Puglia and Matera

Limestone and Light

This article first appeared in the January/February 2017 edition of Perspective, the Journal of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects.

Italy is a wonderful country full of variety as it stretches from the cool Alps down to the warm and hot Mediterranean. This means it has a location to suit most times of the year and so in late September I was still able to sneak off to spend time in the sun, sketchbook in hand.

Ostuni and Polignano a Mare in the province of Puglia and the town of Matera just next door are down at the heel of Italy. They hold in common their origins in a limestone landscape, but each has a unique character.

A Ryanair flight from Dublin landed in the local capital of Bari, a pleasant location for a stopover close to its centre. This is a part of undiscovered Italy. Walking the old town between cathedrals with their basement archaeological excavations it was still inhabited by locals, with a curtain to screen the living room from the narrow streets outside.

No need for a car, the saying is that Mussolini made the trains run on time and so our trip had been planned to make use of the rail network. After a comfy overnight and a walk in the old town, it was off to the station for the 90 minute 5 euro journey to the town of Matera.

Matera will be European Capital of Culture in 2019 and has been a world heritage site since 1993. It sits on the leftover high ground where two adjacent rivulet valleys meet a gorge. This combined with the limestone geology makes a setting beyond compare. The resulting city site becomes a natural defensible place.

The walls of the two valleys, or ‘Sissi’, below the town are a ready supply of natural caves which have been occupied and extended for residential and animal use from the prehistoric right up until the 1950's, when a public outcry against the poor housing conditions resulted in the occupants being moved to new social housing. It is deservedly known as ‘the subterranean city’. The timeless architecture made the Sissi a perfect setting for Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of Christ’.

Careful development of the Sissi as a tourist attraction continues with a subtlety that means from the heights above, and indeed from street level, the commercial interventions are hardly discernable.

After all too short a visit it was time to move on to Ostuni via a return train to Bari. Old Ostuni sits at the top of one of the three peaks that now comprise the town which looks down and across eight kilometres of flat landscape to the Adriatic sea. Here the aesthetic is about summit rather than valley. The natural limestone base of the city walls is clearly visible and further stone has been placed to create concentric barriers and high walls around the core. A liberal coating of paint means the town lives up to its description as ‘the white city’.

Within the walls the whitewashed buildings exhibit a distinctly Greek aesthetic which reflects the history of this area as a part of the ancient Greek sphere of influence. The tourists are bussed in but almost in a rush, as though they need to get to see it before it’s discovered by everyone else. There are plenty of Italian voices in their midst.

Winding your way up to the top of the town a modest square acts as the setting for the originally Orthodox and later thirteenth century romanesque and subsequently gothic cathedral of Ostuni. This is the focal point for many visits given its chequered history. As an architect the drama is as much the setting as the building and even more the marrying of time and space so that following the compression of the old streets a view out from the city across the landscape is revealed just a few steps from the cathedral. In these few steps the strategic location proclaims itself.

Well fed in the many restaurants in the historic core it was time to move on.

A short train journey and we were on the coast at the holiday town of Polignano a Mare. Greeks settled here in the fourth century BC. The town sits atop a cliff face twenty metres above the sea while the interaction of waves with the limestone rock creates inlets and sea caves which extend under the edge of the town. One of these has been used since the 1700’s for banquets and now serves as the Grotta Palazzese restaurant location, book well in advance!

The modest walled town promotes itself as the place for romance and true to form an Italian romantic comedy was being filmed just outside our window. Italians can be funny indeed. Getting a photo with the guy doing the drawings seemed to be a preoccupation, though I could never compete with the nearby statue of the singer Domenico Modugno of ‘Volare’ fame. If it’s serious art you’re after the museum of Pino Pascali is a short seafront walk and located in the restored ancient slaughterhouse.

They take public space seriously here so that even beyond the pedestrianised old town they don’t hesitate to close the main street for the nightly passeggiata. As the evening temperatures dropped the gelateria continued to do a great trade.

Sketching materials this time:

Usual pencils, 2B, 4B

Graphic pens 0.1, 0.3 and 0.5

Watercolour tin with a couple of small brushes.

Three sketch pads, one suited to each medium.

And finally the little sketching stool backpack that doubles up as flight luggage and an airport queue stool.