­­­PHOTOGRAPHY & TEXT HANS FONK

Architect Mattia Antonio Acito has lost his heart to the Sassi in Matera, a town in southern Italy. He has worked all over the world but is at home here. The Sassi – a jumble of ancient dwellings, some of which were carved out of the rocks – speak a language of their own. “If you open your mind to it, you will hear the voice of the Sassi.” His house is located along the town’s main avenue and at the highest point of the Sassi.

Palazzo De Miccolis occupies a dominant place in the small town of Matera in the south of Italy. It was built at the end of the 18th century and acquired its present status in the 19th century, when Leonardo Ridola lived there. Two large entrance doors were introduced into the front façade and a terrace was added. Between 1990 and 2003 the Palazzo underwent a major refurbishment, orchestrated by the architect Mattia Antonio Acito. He set up his architectural practice in the premises, and also went to live there.

At the front, the regal complex abuts one of Matera’s main streets, Via Ridola. At the rear it towers above the Sassi. The building has kept its ancient charm, to a large extent thanks to Acito, who handled the old architectural elements with due respect. The interior of his residence comprises a succession of spaces that flow seamlessly together. One section clearly forms the living space, the other contains the bedrooms. The two halves are separated by a large attic and the old and the new kitchens. The architect explained: “Palazzo De Miccolis is one of the most important buildings in Matera. It is at the top of the Sassi. It was once inhabited by a wealthy family, but when we bought it the entire interior was in ruins. We rebuilt it in simple style with locally-sourced materials. We left the internal layout the way it had always been.

The interior is built in a circle, with one room connecting up with the next. The house has no corridors. We were amazed to discover murals in the main hallway which emerged from under the white plasterwork. The old cellars under the house are also unusual. I left them as they were, to give a picture of the passage of time.” One of the house’s prime features is the panorama of the Sassi. It is situated at the edge of the rock, thus affording a practically unrestricted view over the jumble of streets, piazzas, churches and little houses.

The Sassi is an ancient district made up of houses and small cathedrals some of which were dug out of the mountain and built using local tufa limestone. It consists of two parts which follow the contours of the mountain. Since 1993 the Sassi of Matera have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has been the location for two famous films: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St. Matthew in 1964 and The Passion of the Christ made by Mel Gibson in 2004. Acito: “The Sassi are very special. If you are receptive, it can be the experience of a lifetime. It’s important to walk through the settlement – then you will hear the voice of the Sassi. It’s not just an old settlement, but something very different for me.

It’s a place where people live in harmony with their environment: a fantastic integration of wind and sunlight. It looks like a labyrinth, but the layout is quite simple. Just walk through and discover the houses, cathedrals, caves and statues made from tufa sourced from the amazing quarries in the vicinity. Matera is nominated as European City of Culture in 2019.