Old Lucania – Sensing the History of Place

A few years ago I went with a friend to the region of Basilicata (originally Lucania) in southern Italy. This was prompted to some degree by the fact that neither of us had been there before, and we were curious about this area, well off the usual tourist track. Also, I had been reading CarloLevi’s book “Christ stopped at Eboli”.

Lucania was one of the poorest and least developed areas of the south of Italy, a barren, rugged swampy region where malaria was rife  and Levi’s very lucid account of the daily hardships suffered by the impoverished peasants of the south in the days of Mussolini eventually led to improvements in the living conditions.

Matera is said to be one of the world’s oldest towns. It is sited on the side of a deep ravine, where the caves that dotted the gorge were adapted to become dwellings in palaeolithic times. And the inhabitants remained. The settlers dug into the rock, creating dwellings in the rock, one on top of another, saving space (the Caveoso). Over time, they created an ingenious system of canals to collect water and regulate the flow of sewage.

The problems came as the population increased, and people were living in crowded conditions in unsuitable, unhygienic one-room cave dwellings, lacking running water. Poverty in this region of Italy was rife, and malaria endemic. By the 1950s more than half of Matera’s population still lived in the sassi, and families often had six or more children. Because of the grim conditions, infant mortality was high, around 50%. Eventually, as a result of publicity by such people as Carlo Levi, the authorities acted and relocated thousands of inhabitants to new government housing schemes.

In the museum of Matera, there is a large painting by Levi, showing a scene from peasant life…..very sobering. I took two images of sections of the painting, as I couldn’t find any postcards or books:

This next image is from La Raccolte delle Aqua in Matera – the old system of water collection used to provide to the entire population of the Caveoso with sufficient water for their daily living. The system of communicating vessels allowed rainwater to collect from roofs, streets, and the surrounding hills, and is now open with a walkway for tourists to see the sheer scale of this. Absolutely incredible.

Through the water collection tunnels of La Raccolte delle Acqua, Matera

And the next couple of images show the tumble of dwellings down the ravine:

Early morning at the Sassi, Matera

The layers of Matera. Image copyright Sarah Tuck.

,,,and here is an old cave dwelling, abandoned now:

Dotted about the town are some renovated caves, turned into hotel rooms, and my friend and I stayed in one.

This post was inspired by Cathy at Wanderessence, who said “post a thematic post about a place: photos of whatever you discovered that set your heart afire. You can also do a thematic post of something you have found throughout all your travels”


  1. Nice, informational share.

  2. What a gorgeous post – such lovely photos of a very atmospheric city!

  3. Nice to read a little more about a place I have never been to. I enjoyed the atmosphere conveyed by the photos too. Nice post indeed, Sue.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  4. Wonderfully told, Sue! It’s nice to have a reason to reproduce these memories. 🙂 🙂

  5. Amazing shots of Levi’s work, Sue. That water management system in such circumstances is awe-inspiring. The things we humans can do when left to our particular devices and not subject to someone else’s agenda.

  6. Hardships and your pictures – I remember this place from another one of yours? An enigmatic place, so well captured. Well done.

    • Sue

      Yes, I have shown some of the photographs in previous posts, and given some of the information earlier this year – so well remembered, A C!

  7. Lovely place full of mysteries, Sue!

  8. So interesting a place off the tourist track but well worth a visit. The faces in the paintings convey the grimness of their lives and the water management system is awesome when you think of the tools they had back then

  9. Sue, I love this fascinating tale of the town of Matera and Carlo Levi’s evocative paintings, as well as your great photos of the town. I’ve never heard of this place before and this post makes me want to visit! Thanks for sharing! I’ll link it to my next photo post of May 17.

  10. What an amazing place Sue. Never heard of it. Sad that conditions became so unbearable

  11. I love it when you write along with your photos. A fascinating place and great images of the tumble of houses, the painting and the water system. Your eye serves the place well – and , yes, I too want to go there!

  12. A fascinating and beautiful post Sue. I really must do a dive into part of Italy. I haven’t even done the main cities yet, but getting into the depths of a place would be better still.

  13. Suzanne

    This is fascinating Sue. That last photo of the interior of a cave house really brings home how difficult it must have been to live there. The murals by Levi are very interesting. I had not seen them before and am unfamiliar with that artist’s work. They really capture the feeling of the suffering of the masses.

  14. Basilicata and Matera looks like a fascinating place. Despite poverty and harsh conditions for those who lived there. Those images are telling.

  15. Loved the post and the photos…the paintings were especially evocative!

  16. Pingback: Old Lucania – Sensing the History of Place — WordsVisual – Antonella Lallo

  17. Great pictures. Thank you for sharing!

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