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Nature and Landscape
Gravina di Laterza
The Arizona of Puglia
The magnificent, wild Gravina di Laterza is part of the Terra delle Gravine regional natural park and contains flora and fauna of enormous scientific significance.
The earliest human settlements in the area date back to 2000 B.C. and the urban center of Laterza, lying on the edge of the gorge, to around the year 1000
by Antonio Sigismondi
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Laterza (Taranto). The great furrow of the gravina. Photo by Antonio Sigismondi

The largest gravina, or gorge, in Puglia is also one of the region’s most spectacular wild places. A perfect shape, a large single furrow about 14 kilometers long, which cuts through the plateau of the Tarantine Murge, starting from an altitude of about 400 meters above sea level, 22 kilometers from the sea, and reaches the end after a winding route that snakes down the coastal plain. An exceptional set of geological, natural, landscape and cultural aspects that along with the whole network of gorges gave rise to Puglia’s biggest regional natural park, called the Terra delle Gravine. Its wild aspect makes it one of the most important hot spots of biodiversity in the region. No less than three of the rarest and most threatened species of birds of prey in Italy frequent the area: the Egyptian vulture (Neophronpercnopterus), the royal owl (Bubo bubo) and the lanner (Falco biarmicusfeldeggii). In the last few years a very rare black stalk (Ciconia nigra), of which there are only 10 pairs in all of Italy, has started to reproduce in the gorge. Many other species of great scientific importance are found there: the black and the brown kite, the marine jay, the thrush, the shrike, etc. There is a large population of reptiles and amphibians; and there are also wolves, which since the arrival of the wild boar, have recently colonized the area.

The gorge also has a huge variety of plants despite the relatively small size of the area, and this is due to the great environmental diversity and heterogeneity, which in turn, is the result of the wide range of micro-geomorphological and microclimatic conditions that alternate within the limited space of the single gorge as well as throughout the whole system of gorges. Evidence of this variability can be seen in the Gravina di Laterza where the layout of the vegetation and of individual species changes a great deal according to the altitude, exposure to sunlight, distance from the gorge floor, verticality of the walls, subsoil and distance from the sea.

Strangely enough, the biggest gorge in Puglia is also one of those with the fewest signs of rock dwellings. In fact there are very few of these along its approximately fourteen kilometers’ length. The explanation may lie in its geological structure: most of the gorge is cut into ancient Altamura limestone, very difficult to excavate because of its hardness. In the first part, consisting of more recent and softer Plio-Pleistocenic Gravina limestone, there is a large group of rock dwellings on the plan of which, over the years, the present urban center has been built, incorporating much of the ancient settlement.

Human settlement in the area goes back a very long way: findings from the excavations in 1965 in a necropolis dated 2000 B.C. in the Candile locality, are evidence of the presence of a population that lived in the area in the Eneolithic era. Laterza came under the influence of the Greeks and the Romans: many findings from the age of Magna Grecia and the Roman era are kept in the archeological museums of Taranto and Matera. The present town center dates back to around the year 1000.

There are numerous rock churches such as those dedicated to St George and Christ the Judge. A unique church is the so-called Spanish Cellar, with three rooms closed off by an apse, and with splendid paintings like the Nativity and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve in the first room, followed by a procession of ladies and horsemen in costume and the parody of a procession of priests in liturgical vestments.

The majolica of Laterza is also world famous, known to have been produced for the use of the nobility, unlike that from Grottaglie, where it was made for the common people. The great wealth of Laterza ceramics brought together in the Riccardo Tondoloha collection was what led to the opening of the MUMA, Majolica Museum, in the town’s Palazzo Marchesale.

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