greci there is evidence of the the existence of a ceramics factory. There are numerous proofs of necropoles. Groups of tombs were found in Madonna de Idris, Piazzetta Caveosa and Ospedale Vecchio, via Madonna delle Virtù. The hill of Timmari has brought to light one of the oldest and richest archaic sanctuaries of the Lucanian hinterland with thousands of votive statues and large clay busts representing a female divinity, statuettes of a goddess seated on a throne and numerous silver coins from the cities of Magna Graecia.

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Classical Age

The occupation of the Sassi presents itself in dispersed nuclei (San Nicola dei Greci, Cathedral, Via Civita, Madonna de Idris, Piazza San Pietro Caveoso, Piazza San Francesco). The area of the Cathedral has yielded the neck of an Apulian vase of large size with Dionysian scenes on one side and the figure of Triptolemus on a chariot pulled by snakes that gives the gift of ears of corn on the other. On the same site were found several jugs and amphorae, including one with red figures depicting warriors departing for the battle. A wine jug with red figures was found in Via Sant’Angelo; a female terracotta bust comes from Porta Pistola. Other votive statues come from the indigenous sanctuary of Bosco di Lucignano, the Parco della Murgia Materana, in the proximity of which there must have been an undocumented settlement.

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Roman Age

Near the present location of the Banca d’Italia were found fragments of glass vases from the era of Imperial Rome, a purple glass ampulla from the Augustan and Tiberian periods and ceramic materials from the reign of Claudius. The remains of a large funerary monument with a marble statue of Dionysus with a youthful face and head girded with bunches of grapes, resting his his left forearm on a pillar with vine shoots was unearthed near the Cathedral site.

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Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages

From the great cemetery nuclei of Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages (Cathedral, Santa Lucia alle Malve, San Leonardo, Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi) between the sixth and eleventh centuries, more than three hundred graves were excavated that testify to an intense activity especially from the Lombard period in comparison with other settlements of the same period. The cemetery of Santa Lucia alle Malve, in Sasso Caveoso, counts among the oldest Lombard cemeteries in Southern Italy. A large number of coins from the Greek-Roman, Byzantine, medieval and modern periods were collected in the Sassi and are now housed in the Ridola Museum. The number of Byzantine coins exceeds three hundred pieces. Cemeteries dating back to the late medieval age have been found near the churches of San Giovanni Battista, San Pietro Barisano, San Giovanni in Monterrone and Santa Barbara.
Not only Caves – Romanesque – The first manifestation of the Romanesque style in the city can be seen in the underground crypt of Sant’Eustachio, a true jewel of medieval architecture, the only testimony of the ancient Benedictine Monastery of Sant’Eustachio, founded by the Norman knights and destroyed after the abandonment of the structure by the monks in order to make room for the cathedral. The crypt has a square floor plan, with three naves and three apses. The four central pillars support the rounded arches and the vaults are topped by nine domes. Romanesque architecture in Matera reaches its finest expression in the church of San Giovanni Battista, one of the most outstanding monuments of medieval architecture in the city. It is accessed through an arabesque portal richly decorated with acanthus leaves, pine cones, fruits of the hackberry tree (tree of the rosaries), and faces of six maidens symbolizing the purity of childhood. The church has a rectangular floor plan with three apses closed on the outside by a flat wall, the columns are quadrilobate as in Cistercian architecture and the arches have an ogival underside (intrados) typical of the Moorish style. The splendid capitals of classical and Corinthian style are decorated with a variety of themes – ranging from childhood, spring, abundance and joy for the Easter resurrection to human and zoomorphic figures. Another wonder of Romanesque architecture is the Cathedral with its splendid rose window, which inspired that of the church of San Domenico, and the portal decorated with Norman tracery. The Latin cross interior underwent numerous renovations especially in the 18th century that have transformed the original Romanesque floor plan into a splendidly baroque “domus aurea”. What remains of the original style are the columns and capitals with leaves, fruits, busts of prominent figures and warriors. The church is dedicated to the Madonna della Bruna, patroness of the city, depicted on a fresco in the interior. You can admire other splendid Romanesque portals in the church of Santa Maria della Valle, at the entrance of the Convicinio di Sant’Antonio and in the facade of the Benedictine Monastery of Santa Maria de Armeniis.

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Renaissance

In the 16th century, the school of sculpture of the Persio family was very active in the city. In the cathedral you can admire the marvelous chapel of the Annunziata with its niche walls and coffered vaults, the work of Giulio Persio from 1598, the stone altar frontal decorated with splendid Renaissance friezes from 1539 and the polychrome stone nativity scene by Altobello Persio from 1534, entirely inspired by the caves and the inhabitants of the Sassi. In the nativity scene, the visitors of the Bethlehem grotto are holding musical instruments that are no longer in use today: surdulina, psaltery, hurdy-gurdy, frame drum, and string drum. The largest Renaissance building is the Aragonese Castle of count Tramontano, an imposing fortress with mighty cylindrical towers that had to withstand the assaults of heavy artillery. The facade, defended by a mighty central tower and two side towers, has a gate for carriages with a drawbridge for allowing access across the deep moat. The manor house, which would have had a triangular shape, remained unfinished because the unpopular Count was killed by his subjects in 1514. Around the castle, which lies amidst vineyards, a wall was constructed to enclose the Piano. It had five gates: the Porta le Croci, from the stations of the cross once located in the Via Crucis, in Via Santo Stefano, at the entrance of Sasso Barisano; the Porta di San Biagio, leaning against the Church of San Biagio, in the Via Tommaso Stigliani; the Porta di San Domenico, also known as Porta della Bruna – the main gate of access to the city, near the Aragonese tower which came to light in the underground rooms of Piazza Vittorio Veneto; the Porta delle Pigne, so called because of a copious plantation of cypresses, in Via La Vista; and Porta Felice or dei Cappuccini, in the Via Ridola, which led to the Capuchin convent. In 1448 Giovanni Antonio Orsini del Balzo, Prince of Taranto, Count of Matera and Lecce, granted to the city’s nobles the opportunity to buy the ancient Longobard manor, enlarged in Norman, Swabian and Angevin times, to build beautiful palaces and incorporate the square towers of Castelvecchio. Concurrently, in the Sassi that had not yet been widely urbanized and were full of livestock enclosures, gardens, vegetable patches and vineyards, agricultural labourers and tradesmen built the first tiled “palatial houses”, above the existing caves owned by the Archbishop’s Chapter. In this way the house remained in the hands of the builder who continued to pay the Chapter the same (very modest) annual fee, for the rent of the cavern without taking into account the increase in value thanks to the construction of the masonry part. A kind of right over building land that the Chapter collected on the property it owned. In this same period the Schiavoni (“Slavs”) from Dalmatia and Istria, in between orchards and vineyards, carved their own dwellings into the caverns and cellars, to form a continuation from the Sasso Caveoso and creating a new burough – Casalnuovo.

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Baroque

In the second half of the 17th century, in the context of the nomination of Matera as the regional capital and seat of the Basilicata region, a planned process of modernization and transformation involving religious institutions, the nobility and the middle class as well as some lay fraternities started to take shape in the city. The location chosen to provide impetus to the change was the flat area behind the Sassi, the plain that defines its upper edge. The first building to be constructed on the plain was Palazzo Lanfranchi in 1668, as the seat of the Seminary, with its splendid facade overlooking the new development of the city, which was able to harmoniously incorporate the pre-existing church of Carmine. Prominent Baroque elements can be seen in the Monastery and in the Church of Santa Chiara which seems to have taken the facade of the Church of Carmine incorporated in the Lanfranchi Palace as its model. The church of San Francesco da Paola and the church of the Purgatory, the only example in the city of a central-plan church, inspired by the Neapolitan and Apulian baroque tradition, with a splendid wooden dome decorated with the images of the Evangelists and the Doctors of the Church, were commissioned by laymen. A famous example of renewed Rococo style inspired by Neapolitan examples can be admired on the lower level of the Annunziata Monastery. Originally, this was designed to be housed within the palace. The design of the upper level was entrusted to the new architect who took up the concave-convex pattern generated by the superimposition of the pilasters on the facade. Monumental and magnificent is the facade of the church of San Francesco D’Assisi, a church with a Romanesque foundation. The interior has a rich décor and beautifully painted ceiling, with putti and statues in the side chapels. The baroque impulse added stuccoes and new altars to the interiors of the churches of San Domenico, San Francesco D’Assisi, Sant’Agostino and to the Cathedral. In the church of San Pietro Caveoso and in the Cathedral a painted wooden planking covered the trusses to fit the taste of late Neapolitan baroque. Even the Knights of Malta were influenced by the new trends. The bell tower of the rock church of the Holy Spirit, now the church of Mater Domini, was decorated with diamond-pointed rustication. With all these interventions the city began to take on a new appearance, both in terms of layout and in terms of the dimensions of its spaces. 

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Risorgimento

In 1806 Matera lost its role as the capital city of the region of Basilicata in favour of Potenza. The city fell into a period of crisis, characterized by the precariousness of the living conditions of the peasants who were fighting against the bourgeoisie for occupancy of the state-owned land. With the expropriation of Matera, as the citizens of the time called it, the Intendancy and the Tribunal were transferred to Potenza. The city tried to fight back by calling for the return of those offices. In 1862, after more than fifty years, the district court returned to Matera, as did, in 1927 after more than 120 years, the title of provincial capital city. With the abolition of the feudal structure in 1806, the nobles of the city saw themselves reduced to simple citizens but were able to keep their properties. Starting in 1807 and with the subversive laws of 1866 all religious orders were dissolved, causing serious economic damage, not least also to the peasants who had been working as farmhands on the monks’ lands. In 1818 even the archiepiscopal Diocese was absolished and the Cathedral reduced to a simple collegiate church depending on Acerenza. Through the Sovereign’s intervention, the diocese was restored in the following year. For these reasons, the 19th century marks a slowdown in the beautification of the city due to the total lack of religious building projects and of private initiatives. Among the great public works worth mentioning is the aqueduct of Lapillo hill with its monumental fountain of 1832, on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and the aqueduct of Sasso Caveoso of 1844, in the Via Purgatorio Vecchio. From the urbanistic point of view, among the works due to private construction works, it is worth mentioning Palazzo Malvezzi, on the Via XX Settembre, next to the Convent of the Dominicans and Palazzo Zagarella, on the Via Ridola. Other than that there was very little activity in the private building sector. In order to satisfy public needs, the properties left by the absolished monastic orders were repurposed. The Lanfranchi Seminary for example became the seat of the Liceo Classico and the Convitto Comunale, the Convento dell’Annunziata the seat of the Tribunal, the Convento di San Domenico housed the Post Office, the Convento di San Rocco the Ospedale Civile, the Convento di San Francesco was converted to the seat of the Gendarmeria Reale and so on. During this period the bourgeoisie moved to the Piano and the Sassi turned into degraded districts inhabited by the less affluent social classes such as peasants, agricultural labourers, tradesmen and shepherds.

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20th century

With the visit of Prime Minister Zanardelli in 1902, the public began to become aware of the living conditions in the ancient Sassi districts. The city saw the arrival of streetlights, and the first factories built in the late 19th century were joined by flour mills and pasta factories, a ceramics and brick factory, a tobacco processing plant in 1915, and the railway connecting Matera to Altamura.  And when in 1927 Matera became a provincial capital, the Apulian Aqueduct also arrived and a new urban development of the city began with the introduction of the first Master Plan. This led to the construction of the Borgo Venusio, the popular districts on Gattini street and Piccianello, the Municipal Infant school in Sasso Barisano, the Palace of the Province, the Elementary School, the Chamber of Commerce, the Palace of State Employees, the Bank of Naples, the Post Office, the Palace of INA, the Palace of the Dispensary. The “grabiblioni” (drainage canals) of the Sassi was covered with the road that connects the two districts. Yet despite these interventions the inhabitants of the Sassi continued to live in dismal conditions – until after the war, when in 1952 they were transferred to modern housing (Act no. 619). The city was provided with a new Master Plan drawn up by the architect Luigi Piccinato and the new districts were built on public initiative, often integrated with private building projects. The rural village of La Martella was first built according to a design by Ludovico Quaroni, six kilometers from the city, for the first thousand families of the Sassi, with roads that follow the contours of the land, low houses with plenty of open space for animals and public structures such as the Nursery School, the Clinic, the Post Office, the Elementary and Secondary Schools, the Theater, the Library, the Sports Field and the Church in the shape of a granary. This was followed by the construction of the Serra Venerdì district based on a project by Luigi Piccinato, with green spaces around the houses, a small pine forest, the Coni School Field, the Schools, the Sport Complex. After that came the Lanera district, a project by Marcello Fabbri, with green spaces around the buildings and a pinewood adjacent to the Civil Hospital, the Spine Bianche district built with baked earth bricks, a project by the architect Carlo Aymonino, the Villalongo district, born out of the initiative of INA CASA, and the San Giacomo district realized thanks to the contribution of a group of urban planners. The public construction authority commissioned the Agna district, the Village of the Child, the Church of Lanera district, and the Schools and the Church of Spine Bianche district.

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Modern times to present day

The complete evacuation of the troglodyte settlement for sanitary reasons, which took place between 1952 and 1968, worsened the static structural degradation of the houses, but at the same time preserved its ancient appearance until modern times. In the 1950s, following the displacement of the Sassi for sanitary reasons, Matera became a laboratory of ideas. On the initiative of Adriano Olivetti, president of the National Institute of Urban Planning, the Commission for the study of the city and the countryside of Matera was born. Frederick Friedmann, a sociologist, and well-known exponents of Italian urban planning such as Ludovico Quaroni, Luigi Piccinato, Marcello Fabbri and Carlo Aymonino were involved in the construction of new residential quarters on the outskirts of the city. The city became a magnet for great masters of photography such as Henry Cartier-Bresson, Mario Cresci, Franco Pinna, for great filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini (who in 1954 chose Matera as the location for his film The Gospel according to Matthew), for anthropologists such as Ernesto De Martino, for famous writers such as Carlo Levi (who describes Matera in Christ Stopped at Eboli), for great painters and sculptors such as Jose Ortega and Pietro Consagra (who in 1978 – after having created eleven sculptures called “I ferri bifrontali di Matera” for the city and installed them in the Sassi and in the park of the Murgia – promoted an important document for the preservation of historic centres called Charter for Matera, asking the Government to intervene for the protection of the Sassi). Ten years later, with the Act no. 771 of 1986 for the conservation, the architectural, urban and environmental restoration, and the enhancement of the Sassi and the Park of the Murgia, the ancient districts were declared of paramount national interest. Later, the state building property was transferred in concession to the Municipality of Matera, which in the meantime had set up the Sassi Office as required by national law to start the conservative restoration of the Sassi, fully respecting the original typologies and materials and their valorization

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