SARONNO, Italy - In Lecce, the ornate buildings in the historic center seem to be sculpted of velvet and sprinkled with gold. They give the old town a golden glow, even on cloudy days. The secret of that glow is in the stone, a particular limestone only found in the Pugliese town of Lecce, several kilometers inland from the Adriatic Sea. The stone is the element that binds together the various periods of history and architectural styles you see in Lecce, ranging from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, right up to the nineteenth-century.
It seems to be another magnificently curlicued and putti decorated building around every corner. You would think your eye would tire of the endless parade of the exaggerated Baroque designs that Lecce presents, but the perfect proportion of the old town gives you just enough space from one elaborately carved church or building to another to make each new discovery as breathtaking as the last. I have never seen anything quite like it, and I don’t think there is anything like it anywhere else in Italy.
|Along the streets of Lecce|
The secret is in the stone. It is unlike any other, soft and almost paste like when first pulled from the quarry, and then as it is exposed to the air, it slowly begins to harden and turn a rich golden color, and holds firm to the decorations that have been cut into it. It’s almost like magic.
It was in the early 1600’s that Italy began to take on a new look. Symmetry was out, decoration was in. There were two Renaissance architects who were primarily responsible for the change - Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini - and they were both in Rome. Bernini’s decorations were elaborate and beautiful. Borromini’s decorations were so embroidered and over-the-top that many considered him mad. It was an impression that would linger long after his death. But it was precisely because of Borromini, and his perceived madness, that the works he created during this period was called Baroque, for in those days baroque meant abnormal.
|Church of Santa Croce, Lecce|
But it was anything but abnormal for brothers DGuiseppe and Antonio Zimbalo, local sculptors and architects working in Lecce. It was as if this new style developed by Bernini and Borromini had been invented just for them. the Church of Santa Croce in Lecce’s Jewish quarter, is Antonio Zimbalo’s most over the top design. The church took more than 150 years to complete, and at least five other architects had a hand in its creation. Zimbalo worked his magic on the top half of the façade centering it with a rose window encircled with winged angel heads, acanthus leaves and rosettes. Then he moved on to dragons and cherubs, griffons and lions, saints and sinners and pot-bellied mermaids. It’s almost more than the eye can take in, and the brain can process.
|Duomo of Lecce|
Just a short distance from Piazza Oronzo, the town’s main piazza, large porticos lead to into the Piazza del Duomo, and the Basilica. It’s another Zimbalo brother masterpiece, this time Guiseppe Zimbalo. It is difficult to appreciate the impact the Basilica had when it was first built as the city was configured differently now than it was then. What that means is that the first ornate ornate façade you see as you walk into the piazza is not the church entrance, but the exit. There is another equally ornate façade along the right hand side of the church, and that is where the entrance is. The interior of the Basilica is also a cornucopia of baroque ornamentation, but perhaps the most unusual of all the decorations are the large statues made of papier mâché.
|Papier Mache Artisans at Work|
The art of papier mâché was brought to Naples from the Far East, and it migrated south to Lecce in the 17th century. It didn’t take long for Lecce to rival Naples as the papier mâché capital of Italy and it is still a thriving business. Life-size saints, crucifixions of all sizes, and crèches for churches are created here and shipped around the world. You can easily spend an entire afternoon watching the masters at work at the many workshops scattered throughout the historic center.
One of the most popular saints made is a life like figure of St. Oronzo, Lecce’s patron saint. It’s a fascinating process that starts with wet sheets of paper are wrapped around a featureless wire and straw mannequin. There seems to be little hope that a recognizable figure will ever emerge from the mass, but then, with a red hot iron, the maestro begins to burn details into the mannequin’s head and body. With every pass he makes, licks of flames and billows of smoke shoot skyward. The mannequin is soon blackened from head to toe. The next morning the charred figure of yesterday now has several coats of paint, and from the charred and blackened mass stands a life-like figure of St. Oronzo, a tall mitre on his head and dainty slippers on his feet.
|Saint Oronzo, Patron Saint of Lecce|
In Piazza Saint Oronzo, a much larger statue of Oronzo stands high on a column looking down at the city he loved, his hand held high in an eternal blessing. It was carved in 1666 to thank the Saint for having saved the town from the plague that had swept through Lecce ten years earlier. The tall marble column the statue sits on is even older than the statue. It was brought from another Apulian town, Brindisi where, along with another column of the same size, once marked the end of the ancient Roman Appian Way.
In the same piazza as the statute of St. Oronzo there is a Roman amphitheater from the 1st century BC, which was discovered quite by accident in the late 1920’s when Lecce was cleaning up after an massive earthquake. And just a few blocks away, a Roman theatre that was built during the time of Caesar Augustus was uncovered from the rubble as well. Twelve flights of steps have been excavated, enough to hold up to 5,000 spectators, but there is every reason to believe there were more. The area where the orchestra sat still has the original floor of large slabs of stone which end with three big steps reserved for the city officials to sit on. And in the apron of the stage, the groove where the curtain slid back and forth, is still visible.
The historic center is closed to traffic, and few drive there except for the brave residents who expertly maneuver their Fiats and Smart cars through the crowds of tour groups and gawking tourists like me. Even though the old town is built on a medieval circular plan it is easy to find your way. If you get lost, the Tourist Police will put you back on the right track. But you probably won’t need them. There are well placed signs on just about every corner, that keep you going in the right direction.
|Rolling Produce Stand|
The shops close in the early afternoon and open again around 4:30 PM, the hour of the passeggiata. It’s the part of the day when the whole town turns out for an afternoon stroll and the clean and quiet streets come alive and jugglers and musicians materialize out of nowhere, to vie for your attention. As the noisy metal grates are raised, colorful storefronts suddenly appear and soon young and old are strolling hand in hand, the staccato sound of Italian as it’s spoken in the south, fills the air.
The day I was there, there were several groups of school kids, probably 9 or 10 years old, being led around town by their teachers and parents who had volunteered to chaperone. I ran into one group in the church of Santa Croce. Their teacher told me they were from a small town near Bari and I commented on how well behaved they were, and how they actually seemed interested in the particulars of the church. She looked at me and said, “why wouldn’t they be interested? This is their heritage, this is about them, this is them.”
Well now, that's true, isn't it.