Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi

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    • Day 19


      May 27, 2022 in Italy ⋅ ☁️ 29 °C

      Matera is the 3rd oldest continuously inhabited place in the world. Inhabited since the Neolithic ages, as their inhabitants dug caves out of soft limestone. Matera stayed this way until the 1950s. A forced relocation caused most of Matera to be abandoned. However two major and very recent events have caused Matera to be transformed in just the past 15 years.

      A quick note: when we went through Matera we did a walking tour. Our guide Tano was great. Because Matera was inhabited by cave dwellers so recently, many of the youngest are still alive. Tano has been able to get some oral history from those still living and shared those stories with us.

      Second note: In many of the pictures, you will notice we don't show many "caves." In many of dwellings shown the ground floor is a cave, the innards of the caves were used to create bricks to build multiple floors. In fact, architecture students still some to Matera to study how many of these ancient building practices were accomplished.

      Neolithic Matera

      Ancient Matera was a prosperous settlement. It had originally been formed in a gorge with a strong running river (Gravina di Matera) providing the inhabitants with fresh water. Many inhabitants lived on east bank of the river before it was discovered that the west bank was made of softer limestone which made for easier digging of caves. That caused the settlement to move.

      Matera in the 50s.

      The inhabitants of Matera in the 50s lived much as their ancestors had before them. Families lived in caves, caved out of limestone. Families with as many of 16 children lived with sheep, pigs, and mules inside the cave with them. The limestone keep them cool in the summer, but the livestock keep them warm in the cooler months. The more breath in the cave the better. It was so bad in fact that babies were hung from the ceilings of the caves as that was often the warmest place. Our tour guide Tano said that the locals explained to him the mother would use a long stick to raise and lower the babies we well as rock them.

      Water collection was a key part of Matera life. The previously mentioned Gravina had all but dried up. The Materian people formed a means of storing rain water by cutting cisterns out of the limestone rock as well as channels to funnel the rain water into it. A cross section of such a cistern can been seen in picture #6.

      Conditions in Matera

      The child death rate at this time was nearly 1 / 2. As you can tell from the pictures, trees on not prevailent in Matera. They build their fires from old dried feces of their livestock. Fresher feces was used as insultation. Tano told us stories of mothers trying to keep moisture out of the cave by smearing yesterday's feces on the wall wherever moisture was seen. In addition, their water collection methods did cause stagnant water to fester in the cisterns. Diseases such as malaria, cholera and typhoid caused Matera to be thought of as a slum and the "Shame of italy."


      In the 50s, Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi was trying to unify and modernize Italy after WWII. He visited Matera and was SHOCKED by what he saw. He instituted a mandatory relocation of all inhabitants out of the caves and built new apartments for them to stay in. Tano described the experience as a culture shock of this experience. People who had been using chamber pots to suddenly using rushing water. Many of the inhabitants continued to try to live with their livestock for many years in the new apartments.

      From slum to luxury hotel

      Following the 50s, two things happened. Matera was made a UNESCO world heritage site. Specifically for the unique water collection methods used by the people. Then, Mel Gibson (or as they call him Santa Mel) used Matera as the site for the filming of The Passion of the Christ. Released in 2004, many other movies followed, includinig Wonder Woman, and No Time to Die (the latest 007 movie).

      Now, many of the once abandoned caves have been renovated, at great expense, and turned into luxury hotels, BnBs, and high end restaurants. You can see some of them in photo #9.

      Today, Matera is unambiguously GORGEOUS! The pictures we took do NOT do it justice and I highly recommend taking the time to visit Matera if do come to Italy.

      If you'd like to read more, I've found this great article that also talks about Matera.…
      Read more

    You might also know this place by the following names:

    Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi

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