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Matera: Discovering the lessons of history in Europe’s Capital of Culture

Matera: Discovering the lessons of history in Europe’s Capital of Culture
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Matera is a rising star - it’s the 2019 European Capital of Culture. Visiting the southern Italian town still feels very much like discovering something wonderful that few people know about. Tucked between Italy’s toe and heel, Matera will unveil itself to visitors with its narrow labyrinthine alleyways that open onto charming piazzas and sweeping views.

Carved into rock, Matera is a city from another time. For a long time, the city was a backwater. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world with some of the caves dating back 9,000 years, but many of Matera’s inhabitants lived in caves even into the 1950s. Matera has come a long way since then though, and now the caves, known as the Sassi, have been reinvented as popular art spaces, hip bars, and picturesque visitor lodgings.

Visiting Matera: not just exhibitions but experiences

A desire to see the underground city may be what draws you to Matera, but once you’re there you’ll find a city that’s connected to its past while also looking to the future. The caves of the Sassi, once a symbol of poverty, are now revered for the lessons they can teach us about building sustainable cities. This is the issue at the core of Ars Excavandi, the opening exhibition of Matera’s 2019 European Capital of Culture programme. The local cave dwellings are the starting point for a spectacular journey that starts in Palaeolithic times and ends by exploring what bio-architecture might look like in the future. An augmented, multi-sensory experience means visitors can not just imagine the link between the past and the present, but see it for themselves.

When Italy’s Matera is placed alongside Jordanian Petra in the Mater(i)a P(i)etra photography exhibition, it becomes clear that despite their geographical differences, the two stone cities have a great deal in common. A history of having nurtured civilisations behind the rocks means the cities share a unique atmosphere, not to mention some brilliant practical details: they both developed ingenious underground canalisation systems independently of each other.

This year, as European Capital of Culture, Matera is pulling out all the stops with a jam-packed programme of cultural and historical original events and exhibitions that are open to everyone. There really is so much to see in Matera this year, some of which needs to be experienced first hand as it’s hard to put into words - for example, I-DEA is not so much an exhibition as it is a treasure hunt. I-DEA brings the Basilicata to life not just as not just a region but as a network of wonders, and a gathering of stories and objects that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day - think of farming tools for fruits that may not exist much longer, musical instruments that few people know how to play, and other rare and unexpected memories of what life used to be like in southern Italy.

The Matera 2019 Passport is the shortcut to the full Capital of Culture experience, a ticket that grants holders access to everything on the 48 week-long programme featuring over 800 performers from all over the world.

Inspiration from the cultural to the scientific

In historic Matera, the same unique architectural flair that can make visitors wonder if they’ve stepped back in time has also made the town a popular setting for historical films. This year, spectators will experience this cinematic quality for themselves as Matera becomes a stage for Dante’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy - the entire city will undergo an otherworldly transformation into the inner circle of hell. In a similar spirit, the residents of Matera will also be called on as Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana opera will be performed outdoors in the Sassi.

The magic will be close to the surface this year in Matera - this is a place where imagination leads the way, sometimes in surprising ways. 70 years ago the Sassi was the Architecture of Shame, and today the area is a centre for creative expression. The Poetry of Primes exhibition asks whether an equation change the way we live and think. Pythagoras, Copernicus and Newton seemed to think so, and in Poetry of Primes there will be not just magic shows, but also mathematical shows. In Matera it is very possible they’re one and the same - this is a place where past, present and future flow into one.