My Visit to the Crypt of Original Sin

Discovering the cave frescoes of Matera, once the “shame of Italy” and now a European City of Culture

We drive across a dusty plain along a series of unpaved roads, then park in the middle of a silent vineyard. We find a set of ancient stone steps and cautiously descend to a ledge above a quiet riverbank, where my guide pulls out a giant metal key and creaks open a metal door. Cool air blasts from the darkness and, as I step into the depths, medieval chants echo overhead.

It takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the soft lighting and make out the contours of a cave, some 20 ft high and 100 ft deep, with irregular indentations, some natural, some carved, in the pale, smooth rock. Soon, the images of a dozen giant saints and angels emerge on the raw stone walls, each more magnificent than the last. I make out the haunting forms of Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael floating in the heavens, St Peter with St Andrew, the Virgin and Child in the company of two female saints. The most striking of all is a painting of Adam and Eve eating the apple, the moment that gives the cave its evocative name: the Crypt of Original Sin.

Americans were scratching their heads when a tiny town called Matera, on the instep of the Italian heel, was declared European City of Culture for 2019. Few had even heard of the remote outpost in the barren province of Basilicata. But amongst European travelers, Matera was already renowned for its creative reinvention of the past, where history-lovers can now quite literally holiday as cave-dwellers.

The core of the town is a millennia-old district called the Sassi (“stones”), a gorge riddled with some 1,500 caves, many first inhabited in the Paleolithic Age. It thrived in the Middle Ages, when several of the larger caves in a plateau called the Murgia were beautifully painted churches; but by the mid-20th century Matera had became so wretchedly poor that it was denounced as “the shame of Italy.” In the 1950s, an embarrassed government moved the entire population to newly built housing projects, abandoning the Sassi to drug dealers and vagrants. There was even a plan to cover the whole thing with concrete.

But in perhaps the world’s most extreme case of gentrification, local artists and students began slipping back in the 1990s, renovating caves into homes and hotels. Now visitors can stay in an underground bedroom hewn by medieval peasants, or take a dip in a swimming pool that was once a cave-barn. There are fashionable cave-cafes and excellent cave-restaurants, cave performance spaces and even an underground mini-golf course.

Many travelers come for the novelty of sipping a cappuccino in a wifi-enabled cavern (quite an achievement given the near-prehistoric wiring), then move on after a day or two. But Matera deserves more. On a recent visit, I checked in to an elegant cave-hotel called the Corte San Pietro, and enjoyed 10 days stepping back through time.

I quickly realized that a whole array of exotic historical sites lay hidden in the sun-scorched wilderness around the main town. One afternoon, I noticed a trail that descended from the Sassi into a wild ravine, connecting to a maze of other paths that have been in use for around 9,000 years. After just a few steps I was enveloped by stillness, with only bees and lizards for company.

Down by the river, the sun radiating from the white rocks became increasingly intense, and when I spotted the stone façade of a church in the wilderness, it seemed a mirage: Etched into the raw flanks of a cliff, it could only be reached by scrambling across pebbles as slippery as ball bearings.

An angel was carved above the stone lintel. In the icy interior, light filtered through a hole in the roof to reveal the faded remains of Byzantine frescoes on the scarred walls. I later found out that this was known as the Church of Madonna de Monte Verde. To me, it might as well have been the sepulcher of the Holy Grail.

Around the 9th century, I learned, the otherworldly landscape around Matera had lured Greek monks from Asia Minor and Eastern Europe who were fleeing the advance of Islam. These holy men hid out in the most solitary caves and, although untrained, began to paint in the Byzantine style they had grown up with. “Their lives were very austere,” a guide to the Murgia plateau, Michele Zasa told me. “They took vows of silence, drank rainwater, survived on vegetable roots and had visions.”

The result was an artistic florescence, with hundreds of far-flung caves turned into chapels adorned with hallucinogenic frescoes — a sort of religious “outsider art,” and a far cry from the grandiose churches of Rome. But as Matera’s fortunes declined, the locations of the rock-hewn, or rupestrian churches were eventually forgotten. Many were used as shelters by shepherds, the only inhabitants of the desolate plateau.

The story of their rediscovery is a homespun affair. In 1959, a motley collection of young artists, students and journalists formed a cultural association they called the Circolo La Scaletta (“the Circle of Stairs”) for the purpose of investigating Matera’s long-ignored past. “Every Sunday, we would go cave-hunting,” recalled Raffaello de Ruggieri, now a retired lawyer in his 70s, when I met him with his wife at their home in the Sassi. “We split into two groups, and we walked along the opposite sides of the canyons, yelling out to each other, ‘Hey there’s a cave above you! There’s another cave below!’” Over the next three years, the group identified over 150 churches.

Their biggest dream, though, was to find the Crypt of Original Sin, dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of rural art and architecture” by Italian archaeologists. It had long been the object of local legend, known only through the work of an obscure 19th century historian who had stumbled across it and done some drawings. Although its frescoes were supposedly unparalleled, it continued to elude the amateur sleuths, who feared it had been destroyed.

Its eventual discovery was a theatrical affair. Driving in the countryside one blistering summer’s day in 1962, De Ruggiero picked up a hitch-hiking farmer. As they drove to Matera, he idly asked if his passenger had ever seen any caves covered with frescoes. The farmer said no, then sat silently for the rest of the trip — “like a statue, hardly even breathing,” De Ruggiero recalled. Then, just as they were arriving, the farmer raised a calloused finger and said a single word: “But…”

It transpired that, as a young boy, the farmer had sometimes spent the night with shepherds in a place he called the Cave of One Hundred Saints, because it was so crowded with pictures — which he called “photographs.” The farmer remembered that he always woke up with nightmares, he said, “because I would see the angels Gabriel and Michael looking at me with big, wide open eyes…” The farmer could only give a vague sense of the location, but the club members’ sense of purpose was renewed.

Nine months later, though, nothing had turned up and many were convinced the cave was a figment of the peasant’s imagination. So when De Ruggiero planned another search on May 1st, 1963, the only people he could convince to accompany him were his fiancé, his sister, and a friend who was depressed because he’d just broken up with his girlfriend.

In the early afternoon, after more fruitless hours, the four spotted a collection of caves in a gully reachable by stairs engraved in the rock. “The steps suggested something very unusual,” De Ruggiero said. “We ran up the staircases, pushing through thorns and bushes. In the first cave there was nothing. In the second, nothing. But in the third…”

The two men arrived first. As their eyes adjusted to the light, they saw the faces of religious figures crowding the walls. Depicted across several smooth cave faces was a whole cycle of Biblical images of exceptional delicacy, created by a 9th Century painter who would later be dubbed “the Artist of the Flowers.” The cave was still in occasional use as a stable by shepherds, and when the girls arrived a few minutes later, they found the two boys rolling about in the sheep dung on the ground. “We thought they’d gone crazy,” Signora De Ruggiero told me. “We found them covered in dirt, hugging and crying, they were so happy.”

The site would later be hailed as one of Italy’s most important artistic discoveries of the 20th century. But in 1963, there was no Archaeological Office in Basilicata, and rural Byzantine art was considered third rate compared to that of Michelangelo and Da Vinci. “Nobody in Rome or Naples was interested!” De Ruggiero scoffed. “Matera’s poverty was still the shame of the country.” So the members of La Scaletta published their own book on the cave-churches, and began lobbying for official funding to restore them. They convinced the landowner, a winemaker, to have a protective grille put on the door. (The last shepherds were not thrilled at losing a base in the countryside: The story is still told of one veteran, with the flowing white beard of Santa Claus, who brought his flock to camp out in the main piazza and began slaughtering his sheep in protest).

The first trained archaeologists only arrived from Rome in 1981. In 1993, Matera and its surrounding sites were granted UNESCO World Heritage status, but it was not until 2005 that the Crypt was restored in a private funding project that bypassed the Italian government, and it could finally be opened to the public.

Today, the Crypt’s conservation encapsulates the improbable fate of Matera, combining deep antiquity with cutting-edge technology. Before cleaning the frescoes and building ventilation systems, explained my guide, a dapper Materan urban planner and cultural anthropologist named Antonio Nicoletti, restoration experts spent two years monitoring the cave’s heat and humidity levels to assess “bio-deterioration.” Fiber optic lights were installed in the soft rock, illuminating the frescoes with the golden glow of ancient candles. On the guided visits, a recorded narrative relates the religious story behind the artworks. And all the workers involved in the project are young locals.

“The restoration of the Crypt is not just intended to preserve Matera’s cultural heritage,” said Nicoletti, as we strolled through the vineyard, where state-of-the-art solar panels powering the cave were hidden amongst luxuriant grapes. “We want to combine innovative technology with sustainable environmental policy, and create jobs for young Materans, all in this wonderful setting, filled with birds and butterflies and lizards.”

It was indeed a glorious afternoon, and the sun was doing its job of powering the 1,200-year-old cave admirably. Nicoletti squinted at the sky: “This is southern Italy in the 21st century.”

Visits to the Crypt can be organized on Entry costs 8 Euros.

All photos by Tony Perrottet

The Autograph Collection is part of the Marriott International Portfolio.