Here Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) - poet, painter, sculptor and architect - ignited the baroque with a stunning 95ft-high baldacchino (a heavily sculpted canopy) over St Peter's throne, a thing of barley-sugar columns and bronze filched from the roof of Agrippa's Pantheon. This extravaganza was commissioned by Bernini's friend and patron Maffeo Barberini, better known as Pope Urban VIII. Its style was the one that Catholic powers and dominions took with them, engorged and enriched, as far as Santiago de Chile and the borders of the Russian and Ottoman Empires.
Virtually every town in Italy has been influenced by the baroque and, from top to toe, this heady style infests the country as liberally as pasta and olive oil. Turin is worth a trip just to experience the cathedral's eye-boggling Chapel of the Holy Shroud (1667-90), designed by Guarino Guarini, while one of the most intoxicating sights Sicily has to offer is the incomparable ballroom of Palazzo Gangi (dating from the 1750s). Visconti made memorable use of this in his 1963 film of Giuseppe Lampedusa's novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).
Yet, if one had to choose a single city in which to submerge oneself in baroque and become a chubby cherub for a weekend, it would have to be Lecce. The city offers a fanciful escape into an Italy more or less free of the worst effects of mass tourism - and it is as different from the Renaissance cities of Chiantishire and the north as Gorgonzola is from ricotta. It has not been 'themed', but then Lecce will never need to be; it was transformed into a baroque theme city 300 years ago.
A small settlement in the heel of Italy, Lecce has always been just out of comfortable reach of Rome. As the motorway stops at Brindisi, 40km to the north of Lecce today, so the Via Appia ended there 1,600 years ago when Lupiae (its Latin name) was annexed by Rome. Before the Romans the city was an outpost of Greece, and ancient Greek religious practices survived here until the coincidental arrival of Counter-Reformation religious orders and their baroque churches in the 17th century. My 1912 edition of Baedeker's Southern Italy notes that 'traces of Greek influence are still abundant in the local dialect'. Certainly, there are times when the landscape looks more Greek than Italian and pagan rituals just survive.
Lecce is a curiosity. The undulating farmland around it - red and crusty from a lack of rain - grows tobacco, carob and prickly pear. On the feast day of St Peter and St Paul (28 June), the citizens of nearby Galatina dance the frenzied and ancient tarantella outside the deconsecrated church to ward off the poisonous bites of indigenous spiders. At various times, Lecce was ruled by Greeks, Romans, Normans, Swabians and Spaniards (you will find influences of fussy Spanish baroque here as well as the home-grown style).
The city centre resembles a stage set even more than most Italian towns; behind the theatrical facades of its churches, palaces, seminaries and civic buildings, caked in cherubs and cornucopias, are surprisingly simple buildings. The show is what matters here. Nowhere in Lecce will you find the architectural fecundity of the baroque masters - Bernini, Borromini and Berrettini. Lecce's is a provincial style that followed on from these maestri, while also adopting its own quirks and details.
But the foundations of Lecce's baroque were laid long before the fully-fledged emergence of the style, with the regiments of religious orders - Jesuits, Franciscans and Theatines - who came here from 1539 in the train of the emperor Charles V. He made the city his military base during the war with the Turks. It was these orders that were to commission the most lavish baroque churches. After the spectacular defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Lecce blossomed and continued to do so for the next 150 years. During this period it was transformed from a Romanesque to a baroque stronghold.
Stand today in the heart of the city, Piazza Sant'Oronzo, and the baroque built by the architects and masons of those crusading orders ensnares you. On top of the column overlooking the piazza is a statue of Sant'Oronzo himself - a first-century Bishop of Lecce whom Nero fed to his lions. The building he stands by is the Basilica of Santa Croce. Its confectionery of decorative stonework - incorporating 13 caryatids and numerous other fabulous figures - took 150 years to complete, the collective work of Cesare Penna, Francesco Antonio Zimbalo and Lecce's baroque master Giuseppe Zimbalo (known as 'lo Zingarello' or 'the little gypsy').
How these 17th-century architectural costumiers revelled in the local sandstone. An extremely soft, golden material, it cuts easily with a saw and can even be turned on a lathe. This does much to explain the acrobatics of Lecce stonemasonry. Stop in the piazza for breakfast at Caffe Alvino (another good cafe is Guido e Figlio, Via Trinchese). Consider, while you sip your bitter coffee, why restoration work never seems complete in Lecce; the stone, though exquisite, is easily damaged by industrial pollution. Lecce owes its wealth (much of the south is still poor) to the industry that sprang up here during Italy's 'economic miracle' in the Fifties. Sadly, this has damaged the city's historic architecture ever since.
Leading off the piazza is a labyrinth of streets that will lead you from one baroque church to another - Santa Chiara, Il Rosario, Sant'Irene, San Matteo - each attempting to outshine the other. Each boasts stone cornucopias, cherubs looping the loop, skulls and sunburst sacred hearts. Here are bulbous balustrades and miniature pyramids; there, scenes from lives of the saints.
The most extraordinary design is the campanile - minaret might be a better word - of the 12th-century cathedral. This was added by Giuseppe Zimbalo during his remodelling of the building between 1662 and 1682. Standing 230ft high, the campanile piles pyramids and various baroque devices one on top of the other in four receding stages. It is an astonishing sight and quite unlike anything one expects to find in Italy.
Between churches, there are seminaries and civic buildings, shops and cafes groaning under the weight of exuberantly carved stone. Much of the best work is by 'lo Zingarello', but perhaps the church of San Matteo (1667-1700), designed by Achille Carducci, is the apotheosis of Lecce's paste-it-on approach to the baroque. From the outside, San Matteo promises the structural bravura and decorative heroics of Borromini; inside, the church is little more than a decorated box, a highly wrought, late 17th-century ecclesiastical theatre.
If Lecce's exuberance of decorated stonework becomes overbearing, slip down any of the city centre sidestreets and you will find yourself in twisting, whitewashed back alleys where the two-storey buildings are as elemental as those of North Africa. Or stop awhile, if you are here in the spring (probably the best time to visit Lecce), in the courtyard of the Seminario (Giuseppe Cino, 1694-1709) to breathe the scent of orange blossom.
Or else try the handsome Norman church of Santi Nicolo e Cataldo. Lecce was once a Norman stronghold and the heart of this church, dating from 1180, has the militaristic simplicity that characterises architecture of this style. But even here, the baroque boys were unable to leave well alone; in 1716, Giuseppe Cino was commissioned to ladle cherubs, garlands and fruit over its severe Romanesque walls.
Another escape is to go and eat. Lecce is a small city and the only sensible way to see it is on foot. Pit-stops are essential, especially as spring gives way to searing summer. Picnics are easily organised by going early any weekday to the fresh food market in Piazza Libertini. There are plenty of stone steps to picnic on throughout the city centre, while the coast (cliffs dropping down to beaches) is just 12km away and easily reached by public transport (an STP bus to the beach at San Cataldo runs from the terminal in Via Adua).
Otherwise, Lecce is liberally provided with cafes and bars which, as in most of Italy, rarely disappoint. Regional cooking can be tried at Perbacco, Via della Bombarde, and enjoyable tratt food at Trattoria Gambero Rosso, Via Marina Brancaccio. Tasty pizzas can be had at Pizzeria Sonra, Piazza G Congedo and smart food at Carlo Quinto, Via G Palmieri.
You will find plenty of time for lunch in Lecce; this is very much a city of the siesta. Churches are firmly locked most of the year from midday until five in the evening. At certain times between those hours, Lecce can seem as empty and as silent as a scene from a painting by de Chirico.
If you want to sleep away the afternoon, your best bet is to have booked into the Hotel Patria, an Edwardian baroque pile opposite Santa Croce with big rooms and a faded glory that matches the spirit of the city (010 39 832 29431). This was Baedeker's choice in 1912. Otherwise, try Hotel Risorgimento on Via Imperatore Augusto (010 39 832 242125). Alternatively, the tourist office (010 39 832 46458) housed in the 16th-century Palazzo Sedile, Piazza Sant'Oronzo, will find you a house to stay in.
One short day-trip from Lecce is essential for fans of the macabre and the baroque - and a reminder of how close the heel of Italy came to being subject to Muslim rather than Catholic rule. A train will take you, within the hour, from Lecce to Otranto. Otranto, despite Horace Walpole's famous Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), is not a place to look for pointed arches or suits of clanking armour.
But, in the Norman cathedral is a side chapel containing baroque cupboards and drawers full of skulls and bones. This macabre collection - looking like the raw material for baroque friezes - adds up to 800 human bodies. These are the remains of those citizens of Otranto who, after a 15-day seige of the city by the Turks in 1480, were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. Their bishop was sawn in half in the old Turkish fashion before the citizens met their grisly fates.
For all this, Otranto is a delightful place - except perhaps in summer when it is both very hot and a hive of dayglo tourists. Here is a small port with occasional ferries to Greece, whitewashed houses with geraniums in window-boxes, a Byzantine church and, of course, the castle. Built by Alphonso of Aragon, this overlooks the sea and it is clear from its design that Horace Walpole never strayed this way except in a cloud of laudanum.
Lecce's baroque might well encourage you to plunge ever further into the opulence of this hugely influential Italian style. Equally, its decorative excess might have you pining for the sublime austerity of Cistercian monasteries or the unsmiling minimalism of the Modern Movement masters. Whatever, go and see Lecce before it gets the full 'heritage' treatment that will one day reach down from Tuscany and Rome as surely as cherubs chase baroque.-
GETTING THERE: The nearest airport to Lecce is Brindisi. Trailfinders (071-937 5400) offers flights to Brindisi via Rome starting at pounds 239 midweek, and pounds 248 over the weekend. British Airways (081-897 4000) flies to Rome for pounds 229 return. From there you can pick up an internal flight for pounds 139 Rome-Brindisi-Rome. Trains from Brindisi to Lecce run every two hours.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY. Tel: 071-408 1254.
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