Salento: an inspirational land of wonders

“You may have the universe, if I may have Italy”

Giuseppe Verdi

There is a fil rouge that bonds the world of arts to Italy: writers, musicians, explorers, intellectuals, artists, their exceptional works have often been inspired by the magical landscape of the “Bel Paese,” nestled into the Mediterranean. Imagine a piece of land of extreme savage beauty, surrounded by two seas, the Ionian and the Adriatic, in the deep South of Puglia: it is Salento. According to a legend, the name derives from King Sale, a mythical Messapian sovereign, and in ancient times this territory was a crossroads of the empires between East and West thanks to its strategic position. Today it is still an irresistible attraction for many who are raptured by its coastline, made of crystal clear waters, boundless fields of olive trees, watchtowers and picturesque dwellings. In fact, the charm of Salento lies in having maintained over the centuries an authenticity that goes beyond progress, and that has its roots in popular traditions.

The pagan cults and religious traces coexist in perfect harmony, giving birth to an extraordinary spectacle of architectural magnificence: the baroque churches of sparkling whiteness, given by the typical home grown stone, dwell next to the prehistoric menhirs and dolmens, precious testimonies of still unveiled mysteries.

The iconographic folklore is intensively lived through the numerous votive images and statues of saints scattered here and there, to which the Apulians dedicate festivities and processions. This rare splendor could not remain unobserved by the film industry, which has chosen these locations and its unique dazzling light to sign Italian and foreign feature films.

In 1968, the great master Carmelo Bene, a distinguished son of this land, directed his masterpiece Nostra Signora dei Turchi just in these places, the background to a psychedelic portrait of a man lost from his inner demons, freely inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, to which various religious figures like Santa Margherita come to rescue. Immersed in an Arabian Nights atmosphere, the film is shot in large part in Santa Cesarea Terme in the sumptuous Villa Sticchi, built in the nineteenth century under strong Eastern influences given by the multicolored arabesques, stars and floral motifs. The celestial apparitions continue inside the Zinzulusa Cave in Castro, a primitive monument of nature, surrounded by water spring sources of a lapis lazuli blue.

The imposing fortress of Otranto, in addition to inspiring the very first gothic novel in history, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, 1764, was chosen by Ermanno Olmi to set a typical tale of medieval knights in his The Men who Made the Enterprise.

More recently, actor and director Sergio Rubini has sewed the story of two modern Romeo and Juliet who plan their escape through the length and breadth of Salento. We find them in the breathtaking panorama of Sant’Andrea, renowned for its Jamaican appeal beaches and the majestic rocks overlooking the sea. Their adventure continues along the way to the white old town of Gallipoli and Punta Palascia, the most easterly point of Italy where the sun rises for first all over the country. Like a reminiscent of valiant Enea, the protagonist proves the love to her lady by diving from the Ciolo’s Bridge in Santa Maria di Leuca. The movie is Soul Mate, 2002.

Another Salentine artist, Edoardo Winspeare, has masterfully managed to represent at the cinema (Live Blood, 2000) the ancestral rite of Taranta, once performed to exorcise the miserable conditions of Southern women in the post war era and today sublimated in Pizzica, the joyful dance that sees a lady and a gent jumping around each other at the feverish rhythm of the tambourines. Every summer, the lovely city of Melpignano hosts a dedicated festival, La Notte della Taranta, with the participation of more than 100,000 people and the performances of international musicians such as Goran Bregovic, Stewart Copeland, Suzanne Vega, Sud Sound System ad more.

Turkish director Ferzan Ozpetek has now taken home in the city of Lecce, a splendid setting to his Loose Cannons, movie that deals with gender identity issues experienced within a traditional bourgeois family. Here we can admire along the streets some noble courts enclosed in secret gardens and themed fountains and all the majesty of Sant’Oronzo Square, home to a Roman amphitheater and the historic Alvino Café, famous for the typical patisserie such as Pasticciotto or Rustico.

Not many know that during the seventies, to remedy production costs, a lot of Italian B. Movies were shot in the ancient Salentine farmhouses (Masseria) in the country side. Let’s mention the legendary Girl with the Gun by Mario Monicelli, where Italian actress Monica Vitti proudly fights against a kidnapping in the lost alleys of Conversano (Lecce). Who would ever imagined that today the same places would have become the favorite spots for a large part of Hollywood jet set that found here the ideal good retreat to enjoy the pleasures of life? Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Francis Ford Coppola, Jeraldine Chaplin, just to name a few.

This is the power of Salento.

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