Matera: From ‘Shame’ to ‘Pride’ of a Nation
by Pietro Laureano
Matera is one of the most representative town for Italian culture. It became famous thanks to the novel written by Carlo Levi Christ stopped at Eboli and to many films that have been turned among which Il Vangelo secondo Matteo by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Situated in the Region of Basilicata, Matera boasts its outstanding historic town called “I Sassi”.
The “Sassi”, an Italian word meaning stone, is a town carved out of the local limestone called “tufo”. It is a primordial dwelling settlement that spreads out along the slopes of a deep gorge called La Gravina having unique and natural characteristics. The Sassi represent the persistence of a prehistoric past that can be still admired in the cavernous and underground mazes underlying the built up structures.
The Sassi of Matera was organized according to the shortage of resources, the need for appropriate and collective use of them, land and water saving, the control of heat and solar The man did not simply follow the landscape faithfully, but rather he changed it into a stratification of works aiming at to an harmonious management. of the space Until the last century the urban system was almost unspoilt. At present, the environmental resources are not managed at a community level any longer, thus bringing about the destruction of the water harvesting system, the saturation and the mixture of settlements. Due to these degradation conditions, in the 50s the Sassi of Matera was considered as the “national shame” and 20.000 inhabitants were forced to move to new quarters. The abandoned houses became State property and were walled in order to prevent people from living in this degraded town. Consequently, the Sassi of Matera became a desert town: the largest historic centre Europe that was completely abandoned.
The dwellings that are no longer been inhabited and aired underwent a rapid degradation process as well as the rock –hewn churches boasting beautiful medieval frescoes .
Thanks to the initiative carried out by culture men in 1986, the Italian Government allocated 100 billion Italian Liras for the restoration of the Sassi to carry out slum clearance and urbanization programmes and encourage the inhabitants to populate the Sassi once again. The fund was entrusted to the Municipality of Matera to whom all the state property, that represents the largest part of the Sassi, was granted. In 1993, the Sassi was the first site of southern Italy to be inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List, thus becoming a national and international tourist attraction. Therefore there has been an increasing demand to repopulate the Sassi that has led to the valorization of houses and cave dwellings. The Municipality of Matera has supplied the Sassi with hydraulic, sewerage, gas electric and telecommunications systems that have been laid underground in order not to spoil the architecture and landscape. At present, 2,500 people are repopulating the Sassi and other houses are undergoing restoration works so that 7,000 people will be able to live in the Sassi.
Therefore the Sassi of Matera represents the most important example of urban rehabilitation in the Mediterranean.
There is an increasing demand for using the Sassi both as dwellings and as seats of prestigious institutions like the University, Museums, International Centres. Therefore, new problems concerning services transport and infrastructures arise. If these problems are not solved in an appropriate way the landscape of this town could be seriously damaged. The Italian Government has launched an International Campaign for the Sassi of Matera as an example of urban rehabilitation in the framework of initiatives promoted by the Rio Conference and the directives indicated in the Actions Planes of European towns in order to let Matera play an emblematic role as for the appropriate use of resources and the harmonious management of the ecosystem.
The Sassi is the architectural example of a civil and community of living where social relationships were privileged, fostered and continuously consolidated. The International Campaign aims at the use of traditional technologies in an innovative way like rehabilitation of cistern to harvest rainfall water, of overhangs to realize public garden, of cave dwellings and underground rooms to optimise the internal microclimates. In this way, in Matera it will be possible to follow an itinerary showing all the phases of human history and experiment millenarian urban restoration practices that put forward new solutions which can be suited to ancient knowledge.
The Sassi of Matera shows that the disadvantageous conditions can be transformed into renewable resources so that the places affected by bad conditions and environmental difficulties become more harmonious and better ecologically organized, The use of rainfall water, the repopulation of cave-dwelling, the more harmonious management of local nature’s resources do not represent a delay vis-à-vis modernity but rather a proposal for a sustainable future.