Salento and the "Barocco Leccese"
Ministry od Cultural Heritage and Activities
Region: Puglia - Provinces: Lecce
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The Salento peninsula in South-Eastern Puglia extends, between the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas, from the last hills of Murgia to the headland, Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, and its celebrated homonymous sanctuary, marking Finibus Terrae, which was probably built over the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to Minerva. The Salento peninsula is prevalently calcareous, with a typically Karstic landscape, not rich in surface waters, featuring a profusion of underground craters, caves and grottoes.
In the course of the centuries, the landscape was moulded in turn by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans and Aragonese as this borderland acquired increasing strategic and commercial importance.
Each and every domination deeply affected the peninsula's landscape and the identity of these ancient builders can be traced both in the countryside and in all the towns. Dry walls, menhirs, dolmen, sighting promontories (the so-called specchie) and underground oil-mills are the most ancient evidence left by the Messapian people, an Illyrian-speaking population that settled in the Salento peninsula in the first millennium BC; after constant warfare with the Greek colony in Taranto, they were conquered by the Romans in 266 AD. The Messapians occupied a vast territory, known as Grecia Salentina, where traces of the ancient road network are still visible. This territory's extension was gradually reduced and now includes eight municipalities where there is a revival of the ancient local language, griko. Ancient cathedrals, stately homes, castles and watchtowers are marks of Norman (11th and 12th centuries) and Aragonese (13 and 15th centuries) occupation. These significantly altered the medieval social and political structures, but the peninsula's landscape is also the product of the peasants' daily toil as, for centuries, they unwearyingly laboured an impervious and rocky soil, dotting the countryside with caseddì, the distinctive tool sheds built with rocks cleared from the ground. The most typical feature of this agrarian culture are the tenant farms, born of the fragmentation of large landed estates, and equally distributed throughout the territory. Ever since the Middle Ages, the system based on tenant farms reflects the economical structure - ownership, cultivation and tenure of the land - that remained unchanged up to the 1950's. The architecture of these farms varies from modest country houses to properly fortified manors for the defence of inland regions. Around the second half of the 13th century, authority began to be displayed also in rural areas and some of these edifices were enriched with elaborate porticoes, balconies, belvederes, formal gardens stucco decorations and frescoes and became small gems of architecture.
However, the distinctive character of the Salento peninsula comes from a series of architectural achievements associated to an artistic phenomenon known as Barocco Leccese, which developed in Lecce, Salento's historical and artistic centre, and in Terra d'Otranto between the second half of the 16th century and the end of the 17th century. In those years, thanks to a particular combination of ideas and circumstances, the culture and urban structure of both town and province were totally re-modelled with works composing an unmistakable urban fabric of extraordinary architectural and artistic value. The local stone, a compact-grained marbled limestone "honey coloured, that can be carved with a penknife" (Cesare Brandi), used as building material greatly enhanced the creativity of local artists. The stone is soft and easy to cut, and it used to be hardened and made resistant to rain and humidity with a very particular process: it was soaked in fluid containing whole milk and this reduced its porosity making the surface hard and compact.
The ‘Barocco leccese' developed in the framework of the Counter-Reformation and the foundation of reformed religious orders (Theatine and Jesuits) create in response to the Church's need to re-assert its authority, mainly through an ostentatious display of power. Its distinctive, autonomous, style can be found in the particular, imaginative and suggestive combination of architectural elements on the façade: porticoes, windows, balconies, loggias, gargoyles, corbels, festoons, columns and cornices crowded with human figures, flowers and animals. The expressiveness of these decorations overflows into the strictly religious areas and can be found also on altars, ciboria and calvaries. The reference to the earth, its products and God's mercy is quite clear when flowers, festoons and sprays of vine are mixed with elements symbolizing spiritual and Christian values .
From the 1500s to the 1710s this new language marked the urban renewal that followed Lecce's re-acquired importance after the succession of plagues, mass slaughters and ravages of the last decades of the 15th century, during Aragonese rule. The city had become an important commercial centre of the Kingdom of Naples attracting Venetian, Dalmatian, Greek and Lombard merchants and its prestige was further enhanced when it became the seat of the State's regional administrative offices and Law Courts. peripheral renewed beginning of the 18th century
Charles V appointed Lecce Puglia's regional capital city and ordered its renewal with several public works; also the nobility participated in the construction of a large number of buildings which show the influence of this style that maintains a close relationship with classical principles but also embraces the rural characteristics of the peninsula's culture.
A good example is the Basilica of the Holy Cross among the more interesting and elaborate religious edifices, featuring an extraordinary profusion of decorative elements, namely the corbels supporting the balcony (a typical element of Lecce's architecture) and the caryatids of the façade. Noteworthy, next to the Basilica, is Palazzo della Prefettura, but also Palazzo del Seminario, the churches of Santa Chiara, SS. Nicolò and Cataldo (restructured) and del Rosario. A real Baroque gem is also piazza del Duomo which shows a particularly attractive synthesis of this style's main features.
Baroque art and its decorative criteria were soon followed in the whole of the Salento peninsula, even in the smaller cities where the main monuments are no less significant than those in Lecce. Today, every alley, every street, every square not only in Lecce but also in Nardò, Gallipoli, Martina Franca, Ostuni, Francavilla Fontana, Galatina, Galàtone and many others, testifies to the wide range of expressive feats achieved by the ‘Barocco leccese'.
Nardò, at the heart of the Salento peninsula, was an important centre in Roman times and increased its cultural, political and economic relevance during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; in the 18th century, the works of the celebrated Neapolitan architect, Ferdinando Sanfelice, gave it its distinctly Baroque characteristics. This brilliant artist personally designed the church della Purità (1724) and the Cathedral's new façade (1725) and gave impulse to the innovations, already in full swing, focussing on a re-definition of architectural volumes and of the urban structure; the outcome can be admired in the scenic street wings, in the variety of road tracings (a good example is the one connecting the churches Santa Teresa, Santa Croce, San Francesco di Paola, Santa Chiara and San Giuseppe) and in several picturesque villas in the suburban area.
Gallipoli is another interesting "laboratory" where, during the 17th and 18th centuries, the peculiarities of the ‘Barocco leccese' were applied to several important monuments (namely, the Cathedral and the churches della Purità, delle Anime, del Crocifisso, di San Francesco di Paola), within the framework of an urban structure endowed with a particularly picturesque landscape: the town is built on a headland extending into the Ionian Sea, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus.
Galàtone's city centre features several Baroque monuments; particularly noteworthy is the Santuario del Crocifisso della Pietà (1696), with its three-storied façade overflowing with friezes, niches, statues and the unique large window barred by a gate of pierced stone.
Martina Franca is situated on the border between the Salento peninsula and the province of Bari, an area known as Valle d'Itria, important in itself for other, significant, environmental and cultural aspects (namely the civilization that developed particular stone dwellings known as trullo). Martina Franca shows the final evolution of the Baroque style; here Baroque merges with Rococo conferring uniform elegance and lightness to the whole city. religious and civilian buildings, squares and streets. Ostuni features several significant churches; the more important Baroque ones are S. Maria Maddalena and San Vito Martire. The latter was built between 1750 and 1754 and its façade shows interesting cornices, niches, friezes and coats of arms. Noteworthy is also Palazzo Ducale