The town of MATERA, situated on the edge of a ravine at the eastern end of Basilicata, dates from the Middle Ages when Byzantine and Benedictine monks built rock-hewn churches and monasteries into what are now called the Sassi – literally “stones” – an intricate series of terraced caves. Later, farmers, seeking safety from invasions, also settled in the Sassi, fashioning their homes, stables and shops out of the rock, creating one of Italy’s oddest townscapes and its most significant troglodyte settlement. During the Spanish Bourbon era, wealthy Sassi dwellers were able to move out of the cave dwellings to the plain above, while the masses were left in squalor below. The area was graphically described in Carlo Levi’s 1945 memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, in which the Sassi were compared to Dante’s Inferno, with their impoverished, malaria-ridden inhabitants. During the 1950s twenty thousand people were forcibly removed from the Sassi and rehoused in modern districts in the new town.
Nowadays it’s hard to picture the conditions that previously existed here; EU funds and private investment have poured in, and the area has been cleaned up and repopulated with homes, B&Bs, hotels, restaurants and workshops. In 1993, the city and its grotto-filled outskirts were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2003 Mel Gibson filmed his controversial The Passion of the Christ here.