Apulia is a shining example of southern Italy's Baroque architecture


Going for Baroque in Southern Italy
Lecce's Church of Santa Croce

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I go for Baroque, whether it is the grandeur of Rome's Piazza Navona or the theatrical city planning of Noto in Sicily. But over in Apulia, almost at the very heel of the Italian boot, is a special treat for architectural fans of any stripe. The town of Lecce is dotted with 17th-century buildings of such unique beauty that scholars have given the local style a name of its own, barocco lecccese. To my eye, the crown jewel of Lecce's treasures is the church of Santa Croce. Despite its elaborate decoration and serious religious purpose, Santa Croce is human in scale, inviting to the visitor and entertaining to the senses and the soul. Leccese Baroque was made possible by the use of a local stone known as pietra di Lecce. A form of sandstone with a warm golden hue, it is easy to carve into complex and intricate shapes. Later, it hardens as it ages, thus miraculously (if not perfectly) preserving the mason's handiwork for our enjoyment.



T
he principle practitioners of Leccese Baroque were the Zimbalo brothers, Antonio and Giuseppe. They, along with a few other architects, created most of the masterpieces of Lecce in the middle years of the 17th century. The largest of their works, attributed to Giuseppe, is the cathedral, built between 1659 and 1670. It has two façades, one on the west side and another on the north. This unusual configuration was devised in response to the L-shaped piazza in front of the cathedral and allows it to have maximum impact on the visitor.

Santa Croce was the work of Antonio Zimbalo and another local architect, Cesare Penna. The church itself was actually begun a century earlier, in 1549, and the lower third of the façade is in a more restrained Renaissance style. The top two-thirds are another matter, a fanciful array of classical columns and pediments decorated with human and animal figures, both real and imagined, and all manner of flowers and garlands, all executed in the favorite local stone.

Inside Santa Croce, the whimsical ornamentation continues on the altar, nave and a series of side altars. I cannot imagine a type of leaf or fruit which has been omitted from the decorative scheme. Of particular note are the clusters of grapes covering the transept chapel to the west of the main altar: they look almost good enough to eat. Both inside and out, the church reflects the influence of humanism with the inclusion of mythological figures alongside Biblical ones. What makes Santa Croce especially pleasant to me is that it is Baroque without the need for effusive displays of gold. Unlike so many churches of the period in Italy and elsewhere, the talents of the architects and craftsmen are allowed to shine through, unencumbered by layers of gilding. The natural stone and occasionally some light pastels are the only real colors in the church. The effect is calming and invites contemplation.

Next door is the Palazzo del Governo, originally a monastery designed by Giuseppe Zimbalo. The façade looks like a Florentine palace decorated to be a wedding cake. The inner courtyard is less effusive but quite grand. There are a number of other Baroque buildings in the heart of Lecce, including churches, government buildings and private palaces. In the center of the city are the remains of a Roman amphitheater unearthed by construction workers in 1901. Also worth visiting is the Museo Sigismundo Castromediano, which houses some excellent Greek antiquities and medieval art in comfortable, modern surroundings.

by Sims Brannon, Los Angeles


The modern era has not touched Lecce in some respects. The leccesi still rigorously observe the custom of closing down everything for a couple of hours at midday. The city swarms with people and traffic until 1:00, when lunch is served. By 3:00, the city seems absolutely deserted. Quiet prevails until around 5:00, when things begin to thrive again. Plan your visit according to the local time schedule and you are sure to have a good time.

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