Dispatch: Alberobello, Italy
Hate taxes? Try this 16th century solution: disassemble your house.
Houses constructed by stacking up stones without mortar became the signature building method in Alberobello in Southern Italy. These conical houses, called trulli, were built this way for two reasons: the feudal lord could quickly evict someone by taking down the drystone walls and the houses could be disassembled before the tax inspector arrived.
Tax reduction strategies have become more creative in every country but the feudal lords of Alberobello developed this unique approach. In one well-documented incident in 1644 when the King of Naples sent his representative, the land was filled with piles of stones instead of houses. After the tax assessors left, the peasants reassembled their houses.
These building techniques date to prehistoric times, but it was after the Crusades that this type of hobbit house construction was mandated in the Puglia area. The limestone boulders were collected from surrounding fields and worked into stackable pieces. Most houses have dome roofs built up with slabs. The walls are covered in limestone wash but the conical roofs are left with bare grey rocks.
Some roofs have religious or mythological symbols painted in white ash and small pinnacles are place at the apex. These varied-shaped pinnacles are believed to ward off evil spirits.
Door height measures around 5’5” about right for people’s sizes of that century but tough for a 6’3” man to avoid bumping his head. The interior presents more challenges with most only having around 200 square feet or less.
There are ingenious methods for collecting roof water into cisterns and alcoves for cooking fires vented through stone slabs. In the era after periodic tax deconstruction was stopped, chimneys evolved. Most have simple electrical wiring. We didn’t see any plumbing but it must be there.
Wi-fi? Well, we didn’t bother to ask.
Modern renovated trullis sell for around $1000 per square foot, about half of what a house in New York or Paris might cost. Some have been combined into larger buildings to accommodate restaurants and shops that serve the tourists who make the pilgrimage here.
Taxes have deep historical roots, at least as old as the Romans who were tolerant of conquered peoples —as long as they paid their taxes. In Alberobello, tax avoidance involved this extreme subterfuge. Perhaps the end of the Acquaviva family’s feudal rule in 1797 was caused by people being fed up with having to rebuild their houses. It is noteworthy that trulli construction died off in the 1800’s. Sometimes it’s just easier to pay the damn taxes.