The color of Lecce’s limestone buildings change throughout the day reflecting pale yellows to warm golds.
Between the 17th and 18th century, Baroque was the dominant architectural style in much of Europe. Both the city and the province of Lecce, in the region of Apulia, on the Salento peninsula, in the southernmost ‘Heel of Italy’, embraced that Baroque trend.
Lecce may have had an advantage though because there is a rare type of limestone found exclusively in the Salento peninsula. So rare in fact it is named Lecce stone or ‘pietra leccese’ in Italian. It is soft and malleable and referred to as the gentle stone. These characteristics provide the perfect material for stonemasons to create extraordinary embroidery-like carvings. Precise and sharp details of flowers, fruits, vegetables, figures, wreaths and spiral columns can be created with the pliable Lecce stone.
Another exclusive trait of this limestone is that although initially supple and workable – comparable to wood, it becomes rugged and durable once exposed to the air and elements. It is that hardness that makes it resistant to the passage of time. Sculptors are able to create decorative elements that last much longer than other types of limestone carvings.
Cathedral of Maria Santissima Assunta and Sant’Oronzo of Lecce
Our favorite piazza, Piazza del Duomo, is bordered by the Lecce Cathedral, the seminary building, the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art and a lovely arched entryway. We visited it a few times during our stay but our nighttime visit may be our most memorable.
The Cathedral was first built in 1144. It was completely restored, using Lecce stone, between 1659 and 1670 in the decorative baroque style that now characterises the city. There are two facades, the beautiful main one that faces the square and the second facade that faces the Bishops Palace, now the Diocesan Museum of Art. The 5 tapered levels of the 230 foot (70 m) tall bell tower was added during that same 17th century renovation. The bell tower is topped with an iron statue of the city’s patron saint, Sant’Oronzo. During our visit the bell tower was closed and being restored.
Basilica di Santa Croce
Lecce is home to 22 churches in the historic city center. We did go into a number of them and all were decorated truly beautifully. It reminded us of the outstanding churches in Rome. The population in Lecce is around 100,000 so it was interesting to see so many amazing churches full of outstanding sculptures and paintings.
Construction of the one of the most extravagant baroque church in Lecce, the Church of the Holy Cross began in 1353 and halted shortly thereafter. It was the religious order of the Celestines that restarted building in 1549 and completed it in 1646. The church has a richly decorated façade with animals, figurines, cherubs, flowers, vegetables and a large rose window. The header photo of this blog is the Basilica di Santa Croce and this picture below is a close up of one panel on the facade. The carved details are magnificent.
Santuario di Sant’Antonio a Fulgenzio
In 1910 the Church of the Franciscan Friars was dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua. Saint Anthony was the most celebrated of St. Francis of Assisi’s followers and the parish proudly states: “Because everything, altars and works of art, perfumes and sounds recall Brother Francis.” This church, especially the paintings on the ceiling, definitely brings Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals to mind. The richly painted artwork inside is astounding. Every painting tells a story. We could have studied the paintings for hours.
Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art
The Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art displays a collection of paintings, sculptures, precious furniture and liturgical tapestries that relays the religious life of Lecce.
The painting of Sant’Oronzo, below, the patron Saint of Lecce, “receiving from Christ the commission to protect the town from the plague” is by Serafino Elmo, an important artist of Lecce during the 18th century. On the bottom right corner is a view of Lecce, its 16th century walls and the gate dedicated to Charles V. from which two figures, representing plague victims, are leaving.
Roman Amphitheater and Piazza Sant’Oronzo
Scholars believe Lecce was built on the site of the ancient Roman town of Lupiae which would mean this historical city is more than 2,300 years old.
In the city’s main square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo, we found a couple of interesting features. The first is the large Roman amphitheater which once could seat 25,000 spectators, although today, only the bottom tier remains. There is a 2nd century CE Roman theater we visited that was tucked away on a narrow street nearby. The 4000 seat theater was discovered in 1929 amongst gardens and palaces.
The second highlight in the main square is a tall column normally topped with a statue of Sant’Oronzo. (During our visit the statue had been temporarily removed for restoration). The column was one of a pair that marked the end of the famous Appian Way; the Roman built road between Rome and southern Italy.
Clock of Wonders
Located across Piazza Sant’Oronzo from the amphitheater mounted high on the wall of a bank is another feature, the Orologio Delle Meraviglie / the Clock of Wonders.
In 1955, Lecce artist Francesco Barbieri (1908-1973) created this masterful clock. It is 33 feet tall (10 m) and 10 feet wide (3 m). He used bronze and brilliant, highly reflective shades of blue and green enameled copper.
Like clocks of old, the Clock of Wonders offers the viewer all sorts of information. There is a compass, phases of the moon, an angel on the hour hand, rooster on the minute hand and amongst the Roman numerals on the dial are tarot cards figures.
A fan with a turquoise background opens in the center part of the clock and has been decorated with the North Star and the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear). A touch of baroque has been added with the use of the floral elements that represent the 12 months.
On the upper part of the clock, there is a coat of arms as well as a sun, pomegranate and olive branches, all symbols of fertility and wealth. A ribbon, decorated with the 12 signs of the zodiac, frames a yellow sun and a chariot carrying Apollo. On the sides are the Virgin Mary and the raised arms of the Archangel Gabriel.
MUST – Museo Storico
The Historical Museum of the City of Lecce is housed in a former monastery that was founded in 1410. Today, this beautiful complex is a modern and contemporary museum exhibiting both temporary and permanent exhibitions.
We found the exhibition “Giancarlo Moscara, Works 1955-2019″ intriguing. Moscara (1940-2019) was an artist, graphic designer, illustrator and art teacher.
Castello Carlo V
The Castle of Charles 5th is also known as the Lecce Castle. First built by the Normans in the 12th century it was fortified, enlarged and surrounded by a moat by the Spanish Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, between 1539-1546 and used to defend against the Turks.
Nowadays it is well used for cultural activities. We saw a temporary art exhibition and although there is not much in the Castle we did see a few remaining columns, stained glass windows and some delicate frescoes.
Museo Archeologico Faggiano
One of our more interesting discoveries was the privately owned Faggiano Museum. We met the elderly couple who owned the building and they told us their amazing story.
They bought the house in 2001 and were hoping to turn it into a restaurant. Pipes beneath the house needed replacing so they began to dig down through the basement dirt floor. Much to their surprise they began to unearth all sorts of historical artifacts.
With the guidance and supervision of the archaeological authorities, the family would excavate for 7 years. They found archaeological evidence spanning more than 2500 years, from the Messapi (5th century BCE) to the Romans, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
They discovered markings from 1000 to 1200 indicating the Knights Templar once used the structure. In the 16th century it was a Convent of the Franciscan Nuns of Saint Clare’s. The Faggiano family discovered tombs, granaries, cisterns, underground cisterns, a well, the Templar frescos, a room where human bones were held and underground escapes. They unearthed more than 5000 archaeological finds beneath their home.
We spotted posters and old photos describing a bizarre tradition and cultural phenomenon that once existed in this part of Italy. The origins are unknown but some of the oldest testimonies and written sources date back to the 14th century.
It would happen most often during harvest season and usually to women because it was the women who harvested the grains and who would be more exposed to the risk of being bitten by a spider.
After receiving a spider’s bite the victim could experience any number of symptoms like: abdominal pain, seizures, loss of consciousness, perspiration, palpitations and/or hallucinations. People believed the victims had been bitten by a spider they named tarantula because it was first identified in nearby Taranto, Italy. Anyone bitten would be identified as a ‘tarantata.’
Following a nasty bite the barely conscious women would be put to bed and the family would call in the musicians – the only people who could still save her.
Soon musicians carrying tambourines, mandolins, guitars and harmonicas would crowd into her small room. They would begin to play the melodies and rhythms of the Pizzica and Tarantella – the music of the ancient healing ritual against the bite of tarantula. Initially the victim would barely stir but by the 3rd or 4th melody they would awaken, rise up and frantically dance for hours or even days until they collapsed in exhaustion – symbolizing success and recovery. “Musical Exorcism” was considered the only path to recovery.
From a scientific point of view today, the spider could be one of two species: the lycosa tarantula, (not the much larger hairy tarantulas we know today) or wolf spider, a 1-inch long and frightening spider with a painful but innocuous bite, or the latrodectus tredecimguttatus, or European black widow, a smaller spider with a dangerous but rarely fatal bite associated with muscle spasms and vomiting.
Tarantismo no longer has the same connotation. Today the new Tarantati, generally young adults and teens, gather in groups of hundreds, to proudly dance and sing the powerful old tunes of the Pizzica and the Tarantella.
A much more palatable tradition throughout Italy is the evening passeggiata. Pronounced pass-eh-dj-ah-ta, it means a leisurely pre-dinner stroll or walk, especially taken in the evening for the purpose of socializing.
In Lecce there are 3 ancient city Baroque style gates remaining that frame the historical city center – Porta Napoli, Porta San Biagio and Porta Rudiae. The evening passeggiata will slowly stroll through the main streets of the city passing by the gates.
People of all ages take part in the passeggiata, from the youngest babies being pushed in their strollers to the oldest members of the community who watch from the sidelines. Italians tend to dress up for passeggiata. Passeggiata generally happens each evening between 5-8 pm. Weekdays, it’s a time for socialization after work and before dinner. Weekends, the whole family often takes part and passeggiata is an especially popular ritual on Sunday evenings.
Passeggiata is prominent in Italy but this delightful tradition seems to have seeped into Spain as well. In several towns we have joined in the passeggiata – walking on the beach front promenades are the best.
It is one of our all time favorite ‘souvenirs’ from Italy and something we incorporate in our day-to-day life as much as possible. And speaking of that, it is 6pm and time for a stroll.
Saluti from these Leccese,
Ted + Julia
View our Basilica of Santa Croce photo album here
View our Cathedral of Maria Assunta and S.Oronzo photo album here
View our Charles V Castle photo album here
View our Faggiano Museum photo album here
View our Museum of Sacred Art photo album here
View our Historical Museum of the City of Lecce photo album here
View our Sanctuary of Sant’Antonio a Fulgenzio photo album here