Alberobello was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and is now among the most famous and frequently visited UNESCO sites in Italy. As a result, Alberobello The town has increasingly become a centre of mass tourism. The primary reason for the UNESCO designation, and for the tourism, is a unique and very interesting architecture, called trulli, that is found in the town and its environs.
Trulli are pyramidal or conical-shaped dwellings built of corbelled "chiancole" (overlapping limestone slabs) without the benefit of mortar. The base and points of the buildings are always painted a pristine white, while the roofs are left their natural colour. The slabs used in the building were quarried from the surrounding territory, which is made largely of calcareous rock that has been stratified by millions of years of fast moving surface and ground water. Alberobello is the only place in the world where these kinds of buildings are found.
Historians and archaeologists are not certain when trulli were first built. The question is, were they an indigenous building method before the 16th century or were they invented at that time to satisfy a specific need?
During the 16th century, the area around Alberobello was part of a fiefdom ruled by the Counts of Conversano, a branch of the Acquaviva family. During the preceding two centuries, farmers had settled on the Selva, a hilly wooded area, potentially subjecting the ruling family to a royal census tax.
During the mid 17th century, in order to curry favour from the King of Naples, after having been denounced and exposed by a competing family for having illegal settements on their lands, the Conversano ordered the destruction of the existing buildings. Later, however, the farmers were allowed to return and rebuild, but only on the condition that they build without mortar so their dwellings and other buildings could be quickly disassembled should the royal taxation officers decide to visit the area.
Looking at them from the point of view of the inhabitants, the trulli are, therefore, an ingenious human adaptation to the specific historical and geographical circumstances that obtained at the time. From the Conversano's point of view, the prescribed method of building was an ingenious tax evasion scheme.
The precarious illegality of the villagers situation could not last, however. So, in 1797, weary of their uncertain and illegal status, a delegation of villagers went to Taranto to seek the pardon from the Bourbon King, Ferdinand IV. Pleased, with their "honesty", Ferdinand granted a royal decree, dated May 27th of that year, granting recognition and freedom to the village, which had grown considerably during the intervening time.
The Selva upon which the town of Alberobello sits, at about 420 meters above sea level, is actually two hills divided by an ancient, now dry riverbed. The Roman's Latin name for the area was Silva Arboris Belli, or silver tree wood.
The trulli settlement is on the west hill, and the modern town on the east. The western side is itself divided into two historic quarters, the Monti and the Aia Piccola, both of which are designated national monuments. Three other trulli style structures on the periphery, the Trullo Sovrano, the Casa D’Amore and the Casa Pezzolla are also designated.
Virtually all the trulli have been restored and renovated and are used as private habitation, hotels and B&Bs or public buildings. Some of the structures have been renovated with very lavish interiors and glorious gardens - a very unique environment for the traveler who is looking for a special experience.
The countryside surrounding Alberobello, by hundreds of years of careful farming, has been rendered into a highly productive agricultural area boasting olive and cherry orchards, vineyards and plantations of almond trees. In medieval and later times, the nearby forests yielded oak lumber which was valued in the larger cities, but deforestation has more or less put an end to this industry. Today, tourism is the mainstay of the local economy.
One can see Alberobello in under a day, but the town makes a wonderful place to stay while one explores the Itria Valley, a vast expanse of territory with breathtaking scenery, and home to some of Italy's best olive oils, wines, and cheeses.
Posted by Jesse Andrews on September 12th, 2006.