7th June 2015
Bountiful Baroque in Lecce, Puglia
I gazed into a familiar green face way above me framed by an azure blue sky – I was in Piazza Sant’Oronzo in Lecce and it was Sant’Oronzo (Saint Horace) who I had already met in Ostuni and who is also the patron saint of this town. This column was a gift from the nearby city of Brindisi one of several cities in Puglia that worship Sant’Oronzo as their saviour from plague and famine. It was one of a pair that stood in the centre of Brindisi to mark the end of the Appian Way’Oronzo in Piazza San’Oronzo in Lecce, Puglia, Italy)! Way that ran from Rome to the south of Italy. Sant’ Oronzo was the first Christian bishop and was based in Lecce before he became their patron saint. Italy takes great pride in its’ patron saints and celebrations are held every year to honour them. I was sorry I would not be in town for this event that takes place in August and lasts three days with illuminations, processions and concerts.
Beside me was the Roman Amphitheatre and although it was closed and I could not descend to its level I was able to see everything from the square. It was built in the second century and could seat more than 25,000 people. The theatre is still used today for religious and cultural events in the city.
As I completed my circuit of the amphitheatre I came to the Chiesetta di San Marco which was built by the Venetian community in 1543. Next door to the church is Palazzo il Sedile or Il Sedile the seat of Lecce a beautifully restored cubic building that was built as a private residence before being used as the Town Hall and now houses the Tourist Information office. I went inside to get a map of the city and was informed they had run out of the free maps and I would have to purchase one. I decided to rely on the signs I had seen outside – it was a decision I was to regret.
I followed the signs to the Basilica of Santa Croce one of the most important churches in Lecce. Despite following the signs I found myself back in Piazza Sant’Oronzo not once but twice. I found a small shop that professed to be an Information Point and was happy to sell me a map of the city so I was soon back on track. But when I did find the basilica it was shrouded in scaffolding as it is being restored but it was still possible to appreciate its magnificent façade, the work of Lecce’s famous architect and sculptor Giuseppe Zimbalo one of the leaders of the Baroque movement in the city. This movement began in a period of peace for the city after decades of instability mostly involving the Ottoman Empire with the advent of a group of artists and benefactors who during a period of one hundred years transformed Lecce from a garrison town to its current Baroque splendour. The transition was helped by the availability of the local, soft, golden limestone known as the Lecce Stone that was ideal for the carvings and sculptures of the playful mixing of mythological creatures, floral patterns, and flamboyant motifs that are typical of the unique Baroque style developed in Lecce – no doubt influenced by the Spanish who ruled the region during that period. Zimbalo is most famous for his restoration of the cathedral (Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta) between 1659 and 1670 and the elegant bell tower next to it.
After making my way through the narrow streets of the old town I finally arrived at the side entrance of the cathedral just before it was due to close for lunch. I had time, and space, to appreciate the elegant interior before exiting into the Piazza del Duomo where a mass exodus was taking place and within a few minutes the piazza was empty – apart from two large school groups taking group photos on the cathedral steps. I had discovered that large school parties visiting famous sites and buildings are a feature of Puglia during school term time. Although noisy the children are generally very well behaved and I sat on some steps in the shade to watch the pantomime of a teacher trying to get fifty children seated, quiet and looking at the camera at the same time. The piazza itself is a large open space in a very built up area and when under threat of invasion the inhabitants of Lecce would gather there and barricade its narrow entrance. I could appreciate an unusual feature of the cathedral, its two facades – one on the western end and the other, more ornate, facing the piazza. Next door to the cathedral are the 15th-century Palazzo Vescovile (Episcopal Palace) and the 18th-century Seminario .
Overwhelmed by the munificence of Baroque buildings in the old town I decided to explore further afield and left the old town through Porta San Biagio one of the three gates on its perimeter. This gate was built in 1700 and separates the old and new towns of Lecce. Its stone façade features columns and delicate carvings, the two coats of arms of the city of Lecce topped by a statue of Sant’Oronzo.
During my wanderings I had already discovered the other two gates. Porta Rudiae and Porta Napoli. Porta Rudiae was named after Rudiae an old city west of Lecce and is the oldest gate although it is not the original which collapsed in the seventeenth century and was rebuilt by Giuseppe Cino in the neoclassical style with echoes of baroque. Porta Napoli is also called the Arc de Triomphe due to size and its isolated position in the middle of Piazza Napoli. It was built in 1548 on the site of the ancient gate of Porta San Giusto (some still call it by this name) to thank Emperor Charles V for fortifying Lecce with walls and a castle (il castello di Carlo).
I had hoped to visit the castle but its exterior was being renovated and although the interior was still open I decided to move to Villa Comunale di Lecce which we would call a public park. This was an oasis of calm after the bustle of the city and I sank onto one of benches in the shade of the trees to enjoy the essence of water in the air drifting from the fountain before exploring further. As I strolled around the park I came across a small ornamental temple and several busts of famous Italians, most of them by the sculptor Eugenio Maccagnani .
It was a very pleasant end to an interesting day during which I had learned to appreciate the beauty of baroque.
British Airways operates flights from London Gatwick to Bari and there are trains and buses from the airport to Bari Central railway station. From Bari Central there are regular trains to Lecce.