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. Along with his sidekick Cesare Penna, he was responsible for the uppermost, and most intricate, level of the basilica.
Built on land confiscated from Jewish citizens, the exterior of Santa Croce is a confection of Baroque detailing but the interior is decidedly plainer and Renaissance in style. Highlights include the coffered wooden ceilings and the fanciful altars in the 17 chapels. Together with the equally splendid and adjacent Palazzo dei Celestini, which was also the work of Lo Zingarello, the basilica forms the architectural high point of a ravishing town center.
In spring 2014 the basilica was covered with scaffolding as renovations started. This being Italy, no one knows when the work will be completed. It is located at Via Umberto 1, and the site is open daily from 9am to noon and from 5 to 8pm. Admission is free.