The history of Puglia is one of serial conquest, subjugation and settlement. Its climate
and, more importantly, its geographical position have always made it a favourable place to
settle, or at least control.
Puglia was the gateway to Greece and the Orient but it was also the gateway for the people
of these lands to enter and move through Italy .For many civilisations, it was extremely
important strategically to control this area; both for trade and for the launching of
Although inhabited for many thousands of years previously by people such as the Daunnii
and Messapians, the Ancient Greeks were the first great civilisation to control this
region, settling here from the 7th century BC. The region was important as a trading
route but the Greeks also organised the region and developed its agriculture.
Some cities, in particular Taranto, became important colonies of Magna Graecia and many
relics and archaeological sites can be found in this area. With the arrival of the Roman
Empire in the 2nd century BC came a change of control, although Puglia took a century to
be fully conquered due to rebellion in many cities.
The importance of Apulia (as it was known by the Romans) to the Roman Empire was second
only to that of Lazio, and many seaports including Brindisi and Bari were founded at this
time. Brindisi was the most important port for reaching Greece, Macedonia, Egypt and the
Eastern Mediterranean and was linked directly back to Rome by the famous Via Appia or
Appian Way and the Via Traiana, (one of the two Roman Columns marking the end of the
Appian Way is still standing in the city.
At the fall of the Roman Empire came a long, dark period for the region with many
Barbarian invasions by, among others, Goths, Lombards, Byzantines and Saracens, leading
to increasing economic decline.
In the 11th century the Normans took control of the area and created the Duchy of Apulia.
Stability returned to the region, even after the Norman centre of power moved to Sicily,
and a new economic and artistic prosperity flourished. This continued under the rule of
the Swabian Kings, and in particular, King Frederick II. In the 13th century, Frederick
brought regional organisation to the region and helped cement the trade links of the
coastal towns. For 400 years Puglia flourished as it regained its position as a crucial
gateway from Europe to the East and the area became one of the most important and wealthy
in Italy. Frederick II’s reign was a time of great building work.
Magnificent cathedrals, castles such as the octagonal Castel del Monte, even whole cities
were built. The architecture of this time was classically Romanesque but it can be seen in
the characteristics of many of the buildings that there was still a great influence from
the previous Lombard and Byzantine conquests .The Renaissance was generally another bleak
period for Puglia.
In the late 13th century, Puglia was absorbed into the Kingdom of Naples under Angevin
rule. In 1500, the Spanish king Ferdinand V of Aragon was assigned Puglia by Louis XII of
France and two centuries of great decline and poverty followed. The Aragonese built
strong coastal fortifications in Bari, Taranto and Otranto to ward off Turkish invasion
but then moved their seat of power from Bari to Naples and Puglia was subject to attack
by the Turks and Venetians.
Much of the land was abandoned and coastal land quickly turned reverted to
malaria-infested swamp. This was, however, the time when Baroque architecture blossomed
in many Pugliese towns and cities and can be seen in the style of the cathedrals built at
that time. Lecce, a city dating from Greek times, rapidly expanded and was turned it into
the most beautiful and individual of baroque cities.
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht briefly gave Puglia to the Austrians until they were
defeated by the Bourbon dynasty, which ruled there from 1734. From the end of the 18th
century it was Napoleonic France that controlled Puglia, as well as most of the rest of
Italy, leading to the “Repubblica Italiana” and then the Kingdom of Italy. This was a
time of administrative and economic organisation as well as agricultural reform.
Although, there are early examples from up to 400 years before, the 18th century was when
the world-famous conical trulli houses were mostly built. To avoid paying taxes to the
crown, feudal landowners made the peasant farmers build their houses dry-walled (without
any binding material). This either made them exempt from tax or meant they could be
quickly dismantled before inspectors arrived from Naples. By now there was a strong
popular feeling for democracy and the unification of Italy and, in 1861, Puglia was
annexed to the new Italian state.
Since this time, there has been a sharp divide between the industrialised north of Italy
and the rural south, the “Mezzogiorno”. While this divide includes Puglia, the region has
generally been far richer than the rest of the south due to the intensity of it’s
agricultural output, in particular Olive oil and Wine. Since then, the region has been a
site of much development and improving infrastructure, although it was badly affected by
the two World Wars, again due to its strategic position.
Taranto and Brindisi were badly damaged in WWII, but are now thriving industrialised
ports, as is the capital city, Bari. After the war there was a large exodus to the north
and abroad but the state began a program of assistance for southern Italy and Puglia is
now a productive area industrially and agriculturally as well as benefiting greatly from
the tourist industry. However importantly Puglia retains a traditional feel in the
farming of the countryside, the buildings, the villages and towns, along with the
Mediterranean way of life.