Sassi of Matera
The Sassi quarters were listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. They are a unique place with extraordinary charm that shows how man has lived in a fairytale-like environment for thousands of years: both the Sassi districts and the surrounding area - comprised by the Parco Archeologico Storico Naturale (Archeological Historical Natural Park) for the most part - are characteristically rocky.
The sassi quarters are connected to the current town centre all throughout, admittedly there are many streets and alleys that lead down to the old town.
What are the SassiInitially, the Sassi were just a rocky area very similar to the opposite side of the canyon created by the Gravina river. The western side of the canyon is made up of a steep side overlooking the stream, along with several hills and terraces more suitable for human habitation. As time went on, these places transformed into villages and ultimately into a fully-fledged town. The first human settlements date back to the Paleolithic age and they developed in the many caves that characterise the local rocky landscape. Over time, the landscape has been increasingly modified by man, as the local sandstone (improperly referred to as tufa stone) is soft enough to be carved, meaning that it can be manipulated to create shelter.
The caves that were dug in this period constitute the basis of urbanisation, still visible in the buildings constructed during the last millennium. Hence, Matera has gone through the prehistoric phase (comprised of the paleolithic age, the neolithic age and the Iron age), and later its history was strongly affected by the advent of christianity, which quickly became culturally prevalent. During the middle ages the landscape was transformed as a result of the systematic construction of a series of places of worship.
The majestic Cathedral of Matera, the church of S. Giovanni Battista, the church of S. Domenico and the church of S. Maria della Valle were all built during this period. The actual town starts developing around the cathedral built on the - Civita - hill (civitas = city in Latin) around this time, thereby creating two quarters: the - Sasso Barisano - in the east and the - Sasso Caveoso - in the south.
Visiting the Sassi of MateraToday, the Sassi represent a fascinating cultural landscape, which is the reason why they are now part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. Architecturally, they encompass a mixture of different elements that were stratified over time, such as rock dwellings, cave churches and burial grounds that repeatedly alternate with buildings belonging to disparate time periods such as the middle ages, the renaissance, the baroque and the modern age.
As a matter of fact, caves, hypogea, palaces, churches, neighbourhoods, staircases, galleries and gardens all intertwine together, creating a magical and unique atmosphere. By taking a stroll on via Bruno Buozzi, via Madonna delle Virtù and via D’Addozio (the main route that connects the two Sassi districts) you can admire the view while also admiring the opposite side of the Murgia Materana. The alleys that weave around the buildings lead to ever-surprising and picturesque spots.
Cave churches in the - Sassi - of Matera
The cave churches in Matera make for particularly interesting sights, as they represent the process of evolution that brought man from prehistory to christianity. The churches are located in places that most likely already functioned as places of worship prior to the arrival of christianity, making them exceptionally important.
Main churches that can be visited in the Sassi:
Santa Maria de Idris - San Giovanni in Monterrone
The church of Santa Maria De Idris is located within the Monterrone rocky outcrop that overlooks the Sasso Caveoso, near the square and the church of San Pietro Caveoso. The location is marvellous and from here you can see both the town and the Gravina. The church of Santa Maria De Idris dates back to the XIV century and it is part of a church complex that includes the crypt dedicated to San Giovanni in Monterrone, which holds particular importance because of its frescoes that date back to the XII - XVII century. The two churches are adjoined.
Santa Lucia alle Malve
The cave church of Santa Lucia alle Malve is located near the aforementioned church of Santa Maria de Idris, near the Malve district. It represents the first instance of benedectine women’s monastic settlement, it dates back to the VIII century and it’s considered the most important church in the history of Matera. Externally, the former monastic complex runs alongside the rocky slope, and it can be accessed via a series of entrances. The caves are characterised by carved symbols representing the martyrdom of Santa Lucia, namely the chalice with her eyes. The frescos depicted on the walls of the church are among the best ones in the area.
San Pietro Barisano
The church of San Pietro Barisano (Originally known as San Pietro de Veteribus) is the largest cave church in Matera. The original structure (currently beneath the ground) was discovered during an archeological investigation and it dates back to the XII - XIII century. The side chapels were added between the XV and XVI century as a way to enlarge the church. As of today the only tangible part of this enlargement is the back of the chapel, located behind the 2nd altar in the right nave, where the frescos of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, Annunciazione, San Canio, Sant’Agostino, Sant’Eustachio and San Vito can be observed.
Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci
Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci is a church complex located at the bottom of the Civita, on the road that overlooks the Gravina. The church of Madonna delle Virtù has 3 Romanesque naves adorned with outstanding reliefs and architectural features. The paintings that adorn the crypt of San Nicola dei Greci are among the most important ones in the area.