Restoring Matera, Italy’s City of Stone

WSJ Mansion section

House hunters move in to revive the city’s old quarter, one rugged limestone home at a time

A view of Civita, the oldest of the three districts, along with the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso, that make up Matera’s ancient quarter, known as the Sassi, or ‘stones,’ in Italian. The homes are made of tufa, a porous limestone, that are either wholly built of quarried tufa, wholly dug-out caves, or (the majority) part-built, part-cave. Matera is nicknamed, ‘The Subterranean City.’ MICHELA PALERMO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

‘In the Sassi, you are never finished,” says Domenico Marsicano of his home in Southern Italy.

Sassi, or “stones” in Italian, refers to the ancient quarter of Matera, a city in the Basilicata region on the foot of Italy’s boot. The word also suggests the porous limestone, or tufa, that gives Mr. Marsicano’s home, and others in the area, their uniform, beige color.

Matera is believed to have been inhabited since the Paleolithic Age, and some residents in the sassi zone—where many homes are carved into the tufa—boast that their living spaces go back thousands of years. Other homes in the old town are either wholly built or, more commonly, part-carved, part-built. The overall appearance of the area is a vertical chaos suggesting a Stone Age Manhattan.

Mr. Marsicano, 57, a senior manager at Dow Chemical in Italy, and his wife, Carmela Risimini, 55, who works for the regional government, are among a growing number of individuals reclaiming the centuries-old homes in the city.

“Twenty-five years ago, I couldn’t imagine that I could live in Matera. We would visit, but it was a poor town,” says Mr. Marsicano, who made the 25-mile trek with his wife from their native Bernalda, where they still have a home.

Matera received global attention after exiled writer Carlo Levi exposed the crushing poverty of its residents—most of whom essentially dwelled in caves—in his 1945 memoir, “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” In response, the Italian government relocated more than 15,000 residents of the sassi zone into modern developments nearby.

Amid long-held dreams of the Sassi’s revitalization, homesteaders, small-business owners, artists and urban planners began to move back in number following a 1986 preservation law. Today, the city, with a total population of about 60,000, has a lively nightlife, an abundance of cultural events, a healthy swarm of tourists and an increasingly hot real-estate market. Last year, it was named a European Capital of Culture for 2019.

The Marsicanos’ home, wholly built from tufa blocks, dates to the 1700s. It is in Civita—the oldest of the quarter’s three parts, between the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso—in an area around Matera’s 13th-century cathedral that was settled by clergy and nobility. “The architectural details suggest clergy,” perhaps a monastery, says Patrizia Capriotti, architect for the renovation, about the home.

The couple bought the 1,722-square-foot, two-level home in 2002 for about $138,000. It took one year and several government permits before they finished basic renovations and moved in with their then-1-year-old daughter, Gilda. In all, they estimate they have spent another $246,000 on the home, including furnishings.

The Marsicanos were lucky: Civita kept some of its residents and infrastructure after the relocation period. The home’s previous owner kept it in good condition, though he started carving up the property for his seven sons. The Marsicanos bought the largest of two parcels.

The renovated space is now a three-bedroom home with two kitchens, 2½ bathrooms and three terraces totaling 1,076 square feet of outdoor space. Dark Doussie African wood floors accent bright interior walls.

Guests enter the home at the upper level, through two small rooms. A long, art-filled hall leads to a living room and kitchen. Two bedrooms and a bathroom are off the hall. The lower level gets the most use year-round, because of the 645-square-foot terrace off the kitchen. At sunset, the couple says, the light shines across the ravine, offering a remarkable glimpse into the interiors of abandoned caves.

Ms. Capriotti says she wanted to restore original elements to the home, so stripped the kitchens of their “inauthentic” marble during renovation. She also knocked down a wall to open up the living room, and tore down a low ceiling to expose the 16-foot original. Perhaps most striking, however, are the old walls themselves. A close look at one in the living room reveals a small jumble of seashells—evidence of tufa’s sediment past. Contractors Vito and Enzo Marra persuaded the homeowners in their latest touch-up to forgo plaster and paint to let the tufa breathe.

“They sanded it using something that looks like a cheese grater,” says Mr. Marsicano, adding that the rest of home’s walls likely will get the same treatment later.

Outside, the Marsicanos’ ancient street was dug up in 2004 to upgrade the water, sewage and utilities. Recyclables and trash are collected daily. Still, Mr. Marsicano says, “There are many disadvantages to this lifestyle.”

Cars are mostly banned, and Mr. Marsicano warns visitors to avoid the most arduous paths up to the home. There are many restaurants, high-end hotels and cultural centers nearby, but no easy walk to get groceries. “It is a healthier and more economical lifestyle,” Ms. Risimini insists. “You choose to live simply or you can’t live here.”

SLIDESHOW:
MICHELA PALERMO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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