The Global Urbanist

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The reinvention of Matera: A city whose time has come?

Marco Picardi reflects on the transformation of Matera from an impoverished city where people lived in caves a generation ago to Italy’s next European City of Culture

Marco Picardi

Marco Picardi


Topics: New cities and special projects, Community organisation, Poverty and inequality, Arts and culture

The laws of physics may indicate that we need to get close to the speed of light to slow time down, but the city of Matera has other ideas. Here, deep in the Italian Mezzogiorno, time can be, and is, manipulated. Not in the voyeuristic interpretation of a Grand Tour, but perhaps in the sort of epigenetic way that can only exist in a place inhabited since the Palaeolithic Age.

People gather in the city’s streets and squares at all times of day and night. And importantly, the acts of meeting in a square or going into the centre are not always a means to something else. In fact, the simplicity of living in the public space is often both the means and ends. Once a synonym for backwardness, the lentezza, or slowness, of this type of lifestyle can be appreciated as a richer experience than moving through places mainly for the purpose of production or consumption. This mode of living, argues sociologist Franco Cassano, should be interpreted as a mindful cultural value, rather than the disadvantage of a region that has often been characterized as a passive player in the history and development of Italy.

In this way, time can be seen through the conceptual lens of the kronos and kairos concepts that were used when Matera’s hinterland was populated by Greek city-states called polis and Matera was part of what came to be known as Magna Graecia. Kronos represents time in its measured form as it is broadcast to you on a clock, while kairos is time as choice, inhabited and experienced, in the moment. Given that the Italian national railway system is yet to extend to Matera, which is the only regional capital in Italy not linked to the national rail system, even a cynic could forgive a kairos-heavy lifestyle here.

Of course the city is not just experienced in real time. Since Matera’s sassi, or stones, became a UNESCO world heritage site and formed the backdrop to Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, tourists now descend into the cavernous centre en masse to capture its winding alleys with iPad screens and selfie sticks. Now that the city has been named Italy’s European City of Culture for 2019, the volume of photographs of precisely framed street moments immortalised on social media streams will only increase. It is a remarkable turnaround for a city that was a seen as shameful totem of a lagging Italian south little more than half a century ago.

Matera was the city that time forgot, a living manifestation of the Lucania region’s superstition and paganism described in Italian writer Carlo Levi’s memoirs, Christ Stopped at Eboli. The book discusses the time that Levi spent in Eboli, a small town not far from Matera, as a left-wing exile of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Its provocative title suggests that Christianity, and by implication civilisation, failed to reach beyond Eboli, while the mere fact of exile within a country is a testament to the region’s inaccessibility and its status as a relatively unknown territory. It is little surprise, then, that the 1945 publication of Levi’s reportage caused a sensation in newly republic post-war Italy, where politicians were actively trying to forge a new national identity. The book prompted them to focus on the overlooked hardscrabble city life.

By this time, Matera’s Sassi, an ecosystem of natural caves at the vertiginous top of steep canyon walls, were at breaking point. Having provided people shelter for time immemorial, the 3,000 soft limestone caves in the Gravina di Laterza had become perilously full. Public spaces, including churches, were turned into homes, as were the natural cavities that had provided sustainable drainage to generations of inhabitants. The majority of dwellings were occupied by extensive multi-generational family units living together with livestock in cramped single rooms carved from the natural rock formations. The infant mortality rate was more than four times the national average in 1949.

The situation eventually led to a special edict from Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi’s administration to forcibly evacuate the Sassi’s 16,000 inhabitants to the flats above the Gravina di Laterza canyon. Most inhabitants were landless peasants working in fields a five-hour round trip away. Three new housing estates were planned that would relocate the Materani nearer to these workplaces. Perhaps the most notable of these was La Martella, conceived by an interdisciplinary international team convened by the Piedmontese philosopher-engineer Adriano Olivetti. He aimed to create a self-sufficient settlement outside of the core city that was based on the model of community networks that had characterised life in the Sassi. But a combination of a changing economy and bureaucratic battles conspired to cement La Martella as another failure in the Italian consciousness.

None of the Sassi’s communal ovens were replicated in La Martella. The community kitchen gardens that were meant to divide clusters of housing were never fully realised. And despite the architects' attempts to recreate units replicating the clustered feel of the Sassi’s vicinati, or neighbourhoods, people were alienated from this new settlement from the beginning; an American academic and consultant to the project, Friedrich G. Friedman, later revealed in a 2013 interview that local peasants were paid 1,000 lira each to turn up to its 1952 inauguration. The changing economy compounded these initial difficulties, as opportunities in industry and then services began to eclipse those in agriculture, and La Martella began to take the shape of the ubiquitous post-war Italian suburb: disconnected, car-dependent and poorly maintained.

The rush towards ‘modernity’ was magnificently encapsulated in French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1950s photographic journey through Lucania, which cuttingly juxtaposed local culture with the emergence of new concrete infrastructure. The development of the city outside the immediate centre had deformed the sharing ethos that once defined Matera. The kairos space-time relationship is no longer sustained outside the Sassi and the historical centre. It is, for example, surprising to encounter anyone walking on a pavement outside the immediate old town. With the volume of car journeys relatively high in relation to the city’s size, it is hard to believe most residents don’t spend half their time looking for parking.

But does the abstract mantel of the European City of Culture present an opportunity for Matera to recover a clear identity? It appears to be far from straightforward. Reports from Mons, this year’s anointed capital from Belgium, suggest that residents are more enthused about the opening of a new shopping mall than the cultural Olympiad’s offering. Meanwhile, Italian cities continue to struggle to create the right balance between showcasing cultural patrimony and suffocation by tourism. Already the great Trojan horse of the sharing economy, AirBnB, is contributing to the transformation of the Sassi into an overpriced ghost town as property becomes more lucrative for short term lets than for living.

In this uneasy context, the stage is set for an Olivetti-failure part two. The parallels could not be more striking. Piedmontese coordinator? Check. Interdisciplinary international team? Check. Utopian ideals? Check. But, there is reason to be optimistic. Although sharing and community was an important factor in Olivetti’s La Martella project, it remained the preserve of the experts in his team. In contrast, participation is the backbone of Matera 2019. The campaign’s tagline – ‘Open Future’ – alludes to the commons culture of the internet. 

With four years to go, various projects rooted in inclusivity and sharing have been launched in Matera. Architect Mimì Coviello and de Gayardon Bureau, an international urban planning and design collective, have redesigned the public spaces at La Martella to fit with Olivetti’s original vision. The decentralised think tank Edgeryders launched their experimental UnMonastery project in the city to create collaborations between local and international artists, hackers and social innovators that tackle high unemployment, make use of unused space and ameliorate the reduction of public services since the economic crisis. The world's biggest Coder Dojo  – or coding club meeting – was held in the city and enabled hundreds of children to participate in computer programming. Meanwhile, transparency is being integrated at the administrative level; Matera became one of only four local authorities in Italy to win the top spot on Linked Open Data, a rating system focused on the openness of public data. As a result, the campaign has become a platform through which citizens feel they have the tools to initiate their own projects that improve the commons.

On the surface the potential is clearly enormous. The Matera 2019 campaign seems to be enabling a stewardship culture that encourages community members to take care of public assets. People have launched walks of Matera, rebooted old Materan traditions, including a candle festival, and used OpenStreetMap to create an app with information about public transport routes, stops and timetables that was not available before. Even as Matera’s difficult past reverberates around the city annually at the Festa della Bruna, where an ornamental Madonna figure is destroyed by a crowd each year in a brutal reappropriation of the city’s exploitation under Bourbon rule, Matera 2019 may have finally brought about the reinvigoration of the Sassi’s most valuable and overlooked features.

More importantly, as projects in Matera draw on the public to solve problems and stimulate new ideas, they may be creating a new form of governance that other small cities could integrate into their policies to create meaningful citizen engagement.

Marco Picardi is an urbanist and communications consultant who can be contacted at