Lecce, the Baroque parlor of Salento

Holidays in Puglia? Then you cannot miss a visit to Lecce.

As well as to the whole Salento, of which this lovely city is the beating heart.

Lecce, rosone della basilica di Santa Croce

The Baroque and the local stone were the emblems that made this city the “Florence of the South”. The facades of palaces and churches of the old town are decorated with this gorgeous style, unique in the history of Italian art. The Baroque of Lecce, in fact, differs from the classical-Renaissance one that developed in Rome with Bernini and Borromini. The Baroque was born in the Counter-Reformation period, to revive the Church’s fortunes through the ostentation of ecclesiastical magnificence, and it expresses its ultimate grandeur and sophistication in the complex of the Church of the Holy Cross (1548), and the former Celestine Convent (now seat of the Province and Prefecture). In both shines the purity of the local stone, also known as the “gentle” for the malleability of working by chisel and also by hands. Santa Croce, a blaze of beauty and stylistic details, looks like a great altar. The rose, attributed to the artist Cesare Penna, is full of cherubs, angels, pomegranate and lily flowers that fill the central part, while in the sides, among inlays and leaves, five human faces are hidden. Among them, there seems to be the self-portrait of the  sculptor himself. Celestini Palace, equally extraordinary, is characterized by the prospect, rich in Rococo style elements.

Aristocratic, intellectual and diplomatic like its inhabitants, Lecce possesses the class of a charming noblewoman. It is cult and culture, stage for a wonderful architecture of watermark, with lots of large windows, balconies, courtyards, narrow streets and historic buildings. One of these buildings, in Via Palmieri, is Palazzo Palmieri-Guarini, famous for hosting people like Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat in  the 1800. The facade is linear and simple, but as soon as you move to the other side, in Piazzetta Falconieri, forms and Rococo style balconies are a real surprise. Near the villa of the municipality is Palazzo Loffredo-Adorno (now another Province seat), from mid 1500, with smooth ashlar façade. Inside, the entrance hall and staircase with protruding ashlar are particularly interesting. And again: Carafa Palace (seat of the Municipality), Marrese Palace and Vernazza Palace – one of the oldest, and recently renovated – in whose basement there are some real wonders: the Temple of Isis and the Purgatorium, ancient pagan baptistery containing water for the purification of the body.

And what about the “unexpected accesses” to surprising squares, such as the Duomo? Here, next to the episcopate and the Seminar, in whose courtyard is the precious well of Cino, is the bell tower of the Cathedral, which dominates the town center enclosed within the three gates: Porta Napoli, also known as Arc de Triomphe, Porta Rudiae and Porta S. Biagio. With its 68-meter, the Cathedral bell tower  is among the highest in Europe. Another heart of the city is Piazza S. Oronzo with the patron statue, the superb Palace of the seat, known as the Seat, and the peculiar S. Marco church, built in the sixteenth century as a private chapel for the Venetian merchants.

Lecce, piazza Duomo

Under the current street level, on the whole square area is the ancient Lupiae, the Roman Lecce; the Roman Amphitheatre is really beautiful at night. A little farther on, the remains of the Roman Theatre and next to those, the Church of St. Clare, whose papier-mâché ceiling of 1787 is a real rarity. Also in this area, between the sacred and the profane, stands the castle of Charles V.

But the art from Lecce is much more than this and it is also about cuisine. So, in the middle of your tour treat yourself to a break in one of the typical downtown restaurants. For richer fare, try a cream pasticciotto, or mustazzoli and, in summer, you cannot miss the spumone (ice cream with sponge cake). For lovers of salty, there are the tasty frize “cu lu pimmidoru” (tomato), pucce,  typical olive bread, or rustici with mozzarella and tomato.

Among the products of local crafts, look for the papier-mâché characters or artifacts made of Lecce stone or clay.

Lecce, basilica di Santa Croce
Lecce is to be visited at any time of year, but it sure is August the month full of events, because 24-26 Saint Oronzo and the other two patrons are celebrated: Giusto and Fortunato. In the rest of Salento, there are plenty of festivals and events. In Salentino Greece, home of  pizzica, you start with the “tarantate” music evenings that end in Melpignano – a little less than 30 km from Lecce – with the big concert of the Taranta Night, this year scheduled on the 24. There is also the feast of St. Rocco, in Torrepaduli-Ruffano, 15-17 August, with the famous sword dance, which animates the nights until dawn the next day.

Lecce, piazza Sant'Oronzo

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