Stymied by a Saint

I had just arrived in Gallipoli (gal-lee-poh-lee).  Not the Gallipoli in Turkey that was the site of one of the most disastrous, and futile military campaigns of World War I.  This Gallipoli is on the south-west coast of Puglia.  Almost at the sole of the heel.  I had made my way through a confusing tangle of narrow alleys to an enormous piazza overlooking the sea.  In the middle of the piazza was a peculiar sight – a lone bench, that bizarrely faced away from the sea.

The narrow, twisting alleys were the legacy of the town’s Moorish conquerors.  Although it was spared the horrors of its Turkish namesake, Gallipoli suffered a by now familiar succession of invaders eager to capitalize on its climate and strategic location – Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans, Angevins, Aragons. As well as a few marauding Gothic tribes now and then.  Luckily for today’s tourists, the various rulers left the layout of its centro storico largely intact and since it’s a peninsula – actually it’s an island, joined to the mainland by a bridge – you can’t get lost for long.  Sooner or later you’ll come to the sea.

The paraphernalia of the local fishermen decorates a shop.

The range of shutters and door styles in Italy is seemingly endless. One of my favourites (photo below) is also one of the most popular in southern Italy.  If you want a bit of fresh air, all you have to do is open the top shutters – which make a great rack for hanging the wash out to dry – and a simple curtain keeps the interior private.

The lower shutters keep toddlers in and stray animals out.

Was it wash day?

Along one of the alleys was an Alimentari (a-lee-men-tah-ree) from the Latin alimentum which somehow comes from alere – to nurture.  A mini grocery store. By the entrance was a bin of something called chiappiri.

A local specialty with a local name.

I went over to see what these chiappiri were.  No wonder I couldn’t understand the locals when they talked with one another. In the ‘Tuscan’ Italian I had learned, the pea-sized things are called acciughe (atch-choo-gay).

Chiappiri aka acciughe. Anchovies.

When I came around the corner past the chiappiri the last thing I expected to see was an enormous, ornately decorated church. Gallipoli’s cathedral. The alleys around are so tight and narrow – made even narrower because of the street vendors along the front –  it’s impossible to get back far enough to get a good view, let alone a good shot of the whole thing.

On the narrow lane it shares with street vendors hawking the usual tourist trinkets, Gallipoli’s Cathedral of Saint Agatha.

One of the vendors tries to entice passersby with a whimsical sponge sculpture.

To get a more frontal shot you can bend over backwards or – much safer – sit down on the pavement.

If location of the cathedral came as a surprise, the interior was even more so.  The walls above the altars along the nave are covered with enormous paintings that have a strongly secular – almost art gallery feel about them. Not at all like the frescoes in the churches of nearby Nardò (previous post).

Adoration of the Magi.

Above the next altar, the miracles of the hermit monk, St. Francis of Paola,were portrayed. Without the explanatory panel next to the candelabras I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on. The saint has just liberated a woman possessed of demons.  I think it’s fair to say that nowadays the whole notion of exorcism is highly controversial.  But a couple of centuries after the painting was finished, it wasn’t the subject matter was controversial.  It was the abdomen – the clearly protruding abdomen of the woman in the red dress.  Which was naked.  That the viewer was meant to notice this detail is confirmed by the child at her feet reaching up to it. However, a couple of centuries later, the Ecclesiastic Board of Censure, having determined that the naked bit of anatomy was disdicevole (deez-dee-chay-voh-lay) – unbecoming, ordered an intervento.  The offensive area was painted over.  Which is why (you have to look closely to see this) the shade of red covering her abdomen doesn’t quite match the rest of her dress.

The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (1653). Despite the highly devotional subject matter, Giovanni Coppola was not satisfied to remain its anonymous creator. The figure to the right of the woman in the red dress is a self-portrait of the artist.

Coppola also produced the Trinità con le Anime del Purgatorio, a work he was particularly fond of, in fact so fond that in an era when it was still unusual for artists to sign their works, he displayed his name – preceded by the honorific Dottore – as well as the year of execution along the sword of the angel on the left.  I can’t really make it out but I’ll take the word of the scholar who wrote the explanatory panel.

This work was also subject to an intervento. The wings of the angel in the centre were lengthened to cover the lower abdomen area of the purified souls as they ascend to Heaven.

Close to the explanatory panel was another, less official-looking notice. IT IS ABSOLUTELY PROHIBITED TO MOVE THE CANDELABRA FROM THEIR PLACE. ESPECIALLY TO TAKE PHOTOS.

At the Toronto Botanical Gardens I regularly see visitors in the middle of the gardens taking photos, having stepped over one of many signs asking them to PLEASE DO NOT STEP INTO THE GARDEN.  Apparently the same type of people have also visited Gallipoli’s cathedral.

With so much going on behind it, the Crucifix almost seems to melt into the painting.

In a large area close to the main altar was a statue I initially took to be of the Virgin Mary. I later learned and should have known – after all the cathedral is called La Cattedrale di Sant’Agata – it was Saint Agatha, the beautiful and chaste young woman whose refusal to abandon a life dedicated to her Lord and rejection of the advances of a powerful suitor resulted in imprisonment in a brothel, then in a real prison (which may have been somewhat of a relief after the brothel), torture on the rack and a few other indignities before the enraged suitor ordered her breasts cut off.

Saint Agatha, holding two lovely little bouquets instead of the chopped off breasts she is usually portrayed holding. I would – to my dismay – be seeing more of her later that day.

From the cathedral I threaded my way along the narrow alleys towards the sea and landed in the piazza at the beginning of this post.  The one with the oddly positioned bench.

The view that the bench turns its back on.

After you’ve seen the cathedral and walked around the old town a while, the positioning of the bench makes a little more sense.  It faces not one, but two of the small centre’s many churches.

On the left Santissimo Crocifisso and on the right San Domenico al Rosario, founded by the town’s master tailors.

While I stood there pondering the bench and the churches and the (to me) irresistible view of the sea, I began to notice some activity by the wall.  A woman had arrived with a plastic bag which she handed to her companion, who then proceeded to climb down the rampart wall. As he approached ground level a bunch of cats appeared as if from nowhere.

Instead of a cat lady, Gallipoli apparently had a cat man.

The glass skyscraper marks the beginning of Gallipoli’s ‘New Town’.

Further along the shore, Santa Maria della Purità

Santa Maria degli Angeli

… and at the end of the peninsula, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Visitors in the know grab a table early at the bar on the ramparts. It’s the best place in town for a sunset aperitivo.

For those who aren’t in the know, the view further along the rampart wall is also very good.

At breakfast the owners of the B&B had been very insistent that I have a dinner reservation.  There was going to be a lot of movimento that night and the restaurants were going to be very crowded.  I was surprised.  It was a Monday night.  The tourist season hadn’t yet begun. But they had been right about Nardò so I agreed.  They promised to call and make a reservation as soon as the restaurant opened. When I went back to the B&B to freshen up, I found a note. I had a reservation for 19:30 and I was to be sure to arrive on time.  This struck me as a bit extreme.  In any event, more because I didn’t want to make them look bad, than because I thought it was necessary, I was careful to arrive right on time.  The restaurant was virtually empty.  And as much as I like blue, I don’t find blue lighting conducive to eating under.

The VERY blue Angolo Blu.

What with the empty tables, blue lighting and that semi-formal vibe I find so dissonant in seaside towns, I debated walking out.  But then I thought of my hosts.  So, not for the first time – hadn’t I done the same thing just the day before? – instead of leaving I ordered some wine.   As usual, the label made for a fascinating read.  ‘The line, Fregi Barocchi (Baroque Friezes) represents our day to day wine, omnipresent like the friezes that decorate the houses and follow you in the alleyways of the town. In your glass you will find the great vineyards of the Salento, made from young, aromatic and pleasant vines in which are present the emotions, aromas and taste that only the art of the baroque can give.’  Salute!

Fregi Barocchi.  Poetry and a rather delicious vino bianco.

The menu, like the decor, was much more sophisticated than I would have expected my hosts to recommend.  They were lovely, warm and caring, but like the B&B itself, simple and down to earth.  I had expected something more in keeping with their style.  It’s an assumption, a paradigm, I carry with me and that has tripped me up more than once.  You would think I would learn.  I ordered the seafood pasta.  It too was sophisticated. And delicious.

Even under the blue lighting the pasta was deliziosa.

While I ate – I’m a notoriously slow eater – the restaurant started to fill and before I was finished, the hostess was turning people away.  I asked for il conto (be careful not to ask for il conte – the count), paid my bill and headed for the door.  And that is when I caught my first glimpse of the movimento my B&B hosts had been so concerned about.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the movimento would be caused by the locals.

I waited until the procession passed and then darted across the lane and down another alley hoping to get in front of them.  But I didn’t quite make it and ended up in front of the saint who, for my purposes, was going the wrong way.

I couldn’t help feeling that going against the flow would land me in Purgatory. At best.

I retraced my steps and raced down a couple more alleys, but it was no use. This time I came out behind the saint. In the end I just stood there and watched the procession.  It’s probably a good thing I had no idea that later in my trip, when instead of a pleasant walk, I had a long drive back to my hotel along a narrow, unlit country road, I would get trapped in a much bigger procession.

Next – Beauty at the Bottom of the Heel




6 thoughts on “Stymied by a Saint

  1. I found this fascinating…esp the saint, whom I assume was Agatha, but also what the lead processors (is that the right word?) are wearing on their heads and the capes – very much like Byzantine aka Orthodox vestments, not Roman. But, of course, that area was strongly influenced by the Greeks!

    • Hi Lauretta, thank you for your latest comment, which has got me thinking whether I should change the itinerary. Instead of continuing south along the west coast, it might be better to head north to the town on the east coast where I was held up by an even bigger procession. Hmmm.

  2. I wonder if Agatha Christi (Agatha of Christ?) knew what “flowers” were traditionally included in St. Agatha’s floral bunch….

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