Lecce’s natural supply of a soft stone must have been a Baroque architect’s dream come true. Sculptors could carve leaves, flowers, winged creatures and lacey curvaceous Solomonic columns to their hearts content. Baroque architecture dominated Lecce in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the Basilica di Santa Croce perhaps standing as the queen of Lecce’s distinctive elaborate style inside and out.
Santa Croce was built between 1549 and 1646 by the Order of Celestines, a branch of Benedictines founded by Pope Celestin V (1215-1296). The pope was a reluctant one, serving for less than six months before resigning. His edict confirming a pope’s right to abdicate legitimized the retreat of Pope Benedict XVI more than eight centuries later.
Some of the building materials for Santa Croce were salvaged from the temple and homes of Jewish families in Lecce who were expelled by order of the Kingdom of Naples in 1510. Much of the decoration viewed above is the work of Giuseppe Zimbalo (1620-1710). While the atlantes, men, and creatures supporting the balustrade appear whimsical, they are a symbolic celebration of the Holy League’s naval victory over the Ottoman Empire in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. More than 400 ships participated in the battle, and the death toll at the end was a loss of approximately 7,500 Christians and 30,000 Turks. A devastating defeat for the Ottoman Empire.
The hunched atlantes represent some of the 10,000 Turks captured; the animals guarding them represent the allies who took part in the victorious coalition organized by Pope Pius V (1504-1572) with major financial and naval support from Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). The cute-looking griffin below represents the Kingdom of Genoa; the dragon the Boncompagni family.