By Mario Pisani
Matera, a city of over 60,000 inhabitants, in the region of Basilicata in Italy, is the capital of the Matera province. It is internationally renowned for its historical rock-hewn troglodyte ‘Sassi’ also utilized in many a film, including Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’. Elevated to the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the ‘Sassi’ was the first area in southern Italy to be given such status; together with the Rupestri Church Park, that extraordinary urban eco-system, manifesting some of the earliest forms of cavern life still utilized in modern times. Abandoned since the 1950s, as they were considered unhealthy, they present a fascinating example of the re-utilization of the resources of nature, using water and solar energy in their modern day conversions to house small-scale hotels, restaurants, artist’s studios, museums and local craft shops. To this precious ambiance and environment, with such excellent examples of contemporary architecture, such as the 1950s cinemas by Ettore Stella and the 1990s commercial centre in Borgo Venusio by Mauro Saito, one can now add the Parco del Castello remodernisation by Luigi Acito, an architect responsible for many other valid and interesting works.
Originally designed in 1811 by the French General Charles De Montigny, in homage to the city, during his stay in Matera at a time of its militarily occupation, the park was conceived as an environmental walk-through defined by numerous trees and flower beds. Situated on the undulating landscape facing the 16th century Castello Tramontano, named after the feudal Neapolitan, Count Giovanni Carlo Tramontano; the project remained incomplete because of his death in 1510 at the hands of the local inhabitants. The sole part of the project which was completed consisted of a belvedere terrace with a pergola supported by columns which were originally recycled from the ancient church of Sant’Eustachio.
Now, after two centuries, the whole area has been redesigned as an urban park with expanses for open air events and a paving system conceived as a water collection scheme, utilizing the red sand of Statuto. Typical of the hills surrounding the city, this material drains rain water down to the lower geological clay strata, from where it is then directed towards the city to be stored in large water cisterns.
A series of steps carefully inserted into the ground provide relaxing sunbathing areas. The scheme, as designed, also accommodates a small terrace, laid out on the axis of the major Tower of the Castle, with a semi-circular seating area incised with texts originally etched on a 19th century obelisk. The whole project is conceived by the architect as a mnemonic arena recalling past traditions and the geomorphic characteristics of the place. The park is today also utilized for large open air shows with the imposing Castle providing a magnificent backdrop.