The Sassi of Matera, Remembered by a Traveling Artist
by Sophia Khan
“Memories of Matera” 2019
As dusk falls, the muted shifting colors of the sky appear reflected on a limestone terrain tinged with age, carrying within it stories of an untold past. Random lights, like scattered moonlight, dance across its labyrinthine facade replete with dark openings, hinting at a presence silently watching the observer back. At first encounter, I felt at once awe struck and mystified. For this place was not like anywhere else I had seen in Italy.
This was the Sassi of Matera, as I had first seen it in the Summer of 1998. It was the final destination during a program abroad in Italy, which I pursued while studying for my undergraduate degree in Architecture. Among all the Italian towns and cities we stayed in, Matera was the one I had the most visceral response to.
The very first thing I did upon arriving at our hotel in the Sassi, in the dead of night, was stop and write a few words about the striking landscape before me. As it turned out, the last thing I would do before leaving, once again in the depth of night, was paint myself a watercolor of the Sassi. Perhaps, through both my words and watercolors, I intuitively knew I wanted to preserve my own personal impressions of this place. I returned home not only with these, but with an affinity towards the Sassi that I could not name or fully comprehend at the time.
Watercolor of the Sassi, painted during my first trip to Matera in 1998
Several years later, I learned about a Historic Preservation program that was taking place in the Sassi of Matera, and I hastened at the opportunity to be a part of it. My knowledge, appreciation, and understanding of the built form of the Sassi, along with its history, deepened considerably as a result of this study.
I learned that while the Sassi’s outward form had largely remained the same, perceptions of it have varied quite drastically, over time. So much so that it had once been labeled a “national shame.” This was due in part to the writings of an Italian activist, Carlo Levi. Levi, exiled to the South of Italy in 1935 due to his anti-fascist activities, had visited and written about the Sassi in his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. He described the Sassi as a place of deep poverty; a malaria ridden place that was like “a schoolboy's idea of Dante's Inferno."
Indeed, back then, living conditions in the Sassi were not only primitive, but far from sanitary. Homes were overcrowded due to limitations on the expansion needed to accommodate increasing populations. Work animals were often kept within these dwellings, contributing to the unhygienic conditions. The Sassi were eventually completely abandoned; its residents forced to relocate to a newly built town, La Martella, meant to modernize their way of living.
It wasn’t until much later that the site was appreciated for its unique built form; a dynamic coexistence of the natural and manmade environment, for its continued and varied inhabitation over more than two millennia, and for its similarities to other significant cave settlements such as Cappadocia in Turkey. This eventually lead to the Sassi’s inscription as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993.
Drawings of the Sassi, sketched in Matera from 2003-2004
My next two visits to Matera were solo travels. Traveling by myself allowed me to have a deeper and more personal experience of the local culture. I also felt that during these last two visits, the Sassi revealed more of those parts of itself to me that had initially piqued my curiosity, and have stayed with me the most. Much of this was a result of my encounters with the locals. There was an untethered hospitality, the likes of which I had not seen anywhere else in Italy. It was something that I knew and felt was precious.
I remember several of these encounters quite fondly. There was a middle aged woman who kept the town’s cathedral, which I visited often, with whom I had several exchanges around the topic of faith. She did not speak English, and I spoke only basic Italian. I feel the limitations of our words were, in part, what allowed the conversations to be so tender. There was the family run restaurant, in which the mother prepared the meals, the father welcomed the guests, and the son waited on the tables. I was pleased to learn that it operated without a menu, catering instead to the specific tastes and delights of its guests. I ordered my meal and, after being served, the cook peeked in from the small opening between the kitchen and the dining area, and a non verbal yet amicable introduction took place. This would continue throughout my meal, as brief exchanges. She would look my way to observe any reactions to the meals she prepared for me, I would joyfully nod and show my delight at her culinary skills, and she would enthusiastically return the same friendly gesture as a means of accepting the compliment. In another restaurant, there worked a wide eyed middle aged man who always had his cat nearby and had insisted on treating me to the gift of desert after I had dined there. There was the Artist who worked on the carro, the float used during the annual Festa della Bruna, who I met in order to learn more about his craft. Days later, when we ran into each other in the town’s piazza, he enthusiastically offered to make a whimsical drawing of the carro for me in my sketchbook. There was the elderly local scholar, whose office I knocked on without prior communication, who warmly opened his doors and eagerly shared more about his town and culture with me. While many of the names, faces, and exact words of the people I met in Matera have faded, the memories and warmth of these encounters still remains quite vivid.
I was also blessed to receive many small gifts from several locals I met along my winding path throughout the Sassi. All of these treasures, I keep safe with me, as they help preserve Matera how I choose to remember it. They include a book of hymns, a book on sculptures, a collection of poems, photographs of a monastery, postcards, and a letter from a stranger, whose meaning has in some ways graced my life’s journey to this day.
My very last trip to Matera, to date, took place during the Summer of 2004. While traveling there from Florence, I wrote the following words in my journal, here edited:
I am on my way back to the Sassi
eager to see if the warm faces that I met before remember me, as I remember them
eager to wander through the maze that is the Sassi
to be part of the evening passeggiata
to be part of the family made up of the many families content with simplicity, content with each other.
But I am also afraid
Afraid that things may have changed too much,
that I am returning too late,
that the mystery, the quiet, the still might be gone.
And so I am returning because I feel I need to grasp as much as I can
To draw, to photograph, to feel
to somehow preserve something that is constantly transforming.
- Florence, 2004
Being that I had been to Matera only a few months prior to writing this and had, even within that short period of time, felt a sense of urgency in hoping the town would hold onto its culture, is telling.
It has now been 15 years since my last visit. This year, Matera has been named one of the two 2019 European Capitals of Culture. As part of this recognition there are several cultural events taking place in the town this year, such as art exhibitions, lectures, and performances, many of which cross cultural borders. I have also recently come across several Instagram photographs, being posted by travelers, of “luxury” hotels within the Sassi. “Luxury” is indeed in sharp contrast to, and feels like a more positive way to have a discourse around the Sassi, than the “national shame” label it once carried. However, I wonder how a local resident who may have experienced day to day life in the more primitive days of the Sassi would perceive it.
The Sassi indeed have continually evolved to changing needs and times. I see this as a testament to its unique form, which one would not intuitively perceive as adaptable. I would not claim to know if Matera’s rise in tourism and recognition from the international community is something that will be beneficial to the Sassi and the locals in the long term. What I can share however, is my belief that a culture’s most prized possession is pride in its own heritage. If it begins to cater too often to the tastes and interests of outsiders, it perhaps begins to ironically lose some of what initially made it so appealing.
While I may not know what Matera looks and feels like today, save for small online glimpses, for now I have chosen not to return. Instead, I wish to preserve the memories of how I experienced it thus far. I will hold dear the words I wrote, the drawings and paintings I made, the photographs I took, and the encounters I had, and will continue to paint watercolors of my memories of Matera. All of these are a testament to how I feel the town welcomed and revealed a small part of itself to me.
And to those who may wish to witness and experience Matera for themselves, I will close in sharing that the story of this town is one that is layered with much history, meaning, and sometimes solemn, sometimes reverential, yet often poetic stories; all of which I feel many of the locals carry, perhaps a bit protectively at first, within them. It is my hope that these stories, and the vestiges of times long gone which are inscribed within the Sassi’s stones for the careful observer, will not be lost to the current excitement of what is being offered in Matera, and instead perhaps in some way be enriched by it.
Watercolor of the Sassi, painted during my first trip to Matera in 1998
Arc Boutant Historic Preservation Program, Summer 2003, course materials and notes
Levi, Carlo. Christ Stopped at Eboli. Translated by Frances Frenaye, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974
UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/670, viewed March 4, 2019