Abruzzo’s old villages

Pizzoferrato – Photo © neve.abruzzoturismo.it

Almost all the mountain centers of Abruzzo, sitting tight and protected on the peaks, were wise in their geographical setting and their own morphology for two reasons: the extreme danger of the Middle Ages, a period in which the majority of these villages arose, and the business (but it could be said mono-culture) of sheep farming, that was dominant in the mountains.

Built entirely out of live stone and mud, with a total, phobic absence of wood, all the old villages of the Abruzzo mountains express the obsessive attachment to stone, which is typical of the Mediterranean civilization.

Scanno – Photo © neve.abruzzoturismo.it

These houses of bare stone, built close one to another, to form a compact, protective mass in guise of a wall, are called “case-mura”, wall-houses, and are communicating their never-ending, tormented need of defense in a world of extended, feudal chaos, of the critical evasion of the central powers and therefore, the lack of organized systems of defense. The outside perimeter of the houses enclosed the village in a civilian but effective, defensive circle.

On the outside there are few windows, almost as narrow as slits, placed in the upper floors. A direct consequence of the dangerous times, the so called “defense barriers” represented the only solid system of self-defense for the local population. Real, fortified villages more than just castles, these allowed a prolonged, defensive retreat for the people, if necessary.

For a very long space of time, going from the XI century to the French revolution, this type of urban plan formed a typical model of a civilized settlement in the Abruzzo mountains.

Nevertheless it is difficult to understand the sense of these human settlements, often pushed to the limits of habitability without putting them back in their place in that system of economic production that organizes, in its entirety, all life in the mountains: sheep farming.

In actual fact, as an economic activity predominant in Abruzzo for almost three millenniums, therefore the origin of a particular condition of life, the sheep farming has made an impression on the territory not just limited to prints left in the pastures and sheep tracks.

Anversa degli Abruzzi
Anversa degli Abruzzi – Photo © neve.abruzzoturismo.it

The great majority of the sheep, the huge flocks that periodically moved from the upper pastures in the mountains to the coastal plains of the Peninsula, are completely unconnected with the inhabited center: the transhumant sheep always live out in the open. They represented, however, a sort of additional capital that never became directly part of the life or urban plan of the mountain villages.

The actual style of each single house reflects this economy tied to a type of breeding which is based on large herds of small animals. The impossibility of moving this patrimony to the center of the village, the need of defense which tended to limit the extension of the center to be protected, and the steepness of the slopes, made a particular housing structure necessary in the shape of buildings with three, four, or even five or six rooms, one on top of the other.