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The Baroque splendour of Lecce

THE HISTORY OF PUGLIA

After decades of instability, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 led to a period of relative calm in Puglia. Having lain dormant for so many years, the region’s cultural and artistic flame sparked back into life and the construction of utilitarian fortifications was replaced by the building of magnificent churches and dazzling noble palaces... nowhere was this more true than in Lecce.

Peacetime coincided happily with the advent of a group artists and benefactors who, in just over 100 years, transformed Lecce from a rather provincial garrison town into a sparkling Baroque jewel.

Lecce was also blessed in its mineral resources and, in particular, by the presence of a malleable, golden type of limestone that has since taken the town’s name. Ideally suited for carving and sculpture it was fundamental to the creation of Lecce’s unique artistic style.

Florid, exuberant and minutely detailed, Lecce’s Baroque style is also compact and neat without any bombastic overtones that one often associates with architecture of this period. Some art historians link the detail of the carvings and sculptures to the Spanish plateresque tradition (Puglia was under Spanish rule at this time), that took its inspiration from the precision and intricacy of silversmiths’ plate work.

Florid, exuberant and minutely detailed, Lecce’s Baroque style is also compact and neat without any bombastic overtones that one often associates with architecture of this period.

Lecce’s Baroque is also playful, mixing mythological creatures and fantastical figures with floral patterns, flamboyant motifs and, on the noble palaces, proud armorial bearings. It is a feast for the eyes and one needs to concentrate on the minutiae to enjoy the whole. 

As with all artistic movements, it is impossible to establish a precise starting date for Lecce’s Baroque movement, though one important moment was in 1639, when the amaranth red robes of Bishop Luigi Pappacoda rustled into town!

He quickly forged a relationship with one of the brightest, most talented architects of the period, Giuseppe Zimbalo, grandson of another master builder who had already been active on the Basilica di Santa Croce. Zimbalo worked on many of the buildings that are most representative of Lecce’s Baroque, including the restoration of the cathedral (commissioned by Pappacoda) between 1659 and 1670 and the wonderfully elegant 70 metre-high bell tower that stands like a beacon next door. He was also responsible for much of the decorative work on the facade and rose window of the Basilica di Santa Croce (continuing the good work of his grandfather), the Chiesa del Rosario, the Palazzo dei Celestini (1659-1695), now seat of the provincial government, and the Column of Sant’Oronzo in the eponymous piazza.

Other artists who contributed to the beautification of Lecce included Giuseppe Cino, Gabriele Riccardi, Cesare Penna and Mauro Manieri, all master craftsmen who bequeathed one of Italy’s most splendid town centres to future generations… of which you are one! Stroll, marvel and spare them a thought as you go!

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