Above a steep canyon cut by the fast flowing water of the River Gravina lies one of the oldest communities in the world, whose architecture is defined by the rocks among which it sits. Matera, found in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, is a picture-perfect, white-stone city that originates from a prehistoric troglodyte settlement. The area’s special caves were used as a natural shelter from the harsh climate as early as 10,000 BC and, while the city has developed a unique, more modern personality alongside its cave-dwelling past, its success and perception has always be tied to its historic core—giving Matera a long and storied history that will culminate in a stint next year as a European Capital of Culture.
“Caveman” is a throwaway term often used to describe our prehistoric ancestors, suggesting a substantial relationship between these naturally occurring spaces and human life itself. However, evidence suggests that our earliest ancestors actually preferred life outside of caves, and that habitable caves were, by and large, a rare occurrence. This makes the persistence and longevity of settlement within Matera all the more extraordinary. The prehistoric section of the town, named “Sassi di Matera,” was one of the first known settlements in modern Italy—its geography and geology creating a series of interesting architectural interventions.
Covering the landscape, the white calcareous rock heavily influences the city’s aesthetic and form. Every building, path, and sculpture is constructed with a polished, refined version of the rock, leading to a sparse use of color throughout the city. This creates a canvas for the blue sky, turquoise water, and green trees—letting nature take center-stage—while practically speaking it plays a large role in keeping the city’s population cool. The rock forms indistinct columns, fluid volumes and undefined structures; any significant feature quickly eroding over time. Captivating and mysterious, the resulting architecture shows the emotions, marks, and memories of those who used to call it home—a constantly evolving sculpture of Matera’s people.
Many of the buildings hug the side of the cliff face, extending within the rock to create internal spaces where human design merges seamlessly with the irregular patterns of the caves. On the exterior, some buildings extrude out as if they are being pushed from within, while others simply fill in the holes to reveal as little facade as possible.
The huge cisterns, used to store water transported from the river, are possibly the first signs of humans making a significant architectural mark within the landscape. Transporting water from the river below took a lot of time and effort, and therefore the cisterns were necessary for continued survival in Matera. Acting like hidden cathedrals of water, their vast rooms and spaces led to many being repurposed as houses, while some are also used to generate tourist interest, as delicate bridges weave through the spaces.
Matera’s modern buildings sit gently on top of the hillside, allowing the topography to dictate the plan of the city. Like the city’s southern Mediterranean neighbors, the vernacular and urban fabric sees narrow streets climbing up the hillside, finding relief in the various squares and courtyards sporadically placed throughout the city. These moments of space are often found outside one of Matera’s many churches, whose spires define its silhouette, and a famous castle takes an advantageous position on top of a natural peak.
Surprisingly, people still used the bare, unadapted caves as their home deep into the 20th century—living with no access to sun or amenities. The low levels of light and high concentration of disease began to create slum-like conditions, and the 30,000 people of Matera struggled to eradicate the poverty they suffered in. After a visit from the Italian prime minister in which he claimed the area was “a national disgrace” and the awareness raised by Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli, the cave dwellers were moved into more modern housing between 1953 and 1968. However, in some cases, the Italian government had to forcefully rehouse residents, as people were reluctant to leave their cultural and spiritual home, regardless of its squalor.
My parents hated the Sassi, they wanted concrete to be poured over them
– Enzo Acito, Matera’s tourism chief 
Renewed optimism flooded into the city in the 1980s, as a younger generation embraced the beauty of the Sassi. Coming from across Italy, Europe and America, tourists flocked to the picturesque caves and churches, and from 1993 the caves and their wall paintings have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Several films have also been shot in the spaces as a result of their increased notoriety. These include the Passion of the Christ (2004), the Omen (2006) and Wonder Woman (2017).
Today, 600,000 tourists visit Matera every year, and as a result a new economy has emerged. The unique dwellings make for desirable holiday destinations, and 25% of all homes in the city are available to rent on Airbnb—the largest proportion in all of Italy. Hipster bars and little shops cover the streets, as locals are encouraged to move back into the Sassi’s updated cave dwellings with their independent creative industries, as the city is once more embracing its origins. The historic core is flourishing in new ways, giving meaning back to the architecture, and with the 2019 European Capital of Culture comes an opportunity to build upon the optimism of the place.