Italy – Matera


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 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 garricue and maauis led to a change from agriculture to pastoral transhumance. 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 (iazzi). 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.

Matera’s development was due to its geological setting. A belt of soft tufa is located between 350 and 400 m above the valley bed, and this also contains two natural depressions (arabialioni); in consequence, it was here that the settlement grew up. The clay plateau above was reserved for agriculture and pastoralism.

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 original urban fabric degenerated to the point where Matera, Idrisi as hailed by the 12th century geographer El “magnificent and splendid”, was seen by Carlo Levi in his famous novel Cristo si B fermato ad Eboli (Christ stopped at Eboli), published in 1945, life in southern Italy. as the symbol of the misery of peasant As a result of the Italian Government’s concern about this situation, legislation passed in 1952 led to the rehousing of the dwellers of the old quarters in new buildings and the desertion of the ancient centre in the 1950s.


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