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 Naples, Italy: Glamming up the royal residence

While Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) kept architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) well occupied around the Vatican and Rome, he managed to take on a project for the Viceroy in Naples. The excuse for the construction of the palace was an impending visit by King Philip III of Spain (confusingly known as Philip II in his role as King of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia) (1578-1621). But, alas, when the king did not make it to Naples as planned, rather than let it go to waste, the Viceroy himself move into the grand new quarters.

A new royal arrived in town in 1734, King Charles III of Spain (adding to the confusion, prior to becoming King of Spain in 1759, he was known as Charles VII of Naples and Charles V of Sicily) (1716-1788). By the time King Charles arrived, the palace was empty of residents and devoid of furniture. While waiting for suitable decorating, the new arrivals temporarily were forced to furnish it with contents bought from the pawnshop and private citizens.

King Charles III immediately put architects and artists to work. With his marriage to Maria Amalia of Saxony (1724-1760), decorating assumed a sense of urgency. To take care of royal needs, a porcelain factory was founded, which later became known as Capodimonte porcelain. Receiving an abundant supply of art from his mother, Elizabeth Farnese (1692-1766), the Queen of Spain, Charles was able to transfer it from family palaces in Parma and Rome to Naples. One palace, however, is hardly enough to accommodate royal needs, so two more were built which the blog will visit later.

His son, Ferdinand I as King of the Two Sicilies (Ferdinand IV as King of Naples or Ferdinand III and King of Sicily) (1751-1825), begin to take beautifying the palace to even higher levels. Arranged by his father, King Charles, Ferdinand’s proxy marriage to 16-year-old Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814) spurred further gilding and flocking throughout. The grand hall was remodeled to serve as a court theatre.

By the time his grandson, Ferdinand II (1810-1859), became King of the Two Sicilies, the whole palace was viewed as in need of a major renovation. This was partially due to a fire in 1837 and partially to accommodate modern services and systems for lighting, water-delivery, sewage and so forth.

Finally in 1888, King Umberto I of Italy (of the House of Savoy) (1844-1900) altered the façade of the building addressing the grand Piazza del Plebiscito. Large statues of major rulers of Naples were commissioned for the new niches.

Addicted to writing with access to two computer screens displaying a multitude of resources, I was most impressed by an early innovative predecessor – sort of a ferris wheel for books to aid research from multiple tomes at one’s desk.