This summer I visited Lecce for the first time. Incredible faux-pas if you think that I was born in Puglia, lived there part of my childhood and have been back every summer, just 2 hours away, since I left. What can I say (I don't know emoji)?
It's absolutely beautiful! You can walk all around the small downtown and see more than 10 Churches, 2 Basilicas and 1 Duomo. Plus plenty of wonderful not-chains stores and nice places to eat.
If I have one regret while there is that of not going back to buy a 'cartapesta' figurine.
These, to be exact.
It was not totally cheap but thinking back they are a true piece of art and so traditional of Lecce.
So what is 'cartapesta' and the story behind it?
Lecce has a wonderful long history: as Lupiae under the Roman Empire for 5 centuries it has then been under the Spanish Domination until the 1800. Through its history Lecce has always been an important cultural and spiritual destination and the city in the South that flourished the most during the Baroque Movement in the XVII century.
Cartapesta can be translated as papier mâché but the one from Lecce is a pure expression of southern tradition, art and history.
Artisans would provide religious statues for local churches and monuments and while not having always access to the preferred (and more expensive) materials, like marble and bronze, or the tools needed to work with them, they were forced to find a new medium. Cartapesta required little space and few tools and motivated and creative artisans adapted by using whatever was at hand. Working with old rags, straw, paper, glue and chalk, they found that they could easily fold, manipulate and sculpt the papier-mâché into exquisite statues of saints and religious figures that looked like marble and bronze, but were less expensive, much faster to produce and, being lightweight, easier to transport and carry in processions.
The first artisan of cartapesta were actually barbers! They would carve a little art studio in the back of their shops and double as artisans. the first famous Cartapesta artist was a barber named Mesciu Pietriu de li Cristi.
Cartapesta became the artistic medium of choice and can be admired in the Chiesa di Santa Chiara with its ceiling and statues of papier-mâché.
Would you have guessed that this statues are made of a straw body wrapped with wire, flour paste, glue, paper and paint?
Here's some pictures of downtown Lecce and its beautiful buildings!
If you ever travel to the south of Italy don't miss Lecce!