According to Lonely Planet, “If Puglia were a movie, Lecce would be cast in the starring role”. This amazingly beautiful city offers an extravaganza of art and architectural treasures, many of which are great examples of the Barocco Leccese and is a must visit place in your Baroque tour of Puglia.
The ‘Barocco Leccese' developed in the framework of the Counter-Reformation and the foundation of reformed religious orders (Theatine and Jesuits) create in response to the Church's need to re-assert its authority, mainly through an ostentatious display of power. Its distinctive, autonomous style can be found in the particular, imaginative and suggestive combination of architectural elements on the façade: porticoes, windows, balconies, loggias, gargoyles, corbels, festoons, columns and cornices crowded with human figures, flowers and animals.
The distinctive character of the Salento peninsula comes from a series of architectural achievements associated to an artistic phenomenon known as Barocco Leccese, which developed in Lecce, Salento's historical and artistic centre, and in Terra d'Otranto between the second half of the 16th century and the end of the 17th century. The beautiful Façade of Santa Croce alone is breathtaking and a fine example of this period’s architecture.
Nardò, at the heart of the Salento peninsula, was an important centre in Roman times and increased its cultural, political and economic relevance during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; in the 18th century, the works of the celebrated Neapolitan architect, Ferdinando Sanfelice, gave it its distinctly Baroque characteristics.
Gallipoli is another interesting "laboratory" where, during the 17th and 18th centuries, the peculiarities of the ‘Barocco Leccese' were applied to several important monuments (namely, the Cathedral and the churches della Purità, delle Anime, del Crocifisso, di San Francesco di Paola), within the framework of an urban structure endowed with a particularly picturesque landscape: the town is built on a headland extending into the Ionian Sea, connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge.
Martina Franca is situated on the border between the Salento peninsula and the province of Bari, an area known as Valle d'Itria, important in itself for other, significant, environmental and cultural aspects (namely the civilisation that developed the particular stone dwellings known as trulli). Martina Franca shows the final evolution of the Baroque style; here Baroque merges with Rococo conferring uniform elegance and lightness to the whole city.
Ostuni features several significant churches; the more important Baroque ones are S. Maria Maddalena and San Vito Martire. The latter was built between 1750 and 1754 and its façade shows interesting cornices, niches, friezes and coats of arms. Noteworthy is also Palazzo Ducale.
Baroque art and its decorative criteria were soon followed in the whole of the Salento peninsula, even in the smaller cities where the main monuments are no less significant than those in Lecce. Today, every alley, every street, every square not only in Lecce but also in Nardò, Gallipoli, Martina Franca, Ostuni, Francavilla Fontana, Galatina, Galàtone and many others, testifies to the wide range of expressive feats achieved by the ‘Barocco leccese'.