The cave houses: a plunge into Italy’s rural past

A panoramic view of the sassi, hosting the cave houses
A panoramic view of the sassi, hosting the cave houses
There were hundreds of houses in Matera, dug into the rock that housed, often in a few square meters, large families and animals. The cave dwellings are a piece of memory and an important part of the city's identity.

At the end of the 1500s, historian Eustachio Verricelli defined Matera as “a healthy and well-protected city,” a true masterpiece of urban planning, including hanging gardens and vegetable gardens, state-of-the-art water systems, and tufa-clad dwellings that allowed them to maintain an ideal temperature of about 15 degrees. Yet, less than a century later, all this elaborate structure collapsed under the weight of the social and urban revolution that saw the triumph of the landed estate over the small agricultural economy and pastoralism.

In the mid-seventeenth century, Matera experienced a very strong geographical increase that led to wild urbanization: buildings were built everywhere, the lush gardens became the roofs of the houses above, and the poorest were forced to go to live in stables and underground tanks, often with their animals. Three centuries later, this labyrinth of diverse humanity was defined as a “national shame” by Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, who in 1952 ordered its evacuation. Between 1953 and 1968 more than 15,000 people were transferred to the new districts of the modern city built according to a specific master plan. The cave dwellings remained abandoned until 1986 when the repopulation of the Sassi began.

Most of the cave houses have been redeveloped and incorporated into residential complexes or hotels and restaurants, but some have been preserved intact, in perpetual memory of the historical and cultural identity of Matera; furnished with authentic furniture and tools, often donated by the descendants of the real inhabitants, are now visible. Wandering among the lime mattresses filled with corn leaves, dining tables, rusty kitchen utensils and faded photos, inside these hollowed-out rooms, that so much life and suffering have seen pass, is a real dive into the past of southern Italy and the whole country.