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Lecce
The queen of Baroque
In the majestic facades of the churches, a jubilation of flowers, fruits, cherubs, and animals are sculpted into the tender local stone.
From the amphitheater to the Sedile, churches and large noble houses: bearing witness to various centuries, concentrated between St. Oronzo square and the nearby old town center
by Pietro Marino
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Lecce. The magnificent facade of the
Basilica of Santa Croce. Detail.
Photo by Giuseppe and Pierluigi Bolognini

      In Lecce, in the center of a great square surrounded by historic buildings from the 1900s, there stands at the top of a very high Roman column a baroque statue of St. Oronzo, the Christian martyr who was decapitated on that exact spot. He was elected the patron saint and protector of the city after the black plague in 1656. At his feet, like a chasm, are the remains of a Roman amphitheater. Next to the steps which lead down to the cavea, a small tower-like construction, named il Sedile, rises with its beautiful gothic portal, but it was constructed back in the 1500s. A short distance away, on the other side of the square, the massive castle walls were laid and later enlarged by Charles V, the king of Spain on whose empire the sun never set, to defend the city from Turkish assaults, which in 1480 amid great bloodshed had laid siege to, and conquered Otranto; that beautiful citadel which stands on the edge of the channel looking out towards the Orient. So, in a small concentrated space, the witnesses and layers of many centuries, from antiquity to modern times, still stand.

      But at the heart of this history, for Lecce, is the Baroque period. This Spanish word describes the style of art that dominated Europe in the 1600’s, replacing the classic ideals of the Renaissance period with the wondrous, spectacular discovery of nature, and the conquest of space highlighted by the movement of life. In Salento this new culture was best expressed by and identified with the Italian kingdom in the deep south. It happened almost by magic, with surprising fervor, between the second half of the 1500’s and the end of the 1600’s: When the nobility that had grown in the shade of the Spanish domination decided to construct important noble houses to represent their wealth, and the religious orders that had flowered after the counter-reforms of the Catholic church competed amongst themselves to build churches and convents. Two great places with strong appeal appear almost instantly, emerging out of the small medieval streets of the historic center: the Basilica of the Holy Cross (St. Croce), with its adjacent annex the Celestini ex convent, and the Duomo whose square is enclosed like a grand courtyard where the Bishop’s Palace and the Seminary are on display. The initial impact of St. Croce (built over a century, between 1549 and 1646, and started by architect Riccardi) attracts the eye immediately upward, towards the majestic rose window which is surrounded by an incredible massive display of fantasy: a ledge of fantastic animals and exotic slaves holding up a long balcony dotted by balusters and sculpted figures; all around the Cyclops-eye window is a backdrop of flowers and fruit and an array of rejoicing cherubs holding mythical figures and crowns that radiate under the empty stares from the statues of saints and virtues. But the entire facade is permeated with thrilling embroidered, rather than sculpted, detail into the soft, docile, blond Lecce stone. Stone, which, in the masterfully-wrought church interior containing five naves separated by deep chapels, glows with a dazzling whiteness amid triumphant vegetable capitals, almost like trees in a tropical forest. When Christmas approaches with its fable, a nativity scene is erected in the church and the statues almost appear to fly to the altar of the Annunciation. It is evidently the decorated facade that makes the architectural structure vibrate to Renaissance time, and the spaces that taste of medieval time.

      Decorations that take on the appearance of refined, elegant artwork are found on the annex convent, now the administrative seat of the Province of Lecce.

      There is an array of architecture, sculptures, and paintings by artisans, who were almost all local and active in Salento, reinventing, with their use of local style, the opulence of Spanish Baroque. Style that is confirmed with crystal clarity in the harmonious rapport that is on view at the Duomo (rebuilt between 1659 and 1670 by architect Zimbalo) from the Bishop’s Palace to the Seminary. Buildings that – constructed later in time, up to the beginning of the 1700’s (by architects Cino and Pappacoda) – give off a light grace, almost like a dance of columns and porticos. Grace that reaches its peak at the well located inner courtyard of the Seminary: It is almost like a resting point from the weaving of spaces, surveyed from Zimbalo’s slender bell tower that ends in an elongated, octagonal cupola, appearing almost Oriental in style.

      But, as we were saying, the two monumental complexes are only prestigious landmarks in an intricate web of churches and grand noble houses that are designed to give continuous surprise as you wander through the roads and back streets of the historical center, where convents have become centers of cultural life. But they can lead to the pleasure of discovery by a tourist. A pleasure that is beyond names, dates, and styles but which is fueled by the passing of life itself, by the continuous movement on the balconies and wrought iron railings that go along with them. It is an original sensation, leading one on to be the first to discover what was noted a half a century ago by the great art historian Cesare Brandi: It is the streets that make the sculptures, not vice versa: This is why Lecce, the gentle city, has an artistic vitality that surpasses that of its individual monuments.

WHERE: Lecce

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