We were to start our Tuesday in Altamura, but I was really looking forward to the next destination – the rock town of Matera. I thought that Altamura would be a place I would want to go through quickly in anticipation of our visit to Matera, which I had dreamed of seeing with my own eyes ever since receiving a postcard of the unique sight some years ago.
It turned out that Altamura was not at all a place I wanted to visit quickly. I could have gazed at the cathedral the entire day.
The door of the cathedral
Before our trip to Altamura, I had only heard in passing about the Altamura Man, the only complete skeleton of a Neanderthal, discovered as recently as 1993. I had read that around Altamura were the so-called masserie or large farmhouses, some even with turrets and watchtowers. Almond trees and vineyards were commonplace in the region.
A sign asserting that bread has been made there since 1423
Altamura is not only famous for its archeological finds and cathedral but also for its bread, which has been produced there for centuries. Originally, each loaf had the mark of the family that had baked it. The Roman poet Horace was a keen admirer of the city’s bread. He praised it in his writing, too. “Their bread is so fine, the smart voyager makes sure he buys enough for his journey. . . .” We saw a small bakery where bread was being made, café tables set outside.
Then we were ushered to the Church of Saint Nicholas of the Greeks with its simple façade. At one time, there had been a thriving Greek Orthodox community in Altamura. The simplicity of the design and large rosette dominating the façade gave the edifice a sort of intimacy. The portal was decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testament, an adornment dating back to the 16th century. It was not open, but I was informed that inside there was one nave, some paintings from the 17th century and a baptismal font hailing from the 13th century.
While gawking at the cathedral’s stunning facade, we learned more about the history of the city. Altamura was built on the remnants of a settlement hailing from 500 BC to 300 BC. During its Greek period (5 BC – 3 BC), the city’s high walls or “alta mura” were so wide that a chariot could be driven on top of them. In 1232 Emperor Frederick II, nicknamed “Stupor Mundi” or “Wonder of the World,” added to the population thriving colonies of Greeks, Arabs and Jews, so Altamura became a multicultural community. Plagues riddled the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. During the 18th century, the city thrived, making a name for itself in the Kingdom of Naples.
Then it was time devote all our attention to studying the exterior of the cathedral, an exquisite example of Apulian-Romanesque style with an exquisite portal of bas-relief figures that illustrated the life of Christ. Frederick II had the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption built in 1232, but disaster struck in 1316, when an earthquake destroyed it. Robert of Anjou was the leader who ordered the reconstruction of the three-nave structure, and one of the portals, hailing from the 14th century, bears his name. I was awed by the main portal with its intricate design. This is architecture at its finest, I said to myself. This is exactly what I came to see in Puglia – architectural gems that dazzled both the eyes and the mind.
The interior of the cathedral was just as impressive. The ground plan of the three naves has a basilica model. The walls and columns boast rich ornamentation. The Neo-Gothic style plays a major role. The stunning wooden ceiling hails from the 19th century, and coats-of-arms representing emperors and kings decorate it. The marble altars feature paintings from the Neapolitan School. The carvings of the wood relief on the choir are splendid. Side chapels date back to the 17th or 18th centuries. One of the most significant chapels shows off two paintings that are some of the finest examples in south Italy. One depiction takes up the theme of Mary Magdalene, a work by Francesco Netti from 1877. Domenico Morelli’s Conversion of St. Paul is the other masterpiece on display.
Of course, there is more to Altamura than its cathedral. We gazed in wonder at San Michele al Corso Church, built by the brotherhood of Purgatory in the 17th century. We marveled at the skulls and skeletons giving its simple façade a grotesque and macabre appearance. I later learned that inside the high altar and presbytery were Rococo gems.
San Michele al Corso Church exterior decoration
The Palazzo Vito De Angelis dates back to the 15th century and includes a Renaissance portal as well as a superb loggia. The Palazzo Filo hails from the 16th to 18th centuries and celebrates St. Philo, who was revered by Greek families. The Filo clan has made significant contributions to Italian history. The chapel and the arched portal are two of the architectural delights of this palace. I had ancestors named Filo on the Slovak side of the family, but, alas, they had nothing to do with the Altamura nobles. Most likely, they had been poor potato farmers in east Slovakia.
A typical street in Altamura
Unique to Altamura, the claustri hold significant meaning for the city. These claustri take their name from the Latin claustrum, which means “closed space.” The claustri feature stairs, balconies, terraces, galleries, arches and loggia. They are certainly a treat for architecture buffs.
The main altar in the cathedral
Fantastic decoration in the cathedral
The history of the claustri can be traced to the settling of various ethnic groups during Emperor Frederick II’s reign in the 13th century. At that time, the various ethnic groups lived side-by-side, peacefully in a diverse, tolerant community. I reflected on how there is such a lack of tolerance in America, for instance, but not only in America. Many people hate Muslims and label them all as terrorists. Also, there is so much racial tension in the USA. I remembered the Bosnian War, when ethnic hatred ran rampant in former Yugoslavia. Would the world ever learn to live as the ethnic groups in the claustri had? I somehow doubted it, but, unfortunately, I am a pessimist.
Back to the gems of Altamura. The north gate of Porta Bari took on a 17th century Baroque appearance. Saints Irene and Joseph made appearances on the stunning structure. Other religious sites in the town include the Church of San Dominico with a faced of limestone coated with majolica. North of the center is San Michele delle Grotte, a church dating from the 10th century. A 14th century fresco in the crypt is noteworthy.
I left Altamura, not only excited about my next destination but also enthralled by the city’s charms. I would never forget that cathedral. It remains etched in my mind for eternity.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.