Shopping in Lecce

Papier-mache, carvings, and other crafts in Lecce, Apulia

Lecce is a place that respects the traditional crafts. In particular, Lecce has been a cartapesta (papier-mâché) center since at least the 17th century.

Perhaps the best artisan studio is that of Claudio Riso and his brothers at Via G. del Tufo 16 (off Via Federico d'Aragona; tel. +39-0832-242-362). They produce remarkably detailed figures from everyday, 18th-century Lecce life that have won them international prestige. One of my other favorite workshops is the bottega of Maurizio Ciafano, Via Carlo Russi 10 (tel. +39-tel. +39-0360/740-906), where three young guys work hard in their tiny space to create peasant figures carrying bundles of twigs or wine jugs for €16-20. If you're looking for more variety, check out the Mostra Permanente dell'Artigianato Salentino, Via Rubichi 21 (tel. +39-0832-246-758), where you can peruse traditional crafts from across the province: small-town ceramics, cast iron, Lecce-made stone carving, and papier-mâché.

The Mostra Permanente dell'Artigianato, just off the main Piazza S. Oronzo at Via Rubichi 21 (tel. +39-0832-246-758), which acts as a communal showcase for artisans from across the region. The setting couldn't be blander: a large modern room, harsh florescent lighting, walls lined with shelves, and small tables scattered haphazardly. But the hand-painted ceramics, wrought-iron candlesticks, stone carvings, and other handiworks are beautiful and brilliant—and, since this is a city-run enterprise, there's no markup. There's also no sales pitch, no hustle, and no bargaining; in fact, the entire staff usually consists of just the bottle-blond woman at the cash desk, who hand-tatts lace while waiting for customers.

The only craft item in short supply at the Mostra Permanente is the one for which Lecce has been famous since the seventeenth century: cartapesta (papier-mâché). Most of the cartapesta workshops scattered all around town do a brisk business cranking out life-size saints, crucifixions, and crèche scenes for churches and chapels around the world. After molding the wet sheets of grayish-beige paper around giant, featureless mannequins made of wire and straw, most artisans drag the rough statues into the street and stand them next to a coal-stoked brazier for the next step. The brazier bristles with iron rods of various sizes and configurations, their ends shoved into the coals until they glow, at which point the maestro plucks them out and uses them to press, sculpt, and burn delicate details into the clothing and faces. Every time he touches the red-hot iron to the paper bodies, it sends up licks of flame and billows of acrid smoke, as if the saint or Savior were being tormented in one of those Hell scenes so popular in medieval Italian mosaics and frescoes. Cartapesta workshops tend to look unsettlingly crammed with charred corpses—until the artisans finally apply thick layers of paint to cover the scars and rough, twisted paper.

Perhaps the best artisan studio is that of Claudio Riso and his brothers at Via G. del Tufo 16 (off Via Federico d'Aragona; tel. +39-0832-242-362). They produce remarkably detailed figures from everyday, 18th-century Lecce life that have won them international prestige.

Since a six-foot St. Francis won't fit into a carry-on, visit the tiny studio of Maurizio Cianfano, who specializes in foot-high figurines of 19th-century peasants. Constantly grinning under his close-cropped hair, Maurizio wears surgical gloves and a work-spattered white doctor's coat as he practices his own special technique that doesn't involve Lecce's usual hot pokers or other instruments of medieval torture. His workbench is surrounded by shelves crowded with pots of paint, bowls brimming with a selection of pre-crafted clay heads, and regiments of unfinished straw bodies wrapped into human shapes by a haphazard webbing of thread. Onto these, Maurizio crafts flowing, papier-mâché clothing, paints in the details, and finally attaches the peasant's burden: a bundle of sticks across the back, a pile of wood under the arm, and sometimes a jug of wine for the free hand.

Not everyone is out and about, though. A community of Benedictine nuns—whom locals simply call Le Suore ("the sisters")—lives a cloistered existence in the twelfth-century convent of San Giovanni Evangelista on Via Manfredi. While you're never allowed to see the sisters, or wander their convent, you can play a kind of culinary Russian roulette with them. Le Suore are almost always selling something to eat, though precisely what changes daily. Ring the bell at the door, and a feathery old woman's voice will crackle over the intercom, inviting you in. The bare front room looks a bit like a bank counter, but with a solid wall instead of bullet-proof glass, embedded with a blind lazy Susan in place of a teller's window. Remember: No one will appear, so politely direct your conversation at the lazy Susan, and ask whether they happen to have biscotti di pasta di mandorle—soft, almond-paste marzipan cookies with a dollop of pear jelly in the center. A tray of twelve, wrapped up and tied with a green ribbon like a Christmas present, costs around $5. Then again, they may be selling raw fish today; you just never know. (The fact that they speak only Italian makes the game even more interesting.)

SHORT VERSION:

Just off the piazza is the city-run Mostra Permanente dell'Artigianato Salentino, Via Rubichi 21 (tel. +39-0832-246-758, www.mostrartigianato.le.it), where you can peruse traditional crafts from across the province: small-town ceramics, cast iron, Lecce-made stone carving, and papier-mâché. Even the lady at the cash desk hand-tatts lace while waiting for customers.

Lecce has been famous for its cartapesta (papier-mâché) since at least the 17th century, and there are workshops all around town that crank out life-sized saints and crèche scenes for churches around the world. Perhaps the best artisan studio is that of Claudio Riso and his brothers at Via G. del Tufo 16 (off Via Federico d'Aragona; tel. +39-0832-242-362). They produce remarkably detailed figures from everyday, 18th-century Lecce life that have won them international prestige.

If a six-foot St. Francis won't fit into your carry-on, visit the tiny bottega (workshop) of Maurizio Cianfano Via Carlo Russi 10 (tel. +39-+39-333-799-3906), who makes smaller figures of nineteenth century peasants carrying bundles of twigs or wine jugs, which are a bit more suitable for souvenirs.

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Useful links & resources

Main tourist office:
Via Monte S. Michele 20
tel. +39-0832-314-117, fax 0832-314-814
open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 5 to 7pm, Saturday 9am to 1pm.

How to get to Lecee
  • By car: Lecce is 38km (24 miles) south of Brindisi on the SS613. It is 143km (86 miles) southeast of Bari, 85km (51 miles) east of Taranto.
  • By train: There are twice hourly trains from Bari (2 hr.) that pass through Brindisi (23–43 min.); 5–8 runs from Martina Franca (110 min.); and 11 runs (6 Sunday) from Taranto (90–125 min.). There are 6 daily trains from Rome (6 hr.).
  • By bus: SITA tel. +39-0832-303-016) runs 4 buses from Brindisi (30 min.), and 3 from Bari (2.5–3 hr.).

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Main tourist office:
Via Monte S. Michele 20
tel. +39-0832-314-117, fax 0832-314-814
open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 5 to 7pm, Saturday 9am to 1pm.



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