Described as the “hidden pearl of Italy,” Lecce is a beautiful old aristocratic city. The delicately carved facades of its churches gracefully reach toward a brilliant blue sky, their profiles accented by tufts of green palms waving in the wind. Known for its fanciful ornate architecture, the city's unique character was created over a 200 year period beginning in the 1500's when, after overcoming years of plague, slaughter and poverty under Aragonese rule, the city burst into a creative flowering of art and architecture known as the Lecce Baroque.
It was a period of prosperity, creativity and optimism. And the mood of the time was reflected in its fanciful, fun art. Sculptors carved imaginative designs involving gargoyles, winged horses, flowers, animals, humans, gods, grape vines, and lots of curlicues. They wielded painting, sculpture and architecture to create “spectacular visual effects”6. Their enthusiasm spilled over from church facades to other areas. They decorated everything. Altars, balconies, porticoes, windows, and columns all became canvases for the people's creative expression.7
Lecce's baroque was different from that which took hold of Rome. Lecce's style is not as “heavy and monumental”8 as the Roman style can be, but lighter, more fanciful and fun. The overall effect is not of dizzying ornamentation, but, rather, of majestic beauty.
Lecce's artists also worked with a special material that may never have been seen in the north. The city's local stone, pietra leccese, is a honey colored limestone so soft it can be “carved with a penknife,” but is made hard and durable through an unusual process. The finished stone is “soaked in a fluid containing whole milk [which] reduce[s] its porosity [and makes] the surface hard and compact.” This helps it resist rain and humidity as well as chips and scratches.
This special stone enabled Lecce's artists to carve unusually detailed works from a single stone and its manmade durability has helped those works remain very well preserved today. At night the stone glows a golden yellow. Lecce, called “Florence of the South” by the Italians, is a true artistic gem.