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The trulli of Alberobello and the mysterious pictograms

Alberobello is a cute little town in Puglia. Nestled against the gentle slopes of the Murge Plateau, the village is spread over a hillside. It owes its fame to the typical conical buildings made of the local dry limestone. These are the “trulli”: buildings of ancient origin, whose mysterious construction techniques have been preserved over the centuries.

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A shot of Alberobello with its characteristic trulli

Historical background and toponym’s origin

The first document attesting to the presence of a village called Alberobello is a diploma of investiture. On May 15, 1481, the King of Aragon, Ferrante, stipulated the transfer of property owned by Count Giuliantonio I to his son. These properties were located in the “Silva Alborelli in the province of our Land of Bari” [1]. The toponym was derived from the beauty of the oak trees, which were present in the area at the time.

From that moment the area came to be populated, at first by humble peasant families, and afterwards more urbanization took place. The protagonist of this process was the Acquaviva family, descendants of Giuliantonio I, a hero that had reconquered Otranto from the Turks. Giangirolamo II promoted the establishment of a village, setting some strict conditions: buildings had to be made of local dry limestone. These restrictions were adopted to avoid the payment of taxes; a law in force in the Kingdom of Naples, the Pragmatica de Baronibus, obliged the payment of large sums when a new village was built. The Aragonese law was intended to limit the power of the barons in Southern Italy.

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A glimpse of Alberobello

The houses of Alberobello without mortar did not look like a new village! Rather, they looked like makeshift constructions that shepherds or farmers had made for centuries in the Apulian countryside. Thus, trulli first appeared in Alberobello around 1635.

The controversial origin of the trulli 

Trulli have a controversial origin. The oldest buildings we can observe were erected 400 years ago, but this is not an accurate historical and archaeological estimate. Trulli, in fact, have a short life cycle due to the structural and functional characteristics of their architecture. Each construction is made of the local dry limestone, on top arranged to form a conical roof, finally covered with the typical crushed chiancarella slabs. A trullo is a makeshift construction that requires rebuilding several times.

It is more useful to investigate the type of construction. It has ancient and uncertain origins. Similar tholos roofs, for example, belong to the Mycenaean civilization (1500 B.C.), and then spread along the Mediterranean shipping lanes [2]. Some evidence can be found in the Peloponnese, Sardinia and Apulia.

The trulli as an imported architecture 

Although it is not possible to affirm that this type of covering was imported, there are many clues which indicated that it is not autochthonous. The stratigraphy of the rock landascape of Apulia appears so extraordinarily similar to that of Mycenae, where is the tomb a tholos of the Treasure of Atreus, and the other cited places. This suggests the repeating of a unitary construction way which bases on the availability of a particular limestone, the slate.

Moreover, tholos constructions in Apulia were also accompanied by the presence of megalithic structures. Among these are the famous specchie: piles of stones which can be associated with Sardinian nuraghi or with some Cretan Neolithic constructions. Apulian menhirs and dolmens were probably the distinctive mark of the civilization that had imported this type of architecture. It is possible that the Hellenes and the Phoenicians contributed to the massive spread of the tholoi in the Mediterranean area. Indeed, they were the heirs of the Mycenaean culture.

The pictograms and the pinnacles of Alberobello

Trulli are found not only in Alberobello, but all along south-central Apulia. However, here they have unique features and a special symbolism. The visitor to the small Apulian village is immediately struck by the strange pictographs that characterize many trulli, painted on the conical top. In addition, the roofs often end in pinnacles with fanciful and sometimes enigmatic shapes.

Alberobello is full of tourists, although the Covid-era. Anyway, to be noted the pictograms on the trulli.

These symbolisms belong to a little-known world of apotropaic rituals. The peasants of Alberobello believed that those pictographs, painted with lime on the chiancarelle of roofs, had an extra-empirical power, aimed at warding off evil spirits. At the same time, they had a propitiatory function in order to ensure a good harvest.

The commercial classification of the pictograms 

There is an ancient and commercial classification of the Alberobello pictograms, which divides them into primitive, Christian, grotesque and magic symbols.

An example of classification

The total absence of a written documentation has contributed to the spread of various, often fanciful, theories. According to the classification, the primitive symbols, which are difficult to understand, are the memory of ancestral and prehistoric glyphs. However, it is difficult to accept the theory that the Apulian peasants of the 18th or 19th century had a thorough knowledge of Neolithic rituals! It is also possible that primitive symbols do not have origins prior to Christian ones. Therefore, an honest interpretive revision is needed in the hope of adapting the classification system to the historical and cultural context in which the trulli developed.

A sun and an eagle?

The cultural context, between Paganism and Christianity

Alberobello is home to 200 pictographs among those visible and those lost. Some of them seem to refer to a context of folk and cultural traditions with propitiatory value. It is possible that the symbols were an expression of the genuine culture, also definable as pagan, that belonged to the Apulian peasant substratum. For example, propitiatory rites addressed to the fertility of the earth were famous. They were based on supposed popular astrological knowledge. The abundance of the harvest was linked to the positions of the planets, the sun and the alternating phases of the moon. For an Apulian peasant of a few centuries ago, his life depended on the vicissitudes related to the land, the rains and any natural event that could intervene. That is why in Alberobello it is possible to find propitiatory astrological symbols, sometimes planetary.

On the right: the symbol of planet Jupiter
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A moon and a cross, symbols of the earth/material in astrology

Anthropologist Ernesto de Martino has revealed that not only in Apulia, but also in many parts of Southern Italy, there were beliefs inherited from pagan antiquity. In his work, Sud e Magia, he addressed this issue with extreme scientific rigor. A nebulous inheritance of Roman religiosity, with its astrological knowledge, was mixed with the predominant Christian religion.

Peasant communities did not have a full cultural awareness of the symbols they adopted. As argued by De Martino, they used to appropriate religious and superstitious symbols in the hope of bringing these beliefs closer to their often unhappy reality. This is why the symbols of Alberobello seem to belong to different contexts, a characteristic that makes their deciphering and classification difficult.

Strange similarities

The astrological propitiatory and divination tradition dates back to the dawn of humanity. The Babylonians were the first to codify a system for observing astronomical phenomena and to give them a finalistic interpretation. For example, the Enuma Anu Enlil register from the 17th century B.C., which belonged to King Ashurbanipal of Nineveh, is known [3]. Among the inheritors of this extraordinary corpus of knowledge were certainly the mysterious Sabei of Harran, a small town in southeastern Anatolia, Turkey.

Harran is not only famous because it was ancient Carran, where the prophet Abraham had rested on the way to the land of Canaan [4], but also because of the intricate rituals that took place there. Some Christian and Muslim apologetic sources have referred to pagan astral cults, invocations to planetary deities until the 13th century [5]. Historians agree that the religion of the Sabeans was similar to that of the ancient Chaldeans of Babylon. The last pagan temple in Harran was destroyed in 1081, during the occupation of the Numairids. Also, in the 13th century the Mongols completely destroyed Harran. The only buildings that have survived are curious mud brick beehive houses that closely resemble trulli!

Harran beehive houses

The intervention of Christianity

Certainly the pagan subculture of Alberobello was partially overwritten by Christianity. Many pictographs were reinterpreted and others, particularly those related to worship, were introduced. This process occurred for most of the popular rituals of Southern Italy, into which prayers, invocations to saints were inserted.

Christian pictograms: the Cross and the “pierced heart of Mary”
A “cosmic” cross
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In the foreground, a Christogram is the perfect example of how earlier symbolism was overwritten. In this case, it was the astrological symbolism of the sun
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Omega is God, but the central cross recalls astrology

The final point in the Christianization process was the construction of the fascinating trullo church of St. Anthony. It has a Greek plan and was erected between 1926 and the following year.

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The trullo church of Alberobello

The pinnacles and the unknown symbols 

Regarding the presence of multiform pinnacular sculptures on the top of the trulli, the same considerations as above apply. However, they could be a “hallmark” of the master carpenters who made them. In this sense, they could be a form of archaic and peasant advertisement.

To be noted the multiform pinnacles of the trulli

Although there are many similarities between Christian, magical-pagan symbology and Alberobello symbols, there are several pictographs that are difficult to interpret.

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These are the so-called grotesque signs that have a meaning beyond the mere decorative aspect and which we should try to better understand in the future.

Samuele Corrente Naso

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Notes and references

[1] Grande Archivio di Napoli (Reg. Privil. fol. 32 e 59, vol. 39)

[2] La genesi dei trulli di Alberobello, Gino Angiulli, dalla rivista SITI – PATRIMONIO ITALIANO UNESCO, 2010

[3]  Le tavole I-VI della serie astrologica Enūma Anu Enlil, Lorenzo Verderame, Messina, Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità Università di Messina, 2002

[4] Genesi 11,27-32

[5]  The City of the Moon God: The Religious Traditions of Harran, Green, Tamara, Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, Volume 114, E.J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1992

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