Matera~Life in a Cave Home

“The narrow path wound its way down and around, passing over the roofs of the houses, if houses they could be called. They were caves, dug unto hardened clay walls of the gully, each with its own facade, some of which were quite handsome, with eighteenth-century ornamentation.” Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli

Matera is an ancient cave city in Basilicata located just above the instep near the heel of the boot that is Italy. Because of its stark similarity to the holy lands, several films have been made here.

A most unusual city, many people aren’t sure what to think of it. Unlike Florence, who experienced the Renaissance and a golden age, Matera experienced nothing of the sort. Life here has been difficult, especially between 1800 up until the 1950’s, when the Italian government moved over half of the inhabitants to higher ground and new homes. But in the process, the Materans lost their tight community of neighbors who worked together and shared each other’s burdens.

Today, Matera is no longer looked upon as poverty ridden and uncivilized, but is becoming cherished for its primordial ways.


Here, in the Sasso Barisano, the skilled craftsman Eustachio Rizzi and his sons, have attempted to bear witness to a past filled with memories and emotions.

This unique place entitled “C’era una volta,” meaning “Once upon a time,” uses furnishings and sculptures to portray and illustrate life in the home, in Matera, up until the end of the 60’s.


“Once upon a time there was a family in Matera who lived in a cave cut out of rocks. Today the moments, the gestures, the rhythm of everyday life in those times are reborn…”


Troglodyte living is what the people of Matera knew. As an area continuously inhabited since neolithic times, Matera and the Sassi have long ago become ancient grounds, old and barren. Many of the cave dwellings consisted of only one room. Parents and grandparents generally slept in the front, with the children in the back and the animals behind them.


There was no plumbing, no electricity and no telephones. Rainwater was collected in stone basins by underground ceramic pipes. People lived one above the other where palazzi and chapels were mixed among the cave dwellings. Cemeteries were built above church roofs.

The Materans were self-sufficient and worked hard with what little they had available to them. The barren soil around them was devoid of essential nutrients to support much vegetation.


Food was hard to come by. Vito Festo, a man who grew up here in the 1950’s, remembered building bird traps that he placed on a parapet as a young boy, but he never caught any. He also remembers walking the family pig with his brother every night before putting it in its stall behind their bed.

The women baked a unique horn-shaped bread in shared ovens that were levened and baked slowly, making large pores so the bread would stay fresh for a week. The cucina povera was very simple and consisted mostly of chickpeas, fava beans, and crushed peppers. One popular dish, Ciallèdd, was made from eggs, the town bread, and flowers that grew in nearby Murgia which were often yellow asphodels.


Community was cherished and vital to the Materans. Everyone knew each other and helped one another.They developed their own dialect, rituals and songs. People lived outside in their vicinato, or courtyard-like tiny piazza. Children played, men gathered to work and talk, and the women shelled peas together.


Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and today is becoming a mecca of artists, businesses and upscale restaurants. This past October, the European Commission named Matera as one of its two capitals of European Culture for 2019.

Most places in Italy give an instant sense of wealth with glorious white marble fountains and exquisite iron balconies. Matera leaves a testament to a life of thrift and hardship where nothing is wasted. I find beauty in both.

For more information:

*A Cave with a View, The New Yorker, by D.T. Max

The Ancient Cave Churches of Matera

Matera, cave dwellings piled one on top of the other
Matera, cave dwellings piled one on top of the other

During the filming of The Passion of the Christ in Matera, everyone around Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Christ, said they saw fire coming out of the right and left side of his head. A glow surrounded his entire body. To Jim, being struck by lightening felt like a giant clap on his ears while he was doing The Sermon on the Mount scene. Director Mel Gibson stood speechless before asking Jim what happened to his hair.

Matera, the rock city of Basilicata sought after by filmmakers searching for a biblical landscape, looks surprisingly like the Holy lands. It proved to be the perfect setting for Mel Gobson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ.

Poster outside of the cave church of Madonna delle Virtu. Inside,’The Last Supper’ was filmed in one of the rooms.

I had the opportunity to visit Matera recently, also known as “the second Bethlehem.” These peculiar cave churches and settlements carved into rock became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. It truly is a city of rocks in the midst of a desolate land.

The Rupestrian Complex of Matera includes the Church of Madonna delle Virtu, a twelfth century church completely carved out of the tufa rock. It is considered the best church architecturally decorated in Matera. The central apse contains a large fresco of the crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist dating from the sixteenth century (pictured below). Across from this one is another crucifixion fresco from the fourteenth century (not shown).


The rock city of Matera in Basilicata possesses over 150 Rupestrian (meaning art done on cave walls) churches dug into the soft tufa walls, housing frescoes spanning nearly 1,000 years. The Park of Rupestrian Churches of Matera covers 19,768 acres and contains the best surviving rock-cut settlements in the Mediterranean region. These cave churches, dating from antiquity through the medieval period, were often places of pagan worship before they became established by Christian monks. The entire area of caves have been continuously inhabited since paleolithic times.

Close-up of the 16th c. Crucifixion just inside the entrance

The tall front doors to The Madonna of the Virtu is just off the street. We stepped immediately into the church which was tall and cavernous.


There is another section to the complex which was a monastery during the ninth century and expanded over time. It was inhabited by a small community of nuns from Accon in Palestine. Much later, after being abandoned, the monastery became a storeroom for hay and the production of wine.

“The Passion of the Christ” was filmed in Matera by Mel Gibson in 2004, giving it the name of ‘the Jerusalem of Basilicata.’ In the movie, the ancient monastery’s central room was chosen as the scene for “The Last Supper,” and for “The Washing of the Feet.”

The monastery began as a small crypt which was enlarged with time.


Throughout the monastery are pieces of modern art placed perfectly within wall niches and on pedestals. An international sculpture exhibit is hosted in the monastery each year.


Beyond the monastery within the same complex is the Church of San Nicola, a 10th century monastic settlement.

Within this archway is a fresco of, right to left, St. Barbara – with auburn hair and dressed in rich imperial robes, St. Nicholas the Greek, and St. Pantaleone, holding a box symbolizing his medical practice. A burial pit lies below.


St. Barbara, St. Nicholas and St. Pantaleone
Close-up (R to L) St. Barbara, St. Nicholas and St. Pantaleone

Below is a 14th century fresco of the Crucifixion with the Madonna on the left and St. John the Evangelist on the right, holding a Gospel roll in his hand. Daffodils, which are commonly found in the area, are pictured on either side of the cross at the bottom.


You can almost see the Crucifixion fresco through the rock hole in the center of the photo below.


Outside of the complex, old cave dwellings can be seen along the ridge of the hillside. In the early part of the 1900’s, the poor lived within Matera’s caves, many large families who made them into homes where they cohabited with their animals. Conditions grew worse until, in 1952, the government evacuated 15,000 inhabitants and resettled them due to extreme poverty and poor hygienic circumstances.

Across the ravine from the door of Madonna delle Virtu – Paleolithic caves line the top of the hill

Today, Matera is experiencing a rebirth as many of the cave churches, some previously used as stables or filled with garbage, have been cleaned up and restored. The extremely delicate frescoes are slowly disappearing as tourists continue to touch them. But they remain fascinating although a bit eerie. The passing of time has had no bearing inside these rupestrian churches. It is only the whisper of monks in silent prayer that still remain.

Italy, Always a Good Idea ~ I Return to Bella Italia



“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.”  -Anna Akhmatova

Italy is always a good idea. I have often come home from a visit with a feeling of pure saturation. I foolishly think to myself that I have seen all I need to see, that i’ve tasted all I need to taste, smell, touch. But after a month, I am mentally planning my next adventure to bella Italia. There is no getting over it.

So, I will be returning to Italy this late May for three weeks. I am so excited I can hardly sleep. I walk around the house in a state of disorientation. My mind is already miles away….in the land I love so passionately.

This trip will begin in Venice, where I will meet with two friends. We will head toward the heel of the boot in Puglia and enjoy a stay in an agriturismo complete with cooking classes, tours to wineries, and exciting day trips. This area of Italy is somewhat new to me so i’m anticipating a lot of new adventures and discoveries that I can’t wait to share with all of you.

After a stay in Matera, the UNESCO site of the ancient cave dwellings, I will end up in Positano where I hope to relax, enjoy the Mediterranean ambience, and write.

I will be posting some photos as I travel so be sure to stay tuned. E ‘il mio grande piacere di portare a voi i migliori d’Italia! (It is my great pleasure to bring to you the best of Italy.)


Pompeii is Losing its Pomp


Never have any historical sites blown my mind quite like Pompeii and its smaller neighbor Heculaneum. The vast array of ruins spread out before me from a civilization that suddenly ceased to exist is simply unbelievable. Buried under 30 feet of hot ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, they have laid perfectly preserved until excavations began in the 18th century. Much is left to see and investigate, including some still partially imbedded lead pipes once used for the water supply. Elegant tile mosaics, colorful frescoes’ and brick walls bring dimension to these ghost cities.

Pompeii street

It’s obvious that Pompeii was a thriving harbor town in its time. It’s obvious that Pompeii was a thriving harbor town in its time. In recent years, walls have crumbled and collapses continue to occur. Because the ancient Roman city is seriously exposed to the elements, it is constantly in a state of emergency. This UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the biggest and most important sites in the world, happens to be located in an area with one of the highest concentrations of organized crime in all of Europe, according to Fabrizio Barca, minister of territorial cohesion for Prime Minister Mario Monte.

Pompeii House with Frescoes

The Great Pompeii Project, which began a $137 million effort by the European Union, has been an effort to preserve Pompeii and also make it accessible to the public. It strives to support a culture-driven society against perilous odds. Bureaucracy has been a constant challenge. The result is a lack of strategic planning and the limited personnel of the site’s troubled management.

Pompeii Frescoes

Conservators who attempt to impart a plan of systematic maintenance of the 163 acre site are thwarted by emergent temporary repairs of crumbling walls and water-damaged frescoes.

Pillars of another time
Pillars of another time…remains of a prestigious Villa

Fortunately, many of the artifacts found in Pompeii are safely tucked away in Naples Archaeological Museum to be seen and enjoyed by the public. However, Pompeii offers the best look anywhere at what life in Rome must have been like around 2,000 years ago, providing archaeologists volumes about daily Roman life.

Lemon Orchards in the midst of  ruins
Lemon Orchards in the midst of ruins

Walking through Pompeii is like taking a stroll through the ancient past. It’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle, chariots clattering down the stone streets, people grouped together in conversation, shopkeepers, foreigners, sailors and city administrators, all mingling to create a famous commercial port town…..the crossroads of many civilizations.