Lecce: The Most Beautiful Town of Southern Italy

Lecce is considered the most beautiful town in Southern Italy and a gem of Baroque architecture. It is located at the far tip of the peninsula, on the heel of the boot so to say, in the region of Apulia, between the Adriatic Sea and the Gulf of Taranto. Lecce is the capital of its province and has a population of about 92,000 people. It is located in the area of Apulia referred to as Salento, or the Salentine Peninsula, and is accessible by train from such places as Naples and Rome. Nearby one finds the port towns of San Cataldo, Otranto and Gallipoli, and it is not far from the larger Brindisi, where one can fly into. Although not directly on the sea, Lecce is well know for its fine seafood cuisine.

Although it is a bit inland, Lecce has had its share of invasions and was very important in trade, especially with Venice. It was first founded as a Messapian town in the 4th century BC. Later it became the Roman town Lupiae during the Augustan period. It went on to flourish as an independent county during the Middle Ages. Around the 14th century the Turks and the Ottoman Empire began invading Lecce, even after it was annexed by the Spanish Hapsburgs in the 15th century, with Charles V as king. In 1656 thousands of its inhabitants were killed by the plague, said to have been cured by the city’s Sant’Oronzo. Like so many places in Italy, the remnants of the invasions are apparent in the culture, architecture, and cuisine. Especially apparent in Lecce is the Spanish conquest, with buildings and monuments built by Charles V, with his coat of arms stamped upon them.

Even the style of the Baroque in Southern Italy, but especially in Lecce, is different than that of the northern regions, with a distinctly Spanish influence. Lecce is famous for this Baroque architecture, made primarily from the Pietra di Lecce, or the Lecce Stone, a sort of sandstone used for carving and building, that is exported throughout the world. The stone is very soft and malleable, making it easy to carve, but then it becomes hard as granite when left for a few years in the elements, allowing it to endure. The city’s buildings that are made of this stone give the whole city the warm golden hue associated with it. Gabriele Riccardi, Francesco Antonio Zimbalo and Cesare Penna are among the more celebrated local architects of the Baroque period.

If you are near by, it is worth visiting Lecce during one of its festivals. There is the festival of Saint Oronzo held every August 26 in honor of the Saint and also the festival of Lu Riu of Lecce held on the Tuesday after Easter. During this festival the city celebrates its history with citizens dressed in medieval costumes demonstrating ancient jobs. One should try to see the Pizzico, the traditional folk dance of the area which is danced to the beat of drummers. It is said to have legendary origins and is part of all the festivals and holidays in Lecce.

Main Sights

Piazza Sant’Oronzo

Named for the famous Saint that was the first bishop of Lecce and is said to have been martyred under Nero, this is the central piazza of the town. It also happens to be the original site of the Roman amphitheatre built there in the second century and rediscovered in 1901, to be restored in 1938. Only half of it has been revealed, though, since other historic buildings have also been built on the site. In fact, during the middle Ages, the site was covered over with dirt and transformed into the main commerce market, called Piazza dei Mercanti. The half of the amphitheatre that has been recovered, however, is used by the town for shows and concerts and seats about 15,000 people. Here you also find the famous Roman column from Brindisi that once marked the end of the Appian Way, and was bought in 1661 to hold the statue of the beloved Saint Oronzo. It was dedicated in 1666 in his honor for he was believed to have ended the plague of 1656. In the piazza is also the Sedile, a small pavilion–like structure built in 1592 and used as the town hall until 1851. It was built with glass windows in order to assure the transparency of the administration during meetings and hearings. It has gothic portals but above a wide portico typical of the Renaissance. In the piazza, one also finds San Marco, a church built by the Venetian merchant colony in 1543. It testifies to the importance of Venetian trade in Lecce, and one should be sure to note the large winged lion on the front, the symbol of Venice’s economic power and authority, even in this city

SS. Nicolò e Cataldo

Founded by Lecce’s Count Tancredo in 1180, this is Lecce’s oldest standing church, and one of only a few medieval structures to survive in Lecce. Although the façade is of the Baroque period, close examination of the rose window and portal reveal the Romanesque structure beneath, and one of the best examples of Apulian churches of that period. Inside one finds gothic arches and barrel vaults, and frescoes painted in the 14th and 15th centuries.

 Santa Croce

This church could be considered the symbol of Baroque architecture in Lecce. Although it was begun in 1353, and worked on for a period of time to be finished in 1680, it is the extreme Baroque style that one notices. There are Renaissance elements in the lower half of the building, but Cesare Penna and the Zimbalo brothers went wild with the wedding cake like decorations outside. The rose window has a host of angels and the portal has such characters as dragons, exotic strangers, and Romulus and Remus’s she-wolf featured. Within, the altars and chapels, also done by the trio, are worth a peek.

Il Castello

Located behind the church of Santa Croce, one finds the castle built by Charles V from 1539 to 1549. It attests to the Spanish presence in Lecce and marks what had been the eastern edge of town. This fortress has a trapezoidal plan and a number of angular bastions, and was surrounded by a mote until it was filled in 1972. It was constructed with the stones that once made up the old Norman city wall that had been built in the 12th century. The castle is now used for exhibits and conferences and houses the Tourist Information Centre. 

Piazza del Duomo

Entrance to this piazza is hidden down an alley off Via Vittorio Emanuele, intentionally isolated in order to keep it a peaceful place far away from everyday life. It is considered one of the best examples of southern Baroque architecture. The cathedral was built from 1659 to 1670 by Francesco Antonio Zimbalo. It is L-shaped and has two façades. Its octagonal bell tower stands 240ft high, and is reminiscent of the imperial Spanish style. If you get a chance to climb it, there is a breathtaking view of the Salento to be seen.

Teatro Romano

Behind the cathedral, one finds a Roman theatre that was uncovered in 1929. It is thought to be of the Augustine period and seats 5,000 people. Amazingly, the theatre still has its original stone slab floors. If one looks closely, the grooves where the curtain would have slid and the slots for the scaffolding are still visible. There is a museum located there as well.

Museo Sigismundo Castromediano

The museum was founded by the Duke Sigismundo, a local patriot who spent a long time in the dungeons in Naples for fighting against the Bourbon dominance in the mid 19th century, before Italian unification. The museum is wheel-chair accessible and has one of the best arranged collections in Italy. Within one finds vases from the Messapian period from about the 6th century BC found in the Salento area. In addition, there is a very good medieval art and artifacts collection and a picture gallery. Founded in 1868, it is believed to be the oldest museum in Apulia.



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