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What is a masseria?
Photo: Tanzaganica

What is a masseria?

A masseria is a stone country house traditional to southern Italy, but especially prevalent in Puglia. While most masserie remain dotted over the Mediterranean region, as well as Sicily and Campania, the majority have now been converted to modern lodgings.

The name originates from the word masserizie, meaning ‘furniture and furnishings’. Although the masserie date as far back as the 7th - 8th century, in Italy’s Magna Graecia period, in the 16th century they served the role of fortified farmhouses. As agricultural tools increased in number, they were used to store farm tools in addition to food, grains and other bits and bobs.

At the height of the Roman Empire, Roman settlers decided to build regular rest stops along the coastline’s ancient roads. Stone estates were thus erected, offering the benefit of providing useful hubs for food, shelter and trade depots. Dotted over beautiful walkways, springs and rustic settings, the masserie also became a popular choice for religious housing and temporary accommodation for travellers and invaders. Although the region changed hands various times after the fall of the Roman Empire, the masserie remained in use.

Around the turn of the 16th century, as wealthy farmers started to purchase Puglia’s uninhabited land, the masserie became highly sought-after. Some of the masserie were adapted or built upon, often with a fortification for protection.

As more wealth entered the area landowners built masserie to resemble villas or small castles, surrounded by prosperous agriculture. Some of the masserie had two floors with the ground floor typically for the farmers or workers, with the landowner on the first floor. These estates also featured barns, stables and storage houses.

Eventually, due to conflicts and colonisation, many of the masserie became abandoned. Once the landowners vacated, so too did residents of the surrounding areas. The lands around these former prosperous stone dwellings became bereft and the masserie were forgotten about.

However, with the masserie located some distance out of town, surrounded by vineyards, coast and countryside, they would not remain out of the Puglian peoples’ minds for long.

Nowadays, the masseria is a source of fascination for tourists and Italians alike, eager to explore these unique historic dwellings. Since the rise of agritourism in the 1980s, visiting a masseria has become even more popular as southern Italians become attracted to learning about the history of their land and ancestors.

A lot of the former stone houses have been converted into B&Bs, restaurants, apartments and luxury resorts. The exterior is generally unmodified with visitors attracted by their rustic charm. However, some have been heavily altered with some original features lost. On the inside, you’ll often find a very modern design with Ionian influence or chic minimalism. Spas and swimming pools and restaurant tables have appeared in the places farmers would have enjoyed their modest dinners.

Even though the purpose of a masseria has dramatically changed, people are happy to enjoy an important part of agricultural history. Who knows, maybe the role of a masseria will again change in future centuries.
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