Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Into the Hellenic World

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Into the Hellenic World

Day Three – We leave behind the Phoenician world to travel eastward into Hellenic country and the ill-fated seaside city of Selinunte. Some 15 kilometers inland before we reach the city, we arrive at the western Mediterranean’s most overlooked archeological site.

Cave di Cusa

Some blocks remain in nearby olive groves.

Gigantic columns intended for Silenunte’s Temple G still lay in as they were originally abandoned.

Stretched across a 1.8 kilometer (1.2 mile) long ridge, the ancient limestone quarry of Cave di Cusa was actively mined beginning in the first half of the 6th century BC, its stone used to construct the temples of Selinunte. It was precipitously abandoned in 409 BC when the city was captured by the Carthaginians. The blocks of stones in their various stages of completion have remained exactly as they were some 25 centuries ago. Along with the column sections (or drums), there are also some capitals and square incisions for quarrying square blocks, all intended for the temples of Selinunte. Some the drums that had already been extracted were found ready for transport. Others, already on their way, were abandoned on the road. Some gigantic drums, definitely intended for what is now known as Temple G, the largest in Selinunte and one of the largest in the Hellenic world, are found on the western side of the quarry, also in the state in which they were originally abandoned.

 

 

The Quarrying Process

Some massive drums were in the process of being detached from the stone mass.

Thanks to the many column drums scattered in various stages of completion, Cave di Cusa provides a clear idea of how the temples at Selinunte (and presumably elsewhere) were built. In a nutshell: a circle of a specified diameter was traced on top of the stone mass. The quarriers then chiseled downwards around the circumference until they reached a depth of the specified height of the drum, which varied for the different structures, to a maximum of 2.5 meters (8 feet). The result was a perfect cylinder surrounded by a gap in the stone of about 60 centimeters (2 feet). Finally, the base of the cylinder was chipped away until it could be levered from the mother stone underneath. These drums were then pulled by oxen to the construction site, to be hoisted into position and embellished as needed.

The Cursed City

The fortified city of Selinunte overlooked the sea.

Founded in the mid-7th century BC, Selinunte, or Selinos as it was called by the Greeks, was once one of the richest and most influential cities in the Hellenic world. At its peak, it is estimated to have been home to 30,000 citizens and at least twice as many slaves. Beautifully located on a plateau overlooking the sea, it was the western-most Greek colony in Sicily and consequently often came into contact – and conflict –  with the Phoenicians and the native Elymian people of Segesta in the west and northwest of the island.

The city was reduced to a pile of rubble in 409 BC.

Then, almost overnight in 409 BC, Selinunte went from being one of the most progressive and eminent cities in Sicily to a vast expanse of rubble. The Carthaginian, who for many years had seen this powerful Greek city as a hindrance to their own influence in Sicily, took advantage of a conflict between the Greeks of Selinunte and the Elymians of Segesta to intervene. They sent some 100,000 men to lay siege to Selinunte, which was only able to hold out for nine days. The subsequent sacking involved the massacre of some 16,000 of the town’s inhabitants while most of the remaining citizens either fled to Mazara or where taken into slavery.

Selinunte Archeological Park

The Acropolis is surrounded by the ruins of several temples.

Today, abandoned for nearly 2,500 years, Selinunte is one of the largest archaeological areas in Europe, a 270 hectare (667 acre) treasure trove of remains of one of the most flourishing classical civilizations in the Mediterranean. The park is built around a vast fortified acropolis overlooking the sea, and surrounded by the ruins of several temples dedicated to Zeus, Apollo, Athena and Hera among others. Because of the difficulty of defining most of the deities they honored, the temples are designated by letters.

The Acropolis

Only the rocky basement and the altar remain of Temples A and O. A row of columns from Temple C stands in the background.

Situated on the highest point of the site, the Acropolis revolves around two perpendicular axes. In addition to the remains of five temples in various stages of preservation, it also includes a Punic sacrificial area with the sign of the goddess Tanit (Carthage’s main deity) found on the slabs. The most southerly Doric temples, O and A, dated from around 490, are dedicated to Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri), the legendary twin brothers, born from the union of Jupiter and the queen of Sparta.

Temple C stands out at the edge of the Acropolis.

Temple B and the Megaron (or great hall) show remains of Ionic columns and a Doric frieze. On the esplanade of the Acropolis, Temple C, with a peristyle of 6 by 17 columns is dated 6th century BC, and estimated to have been dedicated to Apollo. Beyond Temple D, similar to the previous one, the Agora, or business area includes a market, houses and workshops. 

The Eastern Zone

Temple E, dedicated to Hera, is the only one on the site to have been reconstructed.

Some 700 meters (half a mile) east of the Acropolis, the Eastern Zone holds three major temples. Temple E, tentatively dated around 450 BC, is the only one of the entire site to have been re-erected (in the 1960’s). This Doric style temple with a peristyle of 6 by 15 columns, measures 25 by 67 meters (82 by 220 feet). An inscription indicates that it was dedicated to Hera, the goddess of family and childbirth. Temple G was dedicated to Zeus or Apollo. With a peristyle of 8 by 16 columns 16 meters (52 feet) high, and dimensions of 50 by 110 meters (165 by 360 feet), it is one of the largest anywhere in the Hellenic world. Started in 530 BC, it was still unfinished when the city was destroyed. One of its columns, restored in 1820, still stands guard over the majestic ruin.

Temple C, believed to have been dedicated to Appolo, dominates the horizon.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — From Palermo: It’s a 90-minute, 120-kilometer (75 mile) drive via road E90/A29 from Palermo to the Castelvetrano exit. From Mazara del Vallo, it’s a 30 minute, 30 kilometer (19 mile) drive to the Castelvetrano exit.
  • Visiting — Archaeological Park of Selinunte, via Selinunte, Castelvetrano, is open every day including holidays from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 0924 46277. Cave di Cusa: via Ugo Bassi, 37, 91021 Campobello di Mazara is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm – however at the time of my visit (September 2021) the site was accessible by appointment only. Contact:  Tel. +39 0924 46277.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Cave di Cusa

Selinunte, Sicily

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Marsala to Mazara del Vallo

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Marsala to Mazara del Vallo

On Day Two of our Sicilian adventure, we linger at the western tip the island to explore the small coastal towns of Marsala and Mazara del Vallo. Originally settled by the Phoenician over 2,500 years ago, their unique character has been shaped  the diverse cultures that have succeeded them throughout the centuries.These days, Marsala is mainly known internationally for its fortified Marsala wine. But its present name, derived from the Arabic “Marsa Allah” (Port of God) gives an idea of how strategically important the town once was.

Marsala

The shaded fountain of the Old Market retains a Moorish flair.

Marsala has retained thenrich facades of its Baroque heydays.

First known as Lilibeo, it was settled in 396 BC by the Phoenician survivors of the lagoon island of Motya, which had been razed the previous year by Dionysus I of Syracuse, and soon grew into a prosperous fortified port. It became Lilybaeum when it was conquered by the Romans in 241BC, and remained a tributary city of Rome until the Empire started falling apart. Next came the Vandals, (440 AD) followed by the Byzantines (535) and the Arabs (827). Then from the end of the 11th century onward, the area was conquered successively by Norman, Angevin and Aragonese troops. Though it all, Marsala remained a thriving trading center – until the 16th  century when Emperor Charles V blocked its harbor to stop the forays of Saracen pirates. Today’s Marsala is a sleepy sun-drenched small town that has retained the shaded piazzas and streets lined with the stately buildings of its Baroque heydays.

 

Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi

A Carthaginian liburna from the Punic war times is it one of the Museum of Archeology.

The museum features remarkable variety of Roman amphoras.

At the edge of the old town, a well-preserved ancient Baglio (winery complex fortified around a vast central courtyard) holds Marsala’s main attraction: the partially reconstructed remains of a Carthaginian liburna (warship) sunk off the nearby Egadi Islands during the First Punic War and discovered in 1969. Displayed alongside objects from its cargo, the ship’s bare bones provide the only remaining physical evidence of the Phoenicians’ seafaring superiority in the 3rd century BC, offering a glimpse of a civilisation extinguished by the Romans. Among the objects found on board the ship and displayed here are ropes, cooking pots, corks from amphorae, a brush, a sailor’s wooden button and even a stash of cannabis. In an adjacent room, the impressive wreck of a Roman merchant vessel dating to the 3rd or 4th century AD is also displayed. A third room showcases other regional archaeological artefacts including a superb marble statue known as La venere di lilybaeum (The Venus of Lilybaeum) and some mosaics from the 3rd and 5th centuries AD.

Mazara del Vallo

The North African influence still permeates the Casbah. neighborhood.

Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the south, the city of Mazara del Vallo, founded as a Phoenician outpost in the 9th century BC, evolved through the familiar tide of invaders that shaped the history of Sicily. It prospered as a port facility for the nearby Greek city of Selinunte, but it is under the Arabs that it realized its full potential. Located barely 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Tunisian coast, it flourished not only in its traditional maritime and commercial activities, but also as a major political and cultural centre second only to Palermo. The North African influence permeates the streets of Mazara to this day, especially noticeable in the warren of narrow alleys of the historic Casbah, where a sizable community of Tunisian descent lives and works to this days.

Cathedral del Santissimo Salvatore

The cathedral is an harmonious blend of Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles.

In the center of the city, the Cathedral del Santissimo Salvatore (of the Holy Savior) is uniquely evocative of the cultural journey of Mazara. Originally built by the Normans in the 11th  century on a site where a mosque previously stood, it evolved over the century into a harmonious mix of Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles. The adjoining Bishop’s Palace with its distinctive two-tiered arched Baroque facade is connected to the western transept of the Cathedral by a high Tocchetto (arched bridge covered by a loggia).

Il Satiro Danzante

Il Satiro Danzante stands 2.5 meters high.

But the jewel in Mazara’s crown can found an easy 5-minute walk away in the deconsecrated shell of the Chiesa de Sant’Egidio (Church of Saint Egidio), repurposed as the Museo del Satiro Danzante (Museum of the Dancing Satyr). The museum revolves around its central exhibit, a magnificent overlife-size bronze statue known as the Dancing Satyr, hauled from the depths of the Mediterranean by local fishermen in the late 1990s.

Detail of the Hellenic bronze casting masterpiece.

This rare original casting from the Hellenistic era (3rd and 2nd centuries BC) depicts a bacchanalian satyr in mid-leap, dancing wildly, arms outstretched, back arched, hair swinging with the movement of his head. The facture is highly refined, with the white of his eyes rendered in alabaster inlays. Although two millennia in the depths have taken their toll and the arms are well as one of the legs where not recovered, the power of the work remains intact, and in itself would warrant a visit to Mazara.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Palermo: The most convenient entry point to the Western part of Sicily is Palermo. The international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights from most major cities in Western Europe as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city. From there Marsala is an easy 125-kilometer highway drive west. Mazara del Vallo is located 25 kilometers south of Marsala via SS115. Driving time can vary from 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic.
  • Visiting — Marsala: Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi, Lungomare Boeo 30, Marsala (TP) is open Tuesday through Sunday 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Mazara del Vallo:  Museo del Satiro Danzante, Piazza Plebiscito, Mazara Del Vallo, is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Marsala

Mazara del Vallo

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — From Segesta to Motya

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — From Segesta to Motya

On the southern tip of Italy, Sicily, the largest of the Mediterranean islands, has been since ancient times a melting pot for a number of ethnic groups whose warriors and merchants sought its shores. 

The Phoenicians left enduring marks on the Sicilian landscape.

The Greeks were the first to leave their mark when, between the 8th and the 6th centuries BC, they founded  a number of important cities on the eastern and southern coastline of the island. Meanwhile, the Phoenicians and later the Carthaginians settled along the western and northern coast, establishing trading communities around Palermo and Marsala. The dividing line between the Greeks in the southeast and the Carthaginians in the northwest shifted frequently, following the vagaries of alliances with the local tribes. These fluid associations and ensuing conflicts have left an enduring stamp on western Sicily, the destination of a recent road trip.

Segesta

The Doric-style Segesta Temple is remarkably well preserved.

It is 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Palermo, where we landed the previous night, to Segesta, once a major city of the Elymian nation (said to be descended from Trojan settlers who took refuge here after the fall of Troy in 1183 BC). Hardly any traces of the original town remain, and what little there is has yet to be unearthed. But what Segesta does have is one of finest and most impressive Doric temples to be found in Sicily, and one of the best preserved anywhere in the West.

The temple’s Doric entablature has remained intact.

The Temple dominates an isolated hilltop.

Perched on a 305-meter (1000-foot) high hill a 15-minute walk from the entrance to the Segesta Archeological Park, the 5th century BC temple commands an impressive view of the surrounding countryside. Construction began around 420 BC on the site of an earlier cult building, Raised on a three-step base, the 26 meters (85 feet) by 61 meters (200 feet) structure consists of six columns on each facade and 14 columns along the sides. The columns are 9 meter (30 foot) high. Why an Elymian site would replicate so precisely the architecture of a Greek Doric temple is much debated amongst scholars. So too is to which god or cult the temple may have been intended. What is known, however, is that following the sacking of the Greek city of Selinunte to the south in 409 BC by the Carthaginians, the construction of the Segesta temple came to a halt and was never resumed. Meanwhile its imposing colonnade has remained intact through the ages, harmoniously integrated to the bucolic surroundings of its isolated hillside.

The Theatre

The  theater could accommodate close to 4000 spectators..

Another 1.5 kilometer (one mile) uphill to the top of Mount Barbaro (shuttle access available), the Hellenistic-style theater commands a spectacular view of the countryside and the Gulf of Castellamare. Built in the 3rd century BC, it originally had 29 rows of seats (of which the lower 21 rows remain) and a capacity of approximately 4000 spectators. The amphitheater-style structure is supported by a containing wall of limestone blocks. It now hosts theatrical  and musical performances throughout the summer months.

Motya

The sea-salt harvesting tradition endures on the lagoon.

After lunch, we resume our westward journey to the very tip of Sicily: Lo Stagnone, the largest lagoon in Italy. Now a marine reserve, Lo Stagnone is home not only to the time-honored tradition of sea-salt harvesting, but also to the ancient city of Motya. First established by the Phoenicians on the smallest of the four islands of the lagoon in the 8th century BC, the settlement gradually flourished into one of the most affluent cities of its time, naturally protected by the lagoon as well as high defensive walls – until it was razed to the ground in 397 BC by the Greek Tyrant Dionysios of Syracuse. Motya never recovered. Even after the Romans conquered Sicily (265-241 BC), it seems to have altogether disappeared from history.

The recently excavated Temple of Kothon overlooks the lagoon.

Then in 1902, the island, which by then was known as San Pantaleo, was purchased by John Whitaker, the archeologist heir to a British family that had settled in Sicily and made its fortune in the trade of Marsala wine. His studies and archeological digs brought back to light the Phoenician grandeur of Motya, including the Temple of Kothon, dedicated to Baal Addir (which the Greeks identified with Poseidon), part of an archaic necropolis and the fortifications of the North and South Gates. Also recently excavated are the remains of a 4th century BC residential complex with elaborate black and white mosaic floors that earned it the moniker of House of Mosaics.

The Whitaker Museum

The Motya Charioteer is the most notable exhibit of the Whitaker Museum.

Now housed in the former residence of the family, the Whitaker Museum showcases a fine collection of these archeological finds including a remarkable display of Phoenician stele as well as domestic and religious potteries. The most spectacular piece of the collection is the Motya Charioteer,  a unique 1,80 meter (70 inches) tall white marble statue of the Greek Classical Period (fifth century BC), which was discovered in the area of the Northern Gate in 1987.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Palermo: The most convenient entry point to the Western part of Sicily is Palermo. The international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights to and from most major European cities as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles)  from the center of the city, There are frequent train and bus connections between the city and the airport from 5:00 am to midnight. Segesta: It’s an easy one-hour drive from the center of Palermo via highway A29 (direction Trapani) to the Segesta exit and the Segesta Archeological Park. Motya: It’s a further 30-minute drive west on highway A29 from Segesta to Marsala and the edge of the Lo Stagnone Lagoon. 
  • Visiting — Segesta: The Archeological Park consists of two separate areas, the temple, easily accessible on foot, and the theatre, located on top of Mount Barbaro. While the theatre can also be reached on foot, a private shuttle bus service is available at a cost  of 1,50 € round trip. The park is open daily starting at 9:00 am. Closing time varies with the seasons. See the official website for details. Motya: There are frequent water shuttles from the small pier at the Saline di Ettore Infersa waterfront for the pleasant 10-minute ride across the lagoon to the Whitaker Pier on San Pantaleo island. Cost is 5 € round trip. The island and the Whitaker Museum are open daily from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. There is an entrance fee of 9 € to visit the island and the museum.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Motya

Segesta

A Time Capsule of Ancient Roman Life – Herculaneum

A Time Capsule of Ancient Roman Life – Herculaneum

While ruins left by the inveterate builders of the Roman Empire abound throughout the Mediterranean basin, what makes the archeological site of Herculaneum unique is the swiftness of its total disappearance. Buried under 50 feet of lava for 1,700 years, Herculaneum, just 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, became a time capsule of the daily life of a typical Roman city of its time.

Darkness at Noon

Herculanum-Ercolano_Vesuvius..

Herculaneum with the contemporary town of Ercolano and Mount Vesuvius in the background.

For people living around the bay of Naples two millennia ago, Mount Vesuvius was just a fertile mountain of olive groves and vineyards. Although it had been an active volcano some eight centuries before, it had remained dormant ever since. In spite of violent earthquakes around 63 AD, which we now understand to have been caused by gases building within the cone and trying to force their way out, the local population still entertained a false sense of security.

Herculaneum-Excavation.

Herculaneum is an archeological excavation site in progress.

By late August 79 AD, the pressure had built to a point where the thick layer of hardened lava that was plugging the crater could no longer contain it. There were several days of earth tremors, which nobody recognized as a warning of imminent danger. Finally, one day around midday the volcano exploded, sending an “umbrella pine” cloud of overheated gases and rocks some 20 kilometers (65,000 feet) into the sky and plunging the area into darkness.

Pompeii-Temple of Jupiter.

The Temple of Jupiter in the central plaza of Pompeii.

The eruption was the first ever to be documented in detail by an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), who observed the entire chain of events from his mother’s villa high on Cape Misenum (now Cape Miseno), some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest across the bay of Naples. The prevailing winds at the time blew this first wave of poisonous gases and debris toward Pompeii, 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of the crater. Over the next eight hours, ashes and pumice stones rained down on the city. Roofs began to collapse under the weight. The process was gradual, allowing a relatively large number of its estimated population of 12,000 to 15,000 to escape. But eventually people were trapped as the city became buried under 4 to 6 meters (12 to 20 feet) of volcanic materials.

The Vanished City

Herculanum-frescoed room and patio.

The richly frescoed walls and vaulted ceiling this private home open onto an interior patio.

Since Herculaneum lay on the shoreline, 7 kilometers (4 miles) to the west of Mount Vesuvius, it was little affected by the first phase of the eruption. Only a few centimeters of ash fell on the city, causing only minor damage but nonetheless prompting a majority of its 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants to flee. During the following night, however, a succession of pyroclastic surges (mixtures of intensely hot gases and ashes) and lava flow overran the entire city. The extreme heat of the first surge instantly reduced any remaining people to skeletons and carbonized all organic matters. By morning the thriving coastal town had vanished, fossilized under 25 meters (80 feet) of volcanic material that gradually cooled into solid rock. And there it remained until the 18th century.

Herculaneum-Marcus Nonius

Central square with the marble statue of Marcus Nonius, a benefactor of the city.

By then, all memory of Herculaneum has been lost, the only indication of its existence and fate coming from antique records, without any information as to its exact location. Settlements had developed on top of the volcanic crust. It was not until 1709 that traces of the antique city were accidentally revealed. During the digging of a well, a wall was discovered that was later found to be part of the stage of the Herculaneum theater. Treasure hunters started tunneling the site and a number of artifacts disappeared before official excavation began in 1738 under the patronage of the King of Naples. The work continued intermitently until 1874, with the finds documented and carted off to museums, most notably the National Archeological Museum in Naples but also to Rome, London and Paris.

Herculaneum-Nymphaeum.

Alcove in the nymphaeum of the House of Neptune.

Serious archeological work began again in 1874 and continues to this day. But with much of the ancient site abutting or still buried under the modern town of Ercolano, excavation is a slow process. To date, only a quarter of the ancient city has been brought to light. However, the unique conditions of its instantaneous extinction make it a fascinating site for archeologists and visitors alike. By allowing the conservation of the wooden framework of houses, furniture, writing tablets, fruit, bread and even the content of sewers, it offers a detailed snapshot of everyday life far more intimate than has been achieved in other antique centers.

Herculaneum Highlights

Richly colored detail of fresco in an opulent private home.

Visitors enter via an elevated boardwalk that offers a bird’s eye view of the entire excavated area and gives a clear idea of how deep it was buried. Herculaneum, which was known in its time not only as a fishing town but also a seaside resort where wealthy Romans built their summer villas, is laid out in a standard grid and easy to explore. The streets are lined with a mix of businesses, apartments and fine private homes where it is possible to wander at will. Many of the grander homes have shops built into their façade, so that the exterior doesn’t always announce the refined atriums graced with central pools, exquisite walls frescoes and ornate mosaics within.

Because this is a working excavation site, some buildings may occasionally be closed to the public. The highlights of my visit include:

Herculaneum-Black screens.

House of the Wooden Screens.

The House of the Wooden Screen – This superb villa boasts a soaring atrium and a central marble pool that catches rainwater falling through an oculus in the ceiling. Its vast reception area could be screened off from the remainder of the residence by a set of sliding wooden panels that have survived to this day. The walls are decorated with frescoes of architectural fantasies enhanced with grapevines and birds. It gives an interesting insight into life of affluent society of the time.

Herculaneum-Black salon.

House of the Black Salon.

The House of the Black Salon – This luxurious house features a small courtyard garden, interesting mosaic flooring and unusual frescoes with a black background covering the walls and barrel ceiling of its main hall. Said to have been the home of a former slave who had achieved the status of Roman citizen, it is also singled out as out as an example of the social mobility that could occasionally be possible in Roman society.

Herculaneum-Augustales frescoes.

The frescoes in the Hall of the Augustales relate the final scenes of the Herculean myths.

The Hall of the Augustales – Dedicated to the cult of Augustus, the College of the Augustales was an organization offering training, services and support to its members, freed slaves who were making their way as full citizens. Although they were not allowed to hold traditional political offices or become Roman priests, the members were able through this association to contribute to and impact the society and culture of the city. The hall is located in the center of College building.

Herculaneum-Neptune_Amphitirite.

Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite.

The House of Neptune and Amphitrite – Located behind a wine shop with a wooden balcony and a rack for the storage of amphorae, the dining room of the residence is decorated with stunning mosaics including the famous image of Neptune and the nymph Amphitrite.

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – It’s a 20-minute train ride on the Circumvesuviano line from the Naples Garibaldi central station to Ercolano Scavi stop,then a 15-minute walk down to the bottom of Via IV Novembre to the archway entrance to the Herculaneum Archeological Site. Trains run every 30 minutes from 6:00 am to 9:30 pm.
  • Visiting – In theory, a map of the site and an information pamphlet should be available at the ticket desk. However, there were no pamphlets when I visited and maps were only handed out with the audio guide, which could be rented for €6.50 in addition to the €11 entrance fee, and came with the requirement to leave an ID at the desk as guarantee until return of the device. This extra cost and hassle may be avoided by downloading the map and the pamphlet free of charge from the official site prior to the visit.
  • UNESCO designation – The archeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the nearby villa of Torre Annunziata were collectively declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Herculaneum

From National Disgrace to International Hidden Treasure – Matera

From National Disgrace to International Hidden Treasure – Matera

Tucked into a deep ravine of the forgotten province of Basilicata, way down in the instep of Italy’s boot, the ancient city of Matera in not an easy place to get to.

Matera-Barisano night.

Sasso Barisano at night.

I leave the northern metropolis of Milan on an early morning high-speed train that propels me southward through Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples before ending six hours and 800 kilometers (500 miles) later in Salerno, on shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea. From here, it’s a 200-kilometer (125-mile), three-hour bus ride back in time through the rugged rural landscape of the Basilicata province to one of the oldest living cities in the world, the Sassi (or stones) of Matera.

 

A Living Troglodyte City

Matera-Barisano Vertical City

By the Renaissance facades are added to the caves turning Sasso Barisano into a vertical city.

The bisque-colored honeycomb city is anchored to the face of two natural amphitheaters, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, within a towering ravine carved from the limestone plateau by the once powerful Gravina River. These Sassi have been inhabited since Palaeolitic times, but what makes Matera’s Città Sotterranea (Underground City) different from other cave settlements around the Mediterranean Basin is that the descendants of these early settlers never left. Rather, they dug in. By the Bronze Age (second millennium BCE), newly equipped with rudimentary metal tools, they began digging the myriad natural caves. And here they remained, a rural community gradually burrowing deeper. The Sassi developed in layers, through waves from Greek, Roman and Byzantine to Medieval and Renaissance invaders.

Roman High Grounds

Matera-Cathedral.

Buit in Apulian Romanesque style in the 13th century, the cathedral dominates the Matera skyline.

The Romans, as was their wont, constructed defensive walls around the original nucleus of la Civita (city) on the highest ground between the two Sassi. Theirs became the core of the institutional, religious and commercial district that expanded along the Piano (plateau) that had until then been used for agriculture and water collection. This modern city would be barely noticeable today, if not for its 13th century Romanesque cathedral towering over the skyline.

Matera-Sassi vista.

The Sassi and the Murgia plateau seen from the Piano.

By the 8th century, Matera began to overshoot its fortified boundaries and the occupation of the caverns intensified. Digging began in earnest. Over time the inhabitants began using the excavated material to build structures that jutted outward from the subterranean rooms with facades that looked much like that of traditional houses. Thus began the stacked cityscape we know today. Winding narrow lanes, alleys and stairways can be the roof of the houses below as well as the entryway of the one above. Seen from the outside, the homes seem small, until you step in. Then the space can vary from a simple room to a warren of vast spaces on multiple levels linked together by passageways.

Rupestrian Churches

Matera-Santa Maria de Idris.

Carved into a pinnacle overhanging the ravine, Santa Maria de Idris dominates Sasso Caveoso.

Since the entire face of the ravine is pitted with caves, neighborhoods  clustered around their own rock-hewn church. Some of these still dominate the Sassi. In Sasso Barisano, the bi-level complex of the Chiesa di Madonna Delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci is noted for its lovely 11th and 12th century frescoes. And Santa Maria de Idris, carved into a rock pinnacle overhanging the ravine, dominates Sasso Caveoso. Its few remaining frescoes are quite damaged, but a narrow passage to the left of the altar leads down to the crypt of San Giovanni in Monterone and its better-preserved artwork.

Matera-Murga plateau.

The ravine beneath the Murga plateau is pitted with caves.

By the 8th century, the barren western wall of the Murgia Plateau across the ravine, became a refuge for Basilian (Orthodox Christian) monks fleeing persecutions in Asia Minor. They excavated a number of rupestrian churches, and decorated them with frescoes. The most famous is the majestic cavern known as the Crypt of Original Sin, considered one of the finest examples of ruspestrian art in Italy for its 9th century cycle of Byzantine frescoes depicting the story of Creation and the veneration of the Virgin.

Into the Abyss

Matera-City on the Piano.

The city of Matera sits above the Sassi.

Little changes for centuries in the Sassi where people live in primordial simplicity, working the fields, raising livestock and seeing to domestic chores. Until one of the many reshufflings of history makes Matera a provincial capital (1663-1806). Increased prestige and activity cause a rise in population. The wealthier Materani move up, literally, to the newer town on the Piano, leaving subsistence farmers and artisans behind. By the early 20th century, the population of the caves is estimated at well over 15,000.

Matera-Ancient Sasso Ceveoso.

Large swaths of Sasso Ceveoso have yet to be rehabilitated.

Overcrowding in the Sassi and the ongoing development of the Piano cause the collapse of the ancient rain and spring water collection system that until now has brought water to the homes and small hanging gardens. With less farmland available, the lifestyle of the Sassi increasingly lags behind that of the rest of the world. Large families are living in squalid conditions alongside their livestock in crowded caves with no running water, sewage or electricity. Dysentery and malaria are rife. Infant mortality tops 50 percent.

Matera-Sasso Ceveoso cave.

Orignal cave dwelling in Sasso Ceveoso.

Yet the situation continues unheeded, until the 1945 release of Carlo Levi’s memoir “Christ stopped at Eboli” brings it to international attention. Levi is a physician, artist and writer from a wealthy northern family, exiled in Basilicata in 1935-1936 for his anti-fascist views. Eboli is a small town of Campania, near the Tyrrhenian coast. The title of the book comes from a local expression implying that the people of this remote corner of Basilica were bypassed by Christianity and by history itself. In the face of public outrage, the government begins to take notice. By 1950 the Sassi are pronounced a “national disgrace “ and a chain of drastic actions are set in motion that will have a swift and dramatic impact on the city and the peoples’ lives. From 1953 to 1968, all the residents of the Sassi are forcibly relocated into modern housing in new suburbs on top of the cliff.

From National Shame to International Fame

Matera-Sasso Barisano3.

The recently restored Sasso Barisano is now a prized residential neighborhood.

Barisano-Arches.

There are signs of intense rehabilitation activites throughout the Sassi.

The Sassi become state property, and within a couple of decades an archeological no-man’s-land. Some politicians view them as evidence of a shameful past to be erased, going as far as proposing their destruction to prevent them from being reoccupied. Meanwhile, the deteriorating landscape resulting from the collapse of abandoned homes and churches sparks a local grassroots movement to pressure the government to allow the rehabilitation of the caves, focusing on sanitation, urbanization and incentives to repopulate the site. Thanks to this decisive public action, and the recognition in 1993 of the Sassi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, over 50 percent are now inhabited by over 3,000 residents. Matera is subsequently selected as European Capital of Culture for 2019, making it the host city for a number of cultural events that will raise its profile internationally, and kick further restoration into high gear.

Throughout the City of Stones, and especially in Sasso Barisano, Sassi boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, artisan shops and galleries now welcome visitors. Big swaths of Sasso Ceveoso, the oldest part of the city, are still untouched, but they afford a compelling insight into the past.

Matera-Sasso Barisano cart.

The Sassi are often used as a location for biblical-time movies.

It’s not only UNESCO that considers Matera “the most outstanding intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region.” The international movie industry has long found the Sassi an ideal stand-in for ancient Jerusalem in its biblical-time films. Christ has finally come to Matera, at least a half-dozen times by now, most famously in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), and the recently released Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene” (2018).

Matera-Panorama

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Matera is not the easiest place to reach (but well worth a bit of extra effort). By Plane – the nearest major airport is Naples, 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the northeast. Bari, with its small regional airport is 60 kilometers (25 miles) to the west. From there, bus is the best option. By train – Bari and Salerno are the two stations closest to Matera. There are two major rail service companies operating within Italy. Bari is served by Trenitalia, and Salerno by Italo. Note – from Salerno, Italo provides its dedicated Italobus service to connect the Salerno train station to Matera’s main bus station, on a schedule synchronized with train arrivals. By Bus – Several major bus lines link Matera to most major cities in Italy (and smaller ones in-between), with departures throughout the day. Check with the Matera Tourism office or your hotel reception for the one that best fits your schedule and destination.
  • Getting around – The only way to get around Matera is on foot. Non-resident cars are prohibited from the historic center, and aside from a couple of narrow roads at the periphery of the Sassi where cab can pick up or drop off, come prepared to walk up and down, wherever you are going.
  • Staying – Since most of the places of interest in Matera are within the relatively compact historic center, the best way to experience the city is to stay in a cave. Over the past decade, with Matera now an established tourist destination, a number of boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts at all price-points have opened throughout the Sassi. I stayed at the Hotel Residence San Giorgio Via Fiorentini 259, 75100 Matera, in the easily accessible lower part of Sasso Barisano. My spacious vaulted “cave” with its private entrance and small terrace, consisted of a living and dining area with a well-appointed kitchenette and a modern bedroom loft over the bathroom. The suite was serviced daily and all the complimentary breakfast staples, including a fresh fruit basket, replenished. There was reliable WiFi service throughout the cave. The reception office was located two minutes away, opened from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. The staff could not have been more helpful and gracious. Definitely a keeper! Contact: tel. +39 0835 33 45 83, email staff@sangiorgio.matera.it
  • Visiting – Wear comfortable shoes, open your eyes and keep walking. A tourist guidebook should be sufficient to help you get your bearings and point you in the general direction of the main attractions. Then it’s perfectly safe and easy to explore the city independently. Should you prefer a guided tour, there are various organizations and individuals on the Piano offering tours in English. On the western side of the ravine, the Crypt of the Original Sin is located in Contrada Perrapenta, 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) south of Matera. Visit is by advanced reservation only; guides and shuttle services are available from agencies on the Piano.

Location, location, location!

Matera

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Venice offers such an embarrassment of riches that the thought of taking a daytrip away from the Serenissima had always struck me as absurd. And so, a mere 30-minute train ride westward in Padua (Padova in Italian), the Scrovegni Chapel remained high on my “someday” list. Until now.

The Chapel of Atonement

Padua-Scrovegni chapel.

The chapel was originally attached to the Scrovegni Palace.

The chapel, originally adjacent to a luxurious palace built by affluent Paduan banker Enrico Scrovegni, was to serve as the family’s private oratory and funeral monument. And, so historians assure us, it was intended to atone for the sins of his father (Reginaldo Scrovegni), a moneylender with practices so vile they had landed him a part in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as one of the souls consigned to the Seventh Circle of Hell.

While the building itself, all that remains of the original estate, is an unremarkable rectangular gothic structure, the younger Scrovegni commissioned the great Tuscan master Giotto di Bondone to decorate the interior. It is there that Giotto at the height of his career, from 1303 to 1305, created a cycle of frescoes that became widely recognized as one of the most important milestones in the evolution of Western art.

The Birth of Western Art

Padua-Giotto cycle.

Giotto’s cycle is divided into three tiers of frescoes.

Under the vault of an intense blue sky sprinkled with golden stars and medallion portraits of the Evangelists, the story of the redemption of man unfolds through the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged in three tiers along the lateral walls.  The story of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of the Virgin, is told on the upper right tier, Mary’s own early life is recorded on the upper left tier. The early life of Jesus and his miracles are depicted throughout the center tier, while the bottom one is dedicated to the Passions of Christ.

Padua-Giotto kiss

The kiss between St. Joachim and St. Anne is one the earliest represented in Western art

On the wall opposite the altar, the entire pictorial space is covered by the grandiose Universal Judgement. While these themes were pervasive in sacred art at the time, Giotto’s interpretation marks a radical departure from the stylized, elongated figures of the Byzantine tradition. Now the scene becomes three-dimensional, alive with the faces and gestures of living subjects. Gone are the formalized draperies; here the characters are clothed in garments that hang naturally and follow their movements. Some face inward, back turned to the viewer, creating a spatial illusion. For the first time, human emotions are shown in a realistic way, including one of the earliest representations of a kiss in Western art (The meeting of St Joachim and St. Anne at the Golden Gate).

Padua-Wedding Cana.

The Wedding at Cana is the first miracle attributed to Jesus.

This new style is so revolutionary that it is not fully understood until Masaccio’s paints the Brancacci Chapel in Florence a century later. And it is the Scrovegni Chapel that influences Michelangelo’s own Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel (circa 1536). It is not known whether the chapel was able to make up for the sins of the father, but there can be no doubt that these dazzling frescoes paved the way for the great masters of the Renaissance.

 

 

The Monastery Next Door

Padua-Apulian Crater.

This spectacular Apulian crater is attributed the the great 4th century BCE “Truro Painter”.

The Scrovegni Chapel is now enclosed within the City Museums (Musei Civici) complex housed on the grounds of what was once a monastery for Ereminati (hermit) monks located nearby. Both are accessed through the serene gardens of the cloister, and admission to the museum is included with the chapel entrance fee.

 

Bellini’s portrait of a young senator.

Since I hadn’t given any thought to this side visit prior to the trip, the ground floor Archeological Museum is an unexpected treat. Its wealth of artifacts from local excavations and private collections provide an interesting illustration of the archeological and historical development the area, from the Paeloveneti who inhabited the area between the 10th to 4th century BCE to Roman times. There are also a number of bronze and ceramic funerary items from the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, near Rome. But it is the collection donated to the museum in 1994 by Professor Calogero Casuccio that takes my breath away. Of the 170 items of Greek and Italot (Greek colony in ancient Italy, i.e. Apulia) in the Casuccio Collection, many are remarkable pieces both in terracotta and painted pottery. The most important are a group of Apulian “figured” vases, including a stunning phiale (drinking vessel) and a spectacular crater (wine urn), both attributed to eminent 4th century BCE painters.

Upstairs, the rambling Museum of Medieval and Modern Arts collection does include a few interesting works by the greats of Italian painters from the 1300s to 1800s, Bellini, Gorgione, Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Veronese among them. The highlight of the collection is the Crucifix by Giotto that was originally located on the altar of the Scrovegni Chapel.

Padua- Tanagra figurines.

Terracotta figurines from the Greek city of Tanagra (4th century BCE).

Good to Know

  • Getting There – The train ride from Venice Santa Lucia to Padua takes 30 to 45 minutes via regional train or 25 minutes with FrecciaRossa (High Speed Train). The difference between the two on the 40 kilometer (25 mile) route is not so much one of time than cost. One-way fare on the regional train is approximately €6 versus €16 with FrecciaRossa. Once in Padua, it’s a 10-minute walk straight down the Corso del Popolo, which about half-way becomes the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, to the Piazza Eremitani and the Scrovegni Chapel.
  • Visiting – The Scrovegni Chapel, Piazza Eremitani 6, Padua, is open all year from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, except January 1, May 1 and December 25-26. The Musems of Archology and Medieval and Modern Art are also closed on Monday. Note – For reasons of preservation of the artwork, visit of the Scrovegni Chapel is strictly regulated and advanced booking is imperative. Booking is through the website. Visitors must collect their pre-booked tickets at the box office at least one hour before the visit. After checking their bags at the free cloakroom of the main museum building, they are expected to arrive for admission a few minutes before their allotted time. They then sit through a 15-minute audiovisual presentation in a climate-controlled air-locked chamber to allow their body humidity to be lowered and dust pollution filtered. This is to protect the frescoes from moisture and mold. Finally, the group (25 people maximum) is ushered into the chapel for 15 minutes to view the artwork.

Location, location, location!

Scrovegni Chapel