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The Other Lecce

On a Saturday morning bright with sun and overflowing with automotive exuberance, the Berkeley Circle made a foray into the city of the dead. Lecce’s cemetery is a mirror image of itself. The approach is flower strewn. Nothing like death to make us cling to the beauties of life. The flower sellers furnished an introduction to our expedition with an explosion of colour. As any tourist approaching Lecce, we passed over the drab suburbs and low-rent quarters where the grave markers were askew among the weeds. We would not inspect the high-rise structures where the residents dwelt neat, each in his own drawer. Our objective was the historical centre, the old town, where efforts at immortality consisted of the odd photograph or a bold carving of the departed's name in stone already frittering away.

This elite quarter resembled nothing so much as the city of the living we had left at the gate. The mausoleum-dwellings crowded against one another. Houses with gardens, there were none. The only growing things were the cypresses that had managed to hold their own against the assault of stone and concrete. Age-old competition was in the air. Who would build higher, more muscular or in the newest style? The word ‘familia’ kept appearing like the heading at the top of each page of a book. It made us wonder if along with the beloveds’ remains had been buried all the vituperation within each clan. There were recurring figures of ‘eternità’ whose worn stone was an object lesson in how nothing lasted. Amid the varied symbols, we had to keep reminding ourselves that this very urban, compact city wasn't an illustration of Honoré Balzac’s ‘la comédie humaine’.

What was surely illustrated was a palimpsest, an overwriting. There were Greco-Roman left-overs, and touches of Romanesque sobriety beneath Counter-Reform religiosity verging on kitsch. Periods of fashion appeared like surprise interlopers and quickly faded. Lecce’s Fascist-inspired flirtation with things Egyptian drew a double-take. Art Deco’s wrought ironwork scampered past. However, the most striking example of one epoch overriding another was in our visit to S. Nicolò e Cataldo Church, the architectural treasure englobed in Lecce’s burial ground. This 12th-century Romanesque masterpiece had been veneered with Baroque in 1710. We left the church, happy to see nature again in its cloister where the green growth of spring was speckled with the violet and gold of wildflowers.

Martin Shaw Briggs, the English historian of Lecce, quotes an authority on Saint Nicolò Church:

“Count Tancred’s building may be described as a Burgundian church of Leccese stone in a shell of Greek-Apulian architecture. A composite yet harmonious structure, where all the French detail is scholarly and correct, whilst the cupola, a unique creation and without an equal in Greece or Italy, may be deemed the work of a foreigner who, with the remembrance of northern art still in his mind, took a pleasure in freely adopting the outlines of the Greek churches in the Terra d’Otranto”.

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