Photographer's Note

Matera is one of the two provinces of Basilicata; the capital city of the province is also named Matera. The old part of this city of 50,000 inhabitants is known the world over for its ancient urban complex, the Sassi. Of all the kinds of dwellings we humans have built over the ages—our huts, shanties, castles, hovels—nothing quite arrests the attention as the sassi of Matera. Built on—into, really—both sides of a gigantic limestone outcropping overlooking a deep ravine, the sassi (meaning, simply, "stones") are a labyrinth of cave–dwellings. The caves, themselves, were lived in without interruption from the Neolithic (about 10 thousand years ago) until the 1960s and are thus likely to be the oldest continually inhabited human settlement in Italy.

The sassi came into their own between the 8th and 13th centuries, a.d., when the caves became a refuge for groups of monks persecuted in the Iconoclast controversy that shook the Byzantine Empire. In Matera, these refugees were isolated and safe in a no-man's land between waning Byzantine power further south and unstable Lombard influence to the north. The monks moved into the caves and built halls, sanctuaries and chapels. Later, many of the cave dwellings were taken over by peasants as homes for themselves and quarters for their animals. Over the last millennium, houses have organically grown out of the original fissures and caves (photo, above); steps, roofs and balconies have been added and everything is arrayed in an irregular jumble, layer upon jagged layer, roof to wall, balcony to doorstep, all so helter-skelter that the overall impression is that of a beehive built by bees who don't like following orders.

On a more sombre note, writer Carlo Levi, upon seeing the sassi for the first time, said he was reminded of his childhood visions of what Dante's Inferno must have looked like: the descending layers spiralling down into darkness and who knows what awful perdition—and when the sassi were still inhabited, the thousands of candles glimmering in the small windows at night might indeed have looked like fires burning in hell. Levi's infernal vision notwithstanding, others have seen quite the opposite in Matera. The strange combination of age and agelessness about Matera lends it a Biblical quality, and here is where, in 1964, director Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed his life of Christ, The Gospel According to Matthew (and where, more recently, Mel Gibson filmed ...The Passion of the Christ).

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Additional Photos by Kris Verhoeven (verswe) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Note Writer [C: 61 W: 3 N: 1206] (7330)
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