Rupestrian Churches of Matera

Completed Project
World Monuments Watch
Matera, Italy

In 1464, Pope Paul II gave the Ciminelli family his blessing to enhance the church of San Pietro Barisano in the I Sassi district of Matera, the easternmost province in the Basilicata region of Italy. San Piertro Barisano is one of the most notable structures in a region famous for hundreds of rock-hewn, or rupestrian, churches; these treasures were carved into the soft, volcanic hillsides of the area from antiquity throughout the medieval period. Several of the earliest churches, established by Christian monks, occupied former sites of pagan worship in naturally-formed caverns. Later structures tended to be built in more urban environments where there were active congregations to sustain them. Though San Pietro’s foundation dates to the 12th century, its exact age and history are unknown. After its foundation by the Ciminelli clan, the church underwent multiple alterations, including the addition of a bell tower and colorful frescoes in the 17th century. The rupestrian churches of Matera were used and cared for until the 1950s, when poverty and governmental relocation programs forced residents to abandon the communities formed around the rock-hewn structures.

1998 World Monuments Watch

After decades of deterioration, the rock-hewn churches, including San Pietro Barisano, needed major restorations before they could function again and support congregations. World Monuments Fund placed the rock-hewn churches and the city of Matera on the Watch in 1998, hoping to raise awareness for the sites and their conservation needs. In 1999, WMF secured a grant that contributed to the funding for the complete restoration and conservation of San Pietro. The main altar was cleaned and consolidated, as were the delicate frescoes that cover the walls of the chambers. Whenever possible, missing pieces of moldings, reliefs, and other adornments were reconstructed from photographic archives or surrounding fragments.

For centuries, the citizens of Matera were buried in the network of underground chambers, ossuaries, and catacombs beneath San Pietro Barisano. For a long period of time, the church was the city’s only cemetery and as such holds a wealth of archaeological and epigraphic information about the history and culture of Matera. San Pietro also boasts a fine array 17th century frescoes, including depictions of the Annunication, Madonna and Child, and a spectrum of assorted saints. Collectively, the rupestrian churches of Basilicata possess wall paintings that span a thousand years and create a visual document of religious and artistic evolution. At the oldest churches, the style of the wall paintings reflects Byzantine influences. Finally, the churches are spectacles in themselves, their hulking frames emerging from and blending into their mountainous backdrop. The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993.

Last updated: July 2020.

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