TRAVEL Baroque of Ages
Glancey, Jonathan, The Independent (London, England)
IN BRITAIN, the opulent style known as baroque was a Protestant affair; elsewhere in Europe it was a voluptuous, three-dimensional expression of Catholic triumphalism. Magnificent examples of buildings in this essentially 17th-century style abound in southern Germany, Austria, Portugal and Spain, but the home of baroque was, and remains, Italy. Its starting point lies beneath the architectural focus of 17th-century Catholic power - the dome of St Peter's in Rome.
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. …