A project to restore the abandoned historic hilltowns of apennine mountains and the sassi di matera


This document looks at restoration projects in a series of Mediterranean Apennine hill towns and, in particular, the medieval hill village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo. These projects take a unique approach to conservation. This document outlines the methodology. We use the term ‘rural heritage’ primarily to refer to the architecture and buildings that result from an agricultural economy. It is a heritage, for the most part, built by its inhabitants. Through time it has undergone changed in function. This patrimony is the antithesis of classical architecture – which offers a unified, predetermined aesthetic based on stylistic considerations. The rural heritage we are speaking about here is not the result of a single authority, of architects or stylistic fashioning – but is developed from local artisan traditions rooted in the community. So why does this particular heritage have such a strong connection with its territory? Firstly, for practical reasons. Poverty meant that local materials had to be used – this defined the color, style, and form of the buildings that were constructed. The historic relationship between the landscape and architecture can be understood on a more profound level. A series of customs define the bond between humans and their land, and establish a local identity. This identity is defined by a number of factors: the shape of the landscape, agriculture, even the physiognomy of the local population. And even though many of the historic rural towns were abandoned in the Mediterranean Apennine mountains, the relationship between man and landscape remained; modernity and post-war urbanization did not impinge on these areas, and the rural culture remained strong.


Our system involves an approach to redefining rural architectural heritage. It involved agreements between a private company and local government. Most importantly it offers respect for local history, combined with the possibility of productive employment for the area. We have laid down some basic rules for the conservation of rural heritage. Some of these may seem contradictory to the kind of project which is often proposed as ‘economic development’ in rural communities. Our project’s starting point is the rural architecture of the area. Sustaining the historic relationship between the built environment and the landscape is paramount – we have zero tolerance to new buildings which have no historic frame of reference in the ancient, abandoned hill towns. Our strategy and system is logical. The balance between the built architecture and the environment of medieval hill towns is clear. The fortified villages sitting on top of mountains are some of the most iconic and appealing structures in the Italian landscape. Unfortunately they suffered at the hands of poor quality post-war development and, in more recent times, unsympathetic attempts to turn them into tourist honey pots.

The relationship between the public and the private sector We believe that a relationship between the public and private sector is essential if we are to achieve the aims of restoring and conserving this rural heritage. This relationship will need to be regulated and controlled, so that new building is avoided, and long-term sustainable economic activity can be set up -particularly hotels and heritage homes for sale. Without these regulations it will be difficult to achieve our long term goals. Our project has developed the following guidelines for conservation:

1. Maintaining the original use, form and materials of the building. The dimensions of doors and windows should not be changed, nor should the internal divisions of rooms. Where possible the original layout and use of the rooms should be retained.

2. Architectural fittings used to replace those which have been lost are sourced from the local area. Where possible, reclaimed materials should be placed in the same context. The difference between classical restoration and this vernacular conservation is that in rural heritage much architectural salvage is interchangeable between locations – not designed by a specific architect for a particular situation.

3. Our approach to conservation includes the retention of traces of life found in the fabric of the building – part of the life-cycle of former residents in the places where they were born, lived and died. You could call this “extreme restoration”, because in most restorations ancient signs of life are covered up or removed, but for us they are part of the history of a village. This approach to conservation involves research into rural heritage. Research allows us to place objects in their correct context, to illustrate the passage of time, to display what may be called the ‘building’s wounds’. The internal restoration involves careful research. The peasant culture of these hill towns has a consistent thread.
There is a long-standing tradition of furniture styles for beds and clothes chests. Materials such as bed covers are made from new, using traditional fabrics and artisan techniques. These are researched from the oral history of the last generation who lived in these villages, or period photographs. Research should be done by competent institutions; in the case of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, it was the Museum of the Peoples of Abruzzo. Where we have had to put elements into buildings that were not historically present -such as wardrobes, rarely found in the rural home -rather than modern fittings we have used recovered materials. Materials which retain the form, color, patina, touch and smell of the period location. The historic setting never had a formal aesthetic, so if we were to use contemporary furnishings it would create visual discord and confusion. Where elements are added for the comfort and standards of modern living – such as bathrooms, which did not exist in the original structures -a minimalist design is best suited. The simple, formal, neutral elegance of modern design (such as a Starck bathtub) will not clash with the historic context. This type of design should frame and enhance the historic setting, rendering it even more clear.

The underlying philosophy

Our philosophy for this project is clear: we will not betray the identity of the buildings we restore. We will retain the residential aspects of the buildings – in keeping with their original function. The essential integrity of a building will always be maintained and, though we find contemporary solutions for modern day living. Any interventions always protect the soul of the building. The recurring theme which characterizes our project is the use of period architectural materials. Although they may not be put to their original use, they still add to the symbolic identity of the project. This symbolic identity reflects the life of the Mountains of Abruzzo – and their innate sensibility. The insides of the houses, for all their poverty, retain their welcoming characteristics and domestic dignity. It is for this reason that we strive to hold on to this, without sentimentalizing the setting, or turning it into a museum. In searching for the true identity of an area, we have always tried to avoid banal cultural symbolism, or overload our work with meaning – we are not interested in navel gazing. Instead, we are trying to try to communicate the truth. One conservation goal can be the most difficult to achieve in the current political climate: the care for the countryside. Safeguarding the land from new building and preserving the rapport between historic hilltowns and their surrounding landscape is the defining objective of a rural heritage project. The protection needs to cover a large area. Think about the large scale topography of a series of castellated towns in a mountain setting. In Italy, this kind of landscape has never been subject to proper safeguards. In southern Italy, the re-classifying of a historic area as a tourist village has never happened without damaging quantities of cement construction being immediately put in place. These cement buildings are then dressed up to look like “Swiss cottages” or “Tyrolean chalets”. The model we are proposing – based on a cultural program defining the care and protection of rural heritage – has proved a first class economic lever for securing regeneration in the poor rural south of Italy. It is certainly more economically efficient than creating ‘tourist villages’ in historic sites.



The exceptionalness and the uniqueness of Matera is the city of “Stones” – UNESCO World Heritage Site – which, as an abyss, sinking into the vacuum created by the steep river Gravina. By the proto-civilization of the Bronze Age, to the monastic community up to marginality underground, concentrating and consuming one of the most impressive epics of the southern peasant slaved by the large estate (latifundium) of this land, the Sassi of Matera is characterized by the widespread presence of caves carved into the rock, build for the most basic survival needs. A city upside down entering in his womb, a village where human and animal confused lived in the same environment. Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Le Cave della Civita is divided into 18 rooms, some of exceptional size, a common site in a cave church and a reception. The whole complex is located in caves in the cliff on the river, against the dramatic scenery of the Parco della Murgia and rocky churches. Located in the oldest part of the poor and degraded Civita, where degrades in the Sassi, falling in the Valley of Garavina’s river.

The project in Matera

I would like to underline the differences and the similarities between the projects in the hill towns, and that in the Sassi in the city of Matera. For the restoration project in the Sassi (stone caves) of Matera we maintained the proportion of the rooms, used original and recycled architectural materials, hid as far as possible the modern technology used for heating and plumbing, and used minimalist contemporary design solutions. The unique architectural setting of the Sassi cave habitations of Matera posed particular questions for our conservation philosophy. Any restoration project in the Sassi must take into account a town whose complex history dates back to the middle ages. The development of the Sassi of Matera is more complicated than that of the Apennine hill towns. The hill town owes its entire existence a pastoral history. Traditionally the Sassi of Matera have used more impoverished internal furnishings than the hill towns. The farmers in the Sassi were laborers, and not smallholders like their hilltown counterparts. The Sassi cave homes were subsistence living, and there is a vivid description of this in Carlo Levi’s book: Christ Stopped at Eboli.

The Sassi had less of a domestic function than hill-town homes. Life in the Sassi was more focused on the community, so attention was paid to the external appearance of the houses, the communal wells. The furnishings and household objects in the Sassi, though similar to those in the mountain communities, were less refined. Taking all of these differences into consideration, our conservation project was much more minimalist than in Santo Stefano di Sassanio – fittings and fixtures were simpler and fewer. Much of the furniture is built-in, in order to maintain a continuity of form and function with the original structure With such an irregular building, free-standing furniture would be out of context. We have been as spare and minimalist as possible in introducing furniture and fittings. Where in Santo Stefano the domestic settings of the rooms allowed us to place furnishings and fittings throughout, here it was not appropriate. Where it was necessary to furnish with desks, chairs, and wardrobes, we used reclaimed wood and architectural materials. These designs were simple, and were completely sympathetic with the existing structure, the context of the Sassi Caves and the lives of the people who once lived and worked there.

Our project shows how you can successfully restore the identity of vernacular buildings. Through a researched understanding and an honesty with the buildings’ origins – combined with a touch of poetic license – you can recreate the soul of a building, even when the life lived there was one of poverty – as in the case of the Sassi caves. It is through such a restoration that we can come to know and understand the past -combining culture and regeneration in one concept.