PALAZZO VICECONTE Matera Hotel Review – Visionaries’ Reborn Palace, arguably with the best views of the Matera Sassi, with a focus on supporting culture
It’s likely that the publishers of the 1970’s counterculture opus for do-it-yourselfers, The Whole Earth Catalog, could never have pictured being quoted in a sumptuous palace hall, Palazzo Viceconte. This hall, like all the others in this sprawling re-born palace, is now decorated wall to wall with captivating artwork collected over decades mainly from the likes of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Then again, the catalog’s back cover slogan —“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish”— seems almost an X-ray of Drs. Viceconte souls, as it was to Steve Jobs, who quoted it in a commencement address to Stanford students. Taking a break from his busy schedule, Professor Viceconte in turn quoted Jobs to explain the why-for of how he and his wife decided to re-build the palace and rescue it from ruin status, a station shared by many buildings in Matera at that time.
“Matera??”, you imagine the Vicecontes’ friends and colleagues saying in disbelief twenty years ago. Why would this power couple—he a gastroenterologist and she an ophthalmologist—move to that hellhole place??
This was long before Matera was designated by the EU as the 2019 European Capital of Culture. Most Italians probably still thought of Matera through the eyes of the Vicecontes’ predecessor physician Carlo Levi, whose 1945 autobiographical novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, described the hardscrabble life and suffering of peasants living in the cacophony of caves known as the Matera Sassi. Squalor-born malaria epidemics and other miseries born of intractable poverty in the caves led to a government-forced evacuation of the Sassi years later. The forced evacuations also were devastating for those who lived there.
Yet, it was not until the late 80’s when the Italian government started subsidizing fledgling moves to rebuild the cave abodes. In 1993 the Matera Sassi were declared a World Heritage Site, but as the millennium marker approached, the Vicecontes were still the very rare breed of visionaries who saw this unique city’s potential.
The professor explains, “Everyone thought we were a little bit crazy—even the people from Matera—but we felt a special feeling…It was in terrible condition and empty. We began the work—mainly my wife—to restore almost everything you see to its original condition. She directed it all. We didn’t have an architect, but we did have many good people and skilled people here in Matera who helped.”
Touring the palace, this writer was hit again and again by the enormity of what the Vicecontes have achieved. To begin to gauge the complexity, all you have to do is consider the challenge of putting in electrical wiring.
The original structure was built 400 years ago on the square of what had once been a Roman city. On the other side of the square you see the original Cathedral (Duomo) of Matera. Looking up at the high ceilings you see the signature of the two main building phases that transformed the building into a palace. The four-sided vaulted ceilings date the 17th Century work; the more complicated ceiling shapes mark the 18th Century renovations and add-ons.
Palazzo Viceconte Is About Culture—Art, Music, Museums
It is the abundant art and décor treasures that most shout luxury and interest you in long lingers in its linked large halls from which several of the 14 guest suites open into. The eclectic collections were decoded for us by Professor Viceconte. One room features art showing women. Another shows paintings of Naples, Capri, and Amalfi in this past century. Another is all Russian, and so on. You see imperial styled furniture throughout. Some of the more impressive pieces are from Professor Viceconte’s boyhood home in another town of Italy’s Basilicata region. With keen eyes you can spot a representation of this town on the ceiling of the grand hall outside the grand hall designated as the breakfast area for hotel guests.
The Pino Settanni photography on display in his namesake museum-- and especially his photos of burqa-clad Afghani women seeming like models on fashion runway-- capture your attention.
Cinephiles and photography enthusiasts will also find many stirring photographs by famed Pino Settanni peppering these collections of paintings throughout the palace’s halls, including a portrait of Professor Viceconte emerging from a shadow in a way that conveys his intellect and perhaps suggests wizardry. The portraits of Dr. Viceconte (Mrs.) telegraph the same graciousness and elegance you experience upon meeting her and watching her interact with the hotel staff. It is not a coincidence that these portraits feel so intimate, as they were not mere commissions. Professor Viceconte and Settanni were actually close friends, which is one reason why Palazzo Viceconte opened a photography museum in the original palace chapel named for Settanni after his death in 2010.
But the bigger reason is that the Vicecontes did not wait for Matera to be declared the European Capital of Culture to make Palazzo Viceconte a force for culture—not just in Matera but worldwide. They have enlisted 90+/- year-old musicologist Pietro Andreassani to organize monthly concerts in one of the larger halls that is also a sometimes host to professional conferences. Entrance to these performances is free, and they draw between 100 – 120 guests each time. And, as part of the year-long celebration of Matera as the European Capital of Culture, Palazzo Viceconte is now supporting a project of Fondazione SoutHeritage, PADIGLIONI INVISIBILI, that will be linking cisterns below the palace for site-specific exhibitions and programs about sustainable underground architecture.
Summer 2019 will launch the opening of its rooftop terrace restaurant where guests will also enjoy musical performances—and ….the NOT-TO-BE-MISSED views of the Sassi, from the high perch of the Palazzo roof that reminds it was once the city’s highpoint protective bastion.
Indeed, the hotel promotions mention that every guest suite has either a walk-in shower or a deep soaking bathtub. What’s omitted is that many of the tubs have this same incredible view of the Sassi, reminding this writer of the long queue that always forms in the Ladies Room of Chicago’s John Hancock Tower where guests seem more interested in taking aerial cellphone photos of the city below than of using the facilities.
Awestruck, you may look at this view from Palazzo Viceconte’s rooftop and immediately see the spark to Drs. Viceconte’s vision for the palace twenty years ago. You too may then wonder why everyone else couldn’t see what they saw—the splendor is so obvious.
One surprise about Palazzo Viceconte is in learning that the Drs. played no part in getting Matera designated as the 2019 European Capital of Culture. In this writer’s view, this is a hotel that in itself puts Matera on the map for culturally-oriented tourists.
For reservations or information on cultural offerings sponsored by Palazzo Viceconte visit the Palazzo Viceconte website or call +39 0835 330699.