The origin of the trullo

The origin of the trullo is unclear. It is often claimed that the shape of the trullo goes back to a 17th century tax evading scheme by the Counts of Acquaviva, ruling the County of Conversano – which included Alberobello – since 1481. According to this narrative, drystone architecture was imposed upon settlers so that their houses could be quickly dismantled, thus avoiding taxation on permanent housing structures and new settlements by the Kingdom of Naples. The “Pragmatica de Baronibus”, a law imposed by the Aragonese kings of Naples, prohibited the building of urban settlements without the permission of the king, and furthermore heavily taxed existing settlements.

Only one single recorded case of the practice of dismantling a trullo settlement for tax reasons exists, dating to 1644. But it seems that this was a rather isolated incident, restricted to the area of Alberobello, the only urban environment in which this otherwise rural architechture is found. Mere tax evasion can neither explain the wide distribution of trulli within the Murgia and the Salento regions, nor its restriction to these areas only. Nevertheless, there are no archaeological or historical records that prove the existence of trulli in Apulia before the 17th century. There has not been much research into this issue, though, either.

The spreading of trullo architecture is believed to have occured in the course of the dismantling of big feudal estates, which was followed by the spreading of small settlements, with farmers extending their land and newcomers settling in forests.

Some scholars have claimed an origin in the Middle East, referring to the adobe beehive houses in Harran, at the Syrian-Turkish border, which is – according to the Bible – the birthplace of Abraham. These beehive houses are similar in shape, and are believed to date back to at least 3,000 years ago.

Harran beehive houses
Beehive houses in Harran

Other authors refer to the Bronze Age tholoi of Greece, impressive domed stone constructions serving as tombs, claiming the origin of the word “trullo” from “tholos” (θόλος). It simply means dome, as does the much more likely word “troulos” (τρούλος).

Other Prehistoric Southern European examples are the nuraghe in Sardinia, and another, more recent, parallel can be found in the bories in the Southern French region of Provence. The latter date back no longer than to the 18th century, resulting from a royal land edict that resulted in groups of people moving from towns into the countryside.

At this point, a definition of the trullo is much needed: Not every round hut with a conical roof is a trullo. Practically worldwide, architecture began with round shapes. A trullo is a hut or a small house built in drystone architecture roofed by one or several corbelled domes, constructed out of concentric rows of hewn stone blocks, culminating in a final stone.

It is not unthinkable that Medieval travellers or even crusaders, returning from the Middle East, and setting foot at the port of Brindisi, brought back the idea of beehive coned architecture to Italy. A few Apulian churches dating to the High Middle Ages show domes constructed in the same way as trullo cones, f.e. the church of Sant’Eustachio in Giovinazzo (11th century), the unfortunately very desolate ruins of Sant’Apollinare near Rutigliano (10th-11th century), or San Bartolomeo in Padula near Castellana Grotta, which was first mentioned in 1180 in a letter to the bishop of Monopoli.

On the other hand, I tend to be sceptical of overly diffusionist ideas. In a similar environment, dry, hot in summer, lacking suitable wood for construction, with plenty of either stones or mud to produce mud bricks, humans can come up with similar solutions to similar problems, for example keeping themselves and their supplies cool in summer.

Which brings us finally to the use of beehive-shaped architecture. Form follows function: there can be no comparison of shapes and styles disregarding its function. Trulli used to be summer huts and storage facilities for the farmers but not their main dwellings. The construction of bigger trulli complexes with several rooms, fireplace and other commodities seems to be no older than the 19th century. The beehive houses in Harran were inhabited. The tholoi, on the other hand, are tombs. The Sardinian nuraghe are another enigma, I tend to lean towards the idea that they were a kind of fortified masseria, probably connected to grain storage, maybe communal, probably rather feudal.

In summary, we simply do not know since when trulli have been built in Apulia. There is similar architecture to be found in various areas but some of it fulfills different purposes. An independent development of the trullo is therefore possible but, on the other hand, disregards the close cultural links within the Mediterranean region throughout history. Tracing the origins of the trullo to international contacts within this wider region would depend highly on establishing a date for the first trulli to be built in the region.

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G. Angiulli (2010), La genesi dei trulli di Alberobello, SITI – Patrimonio italiano UNESCO, Associazione Beni Italiani Patrimonio Unesco.

G. Angiulli (2012), I trulli di Alberobello: la diffusione e lo sviluppo storico, SITI – Patrimonio italiano UNESCO, Associazione Beni Italiani Patrimonio Unesco.

G. Dalfino (2007), Architettura e storia medievale in Puglia tra Oriente e Occidente Le chiese a cupola.

S. Dal Sasso, R.V. Loisi, G. Ruggiero & G. Verdiani (2013), Characteristics and Distribution of Trullo Constructions in the Area of the Site of Community Importance Murgia of Trulli, Journal of Agricultural Engineering, Vol. 44, No 2.

T. Galiani (1999), La Guida Storico-Turistica di Alberobello, SAN.VER.AL PROJECT.

G. Kish (1955), The beehive houses of Apulia, The Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review LXI.

H. Scholz (1956), Die Trulli Apuliens: Beiträge zur Siedlungsgeographie von Süditalien, Bern.

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