The boundless beauty of the trabocchi

They number among the most elusive mysteries of the sea. Besides the Leviathan, the Titanic and the Bermuda Triangle, we have the trabocchi
No one knows exactly when they first appeared. The oldest records of their existence go back to around 1400 with the biography of Pietro da Morrone, better known to history as Celestine V, pope for a mere five months: he is remembered largely thanks to Dante, who singles him out as chief among cowards. To him, the founder of the Celestine order, are attributed the carved words: “It was the great abbey that struck me, even more than the smooth sea that glistened beneath the late morning sun, dotted with the trabocchi that stood like watchtowers from the shore to the skyline. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.” It is said that these words were carved by Pietro’s own hand sometime around 1240, during his time as a hermit in the monastery of San Giovanni in Venere, in Fossacesia, Abruzzo.

Nowadays, Fossacesia is one of the municipalities comprised within the seventy kilometres of Abruzzese coast, where many of these strange sea creatures still stand today. Made of wooden stakes and jointed planks, these spindly pieces of architecture stand suspended between blue and blue, breaking the otherwise unbroken line that divides sea from sky. We are in Abruzzo, specifically the province of Chieti. Why trabocchi – and there are just under thirty of them – should appear solely in this thin strip of land, well, that remains a complete mystery. These stilted fishing houses, pieces of architecture without architects, “almost impossible to calculate and even harder to realize” (Fabio Caravaggio), were built according to an oral tradition and yet have somehow withstood centuries of rocking to and fro. 

Fine, but to what purpose? Well, to enable people to fish without venturing out into open water, thereby evading the dangers out there. That’s the generally accepted theory, but it is only a theory. It’s like asking why the pyramids appeared only in Egypt: it’s impossible to answer. Another enigma is the name – where the word trabocco comes from, no one knows. What is certain is that the coastal dwellers who lived around the trabocchi have become known as the traboccante people: the families and craftsmen who knew and passed down the dark arts that somehow managed to make these constructions hold together. Despite its murky etymology, the sound and taste of the word perfectly embodies the sense of it, for traboccante in Italian refers to the moment when a liquid overflows its container, like a river bursting its banks. What does it have to do with Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “colossal spiders”, as he called them in his Triumph of Death? Nothing. Nothing except the intimate, mysterious, uncatchable beauty of the trabocchi.