Written by Folco Quilici
Unlike other regions of Italy, the first people to appreciate this region were foreigners, not Italians. One of the first was the archaeologist François Le Norman who, in 1866, came to this region rich in archaeological remains. The helicopter flies over Egnazia, an ancient Messapic city (4th to 3rd centuries B.C.), one of the most interesting archaeological sites in ancient Puglia. During the second half of the 19th century, the German historian Gregorovis stopped here to look for the ruins of the Hohenstaufens (the imperial German family that left its mark in this region in the 12th and 13th centuries). This family of Holy Roman emperors, whose political interests in Italy were represented by the Ghibellines, rivals of the Guelfs (who in turn were backed by the Pope), used these quarries, still in use today, to build their castles and churches in all parts of Puglia. Good examples of this imperial architecture is the cathedral of Acquaviva delle Fonti with its 12th century belfry, and the cathedral at Troia built in the year 1000, a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture in Puglia which fuses older Byzantine and Moslem elements with the newer elements of Pisan architecture. Another example of this fusion of distant, diverse cultures can be seen in the 11th century tomb of Beomondo at Canosa with its Saracen features.
It is this mixture of styles that made the art historian, Cesare Brandi, characterize in his book, Pellegrino di Puglia, the architecture of this region as "surprising." Just as the countryside is surprising in its contradictory points of departure, lines and colors, the whole region has a surprising history and culture. We are flying over the little church at Trani which combines stark Norman elements of northern Europe with oriental Mediterranean elements. At the time that these churches were build, the Crusades left Europe from the ports of Puglia (especially Brindisi) to fight in the Middle East. It is not so surprising, therefore, that these churches reflect the styles of the various nations whose Crusaders came through Puglia.
Here, on the plains of Canne, the ancient Romans suffered one of their worst military defeats at the hands of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general of the second Punic war. Foreign travelers rediscovered the charm of these open plains, a charm which had existed in the 16th century but which the Romantics in the early 19th century had discarded in favor of the mountains and picturesque settings of other Italian regions. These huge plains were called Tavoliere, not because they look like long tables, but after the name of the books (Tavole censorie) which registered the property-deeds of those lands which the Aragonese rulers set aside for pasture in the 15th century. To this very day they continue to be used as pastures.
It has been said that the stones in this landscape contain the phantasms of its past. This could be the case of the Murge, the scattered white stones and rocks found at higher elevations (200-400 meters above sea level).
The open plains, with their straight roads and scattered white towns are like so many sheep in a pasture. This ancient region is one of the few in Europe whose flora is the same as it was when Indo-europeans first settled on the Italian peninsula: just olive groves and grape vines. To this very day, one of the most characteristic features of the stark landscape of Puglia is to be found in these vast plains of olive groves. Flying over them one cannot help wondering whether we are really in Italy: these olive groves remind us more of Tunisia; and these white cliffs of the Gargano remind us of the English cliffs of Dover. What about the "trulli" of Alberobello? Haven't we seen similar constructions in Cappadocia (Turkey)? And these prehistoric caves carved out by the rivers, aren't they similar to the dwellings of the hermits of the Thebiad (in Egypt) that primitive painters depicted? And this lagoon near Taranto, isn't it similar to the islands in the Pacific? These other lagoons are the lakes of Lesina and Varano: aren't they similar to the Venetian lagoon, and that of Comacchio? It is here, near these lakes and on the cliff of the Gargano, that we find the remains of Puglia's most archaic past: we are at Monte Sant'Angelo below these marble steps, carved with the graffiti of numerous pilgrims who visited this shrine, are the grottos of San Michele. Tradition has it that the archangel Michael appeared here; but even in pre-Christian times, this and similar grottos near the Gargano were the site of cults and superstitions. Inside, the pilgrims pray before receiving the waters which they believe to be miraculous and capable of curing illnesses.
When we return to the sunlight, the monuments, erected between the 6th and 14th centuries around this center of religious piety, are almost blinding to our eyes. Here are the bas-reliefs of the so-called Tomba di Rotari, probably not a tomb but originally a baptistry whose design may have been borrowed from similar monuments in the Middle East. Further on, the decorations of two other religious monuments in this part of northern Puglia: the baldachin of Santa Maria Maggiore and the 12th century arch and decorations of the church of San Leonardo di Siponto.
The Gargano is a combination of beautiful coastline, sea, cliffs, mountains and forests. This enchanting promontory, surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, extends itself as far as the Tremiti Islands. These islands form a small archipelago: a little world of its own. These islands had been virtually forgotten in their solitude, but recently have been desecrated by a tourism that is searching for isolated places.
In the Adriatic Sea, during the feast of Saint Nicholas of Bari (Santa Claus), the fishermen offer to the sea a vial of liquid called the "Zamana del Santo" in a symbolic nuptial and fertility ceremony.
As a counterpoint to this ceremony is the one that takes place in the forests where Lucania and Puglia meet. This ancient ritual also reunites Man to nature, and is called "il matrimonio del gardan." The festival consists of faithful from both Lucania and Puglia who are divided into two rival groups: one represents the laborers of the fields and forests, and the other represents the "massari" (the 'wealthy' peasants who owned at least a couple of oxen). When they meet they engage in ritual quarrels and challenges which end in festive celebration. At one time, however, these encounters were violent and served to vent the aggression of two feuding factions within the same agrarian community.
These ancient rituals, like so many others in the peasant culture of Puglia, have left their traces in countryside. A case in point is countryside outside of Galatina, in the southern most part of Puglia. Here in Galatina, toward the end of June, after the grain has been harvested, we see the wild "tarantolate," a dancing mania which was allegedly brought about by the bite of poisonous tarantula spiders hiding in the haystacks. (The name of the spider and of the dance, the "tarantella," derived from the nearby city of Taranto.) As the English writer Swinburne noted, these women are identical to the ancient Greek Bacchantes: when Christianity abolished pagan rituals, these women succeeded in preserving this one by associating it with demonic possession induced by the bite of the tarantula. These women, however, do not share the elegance of the ancient Bacchantes we find in bas-reliefs of classical art. As the anthropologist Ernesto De Martino has shown, these women were not trying to preserve an ancient pagan ritual, but were engaged in exhorting collective folly for other reasons.
These are just some of the customs which have remained intact in Puglia notwithstanding the presence of foreign invaders who brought their own culture to this region. The "vasi apuli," Apulian vases from the 4th century B.C., are also a precious testimony of Puglia's archaic past. These vases reveal the presence of an indigenous civilization which was neither provincial nor peripheral to the ancient Greek civilization (Magna Grecia) along the Apulian coast.
The remains of ancient Greek temples (called the Tavole Palatine) can still be found along the Ionian coast near Taranto. Besides Taranto, Otranto and Gallipoli were also ancient Greek cities. (Gallipoli was as big then as it is today.) The military and cultural hegemony of these Greek cities dominated the Italic cities throughout this part of Puglia. The Greeks waged long wars against the local civilization before bringing them under their power. This is what remains of the megalithic walls of Manduria, the capital of the Messapic (Italic) civilization which flourished here from the 4th to the 3rd centuries B.C. With the help of the king of Sparta, Archidamus, the local Greek cities managed to defeat Manduria and level it to the ground. Only from the helicopter can we get an idea of how big this city once was.
The Greeks, however, did not leave behind just the ruins of their conquests; they also left us the famous Lékythos, black ceramic vases painted white: the first one we see was excavated near Taranto in 1921, the second was discovered in 1907 and represents Oedipus confronting the Sphinx (it inspired a well known painting by Ingres). These are only some of the treasures in the national museum at Taranto.
Thanks to its position on the sea, Taranto was an important port for both the ancient Greeks and the Romans. The light reflected on the sea recalls André Chenier's idyll about the young girl from Taranto who was carried off by these waves to be sacrificed to sea monsters. If we take this ancient myth and place it into a modern context we have a picture of modern Taranto, a city which has been swallowed by its industrial development. Let's leave modern Taranto and its industry (both the pride and problem of this city). Let's leave ancient Taranto and its museum containing the remains of the first Greek city on the Italian peninsula; and let's look at another Greek civilization which took hold in Puglia, the Byzantine civilization.
In western Puglia, where the region borders with Lucania (the ancient, eastern territories of Basilicata and Campania). Basilian hermits lived in the "labbre," grotto-monasteries at Gravina, Laterza, Mottola, Ginosa, Massafra, and hundreds of other dwellings like these. Here, under the watchful eyes of their saints and angels, they engaged in fasting, in penance, and other rituals and ceremonies which were as detailed as those of the Byzantine court at Constantinople. Everything, from the manner in which vigils were observed to the iconography of the paintings, were done according to prescribed rules. The most beautiful Byzantine paintings in Puglia are probably those of Santa Maria della Scala at Massafra; they remind us of Dante's hereafter.
From Massafra we go to Gravina, a city which is also rich with grottos, and whose main church, Santa Maria delle Grazie, has an enormous winged eagle on its facade. The eagle has enamel eyes which reflect the sunlight. This eagle recalls the Swabian eagle, symbol of Frederick II who dominated Puglia in the first half of the 13th century. Swabian castles appear throughout Puglia: these are the ones at Barletta, Brindisi, and Gallipoli.
The commerce which the coastal towns engaged in helped to consolidate the institutions of these comuni (city states). Subsequent rebellions against the Byzantine Catapans brought about the intervention of the Normans who in just a few decades conquered all of southern Italy. The Normans built their own castles in Puglia, such as this one at Gioia del Colle. During the decades that followed, Puglia became economically prosperous thanks to the Crusaders who came from all parts of Europe and departed from the ports of Puglia for the Holy Land. The shadow of our helicopter is cast on the Norman cathedral of Trani; this and the cathedrals the Swabians constructed in Puglia during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries are signs of this economic prosperity.
The cathedrals are also the most prestigious and intact artistic treasures of Puglia. The Basilica of San Nicola of Bari was at one time surrounded by four courtyards each of which had walls and towers. The Cathedral of Bitonto is the most mature expression of Romanesque architecture in Puglia. The old Duomo (cathedral) of Molfetta has two belfries and cupolas which are reflected in the sea; and the cathedral of Altamura was built on orders of Frederick II.
Lucera and Castel del Monte are, however, the best testimonies of Frederick's presence in Puglia. The octagonal castle of Castel del Monte is a fusion of external Islamic features with a European Gothic interior. The Moslem presence in Puglia centered around Lucera the capital of a Moslem colony founded by Frederick II.
Foggia has a cathedral which combines Romanesque and Baroque architectural styles: the original cathedral, Santa Maria Icona Vetere, built in 1179, and the upper part, built in 1700 after a devastating earthquake. From Foggia we head south to Barletta with its ancient bronze statue of the Roman emperor Valentianus I; it stands five meters high. From Barletta we go inland to see the cathedral at Ruvo built at the beginning of the 13th century. From here to the cathedral at Bari dedicated to San Savino and built in the second half of the 12th century.
Bari is the regional capital of Puglia. Here we see its centro storico and, in opposition to it, the "new" part of town, built by decree of Murat, Napoleon's governor in southern Italy. This urban planning reflects the rationalism of that age.
From Bari we go south to the Salento peninsula. We come to the town of Ostuni which, like other cities in this region, are characterized by their white buildings. The town of Polignano blends in well with its natural surroundings. Further down, along the coast, we come to Brindisi with its famous Roman column marking the end of Appian Way (the Roman poet Horace evoked it in one of his famous poems). Not far from the industrial section of Brindisi is the 14th century church of Santa Maria del Casale, an example of Gothic architecture which came to this region along with the Teutonic warriors who departed from this city for the Middle East.
We are on the Salento peninsula, the center of Puglia's second great artistic movement: the Baroque. The furthest point on this peninsula is the Cape of Santa Maria di Leuca, the "heel" of Italy. From the coast we go inland to the Baroque town of Lecce. It has been said that if all the Baroque buildings in Lecce were placed on both sides of the same street, they would make one of the most beautiful avenues in the world. The external decorations are similar to internal decorations: the ornaments around the windows are similar to those around a mirror; the carved figures that support the balconies are similar to those one might find on furniture. The architectural decorations have something festive about them, like so many merry-go-rounds. Even the pastry in the local bakeries is similar to the Baroque ornamental figures. The facade of San Matteo is the only attempt at a structural (as opposed to ornamental) Baroque building.
From Lecce we go to Martina Franca where we see a crescendo of trulli, like the crescendo of an aria by Rossini, first one or two isolated trulli, then several pairs of them, and finally entire clusters. Like upside down cow udders buried in the ground, these buildings are unique to this region. From a distance they look like small cupolas which a child might have built in the sand. There is something oriental and fable-like about these buildings: a Disneyland which no man's fantasy has dreamt of since they were built. The road from Martina Franca brings us to Alberobello, a town where the trulli are an integral part of the city. The trulli were arranged in such a way so that each peasant could have his/her personal vineyard.
Whereas the trulli represent the plebeian side of Martina Franca, the patrician side of town may be seen in the centro storico, in the facade of San Martino and in the Rococo palaces that flank the streets. These small buildings are like so many doll houses that have been abandoned by their fabled dwellers in order to make way for the daily life of today. It is hard to believe that this labyrinth of narrow streets hides an equally small piazza. All these roads and Rococo balconies lead to the Palazzo Ducale, a perfect example of Rococo architecture which the guidebooks don't even mention.