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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Southern Italy Part I: la Città Sotterranea (the Subterranean city)

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

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Photos Courtesty of Chris Andras
Photos Courtesy of Chris Andras

Southern Italy (Paestum, Matera and Naples)

Matera, a city carved from living rock canyons, was undoubtedly the most surreal place I’ve visited in Italy. I had no idea that a place like this existed until we stepped through the threshold of the modern city and descended the steep staircase into Sassi (the historical center). Also known as la Città Sotterrranea (the Subterranean city), this place seemed to me a balanced coexistence of the natural and the man-made. Networks of caverns are adapted as dwelling spaces throughout the hills of the ancient city, and the only way to move through the streets is by steep, winding stairs and narrow passageways.

After briefly settling into our grotto-like rooms, we went on an afternoon walking tour to unravel bits of the intricate history and architecture of the city. Although Matera is centuries old (founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC), it went through a period of decline and poverty in the 1950s-late 1980s when the Italian government relocated much of the population to modern areas of the city. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is trying to regenerate itself through tourism. Despite these efforts, Matera still felt like something of a ghost town. The streets were empty, besides an occasional group of tourists. It had a similar atmosphere to Venice: beautiful, historic, but dying. The last lifeline is barely sustained by the stream of curious tourists.

The churches of Matera and MUSMA (contemporary sculptures and installations in a sequence of caves) were incredible. But what was most remarkable about Matera was waking up at 4 am (I had terrible insomnia during the entire trip) to explore niches of the city. As I wandered through the streets, the city began to transform from a dense, urban condition to merge more with the natural landscape. Besides a few stray cats, my surroundings were absolutely still. Gradually, the sky began to lighten in color as the sun rose. From my vantage point, I could see the entire expanse of the ravine; one was side was the bare, rocky canyon, on the other was the exquisite Sassi di Matera.

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