Perhaps one of the most intriguing sights  for those visiting Puglia are the delightful stone buildings they call Trulli (plural for Trullo). With many dating back hundreds of years, Trulli are unique to Puglia and these traditional buildings, with their limestone walls and conical roofs, can be seen throughout the area, but are especially common in and around the Itrea Valley where they pepper the countryside.

Alberobello is especially notable for being home to the highest concentration of Trulli in Puglia. As such, it is recognised as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, a distinction it shares with other notable sites such as Stonehenge in the UK and Chichen-Itza in Mexico (for more on this fascinating list of places, see the World Heritage site at http://whc.unesco.org).

No one quite knows how the Trullo came about, but everyone has a theory (this is Italy after all!) What is certain is that during the 16th and 17th centuries the Trullo was home to the peasant families of Puglia. The merchants and nobility in contrast lived in large farmhouses, or Masserie, controlling large swaths of the countryside and were often the natural outlets for the Olive oil and grapes produced by the peasant farmers.

A close cousin of the Trullo is the Torre Ostunese, translated as ‘Ostuni Tower’ which shares the same walls and general design but which has a domed rather than conical roof, covered with limestone mortar. As their name implies, they tend to be found most frequently in and around the Ostuni area.

Trulli are roughly circular in shape, this being one of the most efficient ways of erecting a simple, yet strong, free-standing structure, and are normally built from solid limestone rocks. Whilst the modern builder uses ‘Calcio’, a limestone mortar, to seal the spaces between the rocks, in olden times Trulli would have been built, ‘a seco’, or ‘dry’, meaning that no mortar was used. The thick walls helped to keep the Trullo cool during the very hot summers and warm during the cool, damp winters. This peculiar method of building is often linked to one of the theories explaining how the Trulli came about – read on for further details!

The roofs consist of steeply angled cones, made up of ever-smaller rings of stones and are covered with a layer of flat, angled stones to allow rain water to flow away from the building, much like tiles do on normal roofs. Ingenious channelling across roofs and walls allowed this rainwater to be collected into ‘Cisterne’, underground water tanks, in order to top up drinking water or to irrigate fields during the summer.

The use of rings of smaller stones to build the cones may also have helped to avoid the need for large blocks of stone or thick beams of wood to support roofs or tiles. It is certain that it would have been almost impossible for the poor peasant farmers to afford to buy or fit the large stones and it is thought that wood may well have been in short supply.

At the very top sits the Pinaccolo, or Pinnacle, which arches gracefully upwards to cap the cone and cradles a 10-inch or so ball of stone, although this can also include other shapes. It is said, that this harks back to the ancient pagan practice of sun worshipping, with the ball representing the sun. Other symbols, some Christian, others pagan, can often be seen painted on the roofs, adding to the mystique of these curious buildings.

Whole families would share two or three cones and a large fireplace was normally the focal point of the living quarters, used for cooking and heating. Support ledges for the communal bed, edging out of the walls of smaller cones, called Alcove, are still visible in many Trulli and small niches regularly punctuate the walls and were used to store or display decorative, religious or household items.

Often, the family horses and livestock would occupy an adjacent Trullo and it is sometimes possible to see the troughs they fed from, now converted into decorative features. As the family grew, so would their home and another Trullo would be built adjacent to the existing structure, with a corridor ‘punched through’ the outside wall to connect them together.

So what about these theories? Well, take a look at these:

Deforestation – It is believed that Puglia, at one time, was full of trees. Of course, it still is full of Olive trees but - years ago - these would not have been forests of Olive trees but forests of Pine, Yew, Beech and others. Today, Puglia is a land of plains and huge cultivated areas of vineyards, olive trees and citrus groves. The forests of old have largely disappeared, cut down many centuries ago, probably to make way for agriculture and plains for grazing livestock.

With the disappearance of the forests however, some speculate that there would have been a shortage of suitable wood to build homes and other buildings. Olive Trees take many years to mature, and when they do they are a valuable source of income, and not to be cut down for building houses! A happy coincidence however, namely the abundance of limestone, quite possibly saved the day and paved the way for much of the wonderful architecture we see today.

Abundance of limestone – Look closely at some Trulli and you might notice that they are built not from even blocks of stone, but from a combination of stones of many different shapes and sizes. Talk to a Geometra (a combination of surveyor and architect) and they will tell you that the really old Trulli are built from rocks that were literally collected from the ground! The builder would collect the stones, which could be found in abundance within the surrounding area, and pile them into rough circular shapes and top them with a ‘key stone upon which all of the roof depended in order to stay up. It’s only the more recent Trulli, built from the latter part of the 18th Century, that show the tell-tale signs of being more recently built, through the use of closely fitting blocks of limestone worked from the local quarries.

A Tax Dodge! One of the most common theories for the origin of the Trullo involves the tax laws of 17th Century Italy. It is known that the nobility of the time imposed heavy taxes on any permanent structure. Thus, the theory goes that the peasant families, not able to bear the burden of this tax, built their dwellings so that they could be literally demolished at a moments notice!

Because every other stone of the conical roof depended on the ‘key stone to prevent the roof from caving in, the peasant owner was able to literally demolish their house simply by pulling this stone out! Some say that it is still possible to see some Trulli with a curious iron ring emanating out of their ‘key stones. Although an amusing notion – who isn’t looking for ways to pay less tax - this may also have been a convenient way to store grain or other produce much as modern silos do today, by filling them from the top.

The Ancients built them – Puglia was colonised by the Greeks from as early as the 8th Century B.C., and there are many examples of domed dwellings across the Mediterranean, built using the same ‘dry’ masonry techniques as the Trulli. The Nuraghi of Sardinia and the Tholoi, or tombs, of Mycenae have both been linked to the origins of the Trullo and it is possible that the word Tholoi, the Greek name for the domed tombs of Mycenae, could conceivably have evolved into the modern word Trulli.

Whatever their origins, the Trullo is alive and well in modern Puglia. Furthermore, Trulli remain highly sought after, and are no longer strictly the preserve of the farmer! Local residents, young and old alike, and well to do foreigners looking for unique holiday homes are gradually buying up the shrinking pool of derelict Trulli and a thriving industry now revolves around the restoring and building of Trulli.

It is still possible to see a Maestro, or Master Builder, employing traditional techniques dating back hundreds of years, in the restoration of ancient Trulli. Fortunately for those of us who have come to regard them as small personal castles, it is likely that the Trullo will continue to be built in Puglia for many years to come.

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