The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera – UNESCO World Heritage Centre
July 23, 2012 1 Comment
This is the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem. The first inhabited zone dates from the Palaeolithic, while later settlements illustrate a number of significant stages in human history. Matera is in the southern region of Basilicata.
The Sassi of Matera and their park are an outstanding example of a rock-cut settlement, adapted perfectly to its geomorphological setting and its ecosystem and exhibiting continuity over more than two millennia. They represent an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement and land use showing the evolution of a culture that has maintained over time a harmonious relationship with its natural environment.
The Matera region has been inhabited by man since the Palaeolithic period. Permanent defended village settlements grew up after the last Ice Age, based on agriculture. Deforestation of the area led to serious erosion and created problems of water management. The gradual invasion of fields by garrigue and maquis led to a change from agriculture to pastoral transhumance. Matera’s development was due to its geological setting. A belt of soft tufa is located between 350 m and 400 m above the valley bed, and this also contains two natural depressions (grabialioni ); in consequence, it was here that the settlement grew up. The clay plateau above was reserved for agriculture and pastoralism.
The advent of better tools with the Metal Ages made it easier to dig into the soft calcareous tufa rocks exposed in the gravine (gorges or canyons) and there is evidence from the Bronze Age of the creation of underground cisterns and tombs, and in particular of underground dwellings opening out of a central space (jazzi ). The excavated tufa blocks were used for the construction of walls and towers. This process was easiest on the sides of ravines, where the softer strata of tufa were exposed. Greek colonization led to the introduction of higher technology and political structures, under the influence of the Pythagorean School. The earlier dispersed settlements coalesced into urban centres of government, under their own kings (i Re Pastori), leading eventually to the creation of true towns. The harsh landscape resulted in the growth of a spirit of sturdy independence which was resistant to successive waves of invaders after the Byzantine period. The area was also very attractive to monastic and utopian communities.
This structure remained intact until the 18th century. It was the expansion and interventions of the 19th and 20th centuries that rejected the ancient principle of land management based on water supply and drainage and spread to the clays of the plateau above.
The earliest house form was a simple cave in the tufa with a closing wall formed from the excavated blocks. This developed into a vaulted room (lamione ) built out into the open space, and was then available for considerable adaptation and extension. Groups of dwellings round a common courtyard evolved into the social structure of the vicinato, with shared facilities such as a cistern. In between the two sassi was established the fortified centre of the town (cività ), within which the cathedral was sited. Workshops and granaries were set up outside the cività, which was connected with the sassi by narrow lanes and steps. The water supply was highly organized, being collected on the plateau above and brought down by gravity for distribution to the community. As the town grew, more houses were excavated and built, climbing the hillside; the roofs of some houses often acted as streets for the houses above them. The houses became more grandiose, and terraces were built out in the Renaissance period for gardens.