We crashed hard that night and slept until late morning. Matera is a city built in the canyon region West of Bari and Taranto. The old city is all cave dwellings, carved into the soft rock on the sides of the ravine, and then bricked over on the front to create an architecture to the canyon walls.
I decided to visit Matera from what I learned about it from a few photographs made by Emmet Gowin in the 1980’s.
During World War II, Mussolini expelled the citizens from the old city of Matera, and forced them into communist tenet blocks built on the top of the canyon.
Since the 1980’s, the Italian government has made a considerable investment in redeveloping the old city. Many of the sassi now have electricity and running water.
The next morning, we started our exploration of Matera at the city center, a large piazza where the old and new cities meet.
It was a day of joy and discovery, as here before us lay a truly unique and under-acknowledged marker of human civilization.
The light was amazing. We walked throughout the sassi – the oldest part of the city still uninhabited, but full of unique discoveries. After weeks in Florence and the Aeolian Island, the brilliant, dry air of the desert felt refreshing. It was like my childhood trips in Colorado and Utah.
In addition to the architectural originality of Matera, the city is also well know for some important pieces fresco. Most well known are a series at the top of the ravine, now resting where the sassi and Mussolini’s cities meet.
Matera was a religious city (the Carlo Levi story Christ Stopped at Eboli takes place in the region). Over the centuries, different religious communities developed for study, with a remarkable duomo built on the top of the ravine looking out over the sassi.
Deep in the sassi, at the bottom of the ravine, we followed a path made of uniform wooden planks about 30 yards into the rock. At the end was a small room, and a guard sitting at desk. On the wall opposite him, was perhaps the most remarkable fresco I’ve ever seen. It was illuminated only from skylights cut through the rock, and was bathed in light and color. So shielded from the elements, the painting was well preserved.
We spent two days in Matera before heading back to Florence. The first day was full of wonder and elation; we felt something like joy having such an intimate look at such an interesting and unique place. By the second day, the pace of our travels caught up to us, and we had a lazy day in the hotel with a bit of shopping around the main piazza.
The third day was Sunday, and we left early in the morning. We took a long, crowded train across the center of Italy, finally reaching Florence by dusk.
On Monday we took a plane from Florence back to New York. We had spent the last six weeks traveling through Italy, saving the best for last.