Dwight Peck's personal website

The heel of the boot

Southern Italy on the trail of Stupor Mundi

It's mid-October 2011 and we've got some time off. We're all great fans of Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, so now's our chance.

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.


One moment you're driving along a flat, arid landscape, and the next you're staring down into this biblical city stuck on the edge of a ravine.

Modern Matera, a lively city of 60,000 in the region of Basilicata, 65 km south of Bari, stretches all along the top of the ridge and looks perfectly livable: shopping, cultural events, local sports, and what not -- not biblically weird like this stuff down the side of the ravine.

This could pass for a setting in Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ (2004); in fact, it did, and it looks the part (except for the Christian churches). That's the cathedral popping up in the centre -- on this side of it, we've got the Sasso Barisano, and over on the far side, the Sasso Caveoso.

One good road leads down into the old town and round to the far side, and that's it.

The ravine was formed by the Gravina -- maybe the dribbly little Gravina was once bigger, or maybe it's bigger in the spring than in autumn, or maybe it's just been chewing away on the calcareous rocks for a very long time.

Folks have been living troglodytically in the caves on both sides of the ravine since Paleolithic times; this is said to be one of the first human settlements in Italy. Somebody said that Matera's the only place in the world where people can be living in the same house that their ancestors lived in 9,000 years ago. They give it a good wash-up from time to time.

It's all a World Heritage cultural property now, since 1993, called "The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera": "an outstanding example of a rock-cut settlement, adapted perfectly to its geomorphological setting and its ecosystem and exhibiting continuity over more than two millennia. They represent an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement and land use showing the evolution of a culture that has maintained over time a harmonious relationship with its natural environment."

The term "Sassi" refers to the "stones", the old town of dwellings first cut out of a layer of soft tufa rock, caves really, subsequently walled in across the entrances with cut tufa blocks, and later built up around the caves with more structures, courtyards, and passages.

The church of San Pietro Caveoso perched unnervingly on a little buttress of "soft tufa"

We've left the hired car behind and are now setting out à pied to retrace the steps of ancient troglodytes. It's through that archway at the far end.

A look back at the tufa city before we dart through the archway and simulate the old cavedwellers. Matera's worst turn of luck came in 944 when the Saracen raiders ventured farther inland than usual and massacred everybody who wasn't slave-worthy. Oh, those Saracens!! (And now they're trying to impose Sharia law on Alabama!)

"Biblical" is the effect of it, except for the electric company car.

This looks like it could have been 10th century B.C. Jerusalem as seen in the film King David (1985), with Richard Gere playing King David. And it was.

The mighty Gravina nibbling away at the "soft tufa" and boring down another few millimetres every year.

Under that lower arch, behind the lady in blue, is the Casa Grotta restored by the authorities to show how families lived in the cave houses hollowed out of the "soft tufa".

Houses, streets, more houses, all stacked up on top of one another

Fairly close quarters -- nuclear family, probably large, plus hangers-on, probably many, in one large room, a kitchen alcove, and a tiny room semi-separated against the far wall for whatever.

"Everything in its place, and a place for everything." The conspicuously non-Paleolithic kitchen is there because these digs were inhabited until the 1950s, when the authorities removed the cave-dwellers, apparently forcibly if necessary, to new apartment flats up in the newer town, for health and safety reasons, it was said.

"Extended Family" in the widest sense of the term

Elke and Kristin proceeding through the tufa. In recent times, many of the dwellings in the sassi are being renovated and let out again (especially to newlyweds, for some reason), bringing civic life back into what would otherwise be just an authentic paleo-theme park.

We're at a relative high point in the Sasso Caveoso and looking for a way back up onto the ridge, because Kristin really needs to see the church of the Purgatorio with its "gruesome sculptures". But we didn't find it.

More biblical views. Except for the cars below, it could have been the setting for Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew (1964). And it was.

Or even the setting of The Nativity Story (2006), the first film ever to get its world premiere in the Vatican City. And it was. We hope the Pope was amused.

-- I think we're lost. (Photo by Elke)

Elke Among the Ruins

A possible way out. We're lost. Guides are recommended.

Unstabilized suburbs, awaiting more financial support from the World Monuments Fund

Cousin Rob catching up with the main party

The main party waiting for Cousin Rob to catch up

The Duomo (from 1270) and the big cross on top of the rocky thing

There are two "sassi", actually: Sasso Caveoso where we're standing, a deep bay washed out of the side of the ravine, and on the far side of the cathedral over there, back where we came in, the Sasso Barisano, with the cathedral built out onto the headland in the middle.

Do-it-yourself cave homes, needing only a front wall to be really comfy

The hired car's down there somewhere, it would be horrible to have lost it.

Little religious shrines everywhere you look

More Big Tufa, a gesticulating Materani on the phone, and Elke and Rob

We're back up in the modern town -- call it "modern": that's the 'Tramontano Castle', with its three super-sized towers out of the twelve that were planned by G. C. Tramontano, the Count of Matera; the other nine dropped off the agenda when the citizens whacked him in a grand riot in December 1514.

Back at the Masseria Pilapalucci near Toritto in Puglia, we're being shown round by our entertaining host, who knows Des Moines, Iowa, well. (I only know the police station, which he doesn't.)

An entrance hall. The masseria has got, within its walls, the main house, a tower, a chapel, a horse yard, and lots more, including a ruined pigeon house or dovecote, and a stone farm building half of which was recently stolen.

Our room in the Pilapalucci. It's beautiful, if just a bit amateur -- there was a TV but with no power cord for it, that sort of thing. The establishment had WiFi, by which our host meant that he would generously lend us his computer if needed.

More old hallways. The Masseria Pilapalucci itself is an architectural delight.

Kristin and the ruins of the old dovecote

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 14 November 2011.

Italy, 2011