The Borgo of Lecce
Lecce is a city constructed in concentric rings around the pulsing heart of its center, the ancient Lupiae. The lively, modern part of the city teems with offices and students, creating a youthful, energetic atmosphere. This fervent urban pace remains outside the historical center however, inside its ancient walls, the old city continues to live in rhythm with the past, and once you enter, it is a completely different world. There are three remaining gates, or “portas” and they all lead to Piazza Sant’Oronzo, St. Oronzo Square, a veritable junction of ancient lanes and paved stone streets.
Once you enter Porta Rudiae, you leave the chaotic city traffic behind you, continuing either on foot or by bicycle, to discover an authentic world of history, art and enchantment.
You will pass the fascinating Rosario Church, the opulent elegance of the Accademia delle Belle Arti, and following via Libertini you will suddenly come upon the surprise of Piazza del Duomo, the Cathedral Square, a jubilation of Baroque art immersed in the delicate tonalities of Lecce stone, glorious by day and a world of pure enchantment by night.
Lecce captivates the gaze from on high, you can lose yourself admiring the unique sculptural elements and Baroque balconies, an infinite discovery of marvels to discover as you go off the central road to explore the hidden city.
From high on his column, St. Oronzo observes the ferment of the people of Lecce: enjoying an ice-cream on the steps of the architectural marvel “il Sedile”, gazing down at the Roman Theater, or making their way down via Trinchese, the fashion-conscious shopping boulevard.
From his perch on high, the saint seems to be making a suggestion: ‘Let yourself follow the stone lane that leads to the Church of Santa Croce, in this hidden corner, between the artisan workshops of papier-machè and the ancient Jewish quarter you will find the very essence of Lecce.’
The founding of Lecce is lost in the mysteries of time, woven into an ancient legend recounting its existence even before the Trojan Wars, 1,200 years before the birth of Christ.
The first traces of human civilization in the territory date back to the Iron Age, but it was upon the arrival of the Messapians that Lecce became a city-state and took on the name Lupiae. The deep bond with between Lupiae and nearby city of Rudiae dates back to the Messapian period. Rudiae was later the birthplace of the Latin poet, Quinto Ennio.
The Roman conquest of the territory brought prosperity to Lupiae, initiating an expansion of the city that would become its strength in the years to come. In the period between the I and II century B.C., the amphitheater and the Roman theatre were constructed, as well as an infrastructure of roads that connected the city to the Port of San Cataldo, increasing commercial shipping activity.
Lecce’s power declined in the Middle Ages. It had become a county, weakened under the rule of various feudal families, and subjected to constant attack by the barbarous Saracen Turks.
Relief came only with the arrival of the Angevins (from the House of Plantagenet, a ruling dynasty in France and England). Charles the V set to work fortifying the city walls built during the Messapian period, and also constructed the castle, an impenetrable fortress bearing his name. Not only did he bring peace and stability to the city, his influence gave birth to an artistic revolution identified as the “Salento Renaissance”, which sparked a cultural fermentation that blossomed under the successive Spanish domination and, as the city has developed, has continued to bear fruit over the centuries until the present day.
The 1600’s were an important moment in Lecce’s history. A period of reforms and Catholic counter reforms, it was also the period that the influence of Baroque spread through the city, heralding the construction of the important churches and noble palaces which today have become the architectural symbols of Lecce. Piazza del Duomo, Palazzo Celestini, and the Basilica of Santa Croce, to name a few, are all architectural masterpieces: their majestic Baroque facades and breathtakingly beautiful sculptural elements transport the imagination in a visual symphony of poetic elegance.
Over the centuries, Lecce has continued to develop, continuing on during the Unification of Italy and then throughout the period of Fascism, all the way to modern times, perfectly conserving the fascination of a refined and lively city, thanks in part to the University, which illumines the territory as a center of knowledge and a benchmark of excellence.
The Three Gates of the Old City: Porta Rudiae, Porta Napoli and Porta San Biagio
It is not difficult to imagine Lecce as it was in the past, a cheerful, thriving town, protected within its fortified city walls. These walls enclosed an area of fifty hectares, which could be accessed by the numerous city gates distributed around its perimeter. Today, little of the defensive structure remains, except for the three entrance gates to the historical center, as well a north entrance to the borgo which has recently been restored to its original splendor.
The most ancient of the three remaining city gates is Porta Rudiae, which faces Viale dell’Università, and has always been a historical point of reference for the townspeople.
Porta Rudiae was erected 1703 on the ruins of a Medieval gate, a period in history where defense from external threats was no longer necessary, making it possible to concentrate the aesthetic aspect, embellishing the structure in the Baroque style.
This city gate is dedicated to St. Oronzo, the patron saint of Lecce, who stands at the highest part of the construction. At a lower level, flanking the Saint on either side, are the minor patron saints of the city, St. Irene and St. Sebastian. Below them, adorning the upper base of the arch, are busts of important historical figures from the Messapian Empire: Queen Equippa, her husband Idomene, her brother Dauno, and lastly, her father Melennio who is attributed with being the founder of the city. His name is also linked to a subterranean road, that according to legend, goes underground from an entrance at Porta Rudiae all the way to the ancient town of Rudiae.
Not far from Porta Rudiae, we find Porta Napoli, which leads to the narrow stone streets of the historical center, its history entwined with the Turkish invasion and the invaluable support Charles the V proffered the city. Many characterize this portal as an Arch of Triumph in Roman style, given its form as well as the presence of military emblems carved in its façade, but this has yet to be confirmed. Archeological digs around the gate have uncovered numerous tombs of Messapian origins, and it is highly probable that many more remain buried there. Legend has it that also buried in this spot are the remains of St Giusto, for whom the city gate previous to this one was named.
The last remaining city gate is Porta San Biagio, opening onto a different part of the historical center, currently the pub area for university students, “la via dei pub”. This gate was reconstructed in 1774, with Doric columns and sculptural elements in Lecce stone embellishing the façade. There are two coats of arms of the city and a statue of the city’s patron saint St. Oronzo, observing the passing traffic from on high, but there is no sign of St. Biagio himself. St. Biagio was an Armenian bishop who studied medicine. He was martyred in 316 A.D. when he refused to renounce his Christian faith. He is known as the protector of the throat, and is the patron saint of many Italian cities.
Not everyone knows the true story of the “Obelisco” of Lecce, which many think dates back to the Roman Empire, but it is actually much more recent than it seems. It was, in fact, created in 1822 by Vito Carlucci, to commemorate the official visit of King Ferdinand I of the Bourbons.
The Obelisco is a four-sided column narrowing at the top, richly engraved on all four sides with sculptural elements in Lecce stone. The many symbols include the coat of arms of Otranto, a dolphin biting a crescent moon, in memory of long struggle of Otranto’s population against the Muslim Saracen invaders. The incisions in Latin name some of the most famous localities in Salento, as well as their distance from Lecce, the Province’s capital, the most extensive incision being a summary of the visit by Ferdinand I of the Bourbons, King of the Two Sicilies
Piazza del Duomo, The Cathedral Square
The magnificent Piazza del Duomo opens before you at the junction of via Libertini and via Palmieri. A dazzling triumph of Baroque style, it was designed as a courtyard and in the past was closed during the evening, protected by two majestic and imposing gates. The square safeguards the Cathedral of Lecce, the Bell Tower, the Episcopio and the Seminary Palace.
The Cathedral, or Duomo, is the work of the architect Giuseppe Zimbalo, one of the grand masters of Baroque style in Lecce. The original Cathedral was built over the ruins of an ancient temple which was demolished between 1659 and 1670 because it did not comply with the dictates imposed by the Council of Trento (a consulting body of the Vatican), and then rebuilt in the form we see today.
The façade that fascinates visitors when they enter the piazza is actually the lateral façade of the Cathedral, adorned with statues of St. Giusto and St. Fortunato, with two columns on each side of the entrance supporting a balustrade holding the statue of St Oronzo, and even higher, the emblem of Monsignor Luigi Pappacoda, who commissioned the church. The Bishop also chose the four statues adorning the main façade, which is much more sober, with a monumental bronze door created in the year 2000 by the artist Armando Marrocco in honor of the Jubilee 2000.
The interior is richly decorated in golden elements which give a mystical glow to the nave, with the Baroque alters rising in triumph to the wooden ceiling elements covering the entire central nave.
The bell tower is external to the church, situated on its left, and is also the work of the architect Giuseppe Zimbalo. To the right of the Cathedral is the Episcopio, the residence of the Bishop, characterized by a series of columns, creating a simple yet imposing effect. The Episcopio was conceived as a luxurious residence, representing the symbol of the temporal power of the Church in the world. The Seminary Palace closes the square, designed by the architect Giuseppe Cino, following the guidelines of the architect Giuseppe Zimbalo. It has a façade characterized by alternating tiles and windows, with a balcony in the center, creating an austere beauty, adorned with small Baroque touches in the doorway and balustrades. The marvelous internal cloister is a delight to visit, embellished with light touches of green from the lawn and the plants surrounding the central fountain in Baroque style, called the “Vera Ovale”, which boasts a statue of St. Irene, one of the city’s minor patron saints.
Since 2004, the Palazzo del Seminario has been the site of the Diocese Museum of Sacred Art, the official custodian of the religious and artistic history of Lecce and the Province.
Piazza Sant’Oronzo, St. Oronzo Square
Piazza Sant’Oronzo is the most famous piazza in the city. Everyone arrives here, through the ancient stone lanes and Baroque avenues, to then depart, in search of the shops, restaurants and monuments in the historical center. It is the central hub of Lecce and its culture, teeming with symbols and important monuments. St Oronzo stands in the very center of the piazza. From high on his column, he observes the hustle and bustle below, supported by a capital and a column that still today is a point of dispute between Lecce and the important coastal city of Brindisi. The story goes that the column, with its capital, was constructed by the population of Brindisi, taken from one of the two columns marking the via Appia (the ancient national road leading to Rome) which stood near their city. Hercules himself was said to have made those columns, and so the new column was dedicated to the mythical hero. The Viceroy however, did not appreciate this pagan gesture, and judging it as inappropriate, had the column and its capital moved to Lecce, affixing a plaque inferring that Brindisi had donated the column to the people of Lecce. This could not have been farther from the truth, and from that day on, the column has been a sour point of rivalry between the two cities, with the effects still resonating today. St. Oronzo became the patron saint of Lecce after saving the people of Lecce from the Plague, receiving the statue and the piazza dedicated to him in thanks. The statue we see today is from the XVIII century, created by a Venetian maestro, carved in wood and then covered in copper plate as a replacement for the more ancient, original statue which was destroyed by an explosion of fireworks. Popular legend has it that the Saint’s three open fingers indicate the three “just” types of people (in Italian:“i giusti”: tongue in cheek for “ idiots”): monks, priests, and people who don’t have children. Others maintain that his hand signal makes reference to the three patron saints of the city, St. Oronzo, St. Giusto, and St. Fortunato. In all probability, it is much more simply that the saint was depicted in the act of blessing the city.
Evidence of the Venetian presence in Lecce is also found in the little church of San Marco, with the symbol of Venice, a winged lion, on its façade. Today, the church is the site for the Association of War Veterans. Next to this small building is the marvelous Palazzo del Sedile, with its enormous and gracious window façade, which was once the Municipal Seat. Today, the steps of this marvel are a favorite place to rest, chat, and perhaps enjoy an ice-cream, but in times past, the townspeople sat here to watch condemned prisoners being tortured to death. On the place where the wheel of torture once stood, there is a mosaic representation of “La Lupa”, the female wolf, symbol of Lecce. University students avoid stepping on the mosaic, because of the superstition saying that it could cause problems and delays in completing their degree.
To the right side of the piazza reigns the majestic Roman Amphitheatre.
The Roman Amphitheatre
A mixture of fear and curiosity must have animated the construction workers who were digging the foundations for a branch of the Bank of Italy. We are at the end of the 1800’s, and even though the circular layout of the distribution of the buildings on the right side of Piazza Sant’Oronzo indicated they were built around some kind of cavity, no one had dared go beyond this supposition. It all began as a bet, and ended with the astonishing discovery of an enormous Roman Amphitheatre, which certainly must have been a vindication for the architects and construction workers, whose endeavor had been mocked and made fun of by the whole town, thanks to the pungent satire of the local newspapers.
The amphitheatre we see today is just a part of the original structure, the rest of which is buried forever under the Chiesa delle Grazie and the ancient artisan workshops built over its timeless glory.
An incision on the walls bears the name of Traiano, giving us a timeline for the construction of the amphitheatre dating back to Imperial Rome, between the I and II century B.C., but in all probability it is even more ancient. In its entirety, it would have been large enough to hold many thousands of spectators, which is a strong indication of Lecce’s size and importance during the Roman Empire.
On the walls of the arena, images of animals are still visible: deer, bears, lions and bulls, which were all hunted for entertainment in the arena. Exotic animals were also hunted for sport, presented in morning exhibitions. Midday shows featured public executions or fights to the death between condemned prisoners, and in the afternoon, the “entertainment” concluded with gladiator fights.
Thankfully, the cruelty of the amphitheatre’s original function is a distant memory. Today, especially in the summer months, it has become a favorite destination for theatrical presentations and classical music concerts, while in winter it lends its ancient magic to the presentation of the traditional Nativity Scene.
Palazzo Sozi Carafa
Departing from the area of Piazza Sant. Oronzo, Palazzo Carafa is reached by via Libertini. The palace was commissioned by the Bishop Alfonso Sozi Carafa. The original structure, built in 1542 to host the monastic order of the Paolette nuns, was later destroyed and rebuilt by decree of the Bishop Carafa, At the time it was reconstructed, Baroque had gone out of style, and the architect succumbed to the fascination of soft and sinuous lines of the new trend, Rococcò, reflected in the façade, which is decorated with alternating tiles and windows, and embellished with the crest of the Carafa family. With the Unification of Italy, the city bought the Palazzo, which lost its religious function and became the Municipal seat.
The Roman Theater
The Roman Theater is nestled in the heart of the historical center, protected by narrow ancient streets and sixteenth century palaces. In 1929, while they were digging to build the foundation of a private home, the workers were surprised to hit something hard and sculpted in the rock. It was the cavea, the Latin term for steps, initiating the discovery of a Roman theater constructed during the reign of Augustus Ceasar. The archeological digs also uncovered various statues from later periods, which were used to decorate the theater, and which today are conserved in the Sigismondo Castromediano Museum.
Only a small portion of the theater was uncovered, but it is believed to have originally several thousand people. Differently from the amphitheatre, this theatre was used for cultural purposes, exhibiting theatrical comedies and tragedies.
The Theaters of Lecce
Via Trinchese connects Piazza Sant’Oronzo to Piazza Mazzini, today called Piazza Trecentomila, and is the high street of Lecce, with important shops and famous brands, but it is also home to the majestic Apollo Theater, Teatro Apollo. Although it is one of the most recently constructed of Lecce’s theaters, it has had the most troubled history. Built in the early 1900’s to host the greatest number of spectators possible, it is an imposing theater with a series of columns supporting an architrave in full neoclassical style. Regardless of its magnificence, in 1986 the curtains closed on its last show. Sad years to come for the noble Apollo, which became victim to time and neglect and began to fall in to ruin. Eventually, restoration work on the theater began, and after many long years, in February 2017, the theater was finally given back to the people of Lecce, resplendent in a new luster, with a grand inauguration ceremony and even grander guests of honor: the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, and the Minister of Art and Culture, Dario Franceschini.
The most ancient of Lecce’s theaters, Teatro Paesiello is a sixteenth century jewel in Neapolitan style. Unfortunately, beauty isn’t always enough, and regardless of its captivating elegance, spectators in the 1800’s found it too small for anything but theatrical performances. In response to the dissatisfaction of the public, Donato Greco decided to construct a larger theater that was also suitable for important symphonic concerts. The result was the Teatro Politeama Greco, which still belongs to the Greco family, and since the day of its inauguration in 1884, has hosted prestigious concerts, operas, and theatre. Over the years the theatre has been graced by important artistic directors such as Katia Ricciarelli and the tenor, Tito Schipa.
Castello Carlo V, the Castle of Charles the V
In order to definitively put an end to the onslaught of the Saracen Turkish invasions which continually plagued Lecce, Charles the V strengthened the city’s defense on all fronts, fortifying the city walls and most importantly, at the same point as a Norman defense tower, constructed the impregnable military fortress that still today bears his name.
The external walls of the Castle lack decorative elements, boasting a typical military exterior. On the ground floor there is an imposing entrance which leads to the main hall, full of Doric columns, which opens onto the garden. The upper floor is characterized by spacious atriums illuminated by large windows. The Salon has been recently restored, enriched by refined pictorial elements.
While the aesthetic aspect of the Castle has remained spartan, in its modern incarnation it has become a venue for a glorious wealth of important cultural and artistic events.
The Basilica of Santa Croce
Following the via dei Templari you arrive in “Giudecca”, the Jewish quarter. Some of the traces of what was once the heart of Jewish life and culture in the city are now hidden within the walls of Palazzo Personè, and also in the little streets behind it. Over the years, the Jewish population had been able to acquire a privileged social position in Lecce, which began to irritate the townspeople, who, with the support of the ruling powers, pushed them from their homes and businesses, first into ghettos, and then in exile from the city. In this context, the appropriation of the land and property owned by the exiled Jewish families was used for the construction of the Basilica di Santa Croce. This church, with its opulent façade has become the most famous symbol of Baroque in Lecce, and passing by, it is not unusual to see people gazing up at the sculpted decorations, searching for the stylized faces of the four patrons of the church.
The first stone laid for the construction of the Basilica was in 1353, under the direction of the Count of Lecce, Gualtieri VI de Brienne, however the work was brusquely interrupted upon his death, only recommencing in 1549, thanks to the insistence of the local master builders. Once the façade was finished however, the builders received little consensus and a great deal of criticism, as the population considered the intermingling of pagan and Christian symbols highly inappropriate.
Nonetheless, the pomegranate, symbol of fertility, has lived peacefully next to a flock of angels for centuries, and the pagan symbols of pelicans and flames have happily cohabited with statues of popes and saints for all these years, in a harmonious marriage of symbols that has made the church such a success over time.
The striking central rose window, decorated with embossed rings and leaves, captures the gaze, which then delights in other nuances of the façade, such as the statues of Celestino the V and San Benedetto, and the two female figure representing Faith and Charity. A carved balustrade divides the façade, supported by scrupulously detailed figures of men and beasts. It is thought that the men represent the Turkish prisoners captured by Venetian forces during the battle of Lepanto, while the animals, such as lions, eagles etc., are symbolic representations of various Christian allies.
The interior is much simpler and less embellished than the strident declaration of the façade. The nave is covered by a carved oak ceiling, and the perimeter is in the Latin cross layout, enriched with twelve Baroque altars. The central altar is framed by a portal, displaying the crest of the Adorni family, who has many generations buried in this church.
Ex convento dei Celestini, The Ex-Convent of the Celestine Monks
The Baroque style of the Basilica di Santa Croce continues in the buildings you pass, as you make your way to the palace that was once the Convent of the Celestine monks. For centuries it was an important center of learning and knowledge, and works of extraordinary beauty, such as detailed miniatures and sacred volumes, were created within these walls, which today can be admired in the Sigismondo Castromediano Museum.
The activity of the monks continued without interruption until 1807, when all monastic orders were banished from the city. Stripped of its original function, the palace became the headquarters of the institution of the Terra d’Otranto, and later, the Province of Lecce.
Piazza Sigismondo Castromediano
Wedged between Piazza Sant’Oronzo and the Basilica di Santa Croce, we find the little square, or “piazzetta”, of Castromediano, used primarily as a passageway, which few stop to observe in detail.
As with the Amphitheatre and the Roman Theater, archeological digs in the urban landscape were also performed here, uncovering important relics from the Iron Age as well as a subterranean olive oil mill dating back to the I century B.C., which can be observed from above through viewing windows constructed at street level.
The territory of Salento is abundant with these subterranean mills and cisterns, structures that recount an era when the production of lamp oil was the true driver of the economy. The mills or “ipogeo” were dug underground where the stone was soft, for example in limestone, making them inexpensive to build as well as creating the ideal temperature for pressing the olives.
Chiesa del Rosario o di San Giovanni, The Church of Rosario or St. John the Baptist
The last work of the architect Zimbalo was the Church of Rosario or San Giovanni Battista. As soon you enter the Porta Rudiae gate, its extravagant beauty will take your breath away, the marvelous Baroque details captivating and enchanting at first glance.
The façade is divided in two halves by a magnificent balcony adorned with statues. In the upper part there are trophies overflowing with fruit and flowers and statues symbolizing the visions of the prophet Ezekiel. In the lower half of the church, the main door is flanked by two columns topped by the emblem of the Dominican monks and a statue of San Domenico di Guzman. On each side of the columns there are niches with statues of the saints St. John the Baptist and Beato Francesco.
While the exterior is a triumph, the interior takes the glory of Baroque to an even higher level , succeeding in the intent to dazzle and transport the faithful in wonderment, as prescribed by the precepts of Catholic counter reforms. The layout is in the form of a Greek cross, surrounded by numerous altars, with statues of saints carved in Lecce stone gracefully posed everywhere you look. The magnificent pulpit is chiseled with scenes from the Apocalypse, and is the only pulpit carved entirely in stone in Lecce. The church’s original design also included a dome, or “cupola”, but it was never completed, as the architect Giuseppe Zimbalo passed away halfway through the work. He had requested to be buried here, in his final creation, the Church of Rosario, and here he rests.
Ex Conservatorio di Sant’Anna, the Ex-Conservatory of St. Anne
Via Libertini teems with important historical buildings, a veritable guided tour leading to the very essence of Baroque, and the heart of the city’s history. Among the little shops and restaurants of this street, we find the magnificent Accademia delle Belle Arti, the Chiesa del Rosario, and the Ex Conservatorio di Sant’Anna. This institution was commissioned by the noblewoman Teresa Paladini, who wanted to give the city a place for the girls of the upper bourgeoisie who felt called to the church and wanted to live a life of religious discipline. It was founded in the XVII century and was designed by Giuseppe Zimbalo. In 1679, the Conservatorio di Sant’Anna transferred to Palazzo Verardi, where it still exists today. A few years later, as requested by the bishop Alfonso Sozi Carafa, the building was enlarged and its façade was beautified by an elegant stairway leading to the entrance, framed by refined motifs and crowned by the crests of the Paladini and Verardi families.
Few people are aware that by following the little street that flanks the Church of Rosario, you arrive at the garden of the Ex Conservatorio, where an ancient ficus tree, hundreds of years old, embraces the building.
Today the Ex Conservatorio di Sant’Anna continues to be a center of art and culture, often hosting important exhibitions and events.
Cimitero Monumentale di Lecce e Chiesa di San Niccolò e Cataldo, The Monumental Cemetery of Lecce and the Church of St. Niccolò and St. Cataldo
In the architrave of the entrance to the Monumental Cemetery of Lecce an incision is carved: “a memoria delle umane genti”. A portico in neoclassical style opens on a long avenue of cypresses, inviting meditation and silence. It leads to the small entrance of the “funeral garden”, with its grid of avenues and little streets, where the ancient tombs seem to be built one on top of the other, creating a paradoxical sense of disordered perfection. Among the oleanders and eucalyptus trees there are tombs in Neo-Gothic style, in stained glass, but also spires and rose windows artfully sculpted in Lecce stone. Among the important names buried here are the tenor Tito Schipa and the poet, Vittorio Bodini.
Next to the door leading to the funeral garden is the marvelous church of San Niccolò e Cataldo,
one of the most beautiful and most ancient churches of Lecce, and which is not included in the tourist guides. The church dates back to 1180 and was commissioned Count Tancredi of Lecce, to be later revisited with elements of Baroque style. The facade combines the Medieval style, found in the portal and in the rose window, with the Baroque of the statues and decorations. The interior is sober and refined, decorated with paintings in delicate pastel hues. There are frescos recounting the life of San Nicola in Late-Gothic style as well as paintings from the Neopolitan school depicting saints such as San Benedetto and Santa Francesca Romana. The figured holy-water font and the statue of San Nicola are by Gabriele Riccardi, who also created the first cloister of the convent, which is outside the church. The second cloister was created at a later date, with an unusual Renaissance fountain in the center, embellished with stone columns supporting a cover-piece. The adjacent Convent was constructed at the end of the XII century, hosting first the order of the Benedictine monks, and later the order of the Olivetans. For several years now, it has been the site of the Department of Beni Culturale, (Cultural Heritage) of the University of Salento.
The construction of the Church of San Niccolò e Cataldo was commissioned by Tancredi d’Altavilla as a gesture of gratitude: while navigating across the Canal of Otranto he found himself in the middle of a terrible storm. Not knowing what to do, he began to pray, and shortly after he was able to dock at San Cataldo.
Chiesa di Sant’Irene, The Church of St. Irene
The façade of the church is dedicated to St. Irene with the inscription on high in Latin, “Irene virgini et martiri” (Irene virgins and martyrs). The majesty of the building displays the great devotion of the people of Lecce for the saint, who was, in fact, the patron saint of Lecce until 1656. The statue of St. Irene is positioned at the top of the façade and a little lower, the emblem of the city. The façade has empty niches on the sides and is divided in two different artistic styles. The interior is more sober, characterized by three chapels on each side, connected to each other and illuminated by natural light. The central altar was revisited in the second part of the 1600’s, and on high there is a magnificent painting ,“Il trasporto dell’Arca” (The transport of the Ark) by the artist Oronzo Tiso. On one side, we find one of the most majestic altars in all of Lecce, dedicated to San Gaetano, the founder of the Theatine Order, with a central painting depicting the saint.
There are countless masterpieces to be discovered and admired among the numerous altars and paintings in this church.
Sigismondo Castromediano Museum
Sigismondo Castromediano was a patriot of noble descent, and an active participant in the Italian Risorgimento movement. In his youth, he was a member of Giuseppe Mazzini’s “Giovine Italia” party, which led him to be accused of “conspiracy against the Bourbon monarchy”, and then imprisoned and later condemned to exile.
Upon his re-entry in Italy, he was elected as a member of the first Italian Parliament, in the House of Representatives. At the end of his legislative term, he returned to his birthplace, and offered himself in service to his people as a Provincial Councilor. He dedicated the last years of his life to his city: Lecce, where he donated volumes of books the to Provincial Library and founded the museum which bears his name.
Today, the Sigismondo Castromediano Museum is located in the Ex Collegio Argento, founded by the Jesuit Priests. Its walls hold important historical relics spanning thousands of years, from the Prehistoric period, to the Messapian civilization, the Roman conquests up until the Middle Ages. The sections in the museum also include a gallery featuring paintings from the 1400’s to the 1700’s, a library, and an area reserved for contemporary exhibitions, where the most important artists in Salento have exhibited their work.
The Art of Papier-machè, “Cartapesta”
In the papier-machè workshops, a solemn, mystical atmosphere fills the air, perhaps because of the sacred faces of the many saints, poised in stillness, their gazes fixed and their hands raised in benediction. There is certainly a sense of awe, to stand before this ancient art form that has always been an integral part of the history of this land, and that with the passing of time is being tragically erased. Along the streets of Lecce, only a few papier-machè workshops remain. Most of them can be found along the via dei Templari, their store windows overflowing with souvenirs and figurines. Papier-machè was once an art form that embraced the entire community, the creative process started with the production of paper and involved all of the artisan skills of the local craftsmen, from the sculptors, to the painters, to the ceramic artists. It was a noble art that had to struggle with the austere diffidence of the Church, who initially feared that the use of paper would circulate writings in contrast with Christian precepts, but then opened its sacred doors, allowing ornaments and statues to be created with this technique.
The art of papier-machè is a labor of love and of passion, because, while it is true that the raw materials are simple, it takes time and patience to create a work of art in papier-machè. The statues are born with a soul of hay and iron wires, shaped and enclosed in material from tights or pantyhose, and then dressed in perfectly made outfits. The paper used comes from the Amalfi coast, torn in small pieces to be easily modeled, and held together with a glue of flour, water and copper sulphate, called “la pannula”. Utilizing this mixture together with plaster, the artisan creates the “negative” of the statue. Once the base is formed, the next step is to drape it with a type of paper similar to fabric. The arduous task of modeling the draping and eliminating the imperfections is performed with hot irons in a technique called “focheggiatura”. Four layers of water, plaster and “glue” are used to consolidate the form, and once dry, the base colors are applied, which will be the foundation for the definitive tonalities. Often, this complex procedure is not used to create the delicate contours of the face and hands, which are crafted in terracotta, to better achieve correct anatomical structure and avoid the tendency to deformation which characterizes papier-machè.
Papier-machè is an art for hands that are dirty but trembling with the joy of creation. Today, the artisan workshops are closing, defenseless against the onslaught of mass marketing. Instead of artisan Nativity Scenes, the public is choosing the standardized and more economical plastic figures, and the originality and soul of local craftsmanship is being swept away by the tide of commerce.
The Baroque of Lecce
Lecce’s artistic vitality is best represented by the architecture of the city, supremely expressed in what is defined as ‘Barocco Leccese’, the Baroque of Lecce. A flowing, elegant style that beautifies the regal doorways and balconies of the noble palaces, it is especially important in the churches, adorning the facades with a sumptuous abundance of fruit and floral motifs, garlands and flourishes, shaped and molded in exquisite detail thanks to the easily sculpted Lecce stone, the “gentle stone”.
The Baroque of Lecce is different from the Roman Baroque of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini, benefiting from the mellow Spanish “plateresque” influence, a luxurious style characterized by the imitation of silversmith work. So inspired, the rose windows and window frames come to life, in a jubilation of Christian icons. The symbolism of Lecce Baroque is expressed through the glorification of Nature, in eternal gratitude to mother earth, which is seen as the womb that gives her fruit according to the will of God.
There are two names most commonly found at the base of the monuments in Lecce, the architect Giuseppe Zimbalo and the Bishop Luigi Pappacoda, who was the principle sponsor of the constructions realized in the Baroque period. It is not to be forgotten that the primary function of Baroque was to celebrate the temporal power of the church and the clergy on earth, underlining the economic and political power of its sponsors.
Vittorio Bodini is a name that continues to echo in the literature of the 1900’s, a name with a smooth and incisive sound, like his poetry, with verses as fragile as tobacco leaves dried in the sun of the South, his South, a place he both loved and hated.
Vittorio Bodini came into the world on the 6th of January, 1914, in Bari. After the death of his father, he and his family moved to Lecce. As a young man thirsty for knowledge and culture, he thrived under the tutelage of his grandfather, Pietro Marti, historian, journalist, and literary critic, who was the first to discover his true vocation as a writer.
For Vittorio Bodini, Lecce is a closed city, with a restricted mentality that, through Baroque, tries to fill its emptiness: its lack of a soul.
He is the singer of the South, a black South, to continually escape from and return to, that he will learn to truly love only in Spain, when he discovers the verses of Garcia Lorca. Late in his life, too late, he will rediscover Lecce as his city, but his light will extinguish in Rome, in 1970, leaving a tremendous emptiness between the lines and verses of Italian poetry.
Today, he rests in the Monumental Cemetery of Lecce, under the weight of his most famous verse:
“Tu non conosci il Sud, le case di calce
Da cui uscivamo al sole, come numeri
Dalla faccia di un dado”
You don’t know the South, the white-washed houses
From where we went out in the sun, like numbers
On the face of a dice.
Sparse words to express a profound distress, the misery of who, by a trick of fate, is born in the South, the luck of the draw for who comes to live on this earth, like the unpredictable numbers in the throw of the dice.
Even today, the loss of his poetic voice is like a black hole in the literary world. In vain we try to fill with it with posthumous publications of his writings, but the implacable void remains.
Raffaele Antonio Attilio Schipa was born at the end of the 1800’s in Lecce, known by all as Tito “il piccolo” (the small). The fourth child of a simple family, from a tender age his talent shines bright, so bright that it will lead him to become the “propheta in patria”, the pride of his beloved Lecce.
In 1902, the bishop Gennaro Trama convinces Tito to follow his studies in the seminary, to guarantee a well rounded education, which includes musical composition. Despite the restricted environment, it is here that Tito Schipa’s true vocation soon emerges, his passionate love for women, which will be the cause of innumerable problems throughout his life. In order to escape the entanglements of his adolescent romances, and to have better chances for his debut, his maestro convinces him to move to Milan.
The first time Tito Schipa steps onto the stage is in Vercelli in 1909, with “La Traviata”, but success arrives later, in 1914, with Puccini’s “Tosca”, in Naples.
His fame soon crosses national borders and takes him to Spain, Latin America, and most importantly, to the United States, where he reigns supreme as a tenor for fifteen years, first in Chicago and then, New York. In America, yet again, he gets himself tangled in a web of misadventures and torment. He weds a French actress, only to have his passion for women make a shipwreck of the marriage. To make matters worse, he falls in with the gangster Al Capone and manages to squander the astronomical fortune he has earned in the States over the years.
His romance with Caterina Boratto brings him back to Italy, but his support for the Fascist regime fatally damages his career. He is banned from the stage in Britain, and even the Scala in Milan refuses to let him sing as a tenor. His comeback is a long arduous road, but in the mid 1940’s, at the age of fifty, Tito Schipa is able to conquer all the theatres in world. In 1956, he is invited to direct a music school in Budapest, passing through the Iron Curtain and gaining favor with the Soviet Union. This brings about new accusations and new torments, his reputation stained by communist leanings, involvements in financial controversies and murky affairs organized by his collaborators, he is forced to return to America, where he is welcomed with open arms. He founds a music school, but the diabetes contracted in the 1940’s finally takes its toll, and the legendary Tito Schipa dies at the age of seventy seven, on December 16, 1965.
“Caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla” – Iced coffee with almond milk
In a historic cafè on the corner of Via Trinchese, one of the favorite drinks of Salento was invented: coffee with ice and almond milk. Back in the times of Antonio, the head of a family of coffee makers, it was the only cafè in the city to have ice, a hefty block that served the all families of Lecce, who came and chipped off pieces to place in leather bags to refrigerate their food. Here in this bar, where time seems to stand still, Antonio Quarto invented “caffè in ghiacco”, coffee on ice, served with thick chunks of ice that did not melt upon contact with the hot coffee, only adding almond milk to the recipe a few years later. “Caffè in giaccio con latte di mandorla” is a traditional drink, from a far away time and place, that found in Lecce the heart of its existence. Summer in Salento is announced by the aroma of roasted coffee and the clinking of spoons against ice and cup. “Caffè in ghiaccio” with almond milk is the taste welcoming in the favorite season of this land, a season of sea and swimming and evenings chatting on the front steps. If Salento is your destination, as soon as you arrive, stop at the first cafè you see and order “caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla”, only then can your holiday truly begin!
It is easy to imagine the aroma of the first “rustico”, piping hot out of the oven, created as an experiment, or perhaps as a bet, in one of the historic cafès of Lecce, where it still reigns supreme today. The “rustico” is the symbol of Salento street food, irresistible and indispensible for those who have been away too long, and even more so for those who live here all year round.
The combination of a few simple ingredients created the now famous “rustico”: a treasure chest of flaky pastry crust with a heart of béchamel cream sauce, melted mozzarella, a touch of tomato sauce and a dash of black pepper. It is not a traditional Salento dish of simple, country ingredients, (“cucina povera”), but it is certainly not included on the menus of fine restaurants either. “Il rustico” is the companion of the office workers skipping their lunch hour, it calms the growling stomachs of students racing toward their exams, and caresses the stressful thoughts at the end of the day for those too tired to cook, but longing for something delicious all the same. “Il rustico” recounts the stories of the middle class, and over the years has spontaneously become its symbol.
“Il Pizzo Leccese”
The true “pizzo” can only be found in the city of Lecce, adorning the windows of the cafés, its irresistible aroma tempting tourists as they pass by. “Il pizzo” is a type of “foccaccia”(a soft, flavorful flat bread made with oil), scrumptious and extravagant, bursting with tomatoes, onions, zucchini, and peppers, baked following the ancient recipe of Lecce housewives. Specifically, it can be classified as a variation of the “Puccia”: a typical Salento bread with dough made with durum wheat and water, laced with “celline” olives, and cooked in a wood oven. The “Puccia” in its classic incarnation is served as a type of sandwich, stuffed with fresh tomatoes, tuna, and arugula. “Il pizzo” and the “puccia” were the ideal meals for farmers who were out in the fields at the crack of dawn, providing sustenance to get through the long working day. While the “puccia” can be found throughout Salento, there are infinite variations reflecting each particular provenance, for example, in “Grecia Salentina”, it is called “Scheblasti”, and in the extreme south of Salento, “Cazzata”. Whatever the name, the fresh and flavorful “puccia” remains one of Salento’s favorite and most satisfying foods.