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The Cathedral of Lecce

Città del Salento - Lecce - Piazza Duomo Cattedrale

In Roman times the square, propbably, corresponded to the forum of the city, placed at the intersection of the Cardo and the Decumanus Maximus. The first Cathedral was built in the early Christian period providing the place with a sacred as well as a civic connotation. It maintains its central position under the Normans: center of the major civil and religious functions, kept in the two neighbouring areas whose space still today appears divided. In the first large square the Bishop’s fair was established in 1452, which attracted merchants and purchasers from all over the region. The adjoining area of the Cathedral and the Palace of the Bishop welcomed the faithful for the blessing and the sacred ceremonies. The square, surrounded by a defensive enclosure and guarded by the extremely high Bell Tower, used before as a watchtower, fulfilled as well the role of a fortified citadel protecting the population in case of danger.

The area changes entirely its appearance from the middle of the seventeenth century when Sant’Oronzo becomes patron saint of the city, replacing Sant’Irene. Indeed it is said that, due to a plague epidemic which was ravaging Salento, the inhabitants of Lecce turned to the Saint, dear to them for he was a local martyr. Sant’Oronzo stopped the plague outside the walls of Lecce. He is, in fact, represented this way in the typical iconography of Lecce, as can be observed in a lovely painting by Giuseppe da Brindisi situated in the middle of the ceiling, inside the Cathedral.

The Bishop, Luigi Pappacoda, called Giuseppe Zimbalo, one of the most important artists of the time, for the renovation of the Cathedral (1659-1670) over the previous one of the 12th century, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, reflected in the dedication of the central altar. From this moment onwards this square, Piazza Duomo, will have an exclusively religious function.

The Cathedral was almost entirely rebuilt. There are two main sides: the lateral entrance, turned towards the square and thus the faithful, outstanding for its Baroque decoration and crowned at the top, as an arch of triumph, by the new Patron saint, Sant’Oronzo, whereas at the side of the entrance are situated the secondary Patrons, San Giusto and San Fortunato. The principal façade, facing the Palace of the Bishop, has instead simpler lines, inspired, it seems, by the austerity of the previous century, characteristic of the Counter Reformation’s architecture. It is divided into two orders, with fluted pilasters in-between which there are some niches containing the statues of the Saints Pietro and Paolo, Gennaro and Ludovic of Toulouse. The actual bronze doorway, 6 meters high and 3.20 meters large, which represents the pope John Paul II’s visit in Lecce, was recently made in the year 2000 by an artist from Galatina, Armando Marrocco, one of the major sculptors in Italy, author as well of the Chiesa del Santuario’s portal in Leuca. Città del Salento - Lecce - Piazza Duomo Campanile

The Church was built in the shape of a Latin cross divided in three aisles, separated by pillars with half columns. The wooden ceiling covering the central aisle and the transept (1685) is immediately noticeable. It comprises paintings by Giuseppe da Brindisi, which represent the martyrdom of Sant’Oronzo and the Last Supper. There are twelve altars, besides the major one, with twisted columns rich in floral, birds, fruit enclosing paintings of great religious meaning and considerable artistic value.

The major altar, dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, Baroque in style, in polychrome marble and of Neapolitan workmanship, is enclosed by three large paintings: ‘The Sacrifice of Noa after the Deluge’ (on the left), ‘The Assumption’ (in the middle), ‘The Challenge of the prophet Elijah to the Priests of Baal’ (on the right), by Oronzo Tiso, painter of Lecce and priest, who worked in Salento and in Lecce in the eighteenth century.

Another altar of particular importance is the one dedicated to Sant’Oronzo, in the transept on the right. It is made of polychrome marble and reproduces the pattern of the lateral façade of the Cathedral. Sant’Oronzo is represented in a lovely painting by Giovanni Andra Coppola, and, on both sides, there are the statues of San Giusto and San Fortunato. During the celebration of Sant’Oronzo, at the end of August, the painting is covered and replaced by three silver statues representing the three Patrons.
The only thing left of the original construction is the crypt, dedicated to the Madonna della Scala, refurbished in the early 1500s over a medieval structure. It is divided in three aisles supported by 92 columns with figurative capitals. Giuseppe Zimbalo rebuilds the Bell Tower, placing it on the left side of the square.

A symbol of Lecce’s hegemony over the territory, it is 72 meters high. It consists of 5 floors all enclosed by balustrades made of ‘pietra leccese’. The highest part shows a tiled dome on which is placed a weathervane in the shape of Sant’Oronzo. Originally the Bell Tower was located at the side of the principal façade, but Zimbalo decided to move it to give the Piazza a much greater visual impact. On the right side of the Cathedral we find the Palace of the Bishop, rebuilt in 1632, on a former fifteenth-century building, and modified in 1758 by Emanuele Manieri on commission of Bishop Alfonso Sozy-Carafa. The Palace is in the shape of an L with a monumental entrance above which there are three niches, with in the middle the statue of the Virgin Mary and on top a clock, placed there in 1761, by the hand of Domenico Panico. The loggia on the first floor, which rests on a base of smooth ashlar, is very impressive and delimited by interspersed Tuscan columns.

Città del Salento - Lecce - Piazza Duomo EpiscopioOn the right entering the square, where earlier there were workshops, we find the Seminary, one of the most significant works of the ‘Barocco lecesse’, by Giuseppe Cino who built the whole construction, commissioned by Bishop Michele Pignatelli, between 1694 and 1709, year in which it was inaugurated. At the time, the construction was received as one of the marvels of the world as it is so sophisticated and harmonious, created with care by the local skilled workers who built the Palace. The smooth ashlar, which serves as background, is interspersed with five pilasters and four windows, on each side of the entrance, arranged in two rows.

All the windows are elegantly framed. The entrance door is very wide and surmounted by a small loggia with three arches resting on shelves, even these extremely rich in decoration, in the middle of which is placed the emblem of the Pignatelli household. The attic, at the back, was built by Emanule Manieri in 1729 and commissioned by another Bishop, Fabrizio Pignatelli. In the atrium of the building, the Baroque well is very interesting, again by the hand of Giuseppe Cino: amongst sea animals, flowers, bunches of pomegranate, putti, the statue of Sant’Irene is positioned at the top of the arch. The Seminary hosts today the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art. Città del Salento - Lecce - Piazza Duomo Seminario

In 1761 were built the two twin Pal aces to the sides of the courtyard, which were opened to the city when the entrance gateway was replaced by the propylaea. The latter, created by Emanuele Manieri flank the entrance, whereas the statues which dominate it, portray Sant’Oronzo, Sant’Irene, Santa Venera and the Fathers of the Church, almost as if they guarded and protected whoever enters this sacred space.


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