The Fishing Platforms of Abruzzo, Italy

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Spring 2011


In the tunnels that bore through the cliffs along the Abruzzo coast, the turquoise sea flickers like a zoetrope in the gaps between the columns: darkness and light, black and blue, alternating in quick succession; then, suddenly, I emerge from the tunnel and the brilliant sun leeches the landscape of all color.  There has always been a tension here between the land, which is so arid that only olive trees can draw from it enough nutrients to survive, and the sea, so turbulent that its storms menace the fishermen who try to sail its waters.  But I have come to Abruzzo to find man’s accommodation between these two great elements of nature, crafted over centuries: the trabocchi, wooden fishing platforms on high, slender stilts that begin at the shore and snake into the Adriatic, terminating with wide nets held aloft by spindly antennas.  The origins of the trabocchi are lost in history: they were first made by the Phoenicians, perhaps, or by Sephardic Jews migrating from medieval France.  But they have taken root along this small stretch of coastline – the Coast of Trabocchi – in a form that is at once organic and strange, functional and abstract, leading the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, a native son, to describe them as giant spiders on the sea.

Bruno Verì guides me along the slatted walkway that leads to his trabocco, running a rough, knowing hand over a salt-smoothed railing cut from a branch of the acacia tree.  I follow him but the walkway is not straight: it angles left then right, seemingly without cause.  Bruno’s family has owned trabocchi for more than a century; he built this trabocco himself after a previous one was destroyed by storms so he knows why every plank of it takes the form it does.  He explains that it is the position of the boulders near the shore that determines the path of the walkway: only a few of the stilts of a trabocco rest directly in the water; the others tiptoe across the rocks like stepping stones, so it is nature that defines their course.  But the rocks are not merely a structural convenience: they break the currents, marking the locations where fish are most likely to school. This is integral to the function of the trabocco, whose web cannot trawl for fish but, instead, must wait in the water for the fish to come to it, then scoop them out.

When we reach the end of the walkway, the narrow path opens out into a wide platform: the land has been left behind now and only sea is visible, a horizon of liquid azure beyond the broad white field of the fishing net which is draped over the outstretched arms of the antennas like a Pietà.  Bruno opens a hatch in the trabocco floor to reveal the sprawling spiderweb of wood beams that support us: it is the work of a craftsman following the properties of his materials wherever they lead, with none of the regularity and order that an engineer would impose on it.  Bruno indicates one log, larger than the rest, that rises up out of the floor and is lashed with ropes that connect by a series of pulleys to the far corners of the trabocco.  This is the mechanism by which the vast fishing net is maneuvered into the sea, a simple twist of the log translating into a complex motion by the way the ropes are tied.

We approach the far railing, the ropes crisscrossing abstractly in front of us, the net drooping toward the crystal clear waters.  The sound of the waves against the stilts is strong and soothing, with a slower, deeper rhythm than they would have if heard from a boat.  My legs brace for the familiar swaying but because the acacia wood of which the structure is made grows stronger in salt water while still retaining a needed, subtle flexibility, the trabacco feels fixed, sturdy, with only a slight creak or movement to suggest the movement of water beneath my feet.  As Bruno looks out over the Adriatic I realize that the trabocco is man’s extension of the land into the sea and so, for him, a kind of terra firma.


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Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to see more of Sean’s photographs of Italy.