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Italy’s impressive subterranean civilisation


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And according to Rita Orlando, an architect who works as cultural manager for the Matera Basilicata 2019 Foundation, residents were mostly vegetarian. “This is a peculiarity of farming culture. Meat was quite expensive, and the majority of people couldn’t afford it except on special occasions. Legumes were a significant source of protein,” she said.

Residents maintained a community-oriented, circular approach to life. Materials and objects were repaired, reused and repurposed many times, said Orlando, and there was a strong sense of community based on mutual support. A good example of how the people worked together was a ritual that took place each August: “The Sassi inhabitants cooked crapiata, a mix of legumes collected from all the families in the neighbourhood,” she said. “It was a way not to throw away the unused legumes which were not sufficient for a family, but by pulling everyone’s small quantities together, they could all share in the benefits.”

For these reasons, the old stone settlement is often cited by contemporary urban planning experts as a prime example of a sustainable, “smart city”. And why, in 1993, Unesco included the Sassi of Matera as a World Heritage site, calling it “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem”.

The discovery under the flowerbed in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, which proved to be the subterranean Palombaro Lungo, was just another example of that sophistication. Likened to a “cathedral of water”, the 16th-Century cistern, which measures 16m in depth and 50m in length, had the capacity to hold up to five million litres of fresh spring drinking water from the clay hills just west of the city.

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