Matera is often considered as one of the oldest cities in the world. However, this controversial statement reveals the antiquity of the settlement. Numerous archaeological finds testify to how the area has been continuously used since very ancient times. In antiquity, the influence of nearby Magna Graecia was strong, while there is little evidence of the Roman era. Matera became an important city in the Middle Ages when, for military reasons, the settlement was fortified due to its advantageous position near the canyon called Gravina. Many dominations followed one another in the region, and the city grew with the birth of the Sassi, districts partly excavated and partly built. Many of these man-made caves were initially intended as productive places, i.e. cellars, mills, oil presses, and deposits used by farmers close to the many agricultural terraces, which to medieval travelers looked like hanging gardens. For centuries, therefore, the Sassi developed in perfect balance with nature, mainly thanks to the system of water collecting system. From the eighteenth century, however, the Sassi began to experience progressive urban and hygienic deterioration. Many of the caves, initially intended for stables, cellars, or cisterns, were converted into housing, hosting families of peasants who shared these dark and humid spaces with their animals. The lack of sewers and running water led to poor hygienic-sanitary conditions that lasted until the mid-20th century. After the Second World War, Matera was now a symbol of peasant poverty, so much so that it was even called Italy’s national shame. In 1952, the Italian state, at the behest of De Gasperi, issued a special law that allowed families to leave the cave-houses and move to modern neighborhoods. And so the Sassi emptied, becoming almost a ghost town until the 1980s, when a program of recovery of the ancient districts slowly began. In 1993, the Sassi were proclaimed a world heritage site by UNESCO, and in 2014, Matera was proclaimed the European Capital of Culture for 2019.
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