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 up-side-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.
The Cave Dwellers
Once the “shame of Italy,” the ancient warren of natural caves in Matera may be Europe’s most dramatic story of rebirth
by Tony Perrotte