Lecce: la Città Gialla

The stone is a smooth, creamy pale yellow; somewhere between vanilla custard and the coat of the Andrex puppy. Short curving alleys are glued together by dozens of tiny triangular piazzettas, many of which serve as car parks. Every street corner has a small shrine, every third corner a baroque church; weather-beaten statues of saints perch on top, posed against the blue sky. Pillars are draped in carvings; details of leaves, animals, pieces of fruit, and -without fail- hundreds of cherubs playing together or propping up a set of columns. As hipsters are to gentrification, cherubs were to the Counter-Reformation. The decoration is furious in its intensity and concentration. It’s surprising how many of these lavish churches remain unfinished; half a dozen niches on the facade stand empty, waiting for saints that couldn’t make it. Sometimes it abruptly stops three-quarters of the way up, giving way to an empty rectangle where one would expect a crowning gable. Inside, the Spanish influence is strong. The many side chapels house painted statues of weeping virgins and bleeding, mutilated martyrs. Their altars are full-on rococo; sometimes the stone is left bare, sometimes painted gold, always housing scores of smiling cherubim.

In all my trips to Italy I had never yet ventured south of Rome, and it seemed about time I rectified this. We started with a bang in Lecce, only bona fide city of the Salento peninusla (to you and me, the stiletto heel on the boot). It takes a bit of effort to get here, but you will be rewarded for it. I’d hoped to fly to nearby Brindisi, and failed to find any flights from Gatwick, so Bari it was. On landing at Bari, we took the sparkling brand new (and empty) metro from the airport to the somewhat bellicose Central station. After the train from Rome had emptied out and we had said our farewells to an old lady waiting for her daughter, and who counselled us to be very careful in this “brutto mondo”, we jumped on and made the 90 minute journey south.

People are often surprised or dismayed to find graffiti all over the centres of Florence or Rome, but I see it as a sign of life. The museums display Greek and Roman graffiti as objects of interest. As a teenager I loathed all voices of authority -the church, the school, politicians. It was later, having been around a bit, that I learnt to feel anything even approaching fondness for where I’m from. In historic Italian towns, which are all about showcasing the relics of some golden age centuries ago but offer scant job opportunities, the youth must be stultified and exasperated at living in open air museums. In the rest of the south graffiti was used for declarations of love, requited or otherwise, regional dissing or football-related proclamations. It was Lecce where it seemed to be far more politically driven. On the walls of Lecce, anti-fascist tussles with fascist; not a lot shocks me, but ‘EBREI NEL FORNO’ certainly forced a double take.

It’s by no means the only Italian town where two decades of fascism have left their mark, but the traces seemed more prominent in the south. It was Lecce where I first noticed that most of the manhole covers still bore the fascist symbol. This pattern was repeated throughout Puglia and Basilicata; the fasces next to the symbol of the town, and often A.XI, or Year 11 of fascism, suggesting some major work got carried out in 1933. Opposite Lecce’s main museum, a large block is still bedecked with a key blackshirt slogan that, seemingly, no-one felt sufficient fault with to bother removing it. Buildings of the Mussolini era stand out; they are so stout, blocky and uncompromising that they seem to be personifications of the Duce himself.

On a holiday consisting of beautiful churches, ice cream and a few Campari spritzes before dinner every night, it’s easy to wonder what’s stopping you from packing up and moving to Italy permanently. The answer comes when you try to accomplish anything even vaguely administrative. In need of stamps to post some mail, I dutifully tried all of the Tabaccherie in town. Nothing doing. I decided to find the nearest post office, a bit of a walk from the centre. It operates a ticketing system which asks you to choose from four categories of enquiry. Actually sending post is right at the foot of the long list for Category D. The five open desks saw clerks helping, or obstructing, Italians through all kinds of Kafkaesque bureaucratic procedures. When one was eventually dealt with, the clerk would spend five minutes tidying up paperwork before calling the next customer. When my turn came, it was no real surprise to be told that for some unspecified reason the post office refused to sell me stamps.

Lecce’s primary piazza and meeting place, with its best café, is Sant’ Oronzo. It sits over a Roman amphitheatre, one quarter of which has been uncovered, which people can peer down into on their passeggiata. A Neronian martyr, Oronzo was made Lecce’s official patron saint after they prayed to him and found that the plague abated. His statue stands guard over the city, on top of a pillar from Brindisi which used to mark the end of the Appian Way.

Many Italian cities have a main piazza for the business of living in, and another which is kept immaculate for special occasions. Lecce is one, and Piazza Duomo may not be the place to go for your aperitif but it is a spectacular piece of theatre- particularly at night, when it is illuminated and can make the hairs on your neck stand on end. The Duomo has the unusual feature of twin facades at right angles, each looking onto the square. There’s also an arcaded seminary and a prominent campanile.

The bell-tower, and the Duomo in its current incarnation, are the works of Lecce Baroque’s visionaries the Zimbalo brothers, more of whom later.

It’s the interior that’s really impressive. On our first morning we inadvertently entered the Duomo through a back door without realising that it was the city’s cathedral. We found a free-for-all of marble and gold paint. Lecce’s stone is famously soft and easy to carve, so the city’s artisans have really gone for it.

The side chapels are beefed up with the intention to dazzle; we can well imagine that a C17th peasant faced with adornment on such a preposterous scale would have felt blinded by awe, and face to face with their Creator.

Lecce’s churches are a feast. Once you have gasped at the cumulative effect at this cast of thousands all acting in unison, you could go on to spend a whole day appreciating one-by-one the small details.

Just east of the Duomo is Sant’ Irene, who was the city’s previous patron saint. In this church we got an enthusiastic guide -so enthusiastic that he really didn’t like me stopping to translate- who shed some new light on what we saw. From what I remember the Jesuits had wanted to dedicate this church to some Saint or other, and the locals refused to pay up unless it was instead dedicated to their favoured Irene, who appears holding a martyr’s palm in one hand and the city of Lecce in another.

This church is light and spacious, and whether through design, or the money running out, they have neglected to paint much of the sculpture in the usual gold leaf. Its shape is cruciform, and the guide promised us that the intention was to give a magnificent “surprise” to anyone approaching the altar and unable to see the chapels at the end of each wing.

The triple view is a reference to the Trinity and the whole church part of the Counter Reformation project to glorify God as loudly as possible. The hollows in the chest of some saints were originally put there to store relics. There’s a slightly rum painting of Michael standing on a curly-tailed devil and about to drive a spear through him, which does not quite reach the heights of the carving.

But Lecce’s most famous church is the Basilica di Santa Croce, with its remarkable facade that is the masterpiece of the Zimbalos.

There is a little scaffold and netting on our visit, but it doesn’t obscure the crazy details of mythical beasts, defeated Ottoman sailors, and who-knows-what that have been press-ganged into supporting the central balcony. If The Muppet Show were a cathedral, it would be Santa Croce.

The most-frequently quoted Grand Tourist to write about Santa Croce described it as “the nightmare of a lunatic”. Towns like Lecce which were slightly cut-off from everything, and had to contend with the existential terror of the Turkish fleet’s continual incursions at Otranto, seemed to have grabbed at Baroque and dragged it off in their own, rather overheated directions, and the result is not quite like anything else.

The interior sticks to a renaissance shape and takes the frenzy down a notch, which is something of a relief on the nervous system. The highlight of the main nave is an excellent ceiling of gilded wood, which ends with a small dome, and there are incomprehensible Zimbalo carvings depicting the life of Francesco da Paola. Leaf patterns criss-cross the aisles and chapels here and there and it is still a busy design.

I’m guessing that this sculpture is something to do with the Turin Shroud but feel free to correct me.

There were so many notable churches in Lecce that I stuck to the very creme de la creme, but would bore you to death if I wrote about all of them. Santa Croce was the only one with other tourists; in rigid opposition to Venice or Florence, most people were coming in to kneel before their favoured icons and I felt slightly conspicuous coming in to look around. The third Basilica, San Giovanni Basilica al Rosario, leaves space for a dome which was never built because the Zimablos died- instead the icing-sugar stone gives way to wooden scaffold. Santa Chiara was a small but perfectly-formed church with the gold leaf turned to 11.

San Matteo is distinguished by a relish for blood and guts, and by the three tiers which make it feel as much an opera house as a church; this is reinforced when you turn back to see the strangely crude painting curtains above the entrance.

Santa Teresa was noticeably poorer than the others. It is one of those churches where the facade clearly stops before it was intended to, and the inside feels like a big bare barn in comparison to its neighbours. The adjoining convent was turned into a barracks at some point and the church used as a tobacco warehouse for a while. Now a place of worship again, it has been filled out with icons that tend towards the sentimental. One Virgin has a rather Hitler Youth-looking cherub floating over her shoulder.

The last church on my itinerary was SS. Nicolo e Cataldo, a C12th Norman church that was given a baroque makeover. This one was outside the centro storico, past Porta Napoli. There were three gates that I counted, all that seemed to be left of city walls. San Biagio was my favourite.

The church turned out to be closed by the time we made it there, but the small dome behind the gables certainly looked more Romanesque/Byzantine than the normal Lecce look. There were of course cherubs and saints aplenty hanging off every tiny ledge but some earlier features endured.

Having come this far we decided to investigate the cemetery, which fascinated me. Entrance is past a vast neo-classical portico and a boulevard of tall cypress trees. Posters outside advertise funerals, and anniversaries of deaths.

Inside, each family has their own mausoleum, many of them bigger than London studio flats I have seen. They are as lavish as the Duomo in provision of marble and carvings, the style seems more Greco-Roman than Christian, and these tombs must have cost an absolute fortune. One wonders if they were just for the super-rich, or whether the moderately well-off felt compelled to save up for this status symbol. It’s a metaphor of sorts for how people always have to save up credits and defer fun for that indeterminate point in the future. The posher side of the cemetery lines the tombs up in grid formation so that they become houses facing onto streets; it is a self-contained city of the dead.

As an enthusiast of slightly ropey provincial museums I should mention the one we visited in Lecce. It’s free in but when someone enters it’s clearly a big deal for the staff, who want you to see everything in the prescribed order and stand at the end of each section, bickering amongst themselves and waiting to point the way to the next bit. The Roman statues by the entrance looked like the best stuff but we didn’t actually get to look as we were being ushered towards the visitor’s book. Anyone who likes Greek pottery will be in clover, as they have vast quantities of the stuff, showing people engaging in all sorts of activity. Some of the later stuff is less impressive, reaching a nadir with their bewildering plates of the C18th.

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