Limestone and Lime Building Techniques in Puglia, Italy

Former gateway at Mangiamuso (D. Ellsmore photo)

Report on APT Australasia Chapter members’ investigation of limestone and lime building techniques in Puglia, Italy

In late October 2018, a group of Australian and New Zealand members met in Ostuni, Puglia, to immerse in the traditional building culture of lime and limestone that are quintessential features of cultural places in southern Italy. The area is dominated by vast expanses of ancient olive groves punctuated with white limestone hill towns, masserie (fortified farm houses) and trulli (conical-roofed structures).

Lime and limestone were the theme of the week-long immersion program, which was facilitated by Peter Lewis (paint manufacturer and owner of the masseria ‘Mangiamuso’ near Ostuni), his architect Aldo Flore (Ostuni-based architectural conservation specialist), other specialists, property owners and lime manufacturers.

On day one, the group was introduced to the main site of the study program, Mangiamuso, which was nearing completion of works to adapt it for occupation by the Lewis family. The sensitive conservation program, designed by Aldo Flore, has converted the place into a very tasteful and comfortable home, without diminishing the historic character of the 300-year-old masseria or substantial parts of the property, including two below-ground frantoii (olive mills), which remain untouched by the makeover.

Grouting limestone paving at Mangiamuso (D. Ellsmore photo)

On day two, Paolo Albergoni, co-owner of the impressive masseria, ‘Garzia’, gave the group detailed historic information about the history of masserie in Puglia. We learnt about the historical circumstances leading to the common practice of locating all the olive oil processes and product below ground for security. Subsequent changes in agricultural practices led to developments of outlying barns, dairies and other structures, and the conversion of many of the below-ground former oil processing and oil storage areas for other uses. Now, hardly any of the masserie continue to function in the traditional manner. Many have been converted for tourism or as residences for wealthy owners.

Paolo Albergoni reveals the underground oil storage vats at Masseria Garzia (D. Ellsmore photo)

On day three, Aldo Flore led the group to a small lime production plant at Caravigno, where limestone is calcined in a traditional bottle kiln fuelled with wood products including plywood and chipboard, mostly recovered from demolition sites.

Inspection of lime calcining in bottle kiln at Caravigno (D. Ellsmore photo)

The freshly burnt quicklime is fed into a rotary drum slaking tank from which putty is dumped into large settling tanks, where it remains until it is milled and bagged for sale in a range of putties and mortars for masonry and plaster works.

Mortar mill blending lime and crushed limestone aggregate to produce fine mortar (D. Ellsmore photo)

From Caravigno, we travelled to a more extensive lime production plant at Fasano, where waste wood from wood-working processes at the site is the source of fuel for four bottle kilns. The processes are the same as at Caravigno, though on a larger scale and with further post-production of specialist products including lime paints and decorative finishing material such as cocciopesto (lime with fine-ground terra cotta).

Bottle kilns at Calce Viva, Fasano (K. Horrigan photo)

Rotary slaking at Calce Viva, Fasano (D. Ellsmore photo)

After visiting the lime works at Caravigno and Fasano, we inspected a trulli conservation project with Aldo Flore near Locorotondo. Here it was enlightening to obtain first-hand details of how the traditional cone-shaped structures – which were entirely basic and primitive at the time of their construction – are being adapted to address the architectural challenges of climatic control, damp management and seismic stabilisation. Aldo has managed many similar issues in Puglia and has emerged with specialised knowledge of the building type and adaptation and re-use.

Seismic stabilisation with reinforced concrete ring beams at trullo conservation site, near Fasano (D. Ellsmore photo)

Aldo Flore discusses traditional water collection, storage and management at trullo (D. Ellsmore photo)

The renowned food and wine of Puglia featured in the group’s next stop where a superb late lunch was served by chef Stefano and his infamously grumpy cameriere at Osteria del Cocopazza (pazza means crazy in Italian) in the centro storico of the hill town of Martina Franca. Time was limited for an extensive walking tour of the historic centre but good memories of the gorgeous historic city will re-surface again when memories of the lunch eventually settle!

On day four, the group got seriously into trulli and more food at Casa Cilona, near Ceglie Messapica with Puglia-based American architect Amanda Roelle, who provides educational programs on trulli, and host/chef Tonino. Amanda led the group on a walking tour of a collection of abandoned, though largely intact, trulli in a gorgeous bucolic landscape at Pascarosa.

Amanda Roelle at abandoned trullo monastery near Pascarosa (D. Ellsmore photo)

After pranzo (lunch) it was down to work with Mario the trullaro (trulli builder), shaping and laying chianche (stone shingles) to construct a cono (conical roof).

Participants in the trullo workshop at Casa Cilona shaping and laying chianche (D. Ellsmore photo)

Specialist trullaro Mario at the trullo workshop at Casa Cilona (D. Ellsmore photo)

At the end of the day Amanda made a more formal illustrated presentation on the typology and construction details, followed by a memorable meal.

Amanda and host (tonino (centre) with group after dinner at Casa Cilona (K. Horrigan photo)

On day five, the group travelled to Matera the remarkable historic city of ‘Sassi’ (ancient quarters) built into a rugged gorge, in the adjoining province of Basilicata. Sadly the place was densely packed with visitors on the day, a public holiday, and it became difficult and uncomfortable to navigate around the site. Our guide, Dora, provided a very informative tour of the ancient city, explaining the history, decline, shame, recovery, gentrification and tourism appeal. However, the crowding and lack of easy access to important features compromised the experience. A year ago the experience was different: the place was tranquil. Since then, efforts to promote the World Heritage listed place, including selecting it as European Cultural City of 2019, have tipped the balance towards tourism exploitation. Even so, Matera was and is a special place to visit.

On day six, we travelled to Alberobello, also World Heritage listed, containing a high concentration of trulli. The experience was slightly more relaxed than Matera and highly rewarding, but Alberobello also is labouring under the weight of visitors and there were lots of them on that holiday weekend. The nearby gorgeous small hill town of Locorotondo, featuring a concentration of commerse (barrel vaulted limestone terraces with chianche roof coverings) was also bulging at the seams due to the holiday visitors. Our visit there was truncated by the complications of holiday traffic.

Group at dinner on last night in Ostuni (K. Horrigan photo)

Group at dinner on last night in Ostuni, October 2018. (K. Horrigan photo)

At the end of the week, the group dispersed to other parts of Italy (Lecce, Naples, Rome and Sicily) to continue their Italian experiences, or on to other destinations (USA, Germany and Thailand) and home (Australia and New Zealand).

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