Did Mel Gibson not shoot his film ‘The Passion of The Christ‘ in the real Jerusalem because of the political situation in Israel? This may have been a thought, but only one of secondary importance, I bet he knew from the start that the setting had to be Matera; the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini shot his film ’The Gospel according to St. Matthew‘ there in 1964, Richard Gere was there to play King David in 1985, since 1949 twenty-four films have been shot in Matera.
Where on earth is Matera and what is so special about it that it has been included in the Unesco list of cultural heritage? It is situated in the Italian region Basilikata which is the one between the tip and the heel of the Italian boot, a small nondescript town of the kind you find dozens of in Southern Italy. People don’t go there to see the town proper but the part which is called ‘sassi‘, literally translated ‘rocks‘, but in Matera also the name of two natural gorges on either side of the cathedral towering on a hill. The ‘sassi‘ constitute the old part of the town, they look like people from today feel Jerusalem must have looked like 2000 years ago and are thus the perfect setting for bible films.
We began our guided tour on the piazza in front of the former cloister from which we descended into the remains of a Byzantine church, 155 were carved into the soft tufa stone the whole area consists of by refugees from Byzantium who fled to Italy in the second half of the 15th century. Some frescoes remain as well as traces of a fireplace because the church was later used as a dwelling. After walking through it we came to a kind of terrace from which we could look over the Sasso Barisano, the prevailing colour of the whole area is a monochrome grey.
We stepped down some crooked stairs carved into the stone and stood on an oval place from which we could see the entrances into ten cave dwellings. Above each door there is a sole window, in winter when the door had to be kept close this small opening was the only source of light and fresh air. Natural caves were enlarged, the dwellings were only one big room, occasionally smaller caves at the back or the sides were also included.
People and animals, pigs mainly, lived together, the mule having the best place as it was vital for the peasants‘ work in the fields. It was not to die, they‘d rather lose a child (they could always make another one) than a mule. The average family had nine children, the infant mortality rate was 50%; there was one bed for the parents, a cradle at the foot of it where the smallest child used to sleep during the day, it was taken into the parents‘ bed at night so that the last but one child could sleep in the cradle. The other children slept in the drawers of sideboards and on top of them on layers of straw.
The excrements were collected in a hollow in the ground, the urine disappeared through the porose stone, the firm stuff was dried and used for heating. The dwellings were heated by open fires in iron pans standing on short iron feet. During meals a big bowl was placed on a table around which the family assembled in turns each member holding a spoon. The water the people used was rain water collected in cisterns under the rooms, they took it out through holes in the floor.
At the end of the tour we visited a cave dwelling turned museum and found out that our guide had explained everything very well, we were shocked nevertheless. ‘Seeing once is more than hearing 100 times‘ as the Chinese say. Wouldn‘t it have been enough to visit the museum only? No, it was a good idea to engage our imagination first.
All the families whose doors opened onto the central place lived together like a commune, real life happened as much indoors as outdoors.
Which time are we talking about? Up to about 50 years ago the inhabitants of Matera lived like this! The few rich families living near the cathedral and the religious personnel thereof didn‘t know or didn‘t want to know, the rest of Italy had no idea.
Carlo Levi, a writer from Turin in the north of the country, was exiled to the area by Mussolini for his anti-fascist views, he wrote of his experience in his most famous literary work, ‘Christ stopped at Eboli‘ the title meaning that Italy´s bleak south couldn‘t have possibly been visited by Christ. This book created a scandal, the then Prime Minister went to Matera, and ordered the immediate evacuation of the cave dwellers. New houses were built at the outskirts, were the people happy to have decent rooms, running water and electricity? Not at all as they couldn‘t take their animals with them but had to leave them in the caves and go there and feed them.
When by 1952 16 000 inhabitants had left their dwellings the state took possession of the area and now the sassi are slowly being repopulated as trendy digs by artistic types. In order not to create a Disneyland version of the sassi by people living somewhere far away and coming only every now and then to visit, all the new occupants have to be residents of the new Matera as well.
At the bottom of the ravine we visited a pottery in a big cave dwelling, the potter has become famous, he made the plates for The Last Supper, a newspaper clipping on the wall shows it in a film still.
Tourism brings some money to Matera, thanks to Mel Gibson‘s film more than before. When we were there at the beginning of April with our students on a day out from the town our school has an exchange programme with the season hadn‘t started yet which was good for us. Some of our students had already seen the film and recognised the streets through which ‘Christ‘ had carried the cross as well as ‘Golgatha‘ which is on the hill behind the Sasso Caveoso.
Beneath the cross which has been left standing on the top the slope looks like a Swiss cheese, holes everywhere, this area is one of the oldest settlements of humankind worldwide as findings from paleolithic times have proved.
Our tour should have lasted one hour, but we had so much to ask and the guide so much to tell that we needed half an hour more, at the end everyone was thinking of going to the bathroom, of course, alas, there wasn‘t any. Here we have one of the pecularities of Italy: more historical sights per square mile than any other country in the world and more than any healthy human being can take in, but bathroom-wise a developing country. We gate-crashed a coffee bar without ordering anything as one usually does in such a situation, I told the owner that it was an emergency and that they should complain to the mayor, they merely shrugged their shoulders and smiled enjoying the influx of blonde students.