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The History of Lecce
The region of Lecce, nicknamed ‘the heel of Italy’ due to its southernmost point in the boot-shaped country, has a wonderful history dating back thousands of years.
Nicknamed ‘The Florence of the South’, its capital city (also called Lecce) is known for its beautiful Baroque architecture, a maze of streets, cream-coloured limestone and rich agricultural output of olive oil, ceramics and wine.
The first towns in the region of Lecce were founded by the Messapians, known as the people of the ‘land between the seas’. Nowadays, its most important towns are Lecce, Gallipoli, Nardò, Maglie, and Otranto.
The 8th century saw Greek settlers arrive in the area and fight against the Messapians. This then began a rich Greek period in Lecce. When the 3rd century arrived, the Romans conquered the area and paved the way for much of the structure that still exists to this day.
The writing of the poet Ennius, the ‘godfather of Roman poetry’ who was alive during the first century BC, remains a good record of the region during this time. Especially profound is his assertion that he has three hearts: one for Greek, one for Latin and one for Oscan, an extinct language close to Umbrian, which died out during the time of the Romans.
Once the Roman Empire had fallen, Lecce was sacked by the Ostrogoths during the Gothic Wars. The Normans arrived in the 11th century and the city began to see its wealth and influence grow. During this time, the Normans built the Lecce Cathedral and many churches which would survive for centuries.
In the late 12th century, Lecce saw several Norman rulers including Tancred, mocked and referred to as “The Monkey King”. Lecce then successfully became under the rule of the Hohenstaufen and Angevine dynasties. This period also saw the era of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the end of whose reign began a slow decline called the Great Interregnum. During this time, Otranto replaced the city of Lecce as a dominating force in the region and beyond.
From here until 1463 Lecce was one of the largest and most important regions in Italy. During the Kingdom of Sicily, in the 15th and 16th centuries especially, the region saw most of its castles built, such as the Aragonese castle of Otranto and Castello di Acaya. The early 17th century then saw a complete architectural overhaul with the introduction of the intricate ornamentation of the Baroque. The Lecce Cathedral was rebuilt and The Churches of Saints Niccolo’ and Cataldo were re-covered with frescoes and completely redecorated.
Whilst Baroque was increasing in popularity all over Europe, its introduction to Lecce, in particular, gave birth to a style called barocco leccese (Lecce baroque). This is characterised by limestone rock and careful ornamentation.
In 1927, the Province of Lecce separated from the Province of Taranto and Brindisi to become its own entity.