Muretti a Secco

January 24, 2013 / Local Interest
il Ragusano, Sicily
Thanks to their grueling work and an innate sense of artistry, farming peasants created the most striking feature of the landscape in the province of Ragusa, Sicily: dry-stone walls.

In the 16th century, Ragusa’s peasants gained farming rights under a perpetual lease program, and in exchange for improving the land were able to pass it down to the next generation.  The main improvement necessary in order to cultivate a field was the removal of the limestone rocks, which this land has in seemingly endless supply.  These rocks were used to create dry-stone walls – muretti a secco.

Curving dry-stone wall

As centuries passed, peasant farmers gradually began to become landowners, and more walls were erected to further divide properties, mark the boundaries of pastures, stripe the hills with terraces, or create borders along narrow roads – called trazzere – that linked various farms.

stone wall terracing in SicilyMany of these walls are topped with hand-chiseled curved pieces of stone called traverse, or in local dialect “papannizzi,” which give the walls an elegant finished appearance while protecting them from being filled with rain.  Fine examples of muretti a secco can be found throughout Ragusa’s countryside in many marvelous shapes, from 2-meter high walls that surround a villa’s garden, to circular walls called cuccumeddi that enclose single trees, shielding them from hungry cows at pasture.

muretto a secco

round stone walls

Perhaps most amazing of all, it is still possible to find skilled workmen to build muretti a secco.  These stonemasons possess an uncanny ability to choose the right stone from a pile of rocks that fits perfectly into the “puzzle” of the wall, or to whack a huge stone with a heavy mallet and have it break into just the shape desired.  For the rest of us mortals, we can nurse a backache just from watching them.

Dry stone walls at seunset

Anita Iaconangelo

by Anita Iaconangelo

An expert on walking and culinary tours in many areas of Italy, with a special focus on Sicily, Anita Iaconangelo is the founder of Italian Connection Tours and author of the blog Anita’s Italy. She is currently at work on a book entitled Savoring Sicily: A Culinary Quest. 

21 Responses to “Muretti a Secco”

    • Anita Iaconangelo
      Anita Iaconangelo

      Thanks Jann- Always nice to hear from someone else who loves “our” walls. Also I appreciate the FB mention. Ciao, Anita

      Reply
  1. Evanne

    Wonderful piece, Anita. You’re welcome to come here anytime for a visit and to compare the walls here in our medieval village, one train stop below Orvieto. I’d love to meet you.

    Reply
    • Anita Iaconangelo
      Anita Iaconangelo

      I’d love to meet you, too Evanne, and see your Umbrian walls. Will let you know if I am in the area. Ciao, Anita

      Reply
  2. Rita Mantone

    I love this article! My husband is a stone mason in the US (southern Italian blood) and I am always amazed at how the rest of us fumble through stone after stone, only to have the expert walk up and slip a stone that was right in front of our eyes into place! He also has that “gift” of hammering a stone in precisely the exact spot.

    Thanks Anita!!!

    Reply
    • Anita Iaconangelo
      Anita Iaconangelo

      Great to hear that this stonemason talent is in your family, Rita. It never ceases to amaze me how a pile of huge stones can become a beautiful wall- Ciao, Anita

      Reply
  3. I can read about walls and fields any day. Centuries of labor noted and appreciated.Anita has the eye and ear for Italy.

    Reply
    • Anita Iaconangelo
      Anita Iaconangelo

      Glad that you share my appreciation for things like walls and fields, Helen. Looking forward to checking out Abruzzo with you some day! Ciao, Anita

      Reply
  4. Taube Ponce

    Thanks so much for sharing this info and insight – raising what might have been an overlooked detail on a trip into the prominence that it deserves. Just another part of how Italians can bring art into every aspect of life and work.

    Reply
  5. My Italian-immigrant great-grandparents’ house in upstate New York was behind what my father called a “fieldstone fence,” crafted in the 1920’s from the stones that were dug out of the land behind the house as they prepared to plant vegetables, flowers, and grapevines. The house was completely submerged under riverwater and mud during Hurricane Irene a year ago last September, but when the water subsided the wall was still standing.
    Two summers ago I witnessed one of these walls being built in Puglia, on the outskirts of Corigliano D’Ontranto. Every day I rode by on my bike and saw a few more feet of stone growing along the road. Beautiful!

    Reply
  6. Per me che sono di origine siciliana, quest’articolo e` incredibilmente interesssante. Che artisti, maestri erano e sono ancora!Dobbiamo essere tanto orgogliosi del talento di questi contadini.
    Tonino

    Reply
  7. While reading this piece and looking at the marvelous photos I found myself wishing I could go there and stay awhile! We’ve been hoping to make a trip back to Italia for several years now and this wonderful article and evocative photos only make the longing that more intense. thanks Anita.

    Reply
  8. umberto levrini

    sicily is beautiful and so is the rest of italy-but sicily is the home of my ancesters -if only it was mafia free and safe to visit-and the fear for being held for ransom was no longer there- i would go tomorrow!

    Reply
    • In reply to Umberto Levrini,si`, certo c’e` la Mafia in Sicilia, but it is definitely safe to travel in many parts. I took a group of 31 students, mostly teenaged girls(!) and 3 other teachers, including my son Vincenzo (named after his grandMOTHER, Vincenzina)last July, to Palermo, Taormina, Agrigento, and a small paese near Agrigento called Realmonte, famous for la Scala Turca on its beach. The Realmontesi treated us like family – what else is new , especially in the South — and not just because one of my student’s fatheres was a paesano of the town. As even some Northerners are known to admit, La Sicilia e` un paradiso! Go there, Umberto, and don’t miss the canoli! Tonino

      Reply
    • Anita Iaconangelo
      Anita Iaconangelo

      Such fears are to be set aside, Umberto. Come and visit Sicily, especially the area around Ragusa and Modica in the southeast of the Island. Ti aspettiamo! Anita

      Reply
  9. Carmela Romano

    Wonderful and very informative article! The pictures tell the story just as eloquently as the words. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Even though I’ve always admired these works of art, I never knew – until now – their history. Thank you again :)

    Reply
  10. Thank you, Anita. I found this article fascinating! One never ceases to be amazed at the excellence of Italian workmanship.

    Jennifer Russo

    Reply
  11. Grazie, Anita…there is something quite elegant about these beautiful stone walls. Having Sicilian heritage and having been to Sicily, I can say it is truly wonderful and I would love to return. It’s so sad that the stereo-types of the Mafioso keep people away when it’s such a beautiful place to visit. Victoria

    Reply

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