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Lecce’s Castle, Hard Stone and Papier-mâché

Aggiornamento: 12 apr 2023

Visiting the Carlo V Castle was like taking a step back into the past of Lecce, leaving the Christmas frenzy to explore a distant age when criminals used to be locked in dark dungeons and the ghost of a noble woman would appear at one of the windows.

On a dark, windy December evening, we started our guided tour of Apulia’s biggest castle. The gloomy atmosphere was soon enlivened by a team of four brilliant students from the Master’s Degree course in Translation and Interpreting of the University of Salento. Luca, Filomena, Mattia and Chiara introduced us to the secrets of the fortress, unveiling its history as well as its many legends. The project directed by Elena Carluccio is part of a larger regional one called ‘Swapmuseum’, which aims to create a connection between young people and their cultural heritage, promoting an exchange of ideas and information.

We learned that the Castle was built in medieval times but by the wishes of Emperor Carlo V underwent a complete restoration in the 16th Century. Over the years, it has performed different functions, being used as a fortress, a prison, military barracks, and even an air-raid shelter. It has two towers, Torre Mozza and Torre Magistra, two gates, Porta Reale and Porta Falsa, and four bastions. There used to be a moat, which was hardly useful because of the chronic shortage of water and had to be filled in for reasons of public health.

Visiting the dungeons was impressive, giving us an idea of the terrible conditions in which prisoners were obliged to live in ancient times. They had no light, except for the dim glow of candles, and the only possible relief from such a dreary life was to carve inscriptions or draw on the walls. The soft limestone bears many intriguing, mainly religious symbols. Most of the men who were ‘hosted’ in this gloomy place were members of the aristocracy. One of them ironically was Giangiacomo dell’Acaya himself, the architect who had restored the castle under Emperor Carlo V. Unfortunately, he had built his own prison, where he spent the last months of his life.

The tour ended in the Papier Mâché Museum, which contains a remarkable collection of works of what is considered the second fine art of Lecce, outshone only by its Baroque architecture. Papier mâché or cartapesta art was imported from Naples in the 18th Century and developed at a time when all religious ceremonies were forbidden in Lecce because of a ban called the Interdetto. The hardship of the period probably favoured the success of this poor art, based on cheap materials like paper and flour.

Many thanks to Professor Katan for making this experience possible as well as to our enthusiastic and very competent guides. We hope to see the four of them again at the Berkeley!

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