Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Alberobello, Italy - Trulli Houses

After leaving Matera, Italy and the kind, yet creepy hospitality of Bruno’s Bed and Breakfast, I headed east to Alberobello, another small town in the southern region of Italy. Alberobello, is known for its mortar-less stone hut style of building called “Trulli”, or as Megan refers to them, “Smurf Houses”. It is one of the few regions in the world with this particular building form, besides some in France and Arab nations, though Alberobello has arguably the highest concentration of the interesting conical stone houses. The odd form alone warranted investigation and I wanted to know more about why it was regional to this spot in the world, how their construction and sense of place were related, and what it was like inside the small structures. I got my last wish rather quickly as I ended up staying in one of the older trullis in the tiny town [Alberobello has about 10,000 people and you can walk from one end of the other of the main part of town in about 15 minutes]. The trulli I was staying in was almost 400 years old and located in the eastern end of the two main trulli outcroppings. As you can probably guess from the outside, the interior is incredibly small as well, mine consisting of a main room that had a bed and random wooden furniture with a lower smaller nook to the side for the hobbit-like bathroom. There were only two openings to the outside, one being a 6 inch by 6 inch square window and the other the half of the door that had a large wooden shutter on it for light or privacy, depending on the circumstance.

The company that was renting me the trulli had a great tour guide named Francesco who was an Alberobello native born and bred and pronounced his “yes” like “yesh”, but otherwise had surprisingly great English for Southern Italy. He took me and four other interested Japanese architectural students on a long walk the first night I was there to explain the history of the town and the trulli. To my surprise the town is pretty young [“young” in Europe being less than half a millennium] and was settled in the 16th century. The Count that originally owned the land erected the town with the tried and true practice of tax evasion. The rumor I heard before I went was that the trullis were designed to be erected and taken down in the matter of a day, so if someone saw the tax man from the king coming, all the villagers would take their houses apart to prove that they weren’t living there. This proved to be impossible, as a trulli even back in the day took at least 3 months to construct. The real reason for their construction technique was that by using no mortar in their stone stacking, the Count was able to persuade the King that they were not real living quarters, just storage [many of them started this way] and thereby not have to pay dues to his liege. He did not tell this to his workers however, and collected the taxes on their houses himself. So the trulli [in Alberobello’s case] were originally built as farm storage and then later used for the housing of the poor workers, who were more or less treated like slaves.

As you can imagine this would not often lead to great living conditions, as the trulli themselves were supposed to look like temporary storage and not actual housing. From living in one for several days I can attest to their extreme cold nature in the winter as well as their lack of natural daylight and ventilation. I was sick most of the whole time I was in the town and shouldn’t blame it all on the trulli, though I will since I harbor ill-founded grudges and still sneeze every once in a while. The trulli are built on no foundation usually with a double wall condition. The interior stone wall is built first and then the outer one second with a gap in-between that is filled with loose rubble. The cone shaped roof is structurally very stable, sometimes using wooden cross beams to reinforce laterally, though piercing the roof for openings proves to be hard since they rely on a continuous circular shape to distribute the weight, which is why light is very hard to get into the thickly walled homes.

All in all I was sadly disappointed by the trulli as a building type. In terms of their construction it is incredibly interesting, especially before 1797 when mortar was still outlawed and it was illegal to use any “binders” in the town. But the actual living conditions themselves are pretty shoddy sometimes and don’t lead to a better source of light, air, and heat. Most of the trulli in the town are used for shops now, or museums, with only a lesser percentage being still inhabited on a normal basis. Many homes have incorporated the “trulli style” to various parts of their classical Italian style villas, but more of an add-on than anything else. There is a ban on building new truillis [to prevent spoiling the quaintness] and the older ones can only be maintained, though from their look and the tourist revenue they are bringing in, I’m sure that will continue. To be fair, the vast majority of trulli that still remain are used as they were originally intended. As I pressed my face to the window of the rumbling departing train, I could see them dotting the fields of countless farmland passed by. Their washed and worn gray faces quietly regarding what was going on around them with a look of rocky indifference.

Thoughts on Traveling #7 : You’d be amazed how much other countries keep up with American government. In a large parade in a town in Southern Italy, there were two floats showing American political figures, and only one of the Italian governments. Here is how Italy sees Obama:


Nick Sowers said...

dude you are Gargamel!

Anonymous said...

There is a lot written about the town. Next time, ask around and see if a farm family takes in boarders to see how life really is n a free standing trullo. I'll bet that they are more comfortable by far than the cheek by jowl living conditions in the village which is stifeled by regulations concerning preservation. People sort of tend in the direction of comefort if they have a chance to have it. Jean-victor Plante