History hewn from the living rock

The southern Italian city of Matera has been the focus of my research for the last four years. In the immediate post-war period Matera became a symbol of Italy’s ‘southern question’: southern Italy’s perceived cultural and economic backwardness in comparison to the North. Moreover, the city was dubbed a ‘national shame’. This was the result of political, intellectual, and media focus on Matera’s infamous cave dwellings, or Sassi, which housed an estimated 15,000 people in the 1950s. These distinctive troglodyte homes were carved into the side of a limestone gorge and then completed with brick façades. In the early 1950s only 3 per cent of the Sassi’s dwellings had running water and there was no sewage system. In many cases, three generations of the one family lived side-by-side with their farm animals in this vast warren of underground homes. In the context of Italy’s acute post-war housing crisis, Matera’s Sassi were depicted as the nadir of Italian civilization; a monument to southern Italian poverty hewn from the living rock.

Panorama of Sasso Barisano

Panorama of Sasso Barisano

The ruling Christian Democrats passed a special law for the Sassi in 1952 following period of sustained political and media pressure. The special law’s primary aim was to empty Matera’s cave homes and rehouse their inhabitants in purpose-built agricultural villages and residential quarters. Official intervention saw the Sassi become a test case for post-war town planning theories and Neorealist architecture. The complicated process of emptying Matera’s cave dwellings, however, lasted over twenty years and was never completed. The Sassi became a ghost city that was used as a makeshift dump and associated with petty crime. The debate about what to do with the then largely uninhabited 29-hectare site ranged from demolition to the creation of an open-air museum. In 1986, however, a preservation order for the Sassi was passed and then in 1993 Matera’s former slums were named a UNESCO World Heritage site. A process of re-population and urban regeneration began in the 1990s and today the site is a popular tourist attraction.

Interior of cave home in the 1950s

Interior of cave home in the 1950s

I first visited Matera on a balmy April afternoon in 2006 during my year abroad studying at the University of Bologna. Although I was spellbound by the city and the Sassi in particular, I could never have guessed that six years later Matera would have become the primary focus of my working life. There is something surreal about passing so much time studying a place which, despite numerous research visits, I have got to know primarily through visual and textual images rather than empirical and personal knowledge. When I sit organizing the innumerate amount of documents accumulated during the course of my research, it is hard not to think of Borges’s short-story ‘On Exactitude in Science’, in which an empire of cartographers creates a map as big as the kingdom it depicts. At times it can feel as if I am studying a city and its history by correspondence; without an innate understanding of its language and culture to be sure despite years of hard work.

A portrait of the Sassi - Henri Cartier-Bresson 1951

A portrait of the Sassi – Henri Cartier-Bresson 1951

This point was hammered home during a meeting late last year with Leonardo Sacco, arguably the most important historian of post-war Matera and someone who has spent over sixty years studying his native city. While I can only strive to piece together details about key events and figures through the various texts that have been left behind, Sacco witnessed them with his own eyes and knew many of the main players in my project personally. Not only has he written the history of post-war Matera, he continues to play an active role in shaping it. Following an illuminating few hours of conversation I set out towards my digs through the now largely uninhabited Sassi. As I walked I pondered the question of what my research could offer to the vast body of existing literature on post-war Matera. What could I add to the historical narrative that hadn’t already been said? The Sassi are full of narrow winding streets and dead ends. The fact that they slope ever downwards gives visitors the impression that they can easily find their way. Anyone unfamiliar with their layout and topography, however, can get lost after dark without much effort, just as I did that evening.

Panorama of Matera’s ‘Gravina’ and the Sassi

Panorama of Matera’s ‘Gravina’ and the Sassi

As twilight approached I inadvertently found myself faced by the ‘Gravina’, the vast gorge which acts as a natural border to Matera’s former slums. The seemingly endless sky stretched out before me, illuminated by the first stars twinkling millennia away. It struck me that my meandering attempt to get home mirrored my doctoral research in many ways. My thesis had seemed clearly mapped out at the start but had led me down numerous blind alleyways during the intervening years. Given the current pressure on early-career academics to publish as much peer-reviewed material as possible, my mistakes had started to weigh heavily on my soul. In that moment, however, I realized that those minor detours and missteps had not just been frustrating and insignificant cul-de-sacs. Rather they had been minor turning points which had ultimately improved my research. Getting lost had enabled me to discover new sources, pathways and vantage points. That was, in essence, the craft of history.



Filed under Italian History, Landscape, Matera, Social History, Twentieth Century

5 responses to “History hewn from the living rock

  1. Great article Pat. Many thanks. I’m sure you’re aware of the link with Carlo Levi, but if not here’s a starter:

    Christ Stopped at Eboli, if you haven’t read it, is wonderful.

    • Pat McGauley

      Thanks for your kind words William. And for the link too. The first chapter of my PhD actually looks at Levi and Matera. Christ Stopped at Eboli was what originally piqued my interest in Matera many moons ago. I had the chance to consult his personal archive in Rome back in 2011 and plan to write a blog post using some of that material in the near future. All the best.

  2. Paul Adelizi

    Great article Pat. Loved the passion and hope to read more on the topic. My grandmother was born in Matera (a Maniconi) and I have been captivated by the description of the city. It is definitely on my list to visit. Hope to learn a bit about our family history. Let me know if you have any suggested reading.



    • Pat McGauley

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your kind words. Matera is a fascinating place and well worth a visit if you get the chance.

      There is huge Italian-language bibliography on Matera, but not that much has been published in English.

      Anne Toxey’s book ‘Materan Contradictions’ provides a good overview of the city’s post-war history.

      All the best,


  3. Pingback: Robert Mallet: A Dubliner in Basilicata | The Dustbin of History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s