Holier Than Thou – Churches of the Salento (Feriae Augusti – 1a Puntata)

The simple fact is that they’re overwhelming — ornate and ravishing, kitsch and overwrought, badly lit or full of light that seems supernal. They’re either deserted or overcrowded; there’s either no caretaker to be found or there’s a small, fussy-looking woman who watches your every move with hauteur and evident disapproval: You’re dressed wrong, your shoes make too much noise, you’re there, quite simply, and you shouldn’t be because it’s not your church.

Almost all of them are at least partly in restoration, with ugly, sub-fusc canvasses tossed over altars or pulpits whose dusty marble or desiccated wood can be glimpsed beneath the rude drapery; stucco-white rectangles still bleeding plaster dust where paintings have been ripped from the walls like scabs; or thick cables and sections of metal piping from unfinished scaffolding strewn dangerously underfoot.

Often they are dirty, which breaks your heart; and sometimes they are homely and grim, which makes them seem unloved, these forlorn churches with paint-by-number Assumptions or cement columns covered in crudely done faux-marble trompe l’oeil that never fooled an eye. Sometimes the candles have been replaced with electric lights, and you flip a switch to send your prayer to heaven: no fire, no smoke, no heat, no smell of wax, no visible moment of combustion.

But occasionally they are glorious, and the urge is to become ever more still and to observe the thousand things that are near to hand and to wonder about the obsessiveness; the insistence on symmetry or the willful disregard of it; the gilding as it were of the golden lily; the exaggeration; the exuberance; the excess that seems devotional and solemn and the excess that seems frenzied and manic; the sense, inescapable, that you are not of the right scale to see all of it, ten meters above your head or hidden in semi-darkness or too near to be caught in just perspective. In Lecce, I asked someone why the dazzling Santa Croce, whose facciata towers over a rather narrow street lined with palazzi, was constructed in such a way that one could stand neither near enough to view the details of the baroque ornamentation nor far enough away to appreciate the entire, elaborate façade in its proper context. “Ah,” he said, “the angels see it!”

Otranto

Duomo, Otranto - ceiling detail.

Duomo, Otranto – ceiling detail.

Duomo, Otranto - column particular. These columns have been removed and are displayed off to one side of the nave. © UVV 2006

Duomo, Otranto – column particular. These columns have been removed and are displayed off to one side of the nave. © UVV 2006

Otranto - detail of one of the 42 columns in the crypt below the Duomo © UVV 2006

Otranto – detail of one of the 42 columns in the crypt below the Duomo. © UVV 2006

Otranto - detail of one of the 42 columns in the crypt below the Duomo. The green material is a kind of mold evident on much of the stonework in the crypt. © UVV 2006

Otranto – detail of one of the 42 columns in the crypt below the Duomo. The green material is a kind of mold evident on much of the stonework in the crypt. © UVV 2006

Otranto - detail of one of the 42 columns in the crypt below the Duomo. © UVV 2006

Otranto – detail of one of the 42 columns in the crypt below the Duomo.
© UVV 2006

Galatone

Duomo, Galatone. (c) UVV 2006.

Duomo, Galatone. (c) UVV 2006.

Duomo, Galatone. Detail of door. © UVV 2006

Duomo, Galatone. Detail of door. © UVV 2006

Galatone. Angel in a small chapel on a side street near the Duomo. © UVV 2006

Galatone. Angel in a small chapel on a side street near the Duomo. © UVV 2006

Galatone, fresco. © UVV 2006

Galatone, fresco. © UVV 2006

Melpignano

Melpignano. One of the sleepy towns in the "Grecia Salentina." This detail is from the facciata of one of the churches in a small, enclosed piazza. © UVV 2006

Melpignano. One of the sleepy towns in the “Grecia Salentina.” This detail is from the facciata of one of the churches in a small, enclosed piazza. © UVV 2006

Melpignano. Thanks to a wrong turn, we found a deserted church on a side street on the outskirts of town. The facciata was nearly completely covered with lichen. © UVV 2006

Melpignano. Thanks to a wrong turn, we found a deserted church on a side street on the outskirts of town. The facciata was nearly completely covered with lichen. © UVV 2006

Salve

Tiny town, tiny church with Roman ruins visible beneath its glass floor. © UVV 2006

Tiny town, tiny church with Roman ruins visible beneath its glass floor.
© UVV 2006

Gallipoli

Another church built so closely to other buildings that you can only get a sense of it by craning your neck—or looking at the reflections in the windows across the street. © UVV, 2006

Another church built so closely to other buildings that you can only get a sense of it by craning your neck—or looking at the reflections in the windows across the street. © UVV, 2006

Lecce

Lecce, Santa Croce at night. The facciata of Santa Croce is perhaps the most beautiful of any church in Lecce. It is almost impossibly detailed and, because of its height and proximity to other buildings, particularly difficult to see!

Lecce, Santa Croce at night. The facciata of Santa Croce is perhaps the most beautiful of any church in Lecce. It is almost impossibly detailed and, because of its height and proximity to other buildings, particularly difficult to see!

Santa Croce, Lecce. (c) UVV 2006.

Santa Croce, Lecce. (c) UVV 2006.

Santa Croce, Lecce. Detail. (c) UVV 2006.

Santa Croce, Lecce. Detail. (c) UVV 2006.

Santa Croce, Lecce. Detail.

Santa Croce, Lecce. Detail.

Santa Croce, Lecce, closeup. © UVV  2006

Santa Croce, Lecce, closeup. © UVV 2006

scl_detail32

Santa Croce, Lecce, Il Rosone. There’s a kind of a puzzle hidden in the rosone: a series of faces and profiles that aren’t easy to see if you don’t know where to look.

Santa Croce, Lecce, Il Rosone. There’s a kind of a puzzle hidden in the rosone: a series of faces and profiles that aren’t easy to see if you don’t know where to look.

In this closeup, some of the faces are a bit easier to see. Click on the photo for an enlargement.

In this closeup, some of the faces are a bit easier to see. Click on the photo for an enlargement.

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Posted on 4 September 2006, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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