Postcard from Lecce, Italy: Lavish Baroque details grace Basilica di Santa Croce

basilica di santa croce

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.

 

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Putting that saintly fashion foot forward

Away from San Antonio during Fiesta… when duchesses were bowing, weighed down by their glittering trains and flashing their fancy footwear, sometimes chanclas, from atop flowery floats… we encountered a rich array of elegant gowns in a fashion show in an unanticipated setting.

Chapels lining one side aisle of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli hosted mannequins wearing some of the Virgin Mary’s most formal attire. Numerous outfits were complete with compatible cloaks and shoes and, of course, matching attire for Baby Jesus.

The basilica’s own Baby Jesus, Santo Bambino of Aracoeli, needed no additional clothes. Carved from olive wood from the Gethsemane Garden in Jerusalem, Santo Bambino always is cloaked in a much-bejeweled golden garment.

The original statue created by a Franciscan dated from the 15th century and was credited for numerous miraculous healings. At one point, Santo Bambino was carted around on house-calls to aid those too ill to visit personally.

An icon of such value attracts much interest. The French hijacked it in 1797, but it was later recovered. Thieves robbed the baby of numerous jewels in 1838, but the worst theft occurred in 1994. Santo Bambino vanished. Even thieves in prison penned public letters requesting their fellow tradesmen return the beloved Santo Bambino. Fresh olive wood was obtained from Jerusalem for the replacement now on display.

The original Santo Bambino might be missing, but, for the faithful, his powerful spirit remains with the reproduction in the basilica. Letters from around the world arrive addressed to Santo Bambino requesting mail-order miracles and are placed beside him to “read” at will. As newer ones arrive, the older requests are burned with incense.

As for the setting itself? No San Antonio ballroom can compare with the shimmering chandeliers and ornate décor found in the basilica.

Somewhere at the foundation of the enormous Basilica of Santa Maria of Aracoeli lies a Byzantine church dating from the 500s. The papacy took over the property in the 9th century, placing it under the control of Benedictines. Immense columns supporting the central nave were harvested from ancient Roman ruins. Franciscans provided much Romanesque and Gothic remodeling and expansion in the 1200s. Heavy gilding of the ceiling was completed in 1575 to thank the Virgin for her assistance in defeating the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto.

A monumental stairway, 124 steps, was added in 1348 for those praying for an end to the Black Plaque or seeking penance on their way up to the church (Okay, I confess. We took an easier approach through a side door.). In the Middle Ages, criminals were executed at the base of the stairway. In the 17th century, one of the royal princes who lived above took offense to international pilgrims sleeping on the steps and periodically rolled stone-filled barrels downward to chase them off.

Contemporary superstition claims the faithful who crawl up the stairway on their knees enhance their possibilities to win the national lottery. No point for us. We will never win any lottery. You have to pay to play.