Holiday in Salento: discovering Lecce, the Baroque city, 40 mins from Gallipoli
Because of the rich Baroque architectural monuments found in the city, Lecce is commonly nicknamed the “The Florence of the South”. The city also has a long traditional affinity with Greek culture going back to its foundation; the Messapii who founded the city are said to have been Cretans in Greek records. To this day, in the Grecìa Salentina, a group of towns not far from Lecce, the griko language is still spoken.
In terms of industry the “Lecce stone” is the city’s main export, because it is very soft and malleable, thus suitable for sculptures. Lecce stone is a kind of limestone. Lecce is also an important agricultural centre, chiefly for its olive oil and wine production, as well as an industrial centre specialising in ceramic production.
Places to visit
Lecce is known for its important Baroque monuments.
Churches and religious buildings
The most important is the Church of the Holy Cross (Chiesa di Santa Croce). It was begun in 1353, but work was halted until 1549, to be completed only in 1695. The church has a richly decorated façade with animals, grotesque figures and vegetables, and a large rose window. Next to the church is the Government Palace, a former convent.
The Duomo (cathedral) is also one of the most significant in Italy. It was originally built in 1144, and rebuilt in 1230. It was totally restored in the years 1659-70 by Giuseppe Zimbalo, who also built the 70 m-high bell tower. The latter has five floors and an octagonal loggia.
The church of San Niccolò and Cataldo is an example of Italo-Norman architecture. It was founded by Tancred of Sicily in 1180. In 1716 the façade was rebuilt, with the addition of numerous statues, but maintaining the fine original portal. The interior has a nave and two aisles, with ogival arcades and a dome in the centre of the nave. The frescoes on the walls are from the 15th-17th centuries.
The Celestines’ Convent (1549-1695), ewith Baroque decorations by Giuseppe Zimbalo. The courtyard was designed by Gabriele Riccardi.
The church of the Theatines (St. Irene, built from 1591 by Francesco Grimaldi). It has a large façade showing different styles in the upper and lower parts. The portal is surmounted by a statue of St. Irene by Mauro Manieri (1717). The interior is on the Latin cross plan and is rather sober. It has an altar of St. Michael Archangel with a copy of the eponymous painting by Guido Reni. The high altar has aTransport of the Holy Ark by Oronzo Tiso. In the right transept is one of the largest altars in Lecce, dedicated to S. Cajetan (1651). Nearby is the roccoco altar of St. Andrew Avellino. Also from the mid-17th century is the altar of St. Oronzo by Francesco Antonio Zimbalo, followed by the altar of St. Irene with a canvas by Giuseppe Verrio (1639), nine busts of saints housing relics and a large statue of the Saint. The altar of St. Stephen has Lapidation of St. Stephen by Verrio. Church of San Matteo, built in 1667. It has a typical central Italy Baroque style. It has tqo columns on the façade, only one of which is decorated, though only partially. According to a local legend, the jealous devil killed the sculptor before he could finish the work.
Santa Maria degli Angeli
Santa Chiara (1429-1438), rebuilt in 1687
San Francesco della Scarpa, known as the “church without façade” as the latter has been demolished in the 19th century restorations. The most ancient section dates likely to the 13th-14th centuries; the interior is on the Greek Cross plan. Notable are several Baroque altars and a large statue of St. Joseph.
The Roman Amphitheatre, built in the 2nd century and situated near Sant’Oronzo Square, was able to seat more than 25,000 people. It is now half-buried because other monuments were built above it over the centuries.
The column holding the statue of Saint Oronzo (Lecce’s patron) was given to Lecce by the city of Brindisi, because Saint Oronzo was reputed to have cured the plague in Brindisi. The column was one of a pair that marked the end of the Appian Way, the main road between Rome and southern Italy.
Torre del Parco (“Park Tower”) is one of the medieval symbols of Lecce. It was erected in 1419 by the then-18 years old Giovanni Antonio del Balzo Orsini, prince of Lecce. The tower, standing at more than 23 meters, is surrounded by a ditch in which bears (araldic symbol of the Orsini del Balzo) were reared. The whole complex was the seat of Orsini’s tribunal and of a mint, and after Giovanni Antonio’s death, it became a residence for the Spanish viceroys.
The Sedile Palace was built in 1592 and was used by the local council until 1852.
The Castle of Charles V was built in 1539-49 by Gian Giacomo dell’Acaja. It has a trapezoidal plan with angular bastions. It is attached to the Politeama Greco Opera House, inaugurated on November 15, 1884.
The Triumphal Arch (Arco di Trionfo, commonly called Porta Napoli, “Neapolitan Gate”), erected in 1548 in honor of Charles V. It replaced an older gate, Porta S. Giusto, which, according the tradition, lied over the tomb of the namesake saint. Also built over pre-existing, medieval gates are the current Porta San Biagio (“St. Blaise Gate”) and the Porta Rudiae. Both are in Baroque style, the latter having the statue of St. Oronzo on the top and mythological figures on the sides.
Palazzo dei Celestini, now seat of the Province of Lecce. It was built in 1659-1695 and designed by Giuseppe Zimbalo.
The city’s Obelisk, erected in 1822 in honor of Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies.