On the heel of Italy’s boot, small stone huts with conical rock-covered roofs can be seen scattered among the olive trees. These are called trulli and can be found throughout the Itria Valley, where there are approximately 50,000 of them, especially in the town of Alberobello, where there are roughly 1,500 of them.
Some trulli stand alone, while others are clustered together along the town’s cobbled lanes transformed into residences, shops, restaurants and even boutique hotels. Today, the trulli of Alberobello are a Unesco World Heritage site.
Trulli are products of the Messapian culture which settled there during the Iron Age (1200-550 BCE). Although there is no clear consensus on when the first trulli were built, most sources agree the oldest are several thousand years old.
Trulli initially were built to serve as temporary field shelters for shepherds and animals, especially during the heat of the summer, and were constructed from stones that locals removed from the rocky soil to plant olives trees and grape vines. Over time, these huts began to function as storage spaces for farm equipment as well as permanent homes for farmers and small-scale landowners.
What’s remarkable about the trulli of Alberobello is how well they’ve stood the test of time despite being built using mortarless construction. The builders rely on their ability to assemble the stones in such a way as to form a stable structure.
A master builder would oversee the engineering and building of these shelters, which began with the fabrication of a subfloor cistern from boulders collected in nearby fields. Then, using local limestone excavated on site, along with soil and water, they built the base with double-leaf walls (where an airspace is between the internal and external walls) that allowed the structure to stay cool in the warmer months and insulate it in winter. Over time, the inner and outer walls were whitewashed with lime to prevent insect infestation.
To support the conical roof, they first placed four main blocks on the top corners of the base. Then, they would construct the three-part dome, comprised of an inner layer made from wedge-shaped supporting stones, followed by insulating filler and an external layer of corbelled limestone slabs to facilitate water drainage. A decorative pinnacle, said to ward off evil or bad luck, topped each dome.
Legend has it that the mortarless construction of these huts also served a clever purpose. The peasants could knock down their dwellings before the king’s tax collectors arrived and quickly rebuild them after they left.
One feels embraced inside a trullo. It’s a different kind of sleep, a pampering for the spirit. You have the smell of the stone, the climate is right, the light never intrusive and time and space merge into a more human, welcoming dimension. Saving the trulli and the landscape in which they are immersed means saving ourselves, our history and the culture to which we are heirs.
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