Things to Do in Lecce
The glories of Puglia’s lovely town of Lecce came into being in the 16th and 17th centuries, when peace in the region enabled religious orders and wealthy benefactors, including Emperor Charles V, to transform the town from sleepy backwater to the Baroque gem of southern Italy. The glorious centerpiece of all this gorgeousness is undoubtedly the Basilica di Santa Croce, a swirling mass of ornate Baroque patterning crawling with garlands, statuary, mythical beasts and gargoyles, all fronted with a colonnaded façade that is dominated by a vast rose window.
Work began on this madcap architectural frippery in 1549 on the site of an earlier Celestine monastery, and the basilica was finally consecrated in 1695. Three generations of architects worked on the construction over the decades, with the most notable being Giuseppe Zimballo –better known as Lo Zingarello (the gypsy) – who was the star Puglian architect of the period.
In addition to its present-day Baroque beauty, Lecce has a long history stretching way back over 2,500 years. Nowhere is this legacy better seen than in the Roman amphitheater that forms the southern side of the town’s central Piazza Sant’Oronzo. The horseshoe-shaped theater dates from the second century BC, and although discovered in the early 1900s, it was only excavated in 1938. It lies well below the current street level, and more than half of it remains covered by the rubble of earthquakes and centuries of over-building.
It is estimated that when it was in its original state, the amphitheater was five stories high, could seat 25,000 spectators and was the scene of many gruesome gladiatorial conflicts guaranteed to entertain the legions of Roman soldiers billeted in the region. Beneath the arena, the pens that once housed the wild animals, prisoners and slaves can clearly be seen among the ruins.
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