Finola, our daughter Mary Elizabeth, and I spent a very enjoyable 10 days on holiday in the province of Lecce recently. Finola’s sister, Caroline, joined us for some of the time. Lecce is at the very tip of the heel of Italy and is part of the region of Apulia.
We spent most time in the city of Lecce itself, which is known by many as the “Florence of the South”. The baroque churches are magnificent and the local white stone lends itself to the most intricate decorations. Otranto and Gallipoli are also well worth visiting. The y mosaic on the floor otthr cathedral in Otranto is a remarcrently had the approval of the Pope at the time.e same timemosaic on the floor of the cathedral in Otranto tells a pictorial story of how our 12th century ancestors viewed the world.
The coast of the province is dotted with forts of all kinds, reminding the visitor that this was once a frontline in warfare between east and west. The Byzantine, Greek speaking and Orthodox Christian, Empire once held sway here, and Greek is still spoken in some parts of the area. The Byzantines were driven out by the Normans, at around the same time as the Normans were also conquering Ireland. Both expeditions apparently had the approval of the Pope at the time. Lecce was later invaded by the Turks. It was part of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily before being conquered by a united Italy in 1861.
The scale of church building and decoration, in this relatively poor part of the world, is amazing. The investment of time and money testifies to the existence in past times, of a very different sense of what was important, to the one we take for granted today. What people build tells you what they regard as their priority. Wealth was displayed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy through collective religious investment in churches, as much as through commercial, nationalistic or personal expenditure. The building of grandiose palaces for rulers, like the one in Caserta for the King of Naples which we saw on our way home, came later, during the eighteenth century “Enlightenment”. This palace is a copy of Versailles and must have cost a fortune.