Matera Italy Sassi Hill Town Cityscape Stone Buildings

The Architecture of Matera’s Rock Churches and Cave Dwellings

Matera’s humble homes and churches carved into rocky cliffs contrast with the colossal statues and gilded domes at so many other Italian sites. In terms of history and curiosity, however, they make one of the country’s richest troves. Some of the world’s oldest continually-occupied caves contain everything from prehistoric graffiti to medieval frescoes and – more recently – fluffy towels. By all accounts, the rock-cut city’s transformation over the last few decades is extraordinary. The destitute city nicknamed “Italy’s shame” in the mid-20th century re-emerged like a butterfly, complete with UNESCO status in the 21st. Capping off a growing list of honors, Matera won the 2019 European Capital of Culture title and was featured in a James Bond film.

Matera Sasso Caveossa Sunset View Rooftops Stone Buildings

In the midst of all the debates about Matera’s evolution, it can be difficult to get a picture of the architecture. The number of sights can be overwhelming at first, particularly since information on them tends to be thin or non-existent. (It doesn’t help that different locations may use the same name, while a single location can contain multiple structures with different names.) We spent two and a half days climbing up and down the slopes, in and out of caves. Between raw ruins and luxurious remodels, we found a series of sensitive restorations showcasing the peculiarities of Matera’s rock-cut architecture. All sites are marked on our Google map.

Introduction to Matera’s Rock-cut Architecture

Orientation

Sasso Caveoso: S. Maria de Idris & S. Giovanni in Monterrone,  S. Lucia alle Malve, Casa Grotta

Sasso Barisano: S. Pietro Barisano, Sant’Agostino convent & San Giuliano, S. Giorgio complex, Madonna delle Virtù & S. Nicola dei Greci, S. Antonio Abate al Sasso Barisano

Piazza Vittorio Veneto (Civita): Santo Spirito, Palombaro Lungo cistern

Practicalities

Further Reading

A History of Matera’s Rock-cut Architecture

Numerous cave entrances blend into the ragged slopes around Matera, providing a constant reminder of the reason for the city’s unique development: the need to hide. Prehistoric humans found refuge in the region’s soft, easy-to-carve limestone hills; scholars estimate that the gorge has been inhabited for about 9,000 years. In most places, cave-dwellers (troglodytes) eventually began to build shelters instead of carving them out. Because rock-cut structures rely on taking material away instead of putting it together, Matera’s spaces are sometimes referred to as ‘negative architecture’. Rupestrian, from the Latin word rupis (cliff), refers to art or other human creations within a cave.

The Roman Empire’s disintegration left southern Italy vulnerable to wave upon wave of raiders and invaders. Caught between Byzantines, Arabs, and various northerners, the region’s residents turned the caves into an interconnected network. They expanded older dwellings, added churches, and even created urban amenities such as communal cisterns. It took nearly a millennium for the region to develop some stability. The Normans reunited the lower peninsula, and by the late Middle Ages Materans were adding traditional facades to the front of their caves. 

Things settled down under the Spanish Aragonese dynasty, and the swelling population encouraged wealthier residents to relocate to the plain above the sassi. From the 16th century onwards, the city’s increasingly stark hierarchy was echoed in its layout: the elite lived in modern comfort directly over the cramped squalor of the older caves. Conditions in the sassi became so dire that the government initiated a program to clear them out in 1952, offering (sometimes forcibly) to move residents into new housing above. Legislation in 1986 encouraged restoration, and resettlement of the lower city picked up in earnest in the 1990’s. 

Orientation

Matera Sassi Caveosa Rocky Ravine And Stream Cave Homes And Buildings

Matera inhabits a bend in a massive ravine, with a trickling creek far below.  The town developed in and around twin depressions in the side of a rocky gorge: known as sassi, they look as if a giant hand took two scoops out of the hillside. Facing the gorge from upper Matera, the Sasso Barisano is on the left and the Sasso Caveoso is on the right. Between them, an elevated spur known as the Civita connects to the newer Piano area along the ridge. This T-shaped area features the most amenities and the heaviest tourist traffic. Behind it, the hilltop flattens out into the modern city.

Descending into the sassi to explore is easy; finding one’s way out can get confusing. Thankfully, each sasso has a main road winding down from the Civita, which we’ve marked on our Google map. After a name change or two, they wrap around the base of the spur to connect with one another. Gentle slopes and paved expanses make these roads a good place to start or finish explorations.

Matera Sassi Stone Buildings And Caves View From Above

Simply wandering around the sassi might be the most rewarding experience in Matera. The organic layout defies traditional boundaries: one resident’s roof forms someone else’s garden, while countless outdoor communal living rooms line the winding lanes.

Sasso Caveoso

Sasso Caveoso View Of Buildings And Cave Dwellings With Madonna Dell’Idris Rock Church Matera Italy

Santa Maria de Idris & San Giovanni in Monterrone

While most structures in Matea keep a low profile, the Santa Maria de Idris occupies a large rock formation jutting straight up in the middle of the Sasso Caveoso. Topped by a cross, it’s impossible to miss. The church takes its name from the water receptacles it once held. Apparently penitents would crawl up to the jugs placed near the altar and its fresco of Our Lady of Idris. According to the official leaflet, ceramic tiles were laid in a path from the entrance for “the faithful who wished to travel the last stage of their pilgrimage with their tongues hanging on the ground.” 

Madonna Dell’Idris Rock Church Exterior Entrance Huge Boulder With Doorway Rupestrian Church Architecture Matera Italy

San Giovanni in Monterrone served as the baptistery of San Pietro Caveoso. Both churches were laid out around the 12th century. A tunnel was created to connect them in the early 1800’s. Some of the original frescoes were transferred to the Palazzo Lanfranchi museum in order to prevent further damage from humidity.

San Giovanni in Monterrone Rock Church Matera Byzantine Fresco Christ Pantocrator 12th Century
A 12th century Christ Pantocrator fresco in San Giovanni in Monterrone

For visiting information, see the website.

Santa Lucia alle Malve

The ninth century Santa Maria alle Malve was home to the first female monastic community in Matera. After 1000 years as a convent, the compound was converted into a residence when the nuns moved across town. Its recently restored frescoes are widely considered the most vivid and beautiful of all the city’s rupestrian churches. There was a strict no photography policy when we visited, unfortunately. See the website for visiting information.

Casa Grotta

No trip to Matera would be complete without a visit to one of its traditional cave-homes. Like sailboats kitted out for long voyages, these dwellings make use of every bit of space. With plenty of time outside, the setup might just work – but even a hint of too much heat, wind, or rain would trap entire families (human and animal) into damp darkness.

Both sassi have several troglodyte mini-museums. We opted for the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario which is the only one listed on the Matera Welcome tourism portal, but we’ve marked others on our map.  Note: the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario is part of a larger complex including the rock church of Sant’Agostino al Casalnuovo. (The Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo is another cave-house museum, in a different location.) For visiting information, see the website.

Sasso Barisano

Matera View Of Sasso Barisano With Bell Tower Of San Pietro Barisano With Scaffolding And Duomo Bell Tower In Distance

San Pietro Barisano

Matera’s largest rock church is also its most macabre. Underneath its three naves lies a putridarium, a series of niches where corpses were placed to decompose. This was a common practice in southern Italy circa 1600, where the process of decay represented a gradual path to (hopefully) Paradise. It also allowed bones to be stored in ossuaries.

Parts of the church date back to the twelfth century, with multiple renovations and additions over the years. In 1903 the dampness finally became too much, and the parish relocated to Sant’Agostino. Sadly, the abandonment encouraged the theft of many artworks in the 1960’s and 70’s. For visiting information, see the website.

Sant’Agostino Convent & San Giuliano

A diminutive rupestrian church, the San Giuliano, is located in the basement of a larger Baroque edifice. A small fee allows access to the 15th century nave with frescoes of Saints Peter and Paul. Some of the best views of Matera can be had from the church’s piazza. Some refer to the main church as Madonna delle Grazie, but it’s part of the Sant’Agostino convent. (The latter should not be confused with the rock church of Sant’Agostino al Casalnuovo.) The crypt is open Monday-Saturday 10-2.

Rupestrian Complex of San Giorgio

Not many places combine such a range of history. Vestiges of the Paleolithic cave mix with ancient rainwater cisterns, a medieval church, olive oil mill, wine cellar, and modern-day hotel. For information on guided visits, see the website.

Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci 

San Nicola Dei Greci Cave Church Frescoes Byzantine 13th Century Three Saints Matera Italy

This is a multi-level complex with two churches and a monastery. Once used as a landfill, the site has been reclaimed to display art since the 1980’s. The oldest portion is the San Nicola dei Greci church, from the 9th-10th centuries. Underneath, the 12th century Madonna delle Virtù church features a distinctly Romanesque style of architecture. Open daily 10-6 (last entry at 5).

Chiesa di S. Antonio Abate al Sasso Barisano

It’s not the most illustrious of Matera’s churches, but this little 16th-century church captures the peasant community spirit. An older gentleman greeted us and pointed out a display of historical photos. Locals celebrated Carnival here with folk music and gifts, while flagellant priests blessed domestic animals in the churchyard. Farmers collected ashes from a bonfire honoring Saint Anthony the Great to bring good health to their stables.

Not to be confused with the cluster of churches in the Sasso Caveoso known as the Convicinio di Sant’Antonio. Open daily 10-1 & 2-6:30 April 1-September 30; 10-1:30 October 1-March 31.

Civita: Piazza Vittorio Veneto and Santo Spirito

Matera Santo Spirito Rupestrian Architecture Three Arches Exterior Entrance Rock Church Under Matera Piazza

Past and present come together in the Piazza Vittorio Veneto. In 1991, construction of a new square in the historic city prompted excavations of the site. Amongst the discoveries now layered into the design are the Fondaco di Mezzo, a subterranean medieval market, and the 13th century rupestrian church of Santo Spirito. The latter features frescoes and an external bell tower, which was unfortunately closed when we visited. A later facade on the upper level displays a Maltese cross and coats of arms representing the Order of the Knights of Malta, who owned the church. For visiting information, see the website.

Palombaro Lungo Cistern 

The “long cistern” is one of Matera’s most inspired renovations and arguably the most dramatic space of all. During explorations of a well system abandoned in 1927, scuba divers discovered a remarkably intact cavern still holding five million liters of water – complete with all the objects dropped over the years on the bottom.

In the 16th century, the municipality of Matera had taken over a series of underground wine cellars, tanneries, and snow-storage. The pre-existing caves were enlarged and joined together to produce a massive public cistern, sealed with a terracotta-based plaster to avoid contamination.

Today walkways suspended over the water take visitors through an otherworldly space. See the website for visiting information.

Practicalities

Tourism portal MateraWelcome includes information on monuments, art exhibitions, and tours as well as hotel and restaurant listings.

Rail station Matera Centrale lies about 10 minutes’ walk uphill from the historic area. 

From Bari, there are about 16 trains per day, and the journey takes 1.5 to 2 hours each way. Sometimes passengers need to transfer to a train waiting across the platform at Altamura; operators should announce this but it never hurts to ask for confirmation. The route is on the FAL line, which uses a separate ticketing and platform area from Bari’s main station. Signs are on the left as one exits Bari Centrale. 

Further Reading

Carlo Levi’s memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli shocked the world with its description of poverty and neglect in southern Italy – particularly the harrowing description of Matera’s sassi in Chapter 10. To read it online, see pages 85-87.

See our other posts for more on the region:

Bari Vecchia: Old Town in the New City

Easy Day Trips From Bari

A Guide to Lecce’s Exuberant Baroque Architecture

Getting Around Puglia Without a Car