Italian handcrafts: Lecce Stone
- WTI Magazine #121 Nov 17, 2019
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 was 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.
By Camera di Commercio di Lecce with Unioncamere