The unMonasterian's guide to Matera

Thanks to all who contributed suggestions and information to write this document. This is now good enough to enter the unMonasterian’s infopack attached to the international call for the unMonastery.

About Matera: what you should expect as an unMonasterian

Matera (Wikipedia) is a small city (60,800 inhabitants) in Southern Italy, in a region called Basilicata. Its ambience is mostly defined by the Sassi, the old city of dwellings that are half excavated and half built overground and are believed to have been continuously inhabited for 9,000 years – longer than any known human settlement. The unMonastery is located in the Sassi (here is a map with its location and those of other interesting and problematic places in town, built during a workshop with Materans themselves).

The Sassi were very densely populated up to the 1950s, when the Italian public opinion decided that the living conditions therein (hygiene was especially bad, with infant mortality four times as high as the national average) were unacceptable for a country that wanted to be modern. Special laws mandated the evacuation of the Sassi and the relocation of their inhabitants into new neighborhoods designed by the best Italian urban planners of the time. As a consequence, the ownership regime in the area is quite intricate, with a lot of the real estate (including the unMonastery building) belonging to the state. Since the 1980s enterprising Materans have started to re-colonize the Sassi.

Matera has a very cohesive society. You can expect to bump into people you know or who know you through others practically from day one. People you have met before will generally expect you to stop and chat for a couple of minutes. Be aware that most people are not comfortable speaking English: teaching yourself a few words of Italian is going to be a very good investment for your time in the city. People are generally very friendly and uninhibited in walking up to you and asking you questions.

The climate is quite mild by European standards. Temperatures below zero are rare even in the winter (seasonal average temperatures), and rainfall is moderate. Winter is short, and autumn long and mild: October, November and early December are normally pleasant. Food is normally very good, easy to come by and cheap. This is, after all, Italy.

Despite the friendliness of the locals and the beauty of the Sassi, Matera is no utopia. Like most of Italy’s Mezzogiorno, it is plagued by high long-term unemployment (the region’s unemployment rate in 2013 is 15.6%, well above the national average of 11.4 and double the average of Northern Italy); an aging population (average age 41.7 in 2011, with 18.4% over 65 years of age); and a growing sense of despair and disempowerment as the Italian crisis unfolds.

This sense of impending doom might be the unMonastery’s greatest challenge. It reverberates into a generally conservative attitude, as a well as a deep mistrust of institutions (while Basilicata has fared better than other regions, the effectiveness and transparency of governance in Southern Italy is generally considered to be abysmal). In 2011, when the city decided to run for European City of Culture 2019, the decision was greeted with enthusiasm by some, but with skepticism by others: many Materans think their city is too backwards to deserve any recognition, and think the City Hall should focus on running business as usual. The unMonastery is a pilot project of the Matera 2019 committee, and some of the skepticism that surrounds any local government initiative in the area might have rubbed off on the unMonastery. Check out this video made by a local blogger (English. Thanks Francesco and Donato!) to get a feeling for this. We expect the first unMonasterians to make some effort to prove their usefulness to the local community before such reservations are lifted.

As an unMonasterian, you are encouraged to make your own inquiries about Matera, Basilicata and Southern Italy in general. A better mutual understanding across Europeans from different corners of the continent would not be a bad outcome from this project.


This is valuable! What I liked most (because it’s hard to find elsewhere) is the description of social attitude and social dynamics in Matera. If you have, some more info on that would be appreciated (by me at least). Like: How many young people are there in the city? What do they do usually if they have employment? What if they don’t?

I want to know because I looked at some statistics (and these lack the on-the-ground story obviously). Here are the statistics nonetheless (found it at ISTAT’s English-language statistics for Basilicata):

Latest available official unemployment rates

(2012, yearly average – for that reason, covering up the latest 2012-Q4 numbers, which are even worse, but not available per region):

age Italy






15-24 35.3% 49.5% 48.1%
18-29 24.9% 36.2% 39.7%
20-24 31.7% 47.1% n/a
25-34 14.9% 21.4% 23.5%
35+ 7.2% 8.9% 11.1%
15+ 10.7% 14.5% 17.2%
1 Like


I agree with Matthias and Jessy, would be interesting to research attitudes, challenges and potential strategies as perceived by youth, maybe through some interviews, and also weigh them against (?) our data about European youth (ref. Edgeryders handbook). Maybe it’s a personal bias but i cant imagine how else would you approach the problem and propose them a better deal…


Edgeryders, a parallel discussion is ongoing on the Matera2019 community - interesting to read them both :slight_smile: For example, while Matt is thirsty for stats, Pier wants to put emphasis on Matera as “the safest city in Italy” (Sole24Ore), “the greenest city in Italy”, “UNESCO World Heritage”. We’ll have to balance.

Building on what Matt proposes, we could add:

  • city's inhabitants vs. people living in the Sassi
  • employement rate vs. unemployment rate (employment per sector: mainly tertiary, if I remember well)
  • University of Basilicata (and its main faculties: I think this is interesting as one knows that their is a basin of youngsters one can rely on specializing in humanistic sciences and architecture)
  • how the Sassi went from national shame to UNESCO World Heritage through the activism of citizens (associations): this should be said in 3 sentences, if so. 
  • should one say something about Basilicata in general? Or should this be part of the personal inquiries future unMonastarians should do?)

In any case I think Alberto really managed to say in a few paragraphs the main characteristics: so much has been said and is being said of Matera which is rhetoric!

i agree with matthias

because it is impossible for me to research what people attitudes or local social attitudes might be.

one thing that confuses me, or has been latley is how other than the streets are the locals and the unmonks together. is the unmonastery open doors?

i try and imagine what it would be like if a bunch of people from other countries came and took over a building in order to help somwhere im local to that has social issues like unemployment etc. and its hard not to suspect that many people would feel like its assumptive, and surface exotic performance of help… when im imagining this scenario, i also imagine it would make me feel less colonised if i knew that those people needed the oppertunity as much as they thought we did. and that they provided from the get go a new space and things to do, within their realm.

sorry, to the point of the question tho, yes that was helpful thanks alberto!


To all the colonies of the unMonastery …

The outward impression of “colonizing” is indeed an issue. I’ve wondered about it myself, and I know one person who does not want to apply for unMonastery because of this social situation which can make people on both sides easily feel awkward. Your proposals of providing an open door space (kinda a hackerspace or so) right from the beginning seems right to me … did you talk with Ben etc. about it already? The other part of the solution, IMHO, is that unMonasterians and locals build up lots of personal social connections and friendships with each other, right from the beginning. Once such a fabric of relationships exists (and the open space would be to facilitate it), the appearance of colonizing should be gone for good …

No way around it!

Jessy, Matt: every intervention from outside a local community – no matter how well meaning – is by definition under suspicion of a colonialist attitude. The flip side would be a bunch of people justy moving in and doing their thing, completely ignoring the locals – and then they would be accused to be a foreign body. Where I’m going with this is: you are talking about human relationships here. I don’t believe you can solve this issue by shaping the unMonastery project: I think unMonasterians themselves must be prepared to engage almost physically with the local people, and indeed curious to meet them, work with them, laugh with them, get drunk with them. I don’t understand your friend’s point – he could join the unMonastery with the goal of making it more open and better embedded in the local community!

Ben has this idea that unMonastery activities should partition into internal, interface and outreach. Interface is exactly this: relating to the community. It could be as simple as weekly common meals, or playing football or chess or what have you. Interface is supposed to facilitate the relationship as well as to provide useful information to the more hands-on projects. Better start planning for it, Matt: your own project requires very active collaboration from the locals.



IMHO exactly right, Alberto. It’s all about actively getting in touch and making friends. Casa Netural is doing it very right (from what I know about it). Shaping the project is not a solution, but can either make it easier or harder to connect. An open doors space for example would make it easier (and the monastic imagery maybe makes it a bit harder, as it can evoke connotations to “retreat”, “seclusion” etc.).

I’m not sure what, if anything, can be planned beforehand for the “interface” aspects of a project? I think that the best opportunities arise found when exploring a new city curiously and with genuine interest in getting to know the locals. But that may be a bit too naive. Inspirations / ideas?

Parties :slight_smile:

I think parties are a great way to start. In fact parties have been a favorite tool of public policy of mine for years now. Bembo has it exactly right viz the unMonastery: “our hard work should be legendary. So should our parties.”

Amen to that, unbrothers and unsisters :slight_smile:


yeah, sorry i forgot!

sorry alberto! i remember you saying about chess before. and i think its a great idea, its obvious now you said it, which has made me look at my own worries, and i think my feelings were changed by the application process. the idea of every applicant having a project already defined and knowing how to implement it and its outcomes quickly gave me a frustration about the interface aspect. my bad. of course the edgeryders will be excellent at making freinds and open doors and being of use. i think opening doors to do language lessons is a good idea, for everyone and sharing meals etc. that whole thing will be lots of fun. and sorry to make you repeat yourself alberto.

No probs :slight_smile:

No problem at all, Jessy. We are all trying to figure this thing out. :slight_smile:


I think, the draft, is very good and gives an overall view of what means to live in Matera.

> I would put an info more about the fact that the Sassi was evaquated and the new city (really interesting) started in 1951.

About the stats I would not put too many beacuse you can undestand many things just coming here in Matera. The conservative attitude is really strong and this causes most of the problems.

I loved the Francesco and Donato’ video, they made a great work, very useful to us, beacuse it represents really the point of view of the majority of Matera’s people.

unMon is a prototype, so don’t forget that. Nothing will be perfect! People will be selected to come, work, meet people and TRY to solve challenges. We can not change human behaviours / attitudes because it is part of a culture. For sure we can do things in a very good way and put passion in what we do. Open to others and very inclusive.

People will be curious (this is for sure). We will have fun (it’s really important!) and results will be unexpected!

Yes, this needs to be in

Thanks Andrea. The point about the evacuation is really important. I’ll change it right now.