Over the centuries, Salento, the eastward-facing tip of Puglia, has been home to a succession of peoples that have left traces of themselves everywhere, engraving the signs of their presence in Lecce stone.
They have carved their history on it, building dolmens, menhirs, forts and temples, as well as dwellings, villas, monuments and churches.
It is a legacy left in stone, Lecce stone, which is a feature of every town in Salento and is noticed and admired by visitors, who are enchanted by its rich decoration.
This made possible by the malleability of the stone, its suitability for carving and its characteristic quality of hardening over time and assuming a warm, honey-like tone.
Lecce stone is capable of maintaining a classical composure even in the triumph of artifice, as in the festive and elaborate shapes of flowers, fruit and dancing cherubs.
Due to its great versatility, altar decorations, gables, columns and architraves have attained standards seen in fine jewellery.
The main reason why age-old artefacts can still be seen is that Lecce stone has a unique and remarkable feature: it is soft and easy to work when extracted from the quarry, but once exposed to air and the elements, it becomes hard and resistant, thus allowing Lecce’s marvellous Baroque heritage to survive intact up to the present.
Over time, particular and imaginative construction techniques were developed based on the use of these materials. Thus Lecce vaults and some of the better-known construction techniques, such as cornered vaults, barrel vaults and star vaults, made their appearance.
This gave the houses of Salento a valued additional quality, due not merely to the originality and beauty of the vaults, but also to their practicality: houses built with star or corner vaults are much warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. This effect is caused by the stone and the particular shape of the ceiling, which distributes heat more evenly without dispersing it.
Each house is said to bear the signature of its builder. In fact, the personal techniques used in the construction of each vault could be easily recognised, and so everyone knew who had built a certain house merely by looking at its ceiling.
During the work, the owner of the building would give the builder an image of a saint, which would be buried in the foundations of the house or placed at the apex of the vault for protection and to bring good fortune.
Lecce stone comes in different varieties, clearly distinguished by their texture and colour, as well as the physical and chemical characteristics required by their various uses. It is found in “tajate” (quarries), where “zoccaturi” (stone masons) have been extracting it and bringing it to the surface for hundreds of generations.
The stone has ancient origins dating back to the Miocene period of the Tertiary era, which lasted from 23 million to 17 million years ago.
These remote origins can be seen by the presence of numerous fossil fragments, which at times are preserved almost fully intact.
Lecce stone is now considered a valuable material not only for construction but above all for architecture.
The material continues to reveal multiform possibilities of application and has become a key element in the restructuring and restoration of buildings.
The Lecce area
Lecce stone emerges naturally from the soil and is characterised by one peculiar feature: its outcrops are found exclusively in the province of Lecce, on the Adriatic side of the central and southern portion of the Salento peninsula; outcrops on the Ionian side are fairly sporadic, with varieties of tuff more predominant.
A primary seam of Lecce stone, mainly composed of the soft, uniform variety, is located in Lecce, after which it is named; a second bed, mostly comprising soft, hygroscopic stone, extends from Vernole and includes the areas of Achaia, Strudà, Acquarica and Vanze, as well as part of Melendugno.The third, mostly of the semi-hard variety, is found in the municipalities of San Donato, Soleto and Martignano, with quarries located in the municipalities of Galugnano, Caprarica and Martano.
The fourth bed extends through the territories of Zollino, Martano Castrignano dei Greci, Melpignano, Cursi and Maglie, an area in which so-called “Cursi stone” is extracted.
The “Cape” area of Salento had a custom of communicating through stones which has not entirely disappeared. When a farmer’s produce or livestock were stolen, he would stand two large stones in a clearly visible spot, one on top of the other, placing between them a bundle of grass or a few small branches, or, if possible, a sample of the stolen produce.
The message, clearly understood by all due to centuries of tradition, was an ominous warning sent to the culprit of the theft: “if I ever get my hands on you, or if you ever try to do it again, I will crush your head between two stones!
”A heap of stones, known as a “Cucuruzzu,” was used to indicate not only strict prohibition of access to a farm by strangers, but also a threat of severe punishment of any offender.In the Leuca area, also part of the “Cape”, the “paritari” (dry stone walls builders) still practice a superstitious custom of placing stones in a particular manner at the doorways of rural houses. Stones are selected with distinct anthropomorphic features so that they will ward off evil spirits.
Curator — Camera di Commercio di Lecce