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The mysterious pictograms of Alberobello

Alberobello is a nice city in Apulia. Near the gentle slopes that slowly climb towards the Altopiano delle Murgie, the village extends over a hilly area. It is famous for the typical conical constructions made with local limestone, art of dry stone, and the pictograms which characterize the landscape. They are the “trulli”: buildings having ancient origins, whose mysterious construction tecniques have preserved over centuries.

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A glimpse of Alberobello with its characteristic trulli

Historical background and origins of the toponym of Alberobello 

The first document attesting the presence of the village called Alberobello is a diploma of investiture. The 15 of May 1481 the king of Aragona, Ferrante, defined the transfer of the goods owned by the count Giuliantonio I to his son. These goods were located in “Silva Alborelli in the province of our Land Bari” [1]. The toponym derived from the beauty of the oak trees, which at that time were present in the area.

From that moment on the area was populated, firstly by humble families of farmers, and then was subjected to a greater urbanization. The Acquaviva family was the protagonist of this process: they were the descendants of Giuliantonio I, the hero of the reconquest of Otranto from the Turkish. Particularly, Giangirolamo II promoted the constitution of a primitive village, establishing some strict conditions: the agglomeration of buildings should have been realized with the local limestone, used dry. Some building restrictions were adopted by using a crafty expedient, aimed at avoiding the payment of taxes. A law in force in the Reign of Naples, the Pragmatica de Baronibus, established the payment of  large sums when a new village arose. The Aragonese law had the scope of limiting the power of the barons towards the Southern Italy communities.

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A glimpse of Alberobello

The Alberobello houses, without mortar and tinsel, did not appear as a new village! They seemed pretty to the makeshift constructions that the shepherds or the farmers had constructed for centuries over the Apulia countryside. Hence, starting from 1635, the trulli appeared in Alberobello for the first time.

Trulli, a controversial origin 

A controversial origins characterized the trulli. The most ancient buildings we could observe were erected 400 years ago, but it is not an indicative historical and archaeological estimate. Trulli, in fact, have a brief life cycle, due to the intrinsic structural and functional characteristics of their architecture. Each building is made with the local dry limestone, on the top expertly arranged to form a conical cover, finally covered by the typical crushed chiancarella slabs. A trullo is a fortune construction and, so, destined for continuous demolitions and renovations.

It is more useful to investigate on the construction type. It has ancient and uncertain origins. The similar conical coverings a tholos, for instance, belong to the Mycenaean civilization (1500 BC.), and then it spread along the navigation routes of the Mediterranean [2]. Some testimonies are 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. Nonetheless, the clues seem to lead towards that direction. The stratigraphy of the rock landascape of Apulia appears so extraordinarily similar to that of Mycenae, there 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, even in Apulia the a tholos constructions were accompanied by the presence of extraordinary megalithic structures. Among them, there are the famous specchie, piles of stones, which can be associated to the sardinian nuraghi or some constructions of the Cretan Neolithic. The Apulian menhir and dolmen were probably the distinctive sign of the civilization which had imported this type of architecture. It can be possible that the Hellenes and the Phoenicians were responsible of this massive spread of the tholoi in the Mediterranean. However, they were the heir and sons of the culture of Mycenae.

The pictograms and the pinnacles of Alberobello

The trulli are not just exclusive of Alberobello. In fact, there are several specimens in the Central-Southern Apulia. Nonetheless, in Alberobello they are particular and have a characterizing symbology. The visitor who goes to the little Apulian village is immediately impressed by the strange pictograms which characterize several trulli. They are placed on the conical summit. Additionally, the same cover often ends with fanciful and sometimes enigmatic pinnacles.

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

These symbologies belong to a word of apotropaic rituals. The Alberobello farmers believed that those pictograms, painted in milk of lime on the roof chiancarelle, had an extra-empiric efficacy, aimed to ward off evil spirits. At the same time, they had an ideal propitiatory function: that esoteric symbol guaranteed a good harvest.

The commercial classification of the pictograms 

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

An example of a summary classification

The complete absence of a written documentation favored the spread of several, often imaginative, theories. According to the mentioned classification, the primitive symbols, difficult to understand, were the memorial of ancestral, almost prehistoric glyphs. Nevertheless, it is difficult to accept the theory according to which the Apulian farmer, in the 18th and 19th century, had a deepen knowledge of the Neolithic rituals! It is also possible that the primitive symbol had not a previous origin to a Christian correspectives. Hence, it is needed an honest interpretative revision, hoping to adapt the classification system to the historical and cultural context where the trulli have developed.

A sun or an eagle?

The cultural context, between paganism and Christianity

Alberobello hosts 200 pictograms among the visible and the lost ones. A portion of them seem to refer to a context of popular and cultural traditions, with a propitiatory value. It is possible that the symbols were an expression of that genuine culture, which can be also defined as pagan, which belonged to the Apulian peasant substrate. For instance, the propitiatory invocations addressed to the land fertility were famous. They were based on the alleged popular astrological knowledge. The abundance of the harvest was related to the positions of the planets, the sun and the alternation of the moon phases. For an Apulian farmer of some century ago, his life depended on the vicissitudes linked to the land, the rains and every natural event which could intervene. This is why it is possible to find the propitiatory astrological, sometimes planetary, symbols in Alberobello.

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

The famous Ernesto de Martino revealed that not only in Apulia, but also in many parts of Southern Italy, there were  beliefs inherited from a pagan antiquity. In his work, Sud e Magia, the anthropologist explores the issue with an extreme scientific rigor. A vague inheritance of the Roman religiosity, with his astrological knowledge, mixed with the predominant Christian religion.

The peasant communities did not have a full cultural awareness of the adopted symbols. Simply, as specified by De Martino, they appropriated religious and superstitious symbols, in the hope of bringing these beliefs closer to their reality, often miserable. This is why the Alberobello symbols seem to belong to different contexts, a characteristic which makes difficult a unitary decryption or a classification.

Strange similarities

The astrological propitiatory tradition, as a divination, dates back to the dawn of humanity. Babylonians were the first who had codified a system of observation of astronomical phenomenons, and to provide to them a finalistic interpretation. For instance, in the 17th century BC the register Enuma Anu Enlil, who belonged to the king Assurbanipal of Nineveh [3]. Among the heirs of this extraordinary corpus of knowledge there were certainly the mysterious Sabei of Harran, a little center of the South Eastern Anatolia, in Turkey.

Harran is not famous only for being the ancient Carran, where the prophet Abraham had settled while he was reaching the land of Canaan [4], but also for the intricate rituals which took place there. Here, some sources of Christian and Muslim apologetic matrix referred of pagan astral cults, invocations to planetary divinities until the 13th century [5]. Historians agree that the religion of the Sabei was similar to that of the ancient Chaldeans of Babylon. The last pagan temple of Harran was destroyed in 1081, during the Numairids occupation. Moreover, in the 13th century Mongols completely destroyed Harran. The only constructions which resisted are the curious mud agglomerated with a truncated cone form. It’s a strange similitude with the famous trulli!

Trulli of Harran

The intervention by Christianity 

Certainly, the pagan sub-culture of Alberobello was partially overwritten by Christianity. Many pictograms were reinterpreted and others, specifically those linked to the cult, were introduced. This process is present in most of the  popular superstition rites of Southern Italy, which inserted prayers, invocations to saints et similia.

Christian pictograms: the cross on the Calvary and the “pierced heart of Mary”
A “cosmic” cross
In the foreground, the Christogram by San Bernardino: it is the perfect example of how the previous symbology was overwritten. In this case, it was the astrological symbology of the sun
Omega is God, but the central cross recalls astrology, ma la croce centrale richiama ancora l’astrologia

The final point of the process of Christianization was the construction of the fascinating church a trullo of Sant’Antonio. 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 

For what concerning the presence of multiform pinnacular sculptures on the top of the trulli, the same considerations explained above can be applied. Nonetheless, they could be a “distinctive sign” of the master carpenters which realized them. In this sense, they could be an arcaic and peasant form of advertisement.

To be noted the multiform pinnacles of the trulli

Although there are many similitudes between the Christian symbology, the magical-pagan one and the symbols of Alberobello, there are several pictograms with difficult interpretation.

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These are the so called grotesque signs, although they have a meaning which goes beyond the simple decorative aspects. These symbols could be a free expression of the farmer who have painted them, but they could also hide languages lost in time which, in the future, will be reconstructed.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by DanielaCampus)

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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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