Sights in Lecce

The fantastical baroque architecture, churches, museums, ancient ruins, and other sights of Lecce

Lecce's center is the broad Piazza Sant'Oronzo, which owes its sprawl to the Fascists who brought down most of the old buildings here when they discovered the lower levels of a 1st-century BC Roman amphitheater surviving underneath (now half-excavated).

In the center of the piazza stand two out-of-place monuments: an ancient Roman column that was once part of a matched set marking the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi (lightning brought it down in 1538, and Lecce bought the relic in the 17th century, hauled it here, and set a statue of its obscure patron saint, and first bishop, San Oronzo at the top); and the Sedile, a 1592 chunk of the old town hall poking up forlornly amid the flatness of the square like a sore thumb.

Two blocks up Via Umberto brings you to the greatest of Lecce's baroque facades, Santa Croce, built between 1549 and 1679, a time span that explains the relative sobriety of the facade's lower half quickly giving over to Giuseppe Zimbalo's fantastic baroque exuberance above. It would take pages to catalog the menagerie of animals, reliefs, statues, foliage, capitals, arabesques, and decorative friezes carved into the pale honey stone; the most striking feature is the balustrade halfway up, supported by corbels of crouching angels, lions, monkeys, men, dogs, and horses. Here are just a few details from the confusingly majestic façade of Santa Croce: lions drink from a fountain, monks kneel in prayer, and leaves and fruit burst from every available corner. Dragons, eagles, and soldiers puffing out their cheeks with effort all serve to hold up a balustrade atop which naked putti frolic with oversized crowns. Flames burst from the middle of columns to lick around roaring lions' heads, and capitals are carved with winged harpies and pot-bellied mermaids. Atop one column, a mother pelican pecks at her breast, the blood flowing down to feed the three clamorous fledglings at her feet, an ancient symbol of Christ's Passion. The long interior has a coffered ceiling and some over-the-top side altars.

Next door is the long, rather more subdued facade of the Palazzo del Governo (1659–95).

Hiding off Via V. Emanuele is one of Lecce's other effusively baroque corners, the enclosed, L-shaped [star]Piazza del Duomo. Giuseppe Zimbalo rebuilt the 12th-century Duomo in 1570, giving it a 225-foot bell tower and two facades: on the main entrance and around on the right transept, tucked into the other half of the piazza's "L" where it faces down the loggia'ed Palazzo Vescovile (1420–1632). The baroque piazza is finished off with the facade of Giuseppe Cino's Seminario (1694–1709), just to the right as you enter the piazza (poke your head into the courtyard to see a Cino-designed well, dripping with garlands of carved fruit).

Other Leccese baroque fantasies worth searching out include the convex/concave facade of San Matteo; and the Chiesa del Rosario (San Giovanni Battista) with its odd Greek-Cross-around-an-octagon plan and ornate altar. Hidden amidst the buildings on Via del Tufo (off Via F. D'Aragona at S. Chiara church) you can see the partially excavated remains of a small Roman theater.

The Museo Sigismundo Castromediano, Viale Gallipoli at Viale F. Lo Re (tel. 0832-247-025), displays chipped Stone Age tools, a pair of prehistoric Earth-goddess "Venus" figurines, and the usual passel of terra-cottas and painted pottery. Admission is free; it's open Monday to Friday 8:30am to 1:30pm and 2 to 7pm. Out the northeast corner of town from the Porta Napoli gate lies Santi Nicola e Cataldo, Lecce's only surviving Norman Romanesque church (1080), with an Arabic octagonal-drummed dome and a simple baroque facade incorporating the original rose window and main portal. There are some good fresco remnants inside.

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Useful links & resources

Main tourist office:
Via Monte S. Michele 20
tel. +39-0832-314-117, fax 0832-314-814
open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 5 to 7pm, Saturday 9am to 1pm.

How to get to Lecee
  • By car: Lecce is 38km (24 miles) south of Brindisi on the SS613. It is 143km (86 miles) southeast of Bari, 85km (51 miles) east of Taranto.
  • By train: There are twice hourly trains from Bari (2 hr.) that pass through Brindisi (23–43 min.); 5–8 runs from Martina Franca (110 min.); and 11 runs (6 Sunday) from Taranto (90–125 min.). There are 6 daily trains from Rome (6 hr.).
  • By bus: SITA tel. +39-0832-303-016) runs 4 buses from Brindisi (30 min.), and 3 from Bari (2.5–3 hr.).

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Main tourist office:
Via Monte S. Michele 20
tel. +39-0832-314-117, fax 0832-314-814
open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 5 to 7pm, Saturday 9am to 1pm.

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