After our ill-fated attempt to reach Ostuni by bus, we saw it, white and high, from the train that took us from Brindisi to Monopoli. Perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t reach it because the heavy rain the other night made rivers in the streets of Ostuni and came half way up the cars in the car parks.
Monopoli got its name as the “one city” of refuge from the Ostrogoths. It has been ruled by Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Venetians and Hohenstaufens. Now its small historic centre has smart tourist shops and restaurants with a breezy, seaside air. Towering over it is the magnificent Cathedral of Maria Santissima della Madia (above). It’s an 11th-century foundation but the present structure, said by some with good reason to be the most beautiful baroque church in Puglia, was built between 1742 and 1772 to the design of Michele Colangiuli and Pietro Magarelli. Slap bang next to it is another Baroque church, Santa Maria del Suffragio, separated only by a narrow passage (below), S. Maria on the left, the Cathedral on the right.
St Anthony of Padua (below) , on the edge of the old city, is a discordant but fascinating building with shades of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. It comprises a single vast order, a two-storey entrance arch pierced by a disproportionately small door and windows in a facade of much earlier date, with pilasters on huge pedestals leading up to a broken pediment. Who designed this strange church? The parish website concentrates on the inside and doesn’t tell you.
Brindisi had been almost written off by our guide book, which warned us that parts of it were “seedy”, and I expected little from a major seaport. But it has considerable interest and history in its pleasant waterfront, with the naval base and warships that you can watch through the security barrier, the fine Duomo, the little ancient basilica of St John, and the two ancient columns that marked the end of the Appian way (only one remains in the city, the other was donated to Lecce). It was also reputedly the place of Virgil’s death (below).
The inside of the Duomo has a refreshing simplicity after the extreme richness of the churches of Lecce, but the outside was beautifully lit at night (top). And we liked the frontage of Santa Teresa, glimpsed through olive trees as the cloud bubbled up before a thunderstorm (below).
Not the Gallipoili in the Dardanelles, but Gallipoli in Puglia, though both were in Magna Grecia and both names are of Greek origin.
The centre of the small, cramped old town on a promontory is like the Southend-on-Sea of Puglia, nothing but tourist shops, tourist restaurants and a tourist information bureau that doesn’t want to give you any information. In most cities, the smart districts are in the centre and the periphery is either tatty or commercial, but in Gallipoli, it’s the historic centre that’s tatty and the smarter streets are around the marina and the sparkling sea and the Corso Roma, which was deserted when we arrived during the siesta on Saturday afternoon and packed during the passiagata, which continued till well after midnight.
But plonk in the middle of the fritto misto shops and souvenir joints is the grand duomo in the Baroque style of Lecce. Typical of Pugliese cities, the street is too narrow for you to see the facade, which extends over the roof line of the church in a high, ostentatious parapet, and I’ve had to use the image from Wikipedia because I couldn’t get into position for a decent photo. It’s also hard to find out much about the history of the cathedral, but the architect is said to be Giovan Bernardino Genuino, known as Vaspasiano.
We came to Lecce, the major town in the heel of Italy, on a slow train from Martina Franca and found a room in the Palazzo Bernadini, presided over by Isabella Oztasciyan Bernardini d’Arnesano, professor of Greek studies at the university.
Lecce developed so rapidly in the late 17th century that it has a unity of design and its streets of honey-coloured churches and palazzi would make it a good film location. But that’s not surprising because the streets and squares of Lecce were conceived as a location for performance and display.
The large Duomo square, almost completely enclosed, had a defensive function but it is also a stage, with an elaborate set finished by Guiseppe Zimbalo, architect of many Lecce churches, and is made for ecclesiastical and civic performance. Each high Baroque church in the city competes with the next to make the best impression with its extravagance, splendour and the degree of elaboration of its façades and altars.
In art, whatever can be done will be done. If the artist has the soft Lecce limestone to work in, he can carve it any way so that it writhes, boils and bubbles. Columns are twisted and the twists are decorated with animal and plant forms and putti and the decorations gilded. The intention of this art, to surprise and overawe, is still achieved as the visitors gasp and Wow! before snapping the preposterous façades of Zimbalo’s Santa Croce and Duomo.
We are travelling by bus and train in Puglia. The approach to Martina Franca, through the workaday modern streets, wasn’t promising. We’d just been to Alberobello, whose little houses with pointy roofs, the famous trulli, are all presented in pristine whiteness for tourists, with trulli models, trulli teatowels and trulli fridge magnets, and the scruffy indifference to us in this place was a refreshing contrast. Through the great arch opposite St Anthony’s church we were in the once rich 18th century town.
Every church, nobleman, banker and merchant created a very fine front to his house to make an impression appropriate to his wealth and importance, whose grandeur could only to be properly admired from the other side of the big square; only there are very few squares, big or small, and the wonderful Baroque doorways have to be squinted at from the opposite side of the narrow alleys in which they’re squashed. Here are a few.