The Layered History of Puglia, Italy
Updated: Sep 3
The history of Puglia is multilayered and complex. The region has been tossed about from one invader to the next, from about 270 BC until the unification of Italy in the late 1800s. Most articles you find on the topic are frankly boring to read and heavy with names of random invaders you’ve never heard of, making it difficult to grasp the overall concept of where Puglia’s been and how it relates to the culture you’ll experience there today.
Below, I attempt to break things down so you can understand the context of the amazing architecture you’ll see, the food you’ll eat, and the people you’ll meet on your adventure in southern Italy!
Part 1: The Beginning of Puglia
Puglia begins in the 1st millennium BC with the Italic and Illyic peoples (that’s those prehistoric guys who lived in tribes throughout Eurasia). Then history really kicks up- when the exiled Spartan soldiers from Greece settle along the coast in the 8th century BC where they start the major city of Taranto, among other coastal settlements (hence a Greek-like atmosphere you may experience when you visit).
As Romans gain more power, the Spartans start to get worried. Indeed, Romans take over in 272 BC and eventually complete the Via Appia (that’s the road connecting the south to Rome) about 80 years later- they move fast!
In this bit of history, Romans focus on colonizing the region and producing massive amounts of wheat, olive oil, and wine to sustain the growing empire. The seaports of Brindisi and Bari pop up, and things are going great. That is, until the fall of Rome. After that, Puglia gets invaded by “barbarian” tribes (which is fairly easy because Puglia is surrounded by water and difficult to protect).
There were the Goths (those Germanic guys from northern European areas like modern-day Sweden), the Lombards (those other Germanic guys from southern Scandinavia), and the Saracens (those tribal guys from Arabia), among others who tried to take over Puglia.
Part 2: Normans Know Best
The Normans (those guys from northern France) conquer in the 11th century and things start to chill out. The economy does really well and Norman architecture makes its debut. The style at this time is Romanesque (think cathedrals with big rose windows and arches) but because of the influence of the previous Lombard and Byzantine rulers in Puglia, an interesting blend develops which combines elements of Romanesque, Byzantine, and Arabic styles- mirroring the harmony of these different peoples living together in Puglia during this period.
This is a big part of what makes Puglia so special and different from other parts of Italy, which you’ll notice right away. This multicultural blend also shows up in Pugliese cuisine in really interesting ways (read more about that here).
Part 3: Amazing Architecture
Not much happens for Puglia in the Renaissance (1300-1600), and then the Angevins (those guys from France) rule for a bit during which time Puglia becomes part of the Kingdom of Naples. Because it’s ruled from afar during this period, things go awry and fall into neglect. Arabs, Venetians, Aragonese (those guys from Spain), pirates, and especially Turks (those guys from Turkey) take turns invading.
Lots of defensive towers and fortified ports (like you’ll see in Monopoli) are built. However, Baroque architecture flourishes in the 1600-1700s as a way for the church to re-establish its power. (Think opulent ornamentation, curvy balconies, and detailed façades all in local, cream-colored limestone.)
In the 1700s, lots of cone-shaped structures appear, called trulli. As a way to avoid high property taxes, these trulli are built without the use of mortar or any binding material so that they can be dismantled quickly when the authorities come to collect taxes, sometimes simply by removing one stone.
You will see these trulli spread across the countryside today, or concentrated in the town of Alberobello (which has unfortunately become a tourist trap in my unpopular opinion, a Disneyland version of itself. That’s why we bring our guests to the trulli dotting the countryside where you can also visit abandoned trulli left untouched in the fields).
Part 4: Modern Puglia
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht gives Puglia to Austria. But the Spanish reclaim it in 1734, then the French in 1806. The French get rid of feudalism and begin to reform the justice system. Finally in 1861, Puglia becomes part of a united Italy! Under Mussolini, Puglia intensifies its agricultural production and becomes [even more] covered with olive groves, wheat fields, and vineyards in an attempt to become self-sufficient.
Bari, Brindisi, and Taranto are heavily bombed during WWII but are now important industrial ports. Although lots of people moved to northern Italy to find work during and after the war, some assistance programs and the recent tourism industry have created new opportunities.
Although Puglia is now a modern region, it still feels so traditional, rustic, and authentic. While places in northern Italy offer predictable beauty that is certainly worth swooning over, Puglia offers a little more adventure, surprise, and variety!
Creative Edge Travel offers small group and custom trips to the lesser-known areas of Italy. Visit our Upcoming Trips page to see where we’re headed next!