A Brief History of Lecce, "The Florence of the South"
You don’t come by the nickname “the Florence of the South” lightly. But with stunning baroque architecture, gorgeous views of the Salentine Peninsula and an abundance of Puglia’s famous wine and olive oil, Lecce is a work of art unto itself.
The Legend of Lecce’s Name
Malennio, king of the Salento, founded the towns of Lupiae and Rudiae. He had a son and a daughter, Daunio and Euippa. Euippa married Idomeneo, King of Crete, who landed in the Salento when he was caught by a sudden storm on his return from the Trojan War. According to the legend, Lecce is named after Lycia, Idomeneo’s native land.
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Archaeological research reveals the Messapians founded the first cities in the Salento region. The Romans dominated the area next, leaving beautiful examples of Imperial architecture such as the amphitheatre and the Roman theatre in the centre of town.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the ancient Roman town of Lupiae experienced a slow decline until the Norman domination. Lecce was indeed neglected in favour of Otranto, which enjoyed a much more privileged position during the Byzantine domination.
The Normans arrived in 1000 and the city started to gain wealth and prominence; impressive structures such as the convents of the Olivetans and the Benedictines were built, as well as the first cathedral dedicated to Saint Irene, the first patron saint of Lecce (before St. Oronzo).
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Norman dominance ended with the capture of Guglielmo, Tancredi’s son, by the Swabians. After the Normans, many dynasties linked to the French succeeded. It was thanks to the Countess Maria d’Enghien that the city received its first constitutional statute and the first castle was built. The Enghien dynasty also re-established relations with the Venetian Republic, importing fabrics, glass and various tools, and exporting wheat, oil and wine. The port of San Cataldo was a free port for Venetian merchants. Later, other merchants—including Genoese, Jewish, Florentine, Greek, and Albanian—settled down in Lecce.
The 15th and 16th centuries were marked by conflict between the French and the Spanish over the Kingdom of Naples, and eventually Terra d’Otranto fell into the hands of Charles V of Hapsburg. He embodied the Spanish monarchical absolutism and achieved a definitive defeat of the Turks, allowing the triumph of Christianity over Islam.
The emperor considered Lecce to be the most advanced bulwark against the East, thus creating a defense system both for the city (in the form of walls and a castle in 1539) as well as for the coast (in the form of towers and fortified farmhouses). These projects were entrusted to the military architect Gian Giacomo dell’Acaya.
In 1539, as capital of Puglia, Lecce had a special juridical status, administrative functions and a cultural wealth expressed through numerous “accademie” (meeting places for literary, philosophical or scientific endeavours).
Saint Orontius of Lecce (aka Sant’Oronzo) became patron saint of Lecce for saving its citizens from the plague that devastated the kingdom of Naples in 1566.
Lecce’s main export is a coveted form of pale yellow limestone known as “Lecce stone.” The stone is especially soft and malleable, with the ability to harden over time, making it an ideal material for buildings and sculptures.
During the 17th century the town’s architectural development flourished; a highly ornate style of façade emerged that can be seen in the spectacular church of Santa Croce.
The beauty of Lecce is in the details: a glimpse at original door-knockers, gargoyles and various limestone animals supporting balconies throughout the city can give you a sense of why Lecce stone is so highly prized.