You know that travelers’ tastes have come full circle when hotel guests are clamoring to live like troglodytes. In the southern Italian town of Matera, I followed a sinuous laneway down into a haunting district known as the Sassi (Italian for the “stones”), where some 1,500 cave dwellings honeycomb the flanks of a steep ravine. First occupied in the Paleolithic Age, the myriad natural caves were gradually burrowed deeper and expanded into living spaces by peasants and artisans throughout the classical and medieval eras. Today, these underground residences are being reinhabited by Italians, and staying in one of the Sassi’s cave hotels has become one of Europe’s most exotic new experiences.
Near a summit of stone crowned by an iron crucifix is a cave complex called Corte San Pietro, where the owner, Fernando Ponte, greeted me in a fine silk suit and cravat. (Being a troglodyte, as locals cheerfully refer to themselves—the word’s literal meaning is “cave dweller”—evidently doesn’t preclude being stylish.) Ponte opened the smoked-glass door to what was to be my own rock-hewn refuge, one of five rooms dug into the soft limestone off a small courtyard. Elegant designer lighting suffused the raw stone walls, which were adorned with contemporary artworks and a flat-screen TV. A sleek stone bath was embedded in the cave’s farthest corner. Naturally, my cave was Wi-Fi enabled. Whenever I brushed against the golden walls, a gentle shower of sand fell onto the polished stone floor.
It’s difficult to imagine that Matera’s ancient warren was known not too long ago as “the shame of Italy” for its dismal poverty. In the 1950s, the entire population of roughly 16,000 people, mostly peasants and farmers, were relocated from the Sassi to new housing projects in an ill-conceived government program, leaving it an empty shell. Ponte, who grew up in the modern part of Matera, which sprawls along the Piano (the “flat”) above the ravine, was one of the first to take advantage of this ready-made real estate. He moved nearby with his wife around 1990, and has been renovating the compact complex, with five cave-rooms and a dining hall around a courtyard, ever since, installing plumbing, electricity, heating and ventilation systems to counter the subterranean humidity. “My wife’s family was violently against us living here,” he said. “Back then, the Sassi had been abandoned, virtually given over to wolves.”
Working on their caves—which gives new meaning to the term “fixer-upper”—the Pontes discovered eight interconnected cisterns below the floor, part of a network developed to catch rainwater for drinking. “We had no idea these were here until we started,” he said, as we walked inside the now-immaculate cone-shaped spaces. “They had been filled with debris.” The cisterns are now being turned into a “soul spa” for meditation.
“You don’t think of a cave being complex architecturally,” says American architect Anne Toxey, author of Materan Contradictions, who has been studying the Sassi for over 20 years. “But I was blown away by their intricate structures.” The most elaborate stonework dates from the Renaissance, when many caves were adorned with new facades, or had their ceilings extended to make vaulted rooms. Today, carved stone stairways still connect arches, attics, belfries and balconies, each grafted onto the other like a dynamic Cubist sculpture. Hidden behind iron grilles are rock-hewn churches, created by Byzantine monks, with splendidly frescoed interiors. On the opposite side of the ravine, on a plateau called the Murgia, more mysterious caves stare back like vacant eyes.
It’s easy to see why Matera has been chosen to double for ancient Jerusalem in films, including Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. “Matera is one of the oldest living cities in the world in terms of continuity,” Antonio Nicoletti, an urban planner from Matera, told me. “You can find older cities in Mesopotamia, but they have not been occupied in modern times. Where else can you now sleep in a room that was first occupied 9,000 years ago?” Estimates of the earliest occupation of the site vary, but archaeologists have found artifacts in local caves dating to the Neolithic period and even earlier.
At the same time, the modern repurposing of the Sassi’s historic interiors has been endlessly inventive. Along with cave hotels, there are now cave restaurants, cave cafés, cave galleries and cave clubs. There is an underground swimming pool, evoking an ancient Roman thermae, with lights creating hypnotic water patterns on the ceiling, and a contemporary art museum, MUSMA, with its own underground network, highlighting—what else?—sculpture. One cave complex is occupied by a computer software company with nearly 50 employees. Visitors to Matera can follow metal walkways through an enormous 16th-century cistern complex under the main plaza, with chambers some 50 feet deep and 240 feet long, which were discovered in 1991 and explored by scuba divers.
“The Sassi are like a Swiss cheese, riddled with tunnels and caverns,” remarks Peppino Mitarotonda, an artist who works on renovations with a local cultural group, the Zétema Foundation. “What you see on the surface is only 30 percent. The other 70 percent is hidden.”
In southern Italy, the past has often helped rescue the present. Ever since the excavation of Pompeii brought grand tours to Naples in the 18th century, historical sites have lured foreign travelers to impoverished outposts. But Matera may be Europe’s most radical rags-to-riches story. Located in the instep of the Italian boot, the town has always been an isolated, forgotten part of Basilicata, among the least populated, least visited and least understood regions of Italy. Even in the 19th century, few travelers ventured through its arid, desolate landscapes, which were known to be full of briganti, or brigands. The rare adventurers who did stumble upon Matera were mystified by the upside-down world of the Sassi, where, at their peak, 16,000 people lived one above the other, with palazzi and chapels mixed in among cave houses, and where cemeteries were actually built above the church roofs.
Matera’s obscurity ended in 1945, when the Italian artist and author Carlo Levi published his memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his year of political exile in Basilicata under the Fascists. Levi painted a vivid portrait of a forgotten rural world that had, since the unification of Italy in 1870, sunk into a desperate poverty. The book’s title, referring to the town of Eboli near Naples, suggested that Christianity and civilization had never reached the deep south, leaving it a pagan, lawless land, riddled with ancient superstitions, where some shepherds were still believed to commune with wolves. Levi singled out the Sassi for their “tragic beauty” and hallucinogenic aura of decay—“like a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno,” he wrote. The town’s prehistoric cave dwellings had by then become “dark holes” riddled with filth and disease, where barnyard animals were kept in dank corners, chickens ran across the dining room tables, and infant mortality rates were horrendous, thanks to rampant malaria, trachoma and dysentery.
Levi’s book caused an uproar in postwar Italy, and the Sassi became notorious as la vergogna nazionale, the disgrace of the nation. After a visit in 1950, Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi was so appalled that he set in motion a draconian plan to relocate the Sassi’s entire population to new housing developments. Italy was flush with funds from the Marshall Plan, and American experts such as Friedrich Friedmann, a philosophy professor at the University of Arkansas, arrived with Italian academics who had studied the mass rural relocation programs of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. The new public houses were designed by Italy’s most avant-garde architects, in a misguided utopian vision that would actually isolate families in dismal, claustrophobic boxes.
“In the next few years, the Sassi were emptied,” says Nicoletti. “It became a city of ghosts.” Some Materan officials suggested that the whole district be walled up and forgotten. Instead, the ancient laneways became overgrown and decrepit, and the Sassi soon gained a reputation for crime, attracting drug dealers, thieves and smugglers. At the same time, the Sassi’s former inhabitants had difficulty adjusting to their new lodgings.
Many relocated families pretended they came from other parts of southern Italy. The planner Antonio Nicoletti was puzzled that his own father, Domenico, had never visited the Sassi since his family was moved in 1956, when Domenico was 20—even though his new home was less than half a mile away. I asked if his father might now consider revisiting his ancestral residence. A couple of days later, I got my answer. Signor Nicoletti would try to find his old home, accompanied by both his sons and two of his grandchildren.