Beautiful photos reveal Matera, the Italian city carved into solid rock

CNN  — 

Today, it’s one of the most astonishing places in Italy – a city carved into a rugged hillside – but just a few years ago, Matera was branded a national disgrace.

Many residents still remember when the city had a reputation for squalor and its residents made their homes in dark grottoes that in some cases were originally used by their ancestors 9,000 years ago.

Shared with barnyard animals, these caves were riddled with disease leading to appalling mortality rates until the government began forcibly relocating inhabitants in the 1950s.

In recent years, this ancient city has seen a dramatic change of fortunes: many of the grottoes were renovated and the Instagrammable area is now home to restaurants, shops and hotels.

But Matera still retains an unspoilt charm and offers a unique cityscape.

Rome-based photographer Federico Scarchilli made the city’s pale stone walls the subject of his latest photography project.

“I’m trying to explore this stone as as an element,” Scarchilli tells CNN Travel. “I found in Matera, something really inspiring.”

Incredible views

Matera will be a European Capital of Culture in 2019.

In 1993, UNESCO granted the city World Heritage status and the city has been named a European Capital of Culture 2019.

Scarchilli was intrigued by Matera’s history and cultural landscape.

“Matera is one of the oldest cities in Italy, it comes from the Paleolithic and up to the Middle Ages,” he says.

Its ancient history means the city has a plethora of artistic and cultural heritage spots.

“It’s full of art especially inside the Rock Churches,” adds the photographer.

Churches carved into the rock are adoned with rudimentary art works.

Dating back hundreds of centuries, these incredible grotto churches are adorned with colorful frescoes depicting biblical scenes.

These interiors form the subject of some of the most striking of Scarchilli’s images, which typically overexpose the city to enhance its bright color palette.

The photographer also recommends looking at the panoramic views of the city from Murgia, a hill opposite the ravine over which Matera stands.

Exploring via photography

Much of Matera's architecture dates back centuries.

Scarchilli, who studied photography at the European Institute of Design in Rome, sees the medium as a way of exploring the world.

“Photography to me is something that can bring me close to a place where I can go,” he says. “Photography brings me really, really close to to whatever I want to discover.”

Matera's white stone walls form a striking backdrop.

Scarchilli’s next project will involve documenting religious spaces across Italy.

“I want to get a huge vision of the religion situation in Italy,” he says.

He plans to examine and celebrate how different cultures and ideologies have spread across the country.

Scarchilli hopes to return to Matera and see more of the city.

“Just yesterday I was in a Buddhist temple outside of Rome and it was amazing because there were Thai monks,” he says.

The photographer also hopes to return to Matera and explore the parts of the city he didn’t get to see last time: “I would like to go there with more free time and especially to try more restaurants,” says Scarchilli.

“It’s really an amazing city if you like history and if you like something different, because I think Matera, it’s fairly unique.”