Postcard from Lecce, Italy: Frolicking putti, Solomonic columns and saintly relics

she-wolf on facade of chiesa di sant'irene in lecce

She-Wolf and Oak Tree, Symbols of Lecce, on the Façade of the Church of Saint Irene

Baroque churches of Lecce are filled with putti frolicking amidst birds and pomegranates, twisting Solomonic columns covered with intricate lacelike carvings, images of saints and some of their bones.

 

Postcard from Monopoli, Italy: Church dedicated to liberating poor souls in purgatory

Travel is not simply assuming the role of boulevardiers. Journeys this past year lifted some of the weighty worries about religion haunting my childhood. A year ago in Malaga, Spain, I found out Limbo was gone. It was banished by the church and vanished. All those little babies stuck in Limbo have been liberated to flit upward to heaven.

There is still purgatory though, with bazillions of souls trapped in purgatory waiting to be freed by prayers. How could God keep them there, suffering, denied entrance into heaven for sometimes seemingly minor infractions? My memory of religious instruction is rather hazy, but it seems as though we only devoted one day a year, All Souls Day, to try to liberate them.

This past fall, I learned there are Italians looking after them, praying for their release. There is both a church and a cemetery dedicated to this effort year-round in Naples.

And in Monopoli we found Chiesa di Santa Maria del Suffragio detta del Purgatorio. Tucked on a narrow street adjacent to the bell tower at the back of the Cathedral, the church dates from the late 1600s. Symbols of death are carved into stone on the facade, and a pair of skeletons dominate the carvings on the door.

Locals refer to it as “the church of the dead who walk.” But, alas, we found the church closed. We squinted through cloudy, very smudged glass trying to see the reason why. Mummies. With imagination, we kind of could make out maybe four of them.

There are a total of eight robed figures – skeletons really – poised erect in glass cases inside the church, founding members and administrators of the church who refuse to retire from their mission. And a young mummified girl somehow made the cut for permanent display as well. Know you are disappointed to have no shots of the mummies, but Atlas Obscura has taken care of that for you.

Postcard from Monopoli, Italy: Almost had the place to ourselves

monopoli fishing boats

An ancient fortified port in Puglia at the top of the heel of Italy’s boot, Monopoli has a reputation for being less touristy than many of the picturesque towns in the region. We hopped a train there from Lecce in mid-November, way past high season, and almost had the place to ourselves. Even the locals were sparse. Which meant the old town center was perfect for us to wander freely among its plazas and narrow streets.

The custodien closing the heavy wooden doors of the Baroque cathedral at noon kindly allowed us to do a whiplash tour just as the church bell was ringing its 12 dongs. The basilica dedicated to Madonna della Madia was constructed in the mid-1700s on the site of an earlier church.

Construction of the first church began in 1107 but was halted due to a lack of building materials for the roof. But, lo and behold, a miracle occurred in 1117. A raft formed from enormous beams tied together (a madia) floated into the harbor bearing an Byzantine image of the Virgin Mary. The revered icon is centered above the altar, and a piece of one of the original beams which allowed the completion of the roof is preserved as a holy relic atop a gold pedestal.

As someone who devoted part of her youth to buying, selling, trading and mortgaging real estate during marathon Monopoly matches, how could I not be drawn to a city bearing the name of the game.

Before hopping the train back to Lecce, the next post will take you to one more spot in Monopoli.