Masserie - introduction

A day spent around the beautiful Apulian countryside, to discover the places where all the great and sometimes unknown men who made our history lived, represents a real journey back in time to the past. This stunning excursion will wake up again in the tourist his or her own now numb feelings for nature and all of the daily life's simple things. Along the monotonous roads all of us have to travel everyday, we can recognize the valuable testimonies of a glorious past still alive inside the hearts of our people: "masserie"(countryside houses). Once, these houses were places where to organize and to distribute the agricultural work. Masserie symbolized the core of the whole economical and social life in southern Italy.

The history of masseria is strongly tied to that of southern Italy which is a troubled history of poverty, violence, injustice, ignorance and denied rights. History that has its roots in ancient times, even as far as in the first centuries of the Roman Empire when Plinio il Vecchio, to explain the agricultural crisis, said that “latifundium (large landed estate) had ruined italy”.

Masseria has very old origins. The first examples date from the period of Greek colonization of the south (VIII-VI centuries b.C). Masseria was considered as a systematic organization of the land and  was directed to farming activities.
Starting from the V century b.C. the Romans concentrated the properties in a few landowning companies which gave origin to "massericiae", rural entities that later on became residential and agricultural settlements called “villae” or “massae”.

V-XV centuries
With the barbarian invasions (V century a.C.) the “roman villa” passed to a new barbarian ruler who fortified it for defence and against attack. “Massa” went through a complete transformation in the IX century thanks to Carlo Magno who created a new rural entity called “feud”.
The Normans arrived in southern Italy in the XI century and transformed the feuds into “masserie villaggio” . “Masserie regie”, dedicated to the cultivation of cereals and horse breeding, were born thanks to the arrival of Svevi to southern Italy.
In the XV century that part of Italy passed to the Aragonese who abolished all the privileges that had been granted to farmers.
The only ones to conserve some benefits were those related to transhumance who were allowed to construct buildings on pasture lands, used as dwellings, shelters for animals or for the manufacture of dairy products. This is how “masserie di pecore” (sheep masserie), also called “iazzi”, were born. They differed from the masserie called “posta” in which cultivation was practised, as these were fixed positions into which the workers returned at the end of the day.

XVI-XIX centuries
The typology of the XV century masseria had remained invariable in the XVI and XVII centuries and went through substantial changes when the Bourbons arrived in southern Italy in the XVIII century.
They expropriated ecclesiastic feuds which were taken over by rural middle class that organized latifundium in masseria in which the figure of “massaro” coordinated the work of the farmers.
In the XIX century with the enforcement of the “Napoleonic law” in Italy, poor farmers were assigned pieces of state land for cultivation, pasture or wood but they were so small that the farmers were forced to sell them in order to live on.
The rural middle classes continued to rule in the south, supporting “latifundium” which had been broken up in the rest of the country since a long time.
“Countryside masserie” were born with the cultivation of olive trees and grapevine. This kind of masseria offered occupation for several workers; field farmers, “gualani” (those who carried out humble farming and rural works), cow herds, cattle farmers.
Right after the union of Italy (XIX century) disappointed farmers (brigands) devastated most of these masserie. Towards the end of the XIX century rulers chose masserie as their residences in order to control the progress of the activity. “Masserie palazzo” which marked a period of maximum efficiency, were born for this purpose. The number of employees was very high: farmers, “massari”, regular wage-earners, “gualani” (those who carried out humble farming and rural works), occasional workers during the periods of olive picking and that of sowing and harvesting.

XX century
The conditions of the farmers got worse after world wars. With the password “the land for those who work” the “agricultural reform” was issued and as a consequence “latifundiums” were expropriated or divided. The life in masserie changed considerably and many of them were abandoned or used differently, modifying  customs and needs.
“Latifondismo”, well-established in the south in feudal forms of large, scarcely productive, undivided properties that used to be owned by feudal lords and priests and later on bought up by the southern middle classes, has supported the spreading of masserie in the area.
Places of exploitation, poverty and marginalization all over the south, still today a subject of political-economical debates. Poverty that then leads to emigration which means  definite loss of hope that the State would become aware of the people of the south, and yet…
In the masserie there’s an atmosphere of adaptability, which consists in tension, waiting, hope of changes that would lead to mutual help.
Thus masseria was born from negative historical events, becoming a place of positive values. This was a proof of the character of southern people who did not let themselves be abased by the oppressors, a character which hides under apparent resignation and submission the power of the poor against  the arrogance of rich exploiters.

Masserie - evolution

Time and progress have dramatically changed the houses themselves: sheepfolds became mills, stables have been replaced by garages, plows disappeared in favor of huge and powerful tractors. Men's life too has changed, so much so they often abandoned these treasures of their native lands. Only a few masserie nowadays continue to explicate their initial functions, the majority consists of simple houses or maybe happens to be resorts, restaurants and discos; still some other ones crashed under the weight of the uncaring years. In Apulia estimated by the Touring Club, there are six hundred and sixty five masserie. Among them all the tourist could visit many, appreciating them in their fullness, at the same time considering their specific distinctive peculiarities.

Masserie - diffusion

Along so many roads of this rural itinerary there is also the chance to encounter many "masserie palazzo" (palace countryside houses), whose owners led their lives following personally the productive activities. Here it is clearly evident the social distinction between landlords and workers, simply by observing the diversity of their houses, even physically so distant one from the other. The more the landlords were rich and powerful, the larger their estate properties, the nicer and extraordinarily sumptuous the decorations. The people living in masserie were known as "homini defora" or "foresi", in other words, citizens who were living outside the town's walls. They used to work as farmers, harvesters, shepherds, tree trimmers, cheese makers and they were given orders by the "massaro", an ambiguous figure who was loved and hated both by the workers and the owners, since he didn't belong neither to the former nor to the latter category; anyhow this figure represented the essence of each one of these countryside houses deserving the hard earned name of masserie.

Masserie were the places where the agricultural work and the whole economical and social life were organized in southern Italy. Concerning the structure, Masserie were born on the truncated late-Roman villas where the volumes are distributed around a comfortable and wide internal space. Time and history have requested some works that have modified the architecture of our ancient Masserie for politic economic and social needs. The charm of these structures has remained although several changes have occurred. The functional nature of the internal and external spaces division is really surprising; spaces fit well environment with great harmony, as well as a perfect balance between man and nature, the elegance remains also in the poorest shapes.
Masserie with court structure show structural and frequent elements that become steady characteristic of them, despite the complexity of the area, the dimension, the activities and the rural changing events of the south.
This kind of masseria seems to be a quadrangular or rectangular fortress with a large courtyard inside (about 500 sqm), usually paved with stone slabs or rubble, in the centre we find the well or water tank. The court is the physical and operative core of this masseria, the heart of the structure, through a unique door is possible to accede to the court in order to avoid any external contact.
Along the sides of the courtyard we find the spaces where ancient life developed while fields and grazing extended around and behind the building.
Pastoral Masseria
This kind of Masseria at single or two levels with court, was developed on the large estates of our country where pastoral function was more important than the agricultural one. On the ground / first floor the Massaro lived. Usually there wasn’t the master’s residence, since it wasn’t a resort house.
The courtyard wasn’t surrounded by the workers’ lodgings, but was bordered by closed sheds (suppenne) and few spaces concerned the milk process. Sometimes the Masseria pastorale consists of two interconnecting courtyards, all the rustic buildings are disposed around the first one, and the sheds for animals are disposed around the second that has a own door.
Agricoltural an pastoral Masseria
This Masseria is usually distributed on two levels with a court structure. The entrance is on the main side composed of two floors and usually houses a little church: an external stairs leads  to the first floor where the owner’s residence is, on this part of the building it’s possible to find a little lodge, from there the gaze embraces all the extension of the property, on the ground floor the Massaro usually lives.
On the other sides of the courtyard, further spaces are distributed on the same level and without a fixed order: warehouse for agricultural products, stables with stone mangers, dormitory for seasonal workers and a quite large room with oven and kitchen where workers ate their meal. Around and behind the building, (it depended on the size of the Masseria), there was the oil mill, the “palmento” for the wine and the farmyard for the wheat. The farmyard was paved with “chianche” used for recovering the rainwater that was impounded into tanks and used for drinking, for cooking legumes and for watering of crops. The rain water was recovered also from roofs through gutters.
Linear shape Masseria
In this type of Masseria well distributed on our area, the court is absent. Inside the structure several buildings (depending on their complexity and on the size of the Masseria) are disposed along a single side with rooms on the ground floor or with levels that overlap.
The same structure belongs to Masserie with  simple economy, where we can find a simple house where the Massaro lives, little shelters for sheeps and round small towers for doves.


Unity, a fundamental element in rural architecture, is recognizable through the use of colours,  materials and above all thanks to a specific order of minor volumes if compared with the main bulk.
Structure becomes an expressive action thanks to the most employed building material, the tufa, a porous calcareous rock, excavated inside a quarry in blocks of standard sizes.
The goal is a simple subdivision of the internal space: parallelepiped shapes without external differences, which are usually distributed on two levels in a planimetric scheme of quadrangular shape. Around the residence, a more large space called “mezzana” is reserved for ox and horses grazing.
The surrounding area is fenced by dry walls and called “campana” (bell), it is designed for calves and young horses pasture.
In front of the house there is the farmyard, paved in order to crush the wheat, sideways there are a big cistern and rectangular tanks containing water for livestock.
The court represented a closed space around the castle or the Master’s house, it was the administrative centre of the large estates.
The partition of spaces shown through several practical aspects is emphasized by an architectonic element as the well is, often situated in the middle of the internal court, usually paved with “chianche”.
A kitchen garden was usually present inside our Masseria, it was a small plot of cultivated land situated very close to the house, so that the Massaia could easily accede to it. The garden is usually fenced, in order to protect products from animal invasions. Nowadays the kitchen garden and the farmyard represent the green spaces: private and equipped.
The Apulian Masseria with its great architectonic importance due to its hand crafted feel, isn’t only a house, but it’s an articulate way to coordinate the residence, the work and the social life.
Masseria was born as an independent cell of a restrict productive tissue, it takes a specific characterization in accordance with the morphology of rural land, depending on social changes and on environmental transformation.

Typological elements
Usually Masserie present wide buildings, composed of several spaces on two levels. On the ground floor it is possible to find spaces for production, stables and spaces for generic activities, on the upper floor there is the residence.
Masserie usually have the following typological elements:
a)The court
Court or courtyard is the uncovered space, it is possible to find it only in rural complex of large dimension. The economy in the large estate reflected on the court that accomplishes to different purposes like the defence from the bandit-phenomenon or the control on each operative sector of Masseria.
In some area, where the pastoral destination prevails (Masserie of Matera area), the court becomes the switching centre of activities and the Masseria is surrounded (on two or three sides) by buildings which have a productive and residential destination.
b)Master’s lodgings
The master’s lodgings are usually located on the upper floor of the main building, for the access it’s possible to use wide stairs located in the hall of the court.
c)Massaro and workers lodgings
Spaces assigned to Massaro and workers for their rest, are on the ground floor, very close to the spaces of the production. Inside a more elaborate Masseria, rooms dedicated to Massaro become more important, in fact they are located on the first floor in a strategic position, in order to take the entrance under control.
d)Working Spaces
A series of spaces distributed around the court and used as stable, cart shed, or used for production and conservation of wine, milk, olive oil; sometimes there was also a space for the farrier.
The chapel is usually present inside this structure, used for sacred celebrations. It is possible to find an internal chapel on the residential floor, otherwise it is located on the ground floor with the entrance in the hall; it was also located between the spaces of the ground floor with an external access, indicated by a cross. It’s possible to find a real church with an esteemed disposition of volumes and architecture, usually covered by a dome, and provided with an elevate bell tower sideways.
This is the dominant element of this kind of rural architecture. The tower is the main part in the defensive structure of Masserie. Squared or circular shaped garitte and turrets, lied on corbels and situated on the corners, allowed to control the die spaces of the building.
Rural structure sites at a specific distance from Masseria, it was used for sheep-breeding.

“Caditoia” or “piombatoia”:
The trapdoor is on the floor of the walls or towers where in the past men were on patrol, it was used in order to pour oil or pitch on enemies.
It’s a slit provoked on the walls of fortifications, from it was possible to shoot with “archibugi”, light firearms with a long barrel; for increase the range, the loopholes splay inwards.
Subterranean Oil mill:
One of the most attractive part of this Masseria is the big underground oil mill from which it brings the name. In the past olive oil was produced in this  natural cave. Almost all fortified Masserie of Salento were built over or near wide underground caves, then adapted according to human needs: in this place millstones, press and tanks were settled. Spaces for the rest of workers were built always underground as well as stables for animals. In this cave men and animals have been worked until 1950’s. Machineries through a system of belts and pulley moved the millstones during the first 1900’s. Steam pressing are really archeological finds used by industries, they seem to stop working recently.
Tanks were excavated on the floor for preserving in olive oil. Inside this cave near the old millstones, are conserved the old agricultural tools, jars, harvest bins, wine. Inside the Masseria a perfect microclimate allows to conserve fruits and vegetables in a natural way.
Ancient sentry box.
Patrol walkway:
It’s a bulwark situated on top of the walls and bastions of the Masseria endowed with loopholes and caditoie.
The cryptoportico is a semi-subterranean gallery whose vaulting supports portico structures aboveground. It was used for building terraces.


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