Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

   entry May 2004
Alberobello is down south, almost onto the "heel" of the boot of
Italy, near Martina Franca, inland and about midway between
the Adriatic port towns of Bari and Brindisi.

I Love You, Trulli.       
© by Jeanne Manfred

"Toto,  I don't think we're in Kansas anymore..."


Inland from the city of Bari, on the road to Alberobello, tiny white stone houses topped with gray slate, cone-shaped roofs begin to dot the countryside. As more and more small clusters of these little houses appear on each side of the road, you begin to wonder, "Am I still in Italy? Have I been magically transported into some fairy tale country?"  Then, after arriving in Alberobello, smack in the middle of a whole village of these strange little "trulli", suddenly you know. You've discovered the Land of Oz. It's MUNCHKINLAND!

A "trullo" (two or more make "trulli"), built out of the plentiful local stones, is a rectangle outside, an oval inside and a triangle on top. The lower edges of the steep cone roofs come down to meet all the different heights of the walls and the peak above the little front door, making the whole structure look as quaint as an English thatched cottage or as cute as a gingerbread house.

Seldom do you see just one lonely "trullo" by itself, for as a family grows so does their tiny one room house. A new "trullo" is nestled right up beside the first one, naturally, with an opening made in their common wall to connect the two.  Later, if the family wants even more room, it's simple, just add another one, then another, each with its very own pointy headed roof.  Some have also added lofts under their roofs. And, a few very fancy ones are even two-story, such as the most famous one in Alberobello, built in 1780. It's called Il Trullo Sovrano, making it truly one prince of a place.


Actually, Alberobello looks like two different towns. On one slope is the standard pleasant Italian village. On the other slope it is all "trulli", hundreds and hundreds of them climbing up and down the picturesque little narrow walking streets. It's almost a surprise to see that the men and women who live and work there are regular size folk and not Munchkins, the "little people", after all.  For, without being cutesy, it is all just plain adorable—and fun.

Some trulli have been turned into small shops for the tourist trade. So, as you stroll around among the little houses, you find a few of the usual souvenir shops, but most display the handicrafts of the local artisans.  Others offer the wines, jams and other tempting foodstuffs that are specialties of the region.

At the top of the hill, there is a sprawling trulli hotel where the night can be spent in your own private trullo. However, since meals are included in the price, it is a bit pricey. Much better bargains can be found in one of small hotels in the standard Italian part of town, within easy walking distance to and from the trulli section.

Where did this unique style of architecture come from?  A good guess is that the name trullo comes from the Greek tholos, the name for a conical-shaped, domed tomb, such as those earliest ones found at Mycenae, (i.e., Agammemnon's tomb) and in Crete, dating from the early Bronze Age.  Similar domed tombs of later eras are to be found all through the Mediterranean world, including Southern Italy.

However, even earlier, perhaps around 3000 BC, peoples from the Mid-East, looking for a more fertile land, migrated westward. Some of these wanderers finally settled down in what is now La Puglia, bringing with them their primitive culture. The native stones lying about all over the fields, ready to be easily picked up, were first used to build their tombs. Eventually, as this method of construction evolved, they also began to build primitive domed dwellings, with empty spaces inside to shelter them during bad weather—the forerunner of our cozy family home, without the monthly rent or the 30-year mortgage.

A story that one hears in Alberobello is that the origin of the conical roof has to do with the ease of dismantling and reassembling at tax time! Roofed buildings—again, this is what they say—were taxed more than open stalls or sheds; thus, when the tax collector was in the area, you simply took down the roof of your house, paid the lower taxes and reassembled the roof after he left. (I hope that's a true story!)

These prehistoric colonists also brought along their magic symbols, which are still being used as special designs of white stone set into the roof of a trullo. Later, Greek and Christian symbols, such as the cross, were added to the ancient ones. However, even today, many of the doors face east, toward that first god of all, the Sun.

The Pinnacoli or "Pinnacle", the knob-like balls at the very top of all the trulli, are also throwbacks to the ancient worship of the Sun god. All through the ages, such religious symbols have been placed at the apex of a house, a temple or a church to represent the union between a people and their gods.

Much of the region of La Puglia is full of undiscovered treasures—at least, undiscovered by most American and English tourists. For instance, just a short distance from Alberobello is one of the great natural wonders of Italy, the Caverns of Castellana (Le Grotte di Castellana). These are tremendous underground caves with spectacularly beautiful rock formations, plus stalactites and stalagmites that abound in a fantasy of colors.

Going from "Munchkinland" to "Fantasyland" sound more like a trip to Disneyland, but it's really even better. It's REAL. Trulli it is!



[ed. note, jm -added June 2014]

The town of Alberobello has around 11,000 inhabitants. The characteristic Trulli dwellings have been part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites list since 1996. From the UNESCO description:

Alberobello, the city of drystone dwellings known as trulli, is an exceptional example of vernacular architecture. It is one of the best preserved and most homogeneous urban areas of this type in Europe. Its special features, and the fact that the buildings are still occupied, make it unique. It also represents a remarkable survival of prehistoric building techniques.

The area appears to have been uninhabited until the it was  granted to the first Count of Conversano by Robert d'Anjou, Prince of Taranto, in recognition of his service during the Crusades. He and his successors colonized the area by moving people from their other fiefs, allowing them to build cottages...Tradition has it that drystone walling [meaning without the use of mortar] was imposed upon the new settlers so their houses could be quickly dismantled. This served two purposes: recalcitrant householders could be dispossessed easily and, later, it would be possible to avoid taxation on new settlements. In the latter case the buildings could be reconstructed equally rapidly. This is known to have occurred in 1644 to thwart tax inspectors sent by the King of Naples....

By the end of the 18th century the community numbered over 3500 people, and in 1797 feudal rule was brought to an end by obtaining the status of royal town from Ferdinand IV, Bourbon King of Naples. The name of Alberobello was adopted, taken from the medieval Latin name of the region, silva arboris belli.

The UNESCO description notes that since the original reason for building trulli no longer exists that is, tax-evasion! the building of such structures has tailed off considerably. It is equally true, however, that the maintenance of older trulli and even the construction of new ones (using modern construction techniques) survives and is quite noticeable. There are new stores and hotels, two-story dwellings, etc.; all of that continues to this day. (The image directly above is, in fact, a modern hotel.)

 other entries by Jeanne Manfred   Ancient World portal


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