Shame caves in to pride

October 20, 2000

The university at Matera has become a symbol of the cultural and economic rebirth of a city that in 1952 was called "a national shame" by the country's then prime minister.

In 1993, the city, famous for its cave dwellings (Sassi), became a Unesco world heritage site and began to assume a new role as a cultural beacon for southern Italy.

Cosimo Damiano Fonseca, former rector of the University of Potenza and now director of the archaeology faculty at Matera, said: "The 'shame' was that in 1952, in the age of radio and television, most of Matera's inhabitants, many of whom were illiterate, lived in windowless two and three-chamber caves shared with donkeys and poultry, without running water, sewers or electricity."

In 1991, Professor Damiano Fonseca, a medievalist and member of Italy's Accademia dei Lincei, set up a postgraduate archaeology school in Matera as an offshoot of the University of Basilicata in Potenza, itself founded only in 1982.

"This coincided with the gradual rebirth of Matera. Between the 1950s and 1970s, the 15,000 Sassi inhabitants were transferred to new housing.

"For a while the Sassi were a 'shame'. By the late 1970s, they were practically a vast rubbish dump that only a few tourists and scholars from 'up north' came to study."

Today the Sassi are in fashion. Many are being restored. There are bars and cafes, travel agents, even a young company that develops software, all housed in renovated Sassi.

The university, administratively still part of the University of Basilicata, has also expanded. In addition to the postgraduate archaeology school, there are several degree courses in engineering and agriculture.

Matera now has more than 400 university students, although its leading feature remains the postgraduate archaeology school. "The archaeology school, which has a limit of 15 student-researchers, attracts students and teachers from all over Italy," Professor Damiano Fonseca said.

"Both in Matera and the surrounding area there is an enormous wealth of material; prehistoric, Greek, Roman, right through the Middle Ages.

"And thanks to the other departments, the Matera 'pole' of the University of Basilicata is rapidly becoming an important training centre that caters for much of the surrounding area, which only 50 years ago was desperately poor and largely illiterate."

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