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Baroque architecture in the heel of Italy: an artistic and cultural feast for the senses

Madonna and child
Florence of the South?

Names for Lecce so I’ve read, include “The Florence of the South” and “The Lady of the Baroque”. While the former name is common, I imagine, the real Florence further to the north disputes it. The second name, while less common, is perhaps more understandable due to the prevalence of Baroque architecture in the city.

With the second largest population, Lecce sits on the Salento peninsula, forming the heel of Italy. A particular type of stone occurs nearby. Dubbed Lecce gold, the limestone is a light yellow, soft and malleable stone. This makes it favoured by sculptors and stone masons alike. A decisive victory back in the mid-1500s, weakened the hold of the Ottomans on the Salento peninsula. After this, a renewal of civic buildings occurred updating them to the then-favoured baroque style. This renewal apparently started with embellishments to the existing churches, but private buildings quickly followed in adopting the style.

Sweet-breasted angels run on the ledges

Today the city boasts a particular style of baroque architecture, called Barocco Leccese or Lecce Baroque. The style is typified, apart from the stone used, by the inclusion of fantastical figures. These include mythological animals, humans, friezes, coats of arms and floral motifs. Much of this speaks to the works of God and the beauty of creation.

A poet of the region, Vittorio Bodini wrote a poem about Lecce that included the following lines:
“Whitely gilded
is the sky where
on the ledges they run
sweet-breasted angels,
Saracen warriors and learned donkeys
with rich ruffs.”

All sorts of creatures appear to inhabit the ledges and facades of Lecce buildings. One wonders at the remit of the stone masons who have let their imaginations run wild. One of the most visible examples is the Basilica of Santa Croce completed in 1695. Responsible for designing part of the façade was Guiseppe Zimbalo a local architect and sculptor. Known as Lo Zingarello (“Tiny Gypsy”), Zimbalo worked on the completion of the façade, which took over two centuries to finish.

The art of papier Mache

Many of the buildings exhibiting Lecce Baroque are churches. Each of these possess their own characteristics and attractions. The cathedral or Duomo dominates the large piazza outside. Inside its side chapels are dressed in columns dripping with decoration. Ornate carvings coat every surface but here the gold is understated. Not so in Santa Chiara another church, where the gold seems in danger of dripping from the decorations to pool on the floor. Paintings in gold frames and gold candle sticks add to the effect.

The church of San Mateo is more low-key. However, it still possesses the twisted columns around each painting in the chapels belying its baroque roots. In this church, a statue Santa Rita of Cascia is displayed. The latter is of interest as the saint most prayed to seeking recovery from Covid.

Additionally of interest, the statue is of papier mâché, a skill typical of Lecce. The trade developed due to a lack of more noble materials such as marble. At the time of the architectural regeneration in the 17th century it flourished. Looking for a way of adding more sentiment to religious statues, the tradesmen experimented. They were happy at the results using straw, rags, glue and plaster stuck together with a glue made of flour and water.

Clay is mostly used for the head, feet and hands and placed on a mould, apparently passed down the generations. Local tradesmen to this day, continue to produce religious and other pieces made in this way. However, the balconies, balustrades, crucifixes, Madonna statues and saints that decorate the Churches are the real standouts. In Santa Chiara, a ceiling made from papier mâché resembles dark wood panelling. While it might have been a cost saving when first made, it apparently requires continuing maintenance now.

An incredible mosaic tile floor

Back in the Church of San Mateo, a 16th century fresco of Madonna della Luce shows the virgin and child nursing while holding a bird. How amazing to think of all the people who have gazed in wonder at this image over the 400 years of its existence.

While Lecce gets most of the attention, several of the nearby towns also boast baroque buildings of their own. In one of the churches at Gallipoli, a hugely ornate gold framed picture of Jesus on the cross adorns an otherwise modest interior. But Otranto’s cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata captured my interest.

Built over the remains of earlier places of worship and civilisations, the Norman bishop William founded the current building in 1068. That’s over 950 years ago! Given its age, unsurprisingly some bloody history is part of its story. In the late 1400s, the Turks entered the cathedral and butchered the townspeople who sought refuge there. Becoming a mosque for the period of the Ottoman occupation, various non-religious uses followed. This meant the destruction of many of the earlier frescoes and art works.

Not so the unique floor. Made entirely of mosaic tiles, construction of the 600 square metre piece of art occurred between 1163 and 1170. It was designed and made by a group of monks led by Pantaleone. The huge piece, partly roped off when we visited, depicts the Tree of Life and scenes from the Old Testament. The images are said to trace the human experience from original sin to salvation. It certainly invokes awe not only at the animals, people and vegetation depicted, but also at the scale of imagination required to create such a work. It seemed in remarkably good condition given its age with relatively vibrant colours and little evidence of wear.

Florence’s reputation remains intact

While Lecce’s baroque buildings represent a wonderful collection of architectural significance, I believe Florence’s reputation is intact. Visiting Lecce’s Diocesan museum showed only a few pieces of interest. Some of the papier mâché statues piqued my interest, and a sculpture of Christ on the cross certainly evoked sentiment, but on the whole, the collection underwhelmed. This is not to say that Lecce does not possess other art works, unseen by me, that may rival David or other treasures of the Uffizi Gallery.

After feasting on the artistic and cultural delights of Lecce baroque, I’m full to the brim with cherubs and golden details. But I’m still booking tickets to see the treasures that Florence has to show.

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