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The Baroque Beauty of Southern Italy

“The feeling of these buildings comes from the architectural style–the very fussy and flamboyant Baroque.”

A trip to Italy wouldn’t be complete without at least a glance around you at the  architecture. Look closely (or perhaps not even that closely) and you’ll find an incredibly varied range of architectural styles. In Venice, there’s the byzantine Basilica of Saint Mark with its intricately decorated golden facade. Travel slightly further south to Emilia Romagna for the pinkish marble Romanesque cathedrals of Parma and Modena, or on to Tuscany to see Renaissance architecture take hold–all domes and red roofs (like the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence). There’s (of course) Roman architecture, examples of which can be seen not just in Rome, but all over the country. Then there are several fantastic gothic cathedrals: think the breathtakingly grand facades of the Duomo di Milano and Duomo di Orvieto. In German-speaking Bolzano, a city nestled in the Dolomites which feels more Austrian than Italian, there’s even German-influenced Bavarian Baroque. But what about the south of Italy? 

Travelling from one end of the country to the other, you notice the colours  steadily changing. The landscape grows increasingly more yellow and dusty, the  crops differ. Heading south you start with alpine-green, cow-filled pastures, pine  forests and apple orchards, then to arable farming in the Pianura Padana, then on to vineyards and tomatoes, and finally olive groves as you hit the very south of the peninsula. Yet it’s not just the countryside that changes colour: buildings too appear to grow paler and paler as you head further south. Take the seven hour train straight from red-brick La Rossa” Bologna to sandy-coloured Lecce and you’ll really notice the difference. Or compare Modena to Ostuni: one is a  mishmash of reds, yellows and oranges, surrounded by miles of (in September  predominantly beige) countryside and about as far from the sea as you can get in  Italy. The other is all white and beige, contrasting beautifully with the turquoise  blue Adriatic, just peeping through in the very far distance between the olive  groves. The buildings in Campania, Calabria and Sicily are also paler than those  of the northern cities. Just look at Naples: the whole city possesses an almost-yellow glow. 

The colour of southern Italy is really to do with the choice of stone and what was available locally at the time of building, but the feeling of these buildings comes from the architectural style–the very fussy and flamboyant Baroque. Baroque architecture, part of the general Baroque movement in art and design, took hold in Italy at the end of the 16th century and was, in essence, an attempt by the Catholic church to reinstate their importance within society following the Protestant Reformation. Exuberant, impressive facades were created to inspire awe into the population, glorifying the Cathlic religion and encouraging people to go back to church. The south does contain a big mix of architectural styles (there are still fine examples of Romanesque and Gothic buildings), but many of the churches and (I think) more impressive facades are Baroque. Although the Baroque style can be found elsewhere in the country, there is rather a higher concentration of Baroque buildings as you move down the peninsula. (Some notable examples in the north include St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican and the Basilica of Santa Maria Della Salute in Venice.)

So what is Baroque architecture exactly? The 16th-century style was a more dramatic and theatrical version of Renaissance (which preceded it). The Baroque style focused less on the structure and more on the appearance of the building. Churches, fountains, monuments and stairs were all designed to impress the observer: dramatic, lavish and slightly over the top, these pieces were usually decorated with curves, frills, and Roman and Greek classical elements (such as columns)–quite impressive. In the south, there are even region-specific Baroque architectural styles, Barocco Leccese and Barocco Siciliano, which evolved when Puglia and Sicily were part of the Kingdom of Naples.

PUGLIA

Barocco Leccese was developed in Lecce and in Terra d’Otranto from the second half of the 16th century to the end of the 17th century. It’s a style known for its hugely ornate facades, carved from soft, honey-coloured limestone and featuring  gargoyles, columns, porticoes, windows, balconies, human figures, flowers and animals. And it’s everywhere. The Basilica di Santa Croce, nestled amongst the sandy-colours streets of Lecce’s city centre, is a particularly good example of this ostentatious style. You could spend quite some time marvelling at its facade alone: covered with animals, grotesque figures and vegetables, the front also features six columns and a large, embellished rose window. Inside, there are multiple richly-decorated altars. Construction began in 1549 and wasn’t completed until 1699–several architects, a vast number of carvings and more than 100 years later. The Cattedrale di Maria Santissima Assunta e Sant’Oronzo, in one corner of the Piazza del Duomo, is also worth a look. Other must see baroque architecture in Puglia includes the Basilica Concattedrale di Sant’Agata in Gallipoli and the Chiesa di Saint Vito Martire in Ostuni, but you can really spot Baroque cherubs and flounces everywhere once you know what to look for. 

Basilica di Santa Croce (Lecce)

SICILY

Elsewhere, in Sicily, there’s Barocco Siciliano, fairly similar to other types of  Baroque architecture but with a certain flamboyance: masquerade-style masks and cherubs make it unique to the island. Head to the Val di Noto to really see it at its best. Following a devastating magnitude 6.3 earthquake that flattened eight of the valley’s towns in 1693, Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa and Scicli were rebuilt in the late Baroque architectural style of the time. A collective effort to make something of the destruction helped create what we see today: these eight towns in southeastern Sicily now form their own UNESCO World Heritage Site and contain some of the best examples of late baroque architecture in Europe, based on a beautiful golden limestone. In the town of Noto, the flamboyant Palazzo Nicolaci is a fine example with its balconies supported by scrolls and animals and an exuberant interior. Also in the town is the slightly less intricately-decorated Cattedrale di Noto

In Scicli, the Palazzo Spadaro has beautifully frescoed interiors, while the Palazzo Beneventano showcases a gargoyle-covered exterior. Also worth stops are Modica’s Duomo di San Giorgio, whose tower facade reaches 62 metres in height, and the identically-named Duomo di San Giorgio, which marks the hilltop of Ragusa Ibla, the historical centre of Ragusa. 

Cathedral of Saint George (Modica)

CAMPANIA

Finally, just north of Naples in Campania lies yet another example of baroque  architecture, although this time on a rather larger scale: the vast Reggia di  Caserta. The palace was commissioned by the Bourbon King Charles III and was intended to rival Versailles in Paris and the Royal Palace in Madrid. Its huge scale (the palace has over 1,000 rooms), grounds and ornate fountains and interiors certainly do just that. It’s so big that it seems less warm and inviting than the baroque buildings of Puglia and Sicily, but it’s interesting to see nonetheless.  

Also in the region, Palazzo dello Spagnolo in Naples is beautifully symmetrical and tinged with green and cream. Located in a lovely tranquil courtyard, the palace is a very welcome break from struggling against the crowds and scooters whizzing through the Rione Sanità. The Teatro di San Carlo in the city centre with its golden, flamboyant interior is also very much worth a stop. 

Once you start to notice the exuberant, expressive Baroque of southern Italy, you can’t stop seeing it. The architectural style somehow seems to embody the south of the country–loud and slightly chaotic, yet welcoming to those who venture through its doors.

Cathedral of San Nicolò (Noto)

Basilica di Santa Croce

Cattedrale di Maria Santissima Assunta e Sant'Oronzo

Basilica Concattedrale di Sant'Agata

Chiesa di Saint Vito Martire

Palazzo Nicolaci

Cattedrale di Noto

Palazzo Spadaro

Palazzo Beneventano

Duomo di San Giorgio, Modica

Duomo di San Giorgio, Ragusa

Reggia di Caserta

Palazzo dello Spagnolo

Teatro di San Carlo