28 October 2021

Alberobello – Hobbiton on the Mediterranean

One glance at the Italian village of Alberobello and you know that you have stumbled across something unique.

Neat rows of whitewashed dwellings like something out of a fairy-tale.

It is almost as if the Hobbits of Middle-earth had set up a Mediterranean colony.

These strange but charming dwellings are known as trulli.  They are built without using mortar, part of a drywall culture of construction which predates written history in this part of Italy.  Many of the trulli pictured here are around six hundred years ago – the large slabs of limestone from which they are built was gathered from fields in the area.

The technique used to build the trulli is called corbelling.  This is where masonry juts out of a wall in order to support the weight of anything deposited on top of it.  It is a method which needs no mortar and when done properly the structure will support a conical slate roof on top – and last for many hundreds of years.  It has been used by builders since Neolithic times.

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There are no foundations – the trulli were built directly on top of underlying rock – stone on stone as it were.  There are two walls, an interior and an exterior with the gap between filled with rubble: this serves as excellent insulation in the winter.   The fireplaces and stoves are built in to the walls, so no heat is wasted.

Image Credit Flickr User Elizabeth Thomsen
There is something even more ingenious at work here too.  Eaves at the base of the roofs force rainfall in to a cistern which lies directly between the houses.  In this way a supply of water in the hot days of summer is virtually guaranteed.  In fact, the trulli could be said the be an early example of an eco-house.

Image Credit Flickr User Michel27
Image Credit Flickr User Michel27
The fact that the building technique persists and that the trulli are still inhabited makes the small Puglian town.  Yet it seems it was not a lack of mortar which caused the houses to be built using a drywall method.  Local tradition says that new settlers to the previously uninhabited hillsides were obliged to build their houses without mortar so that, in the event of future dispossession, the trulli could be dismantled with speed.

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Another local story has it that the houses were built without mortar by their wily inhabitants in order to avoid a building tax in the Seventeenth Century. Although there is evidence to suggest this, many of the buildings pre-date that period of Italian history.

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In the 1500s there were around 50 trulli at the site.  Then, in the next century, the small village became a town when a bakery, inn and a mill were built – all in the by now traditional style.  From its inception up to this point the settlement was ruled over by a series of families as a fiefdom.

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When feudal rule came to an end the settlement was granted the status of a royal town from the King of Naples, Ferdinand IV.  The local people decided to call their previous nameless settlement Alberobello.  This was granted in 1797 and, bizarrely, marks the point at which the construction of new trulli declined – and almost came to a complete halt.

Image Credit Flickr User Elizabeth Thomsen
Yet although new trulli were rarely built those which existed were carefully looked after by their inhabitants.  Today, people still live in the trulli – and although there is tourism most of the visitors are Italian. However, the townspeople do welcome guests from any country with, of course, a gentle reminder that Alberobello is still very much a vibrant and living community.

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 First Image Credit Flickr User oRion