24 December 2015

Carlo Levi was right - Christ certainly stopped at Eboli!

The Basilicata Region forms the instep of the Italian boot (see map below). It has long been Italy’s poorest region, now Basilicata is joining the modern world – it has wonderful Greek and Roman ruins; fine beaches; new hotels; wonderful food; decent wine; sublime scenery, Monte Pollino National Park; and Matera and its caves!

The town of Matera sits on a ridge, with deep canyons to either side. The sides of the canyons contain exposed layers of softer, sandier rock. Thousands of years ago, humans settled in the caves in the canyon walls, extending them until thousands of grottoes honeycombed the town. The caves make up Italy’s oldest continually inhabited dwellings that UNESCO called “the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean”.

Matera on the edge of the ravine

Even as recently as the 1930s, 20,000 landless peasants were crammed into the Barisano and Caveoso sassi i.e the town’s two main stone cave districts. In­side the cave dwellings, large families lived alongside their live­stock, without electricity or running water. Children appeared stark naked or in rags. In such filthy conditions, disease (especially cholera) and malnutrition were rife; illiteracy was very high. New born babies often died. Even by the standards of Italy’s impoverished south, the sassi were a national shame.

It took a book to bring this tragedy to wider attention. Christ Stopped at Eboli was written by Carlo Levi (1902–1975), a Jewish writer-artist-political activist exiled from Turin by the Fascists to Basilicata in 1935. Published in 1945, the title sugg­ested that Bas­il­icata was beyond the hand of God, a place where pagan magic survived. Reacting to outrage from the general public over Levi’s descriptions, the government finally relocated and rehoused the 20,000 residents of the caves into modern housing in the New Town, on top of the cliff – in 1952! No rush, Italian government!!

A rock church in Matera

The state owned the caves but the state had no interest in spending money on any improvements. Eventually the local council transformed the squatters into legal residents and connected them to the town’s utilities. A few business followed, along with the artists and writers who always seem to be the foundation of modernity.

The arrival of smart hotels started with Le Grotte della Civita. Grotte is a warm, comfortable hotel but the floors are uneven, the rock walls unad­orned, there is no restaurant and not many windows. This is the luxury only in the sense of a unique experience, a setting and history with which no other hotel can compare. Even the hotel's fittings and furniture are relics from decades gone by.

 Sasso Barisano

The best way to really feel Matera is to wander in the labyrinthine alleys and streets of the two sassi districts, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. Their history is etched in the cave dwellings and their traditional house facades, in the pale stones underfoot and the enormous water cisterns below, and in the many rock churches cut into the yawning ravine (200 ms deep). The sassi are filled with silence, shadows, loneliness, mould and dead ends. The dark façades and the black entrances of still-abandoned caves exist even today. Some of Matera’s past is not so distant after all.

There are 155 frescoed cave churches, many of them only recently redis­cov­er­ed, in Matera. Cave churches were apparently excavated by Basilian monks fleeing persecution during the Byzantine Empire, and the faded frescoes were painted between the C8th and C13th. See Santa Lucia alle Malve, Chiesa Madonna delle Virtu and San Nicola dei Greci in Sasso Barisano and Chiesa di Santa Maria d’Idris. Cripta del Peccato Originale (the Crypt of Original Sin) is known as the Sistine Chapel of the cave churches... for its C8th frescoes representing theatrical scenes from the Bible.

Basilicata, Southern Italy
press to find Matera (in red)

The town's main historical museum, the Museo Nazionale Ridola, contains exhibits from Basilicata's distant past, until the Roman age. Palazzo Lanfranchi houses the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Medievale e Moderna della Regione Basilicata - an art museum of the medieval and the modern, focusing on southern artists. Centro Carlo Levi, which contains a range of paintings by the special artist and writer who became part of this region's modern history.

How things change. Until the 1950s, we know that many families were still living crowded into cave-houses here. But by the 1980s, the Scan­dalous Abandoned Caves of Matera had been changed into Fascinating Reminders of the Past. Matera is indeed fascinating these days, but its present fascination is drawn from pain felt very recently.

In the Long View of history, how strange that what was once an old network of subterranean slums in Matera has been transf­orm­ed into a luxury tourist destination. And how amazing that the area was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993. Even more amazing, Matera will be a European City of Culture in 2019. The population is only 60,000.

A hotel room in Sasso Caveoso 


Stuart Spindlow said...

A really useful read, thanks for posting.

Architects Brentwood
Planning Enforcement Appeals
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Andrew said...

Hels, you never cease to surprise and inform me. I hope you don't get too bored tomorrow :)

Joseph said...

Are the hotel rooms decent? It doesn't have to be a palace, but I wouldn't want to sleep in a really miserable squat. I also quite like a window in the room.

Hels said...


welcome to Art and Architecture, mainly. I can see you get involved in conversions, but I bet you have never seen anything quite as unusual as converting dank caves to churches, hotels and shops.

Have a great 2016!

Hels said...


I often get emails from a travel agent describing amazing places that I would love to see eg Alaska, The Shetlands, The Orkneys, Latvia and Lithuania. But I know all these places, or at least know OF them. But I had never been south of Naples; never heard of Matera.

Happy holidays to you too :)

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, A perfect example of Gentrification. I have been in a lot of slum-like dwellings that were about to be torn down or possibly restored, and the degree of filth and squalor is often unbelievable. I do think that would be an amazing area to tour, since so much of the ancient past apparently remains. One is reminded of the American Indian cliff and pueblo dwellings in the U.S., many of which still contain corncobs and pottery shards from the last inhabitants hundreds of years ago.

Hels said...


I will find a photo of a cave hotel room and put it into the blog post. They look very clean, understated and have everything a guest could possibly need, but ..... cave-like! No windows!

Leon Sims said...

It reminds me a little of Minerve in the south of France where the Cathers sought protection - a village built on a ravine between two rivers.

Hels said...

Hi Parnassus

happy new year, almost :)

I am all in favour of restoring old facilities, rather than tearing them down and using totally new materials. Tearing buildings down both a] wastes precious resources and b] destroys the region's amazing history. But my goodness, Italy took a LONG time in seeing how depressed the small towns in the southern region of Basilicata were. Milan and the north had one of the most elite life styles in the world, while babies were dying in the south from filth and easily treated diseases.

Well worth touring, yes! I know Sicily and Malta well, but flew over Basilicata without even knowing the province's name.

Hels said...


Good to see you!

I felt sooo sorry for the Cathars, knowing a bit about Albigensian Crusade, the fall of Carcassonne, Simon de Montfort and other tragedies. Their city of Minerve and their castle seemed to use the natural (ravine) landscape very wisely. I am not sure the rugged ravine in Matera offered the wretched Italian residents any protection at all :(

Mandy Southgate said...

How fascinating. The hotel room looks lovely but how easily we seem to forget the poverty and struggle of the past. I love Italy - I'd definitely like to visit some of the south.

Hels said...


Agreed! Sometimes we forgot grinding poverty in the 19th century and early 20th century, and sometimes we didn't even know about it. In either case, there was a long history of northern tourism to the sunny Mediterranean that included Cairo, Venice, Rome, south coast of France and every other place, but not Basilicata.

Have a healthy, happy 2016.